September 15, 2007

Where to Buy a Laptop in SE Asia
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

When you think laptop purchase, think Malaysia.

I gave a passing glance to the laptops here in Malaysia when I traveled through the capital earlier this year (in search of a replacement keyboard for my PDA). Rather stunned at the prices I was seeing, I made a mental note that this seemed to be the place in SE Asia to buy a laptop.

I've since compared the price of laptops in Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore against those of Malaysia, and this country wins hands down, in both variety of product and price.

I've been giving a lot of thought recently to the possibility of purchasing a laptop. A very strong part of me wants to have nothing to do with a laptop, while the rest knows I really need to get around to owning one.

The price of my flight from Bangkok to Peru is going to be at least US$1,000. In my eyes, that's money burned. It's a bunch of cash spent on an intangible—a service—that will leave no lasting benefit except the transport from one continent to another. Why not go ahead and spend a few hundred dollars on something that I'll actually touch and use on a daily basis? Something that I can use to actually make money.

With weeks of expected downtime in Lima, if not months, I'd have the opportunity to work on personal Web development projects (that could very well bloom into something that might provide an income stream). Although I'd have access to a computer with high-speed connection in Tatiana's home, I'd rather not impose. If it's really time to get serious about this stuff, I'm going to need access to my own machine—something that I know I can take with me whenever and where ever I wish.

I've never owned a laptop before, or had the need for one. I've been installing components in or building my own systems from scratch since the early 90s, and could always make upgrades or complete builds for a fraction of what laptop (or their components) cost. I didn't travel for work much, and when I did, there was always a co-worker carrying a machine with him.

What really bothers me about consumers buying laptops is that they're purchasing what are referred to as "desktop replacements." These systems are big, heavy, and far from mobile. People buy these massive things and leave them on their desks because it's too inconvenient to move them about. Why folks pay two or three times the price for a laptop when they could simply own a little box that sits under their workstation instead, absolutely amazes me.

Laptops are about mobility—it should be small, light, and portable—remember, it's a laptop, not a desktop.

Getting off my soapbox and back to the dilemma, I created a priority list of what my optimal backpacking laptop would have (as far as features, components, and form). Although the specifications will change as time elapses, the hierarchy of need shouldn't, and is a good starting point for folks wondering how to compare machines.

  1. Touch pad—not the rubber nipple (popular with IBM)
  2. Price—absolutely nothing above US$800, preferably between US$550–$700
  3. Size, screen—preferably 10–12 inches
  4. Weight—preferably less than 2kg (4.4lbs) with the battery
  5. Size, footprint—as small as possible, so that I can hopefully fit it in into my current backpack
  6. Hard drive capacity—absolutely no less than 80GB, and from a manufacturer I'm familiar with
  7. Connectivity—the capability/availability of USB ports, WiFi, Bluetooth, modem, RJ-45 Ethernet port, Firewire port, and memory card reader
  8. Memory—absolutely no less than 512KB
  9. CD/DVD reader/writer
  10. Processor speed—preferably not an Intel Celeron
  11. Battery life
  12. Video card specs (maximum resolution and memory)—no less than 1024×768
  13. Operating system—bonus if it's included, but is it pirated?

Bintang Guest House, the unattractive hotel Tatiana and I are staying in for the night (before our flight to Cambodia tomorrow), is only about two blocks away from Low Yat Plaza, the best place in Malaysia to get good deals on laptops, cell phones, or just about any piece of technology you can think of. The Golden Triangle area also provides good transport to the Petronas Twin Towers, which a five-month pregnant Tatiana enjoyed quite a bit this evening.

Prior to running off to the towers and mulling over the decision that's currently in front of me, I visited Low Yat and explored the near dozen floors of IT stuff. My initial pass yielded several excellent prospects:

  • US$560/$620, MSI Megabook VR320X (photo, photo)
  • US$650, Hyundai Corporation M-Life M721S (photo)
  • US$650, Sharp (model unknown, photo)
  • US$710, Twinhead H12Y (photo)
  • US$740, BENQ S31VW (photo)
  • US$770, MSI Megabook S262X (photo)

Some prices have a little wiggle room in them for negotiation, while others won't budge. With all the competition in the mall, the biggest target for inflation, discount, or enticement is with the credit card processing fee, and freebies (such as thumb drives, web cams, mice, shoulder bags, and memory upgrades). The lowest I found for credit card processing was 2%, while the highest was 4%.

With the specs and prices of the machines found so close to each other, I've turned to the Internet to help guide my decision making process. I'm still in the midst of researching, visiting and assessing the (software/driver) support available company Web sites, reading messages posted in forums by frustrated owners, trying to envision what I'd do and where I'd go if something broke (any worldwide locations of support centers, should an international warranty apply), checking eBay to see if I can buy them cheaper online, and basically trying to dig up as much dirt on each model as I can.

I've pretty much decided to drop the MSI Megabooks and M-Life from the list, as company Web sites and/or user complaints have been excessive. I've learned that the Twinhead is re-branded under the Phillips name in Australia and has a strong international presence, and that the BenQ is one of the strongest selling budget notebooks in the region.

The BenQ is bigger (13.3" screen) and more expensive than the Twinhead, which pretty much takes it out of the running as well, leaving me with the attractive Sharp I neglected to get the model number of, and the Twinhead. I'm not sure if the Sharp is refurbished—it's cheaper, lighter, and boasts similar specs compared the Twinhead—but it worries me that not a single other outfit in the mall is selling it.

If I really wanted a cheap laptop, I'd buy refurbished, from the top floor of the mall. There you can get some fantastic deals on machines that are 15–5 years old, for prices in the US$250–$450 range.

The more I think about it, the less comfortable I feel about the Sharp. I think the Twinhead is for me, but I've really got to sleep on it. The mall reopens tomorrow at 11 a.m. (love those lazy tech guys), and I've got to be in a taxi on the way to the airport no later than 12:30. The time compression makes me very nervous, because it only gives me enough time to make a cursory check of the system before getting on a plane to Cambodia—if something's broken or not as it should be, then I've got no way of returning or exchanging it.

We'll see how I feel about all this in the morning.

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