Cowhide Logic


Q. My son’s about to start high school, and I’d like to buy him an inexpensive laptop. I see Gateway has some juicy back-to-school deals, but I recall that you hate, hate, hate their products. What’s so bad about Gateway, aside from the cowhide boxes?

A. Fiscal insolvency’s been the chief concern over the past few years, as Gateway’s often seemed close to going the way of Commodore. The company’s still losing cake hand over fist, but things are looking up after a smart March merger with eMachines. So Mr. Roboto’s actually got a few nice things to say about Gateway nowadays, though their machines, however economical, still are miles from perfect.

Back in the day, if you’ll recall, Gateway was a viable competitor against Dell. But then came the mistakes, like opening up a gazillion Gateway Country Stores while Dell stuck to direct sales. Obviously, we know how that little experiment turned out—Dell became the biggest PC maker on the planet, and Gateway was forced to close all its stores this April.

Mr. Roboto was skeeved out by Gateway’s failure, especially when rumors swirled a few years back that the company might go bust. The last thing you want is a machine made by a defunct vendor, since it means parts and service dry up almost overnight. There were also some major quality issues with Gateway’s computers, starting with the overload of bundled adware. You could barely last two seconds on a Gateway before being bombarded with a pop-up asking whether you wanted to sign up for one ISP or another. Oh, and Gateway machines tended to make these weirdly loud humming noises, akin to a mosquito buzzing around in a megaphone.

The company first tried to refocus on consumer electronics, especially plasma TVs. When that didn’t work, however, Gateway bowed to the inevitable and merged with eMachines, a discount computer manufacturer. And to Mr. Roboto’s great surprise, this move may actually prove to be Gateway’s salvation.

New honcho Wayne Inouye has cut deals to get Gateway products into Best Buy and Office Depot stores, and he’s put more emphasis on making streamlined systems that require fewer tech-support calls and returns. Figuring the company’s got nothing to lose, Inouye’s also been crazy aggressive on pricing. The Centrino-equipped, 5.5-pound M320X, with a free upgrade to Windows XP Pro, is selling for just $1,300. And the separately branded eMachines M6810, with built-in 802.11g and a 64-bit AMD Athlon processor, is just $1,400 after rebate.

The early reviews on the new Gateway are in, and they’re mildly thumbs-up. A recent PC Magazine survey found that consumers ranked Gateway notebooks less than a year old as average, compared to well below average for more antiquated models.

Now, “average” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, and Mr. Roboto still won’t recommend Gateway laptops for mobile adults: The hard drives are too slow, the battery life too short, and the covers and latches of dubious strength. But for students who presumably won’t be traveling much, the Gateways are worth a look. And now that they’re available at just about every budget electronics store, you can try one out in an environment free of Gateway’s cattle-inspired decorating motif. Sweet bliss.

A dark and stormy site

During a career low point, Mr. Roboto once considered abandoning journalism in favor of becoming a private eye—if the ultra-nerdy Thom Bray could do it on Riptide, why not your humble narrator? Great, then, to be turned on to Private Dick (, a newish blog ostensibly written by a New York–based detective-for-hire. Can’t vouch for its authenticity, but it’s tough not to give the benefit of the doubt to a writer who works the phrase, “More flakes in that crowd than a bowl of cereal.”