Luxe for Less

 Q: New laptop prices are ridiculous—$2000, minimum, for anything brawny enough to run Quake and Photoshop well. I've come across cheaper second-tier brands, but the unknown skeeves me out. What's a cash-strapped geek to do?

The core tenet of Marketing 101 holds true for laptops: Famous brands can charge you up the wazoo. If you want a recognizable name on the lid, expect to pay hundreds more—what, you thought the "Dude, you're getting a Dell!" imp worked for free? For those willing to check their label-snob impulses, however, bargains abound. The computer industry's dirty little secret is that its pricey stars and no-name scrubs often roll down the same Taiwanese assembly lines. Obscure brands tend to use creakier parts and B-list software, but they churn out some quality laptops regardless.

Finding cheapies to test wasn't easy, as Mr. Roboto's pals are predominantly of the Mac or Sony persuasion. The first laptop to cross my desk was a ChemBook, by California's Chem USA (chemusa.com). A thick, boxy Toshiba wannabe with oodles of processing muscle, the ChemBook dazzled with its speed and graphics, smoking a comparably priced Dell. The high-end model I tested runs $1699, but Chem's got plenty of more-reasonable options that'll get the job done. The big gripes here were flimsy latches and an atrocious battery time—the machine barely cracked the 90-minute mark.

illustration: Josh McKible

Next I dug up a Tiny, by Britain's oddly named Tiny Computers (tiny.com). This lightweight goes for just a hair over $1000, a steal for a unit sporting a Pentium III microchip. It performed quite well on basic tasks, though the herky-jerky graphics and so-so sound won't make gamers terribly happy. The lack of an internal CD burner also hurts—floppy drives are so turn-of-the-millennium. Oh yeah, and the keyboard's got less spring than a slab of granite. Tiny gets a lukewarm thumbs-up, along with the caveat "Only if your wallet's really hurting."

Mr. Roboto saved his big love for KDS (kdsusa.com), a longtime monitor maker that's finally getting into the laptop game. The KDS Valiant I vetted is a low-priced wonder ($1199), with a Pentium III, a crisp LCD screen, a built-in CD burner, and impressive memory specs. The Microsoft Works package is dead weight, but that's about the only quibble. Special bonus: During the one-year warranty period, KDS will lend you a replacement while your laptop's off getting tweaked. Never heard the Dell dude offer that.

Word is that ARM Computer (armcomputer.com) also has a great service deal, with free lifetime tech support and a generous trade-in policy. Alas, I couldn't locate an ARM to drag back to the laboratory. And the company's public relations folks never responded to my request for a test unit. Guess they've never heard of Mr. Roboto out in San Jose. Fools.

Brand-name devotees will probably tell you that you're nuts to try a second-tier laptop maker. They'll insist that a little guy can go bankrupt any minute, or that the tech support will be lousy. If you get flack, respond thus: Looks like Gateway could go bankrupt any minute, too. And you want lousy tech support? Mr. Roboto's got a Sony, and getting its toll-free operators to help fix my Ethernet card's been akin to wrangling a tourist visa for North Korea. Lord only know if the KDS techies are better, but Lord knows they can't be any worse.

** Ever wonder what happened to the dozens of PCs your employer junks each year? According to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, up to 80 percent of our electronic waste, from computers to cordless phones, eventually finds its way to Asia, where it's picked apart for precious metals. Problem is, circuit boards contain tons of pollutants. Last month, China severely curtailed the importation of electronic junk, and other nations could soon follow suit. Other than finding another foreign dumping ground, what should we do with our digital refuse? Mr. Roboto's seen some mighty fine fish tanks made from scrapped Macs. Got a better idea? Drop an e-mail, slugged "Trashy Wisdom," and I'll see how creative y'all can get.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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