When Is Cheap Enough Good Enough for Client Hardware?


I like cheap stuff.


In fact, I like cheap stuff so much that I am tempted mortally to buy myself a new dual-core PC for $350 or so during the current processor sell-off as a new home media server, although the 64-bit Athlon box I now use will be more than sufficient to spin MP3s and burn CDs for the next five years or so.


I can only imagine that the temptation to buy cheap tech is profound for SMBs in their constant quest to squeeze $1.29 out of every dollar in revenue they see. But you get what you pay for, as our IT department likes to remind me, and using cheap consumer tech must have some drawbacks.


But as a cheap consumer, I'm still tempted.


So, when I go an e-mail offer from Dell's small business channel a few weeks ago offering me a Core 2 Duo laptop with 2 gigs of memory for $450, I thought it would be interesting to ask a couple of folks with actual experience in supporting SMB tech whether they would jump on the offer.


A little more info on the offer in question: The consumer laptop came with a one-year on-site service plan, following remote diagnostics. The system came pre-loaded with Windows Vista Home Basic, which nobody is going to suggest is a particularly business-centric operating system.


The mail also offered Latitude "corporate class" laptops for about $400 more. These systems also were based on the Core 2 Duo-I didn't dig deep enough to determine clock speed-and had the same memory as the consumer systems, but came with a three-year service plan. These Latitudes were also pre-loaded with Vista Home Basic as well, which appears to be Dell's default option on Latitudes targeted for SMBs.


So, it seemed to me that the real differentiator here was the service plan, and whatever materials shortcuts Dell may have taken to get that consumer price down to $450. But I wanted compare more learned opinions.


I asked Michael Laun, our own one-man support desk here at IT Business Edge, and Paul Mah, who blogs for us on SMB-related issues, to review the offer and let me know what business uses they thought the $450 laptop would fit, and if they would recommend these systems for businesses they were supporting. I slipped in a note about viability with the forthcoming Windows 7, since it seems a lot of folks are pretty eager to hop right to it.


Michael wrote back promptly to say:

I don't see any business use for these at all. Only a one-year warranty means it was build only to last one year. Businesses need systems to last. I never recommend Vista for Business or Home use. I've never seen an advantage over XP Pro. I have not had the time to work with Windows 7.

Well, that's pretty cut and dried. A follow-up e-mail with Michael confirmed that the one-year warranty indicated to him a high likelihood that buying this laptop would mean you are setting yourself up for downtime, and that has a cost, regardless of whether you are covered by a service plan.


Michael wrote back:

I'm sure you can pay for a better plan on these, but what you are really doing is paying for what will fail ahead of time. Then Dell gets to use your money until something breaks.

OK, fair enough.


Paul, who also works as a tech support consultant for small businesses, had this perspective on the workload that an SMB needs a client laptop to pull, as opposed to "enterprise-ready" hardware:

Difference? Honestly, I don't see much difference from a generic use POV. Unless you use it for graphics or some serious number crunching, I won't even look too closely at the specs beyond the RAM and a certain amount of HDD space. Word processing, spreadsheets, most ERP software and Web surfing won't be much of a problem.

Would Paul recommend these systems to a client?

My response would be: Why not? And anything that can run Vista will run Windows 7. If there is any reason not to buy them now, it would be uncertainty over what kind of OS upgrade schemes - if any - that Dell/Microsoft will offer. This is particularly true now that Win 7 increasingly appears to be on track.

Paul went on to add a few other categories of service-developers working in virtual environments, etc.-that a consumer client obviously won't be up to. He also added you'd need assurances of driver compatibility heading toward Windows 7, but that should not be an serious headache when dealing with a vendor the size of Dell.


So. One IT pro has a strong visceral response against consumer systems designed to be "cheap" enough that a one-year warrant makes business sense for the OEM. Another says, "Why not?"


I imagine there's no right answer here, particularly since from my point of view most support expense tends to come not from actual hardware failure, but from users not knowing how to use their systems or simply misbehaving and putting junk on their PCs. Of course, that's just my anecdotal observation. I'm going to search for some more quantitative info on the risks of using cut-rate client hardware for business.