The Secret Cost of Notebooks

Recent studies showing people are now spending more on notebooks than desktops came as no surprise to my household: We've bought two notebooks in the past year. One was purchased because we needed a mobile computer. The second one was purchased because it cost only a little more than repairing the broken first one.

That's the extra cost hidden from most notebook buyers. The sticker price may not be much higher than a similarly-equipped desktop, but if something happens to your notebook, repairs can be very expensive. A new keyboard can cost up to $300; a new hard drive, $500; a new display (my family's problem) can cost more than the notebook itself.

Notebooks are gaining in popularity: In May of this year, retailers made more money on notebook sales than they did on sales of desktop PCs, the NPD Group reports. And these notebooks are more likely to need repairs, simply because they're mobile and more likely to land in harm's way.

The Price of Parts

The damage doesn't have to be dramatic to require an expensive repair. "We very rarely get calls from people saying I left my desktop on the top of my car and drove off," says Mike Stinson, Gateway's general manager for mobile products.

The crux of the problem is a notebook's construction: each model is a unique collection of specially-built parts. A desktop PC, by contrast, is made up of standardized parts with form factors that haven't changed in years--you can go into any computer store in the world and buy a desktop hard drive or keyboard off the shelf.

And vendors are under constant pressure to redesign their notebooks from the ground up.

"Customers continue to value systems that are thinner, lighter, more powerful," says Stinson. "Every time you [improve the model], you radically change the insides."

It's not practical for your local certified service center to keep all of these parts for all of these models in stock. Parts have to be special ordered, which increases the cost further and keeps your notebook in the shop for days.

Labor Pains

The nature of notebooks also increases labor costs. If you can use a screwdriver, you can open a desktop PC and replace a drive or card. But the insides of a notebook are packed tightly, and again are unique for every model.

"Laptops are a huge fix," says Greg Fretwell, a retired IBM support specialist. "Stuff is packed in there so tightly, they're hard to take apart without breaking something else."

Couple that with customer expectations of quick turnaround, and that's why shops charge high prices for notebook repairs.

"I'm a pretty sophisticated PC hardware hacker," Fretwell says. "But I won't touch [the insides of] my Thinkpad."

Protect Yourself

How do you protect yourself from these high costs? Pay up front. Most vendors will sell you an extended warranty when (or shortly after) you buy a PC. These warranties, however, rarely cover accidental damage, such as the shattered displays that are so expensive to replace. For this, the vendors will sell you additional accidental damage coverage.

It's a good idea to buy both of these options for the period that you figure you'll be using the notebook--usually about three years. But these services will cost you up to $350, adding considerably to the cost difference between a notebook and a desktop. (These warranties are also available for desktop systems, but are less necessary because of their component issue.)

Taking good care of your notebook will also help. Get a good carrying case. Set it down gently. Don't eat or drink around it (spilled coffee on a notebook's keyboard is much more serious than on a desktop's).

And shop wisely. Before you buy a computer, ask yourself if you really need notebook. Is the convenience worth the additional expense?

While my wife and I were debating fixing versus replacing the notebook, the keyboard on my desktop computer died. Twenty minutes and $15 later I was up and running. I'm sure glad that computer wasn't a notebook.

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