Sunday, March 24, 2013

Thinking aloud: The Price of Hardware Quality

by Guest Writer +Gonzalo Velasco C.

Some years ago, we had (one may say) good, classic brands of computers, and others not so good. The price of ones and others vary. An original IBM PC was very expensive (all computers were, at the beginning), but clones came cheaper.

Quality was also quite well divided by boundaries, and followed the quality and durability of the equipment. A Toshiba, or HP, Compaq, etc., machine was considered of good (hardware) quality, and last as long as what you expected for the money you had paid. Maybe some of you still have one of those running a minimal GNU/Linux distribution today because the hardware lasted. (Image Credit:

On the other hand, you had certain oriental clone brands that were cheaper, lasted less, and had issues with drivers both in Windows as well (and mainly) in Linux. I guess those machines have already been recycled for plastic, silicon and metal, because some capacitor may have burned away.

What has happen since then?

Today we have many options of hardware, operational systems and software, general prices had gone down, and some cell phones are more expensive than a computer. And what about quality? Well, seem that the border is not so clear, and there are some pretty expensive machines out there, that don't last as long as we expect.

And are they worth it?

Many of us have the feeling that a label, a brand, is no longer a guarantee that the product is good.

Many hardware industries deliver a product that is going to be tested (for real) by the user. If something goes wrong, they will fix it for you, or even exchange it for a new one (if the brand is more serious). But why does it have to be this way? Why are traditional brands so bad today?

For some people, traditional brands not only mean nothing, but are even avoided. Some of my friends disparage Toshiba, HP/Compaq, Acer, Dell notebooks, for instance. I, myself, have seen more than 10 laptops from Dell break around me. I live in Brazil, and many colleagues at the university had or have different Dell notebook models, and had serious problems with the LCD display, the motherboard, the power source, the keyboard, etc. They say “the service is very good”, and I keep saying: “Service is like insurance; things are good when you do not have to use it!”.

I have concluded that the average priced models of those brands are quite bad, as a rule (are there exceptions). So, perhaps, we should invest mode money in a good hardware. Let's take a look at the prices.

Recently I found a link to this recent analysis in my G+ contacts page/time-line.  Let's see some models and prices of supposed high-class machines and others, there (I quoted the author, below) and in other sites, too:

Acer Aspire S3-951 - “Priced at a relatively modest £670 (~ US$ 1076.59 according to an on-line currency converter; or Amazon List Price: US$ 849.9), the S3-951 matches most of its rivals with a 13.3in screen, 1.6GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB RAM and, good heavens, a conventional 320GB hard disk, which helps to explain its lower price”. See, to get a lower price (for northern hemisphere standards!) they have sacrificed the hard drive.

Dell XPS 13 - “...the top-of-the-range model, which costs a hefty £1299 (US$ 2087.29) but turns in strong performance thanks to a Core i7 processor running at 1.7GHz, along with 4GB RAM and 256GB SSD”. If I am not mistaken, SSD drives and RAM units are getting cheaper. Maybe the cost of this laptop comes from it's gorilla glass and carbon fibre shell.

Dell's site in the US shows another more common model (like the ones I have seen defective here), an Latitude E5420, 14” display, i5 processor, 2 GB of RAM and a 250GB 5400rpm HD for US$ 1094.00. In the BR shop, the price today is US$ 1168.785.

Sony Vaio... Notebook VPC-EG33EB, i3 processor, 14" LED display , 4GB RAM and a 500 GB HD = US$ 1067.11.
A fancier model: Notebook VPC-Z235GB, i7 processor, 13.1” LED display, 6 GB of RAM, SSD drive of 128 GB and Power Media Dock Station = US$ 3558.21 (gee!!). I don't know this big brothers from Sony but my wife has a ~ US$ 600 model, Dual-Core 3 GB RAM VGN-320J and it's sluggish with MS Windows Vista, and has the display and cooler changed because of a defective breed.

Apple MacBook Air 11” - “The current model has a 1.6GHz Core i5 processor, so it can keep up with most of its Wintel rivals, but – as always – Apple pads its profits by giving the £849 model a mere 2GB RAM and 64GB SSD. I'm inclined to go for the £999 model (US$ 1605.24), which doubles up both the RAM and SSD”. Macbook Air is one of the “chicest” computers nowadays, and the price, in the southern hemisphere, makes it a machine for “rich people” or “snobs”.

In Apple's on-line US shop, I found this: an iMac (desktop) 21.5-inch, 2.7GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i5, 4 GB RAM, an impressive 1TB HD, and a AMD Radeon (weird choice) HD 6770 video card with 512MB for US$1499.00. In Brazil, because of the taxes and all, this one costs US$ 2846.47 !!

Justice has to be made here: it is said (!) that Apple really cares for it's hardware to be a good platform for their OS. And I have heard some GNU/Linux serious users that say the best combination is an Apple machine running free, open source GNU/Linux OS! Even Linus Torvalds seems to believe it, since in a recent interview he talked about his laptop preference.

So, we can see that some (“bad”) models are not so much cheaper than supposedly good models, and some Apple (“good”) hardware models are more competitively priced than some fancier brands' models.   (Who would prefer a Sony before a Mac? Perhaps some MS Windows ultra fan!).

The fact is that customers cannot trust traditional brands easily, and sometimes may have to wait and see if the model they want is durable and pay for it. Voge (i.e. brands) is not to be trusted! The other options last less and may have issues with drivers.

Also, the looser combination of a “so-so” hardware with a certain OS is a recipe for disaster.

If I may offer some free advice to the readers: search for a really good hardware, and ask the vendor to buy it OS-less. For my wealthier friends, perhaps I'll suggest a Mac. At home afterwards, install your favorite GNU/Linux distribution in such hardware, and be happy for a long time.

-- Gonzalo Velasco

About Gonzalo Velasco

Gonzalo lives in Brazil, is a professor at a University possessing a Doctorate in Biological Oceanography.  He is also a Poseidon Linux team member, and enthusiast of FOSS freedom and cooperative philosophy.
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  1. 1. Due to moral issues I refuse to purchase Apple products for me.

    2. I've heard more crying about Apple hardware than any other maker.

    3. Better still, but your own components and piece the machine together yourself. Then install your own OS. Then your money will go to precisely the companies you want and you know the hardware is good.

  2. I've been worrying about part of this discussion just recently. Devices from laptop on down seem to be built with a mentality of "disposable", only a few are designed to have 3-4 year life because they're sold as corporate devices (e.g. Thinkpad line). The current crop of Ultrabook-branded devices are my particular sore spot: conceived to compete with Macbooks, they're being forced to a particular price point with particular specs, and this lack of flexibility leads to choices which are not consumer-friendly. Yes you'll get an aluminum cover, and soon you'll get touch screen (whether you want or not) and some whizzy convertible feature like a swiveling screen, flippable screen, etc. In exchange, to keep the price down, you'll get an utter disaster of touchpad and keyboard, lower screen resolution than you'd like, you'll get no component choices, no ability to repair (even simple stuff like memory upgrade, battery replacement, disk replacement/upgrade are virtually impossible for consumers). Not a step forward.