October 26, 2006

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Computer to go
Build your own laptop for (a little) less
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Laptops, like everything else electronic, are continuously falling in price. Even as processor speeds and storage capacities chug upward, perfectly serviceable new machines can now be had for as little as $400 if you get yourself to the store for the right sale.

But “perfectly serviceable” and “drool-worthy” are utterly different. What a casual keyboarder needs for word processing and Web surfing will be totally inadequate if you want to play the latest games, edit movies or design skyscrapers on the go. Getting laptops with that kind of power costs some serious bank.

If only there were a way to build my own laptop, you’re thinking. I could choose exactly what components to include, and no one else’s laptop would be awesomer than my own!

Well, you can. It takes a little more planning and patience than throwing together a desktop from old parts, but it can be done thanks to barebone notebook chassis available mostly on the Web. You want brand names? How about Asus, one of the most respected motherboard makers in the business? Or Compal and Quanta, which usually end up building the machines later branded as HPs and Dells?

Now the big question is: will it be cheaper? The answer is a resounding “sort of.”

You won’t be building your own laptop for less money than it takes to pick up the lowest-spec model down at the superstore. But if you’re looking for a more performance-oriented portable PC without some of the unnecessary bells and whistles that manufacturers glop into their PCs, you can save a few bucks.

In short, you’ll pay a little more for the stuff you want, but won’t pay anything for the stuff you don’t want. Let’s take the most obvious example: Windows. Just try buying a PC without Windows installed at your friendly neighborhood superstore. What, knock a hundred dollars off the price for a blank hard drive? Witchcraft! But that’s just what you can do with a barebone chassis, leaving you free to install Linux or that copy of XP Pro you (ahem) acquired legally.

You don’t even have to order a hard drive with your chassis. Transfer one right from your old, dead laptop or scour the Web for the bestest price ever on exactly the capacity you want. Right now, laptop hard drives rated for 5,400 rotations per minute cost about one dollar per gigabyte unless they’re high-performance ones that spin at 7,200 rpm.

How about memory? Please. Anyone can upgrade that, so installing it all from scratch is cake. Just make sure it has the same specs as the normal upgrades for that chassis.

Many chassis also come without a processor, though you might want to have this delicate component installed professionally. Without a cooling solution specifically designed for your laptop, the processor can easily overheat, go POP and instantly make a couple hundred smackers disappear.

Now the biggie: the video card. This is the reason many people look at custom laptops to begin with, because many laptops simply don’t have very advanced graphics cards. Sure, you can play The Sims or Spider Solitaire just fine, but a brand new multiplayer shooter with dozens of monsters? Nope. Asus and Compal especially cater to mobile gamers, including dedicated ATI and nVidia graphics even in some of their smaller models. You’ll pay more, but because high-end video cards can generate even more heat than processors, they typically can’t be upgraded in laptops, so suck it up.

You’ll end up with a notebook that’s made for you, by you.


10/19/2006 Tech news roundup

10/12/2006 A different drummer
10/05/2006 Who needs TiVo?
09/28/2006 Disk drives without disks
09/21/2006 Movies, just click your mouse!
09/14/2006 Laptops for less
09/07/2006 GPS everywhere
08/31/2006 The printer dilemma
08/24/2006 A series of tubes
08/17/2006 More music, more places
08/10/2006 How big is your drive?
08/03/2006 It's a WiFi world
07/27/2006 Fancy a spot of memory?
07/20/2006 Under the sea
07/06/2006 eBaysic training
06/29/2006 You paid money for that?
06/22/2006 Processing ... processing ...
06/15/2006 C:\Run for the border
06/01/2006 The keyboard is mightier
05/25/2006 Geek phone home
05/18/2006 Super highway information
05/11/2006 How to host a site
05/04/2006 If they mated
04/27/2006 Apples to apples
04/20/2006 Flash uber-drives
04/13/2006 Web site, by you
04/06/2006 Ayyy, jaQ's right!
03/30/2006 Choose wirelessly
03/23/2006 Tax programs cometh
03/16/2006 And the Spammie goes to...
03/09/2006 Take in the Vista
03/02/2006 Cheap moviemaking
02/23/2006 Go directly to iJail
02/16/2006 Will you stamp your e-mail?
02/09/2006 War of the machines
02/02/2006 Faster than a speeding packet

01/26/2006 Free software made simple
01/19/2006 The Worst of CES
01/12/2006 Radio you
01/05/2006 Making Movies
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