Laptop Starting Prices Are a Joke. Don't Be the Punchline

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When you're researching laptops ahead of your purchase, you'll see systems that are listed with a "starting price" or that cost "from" a certain amount. Shoppers need to be wary of these entry-level configurations, because, like a base-model car that has no air conditioning or radio, they aren't worth the money.

starting_prices_surface_pro_onsite_credit-microsoftMicrosoft's Surface Pro is the most egregious example of a computer with a misleading base price. The tablet that can "replace your laptop" starts at $799; that's the price you see highlighted in large type on Microsoft.com. However, the Surface Pro doesn't come with the keyboard you need to actually use it as a notebook, and you will have to pay an extra $129 for this Type Cover.

But wait — there's more. The base-model Surface Pro has a sluggish Intel Core m3 CPU and just 4GB of RAM, which won't provide good enough performance for real work. It also packs a mere 128GB of solid-state-drive (SSD) storage, which will fill up quickly if you install software or generate a reasonable number of data files. To get a Surface Pro with decent specs — such as a Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and a keyboard — you'll pay $1,429, which is 79 percent more than the starting price!

Be vigilant. Companies sometimes offer sales where the price of the minimum good configuration falls much closer to the starting price.

In Microsoft's defense, a person could buy the base model and use it as an $800 media tablet. The same person probably also owns a Jeep with two-wheel drive and a Lamborghini with doors that open sideways.

starting prices dell xps credit dellMicrosoft is far from alone in selling base models that no sane person should actually buy. The Dell XPS 13 is our favorite consumer laptop, but its $799 starting configuration is too underpowered, because it comes with a low-end, Core i3 CPU; just 4GB of RAM; and a tiny 128GB SSD. As of this writing, if you want a faster processor, more memory and more storage, you'll have to move up to the $1,249 config, which is 56 percent above the starting price.

starting prices store credit microsoftDeceptively low starting prices feel like a bait and switch. You get your heart set on a product, because you've convinced yourself that it's affordable, and by the time you realize you have to pay several hundred dollars more to have a decent experience, you're ready to swallow your pride and pull the trigger. Even worse, if you're a less-tech-savvy shopper, you could end up buying the base configuration, mistakenly thinking it's a good deal, and then later wondering why it doesn't perform as advertised.

Here are some ways to avoid ending up with either sticker shock or a grossly underpowered laptop:

  1. Find the minimum good configuration. Instead of getting hung up on the starting price, look at the cost for the minimum good configuration. As we discuss in our How to Buy a Laptop guide, any premium laptop or 2-in-1 with a good minimum configuration should have at least a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and a 1080p resolution display.
  2. Consider a different laptop. You may want an XPS 13, but you may not be able to afford the $1,249 it costs to get one with reasonable performance. Instead of settling for a stripped-down configuration, consider an alternative, like the Asus ZenBook UX330UA, which has a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD for under $700. There's no doubt that the XPS 13 has a better design, a more colorful screen and longer battery life, but sometimes you have to make a trade-off.
  3. Wait for a sale. Many times, companies will offer sales where the price of the minimum good configuration falls much closer to the starting price.

If vendors truly had pride in their premium laptops, they would refuse to sell cut-rate versions. McDonald's doesn't offer a cheaper Big Mac without the buns, Paul Masson sells "no wine before it's time" and computer manufacturers should not cheapen their flagship products with low-end specs. However, we won't hold our breath and wait for a change.

Author Bio
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director on
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6 comments
  • John R Says:

    This article is dead on. Laptop prices are outrageous. Even with a discount given the company I work for, a decently configured laptop pushes $1100. Considering it's going to be obsolete in just a few years, it's not worth it. I had a choice recently - buy the new iPhone or a new laptop. The iPhone won hands down. If laptop makers want my business, they have to offer better deals. In the meantime the old trick of more RAM, bigger SSD works well.

  • mikenzinbfe Says:

    I learned that quickly when ordering my first alienware laptop. the csr immediately tried to sell me on 'upgrade.' what I could not do myself i.e. the processor I paid more for but items like the platter drive, I paid much less buying my own ssd drive and putting it in. same for ram too. I still paid a couple hundred over the sale price but doing somethings myself saved me hundreds. plus I got more bang for the buck. these days buying a new pc, much like buying a new car. the more you know before you buy the happier you'll be after the purchase.

  • Brian Campbell Says:

    Got my last two laptops from the Dell outlet, which offers overstock and refurbished laptops at great discounts. This allowed me to get a loaded latitude for the price of a Inspiron 7000 series.

  • edit1754 Says:

    Good article. Few things I'd like to add:

    If mentioning the UX330UA in comparison to the XPS 13, I think it is important to mention this. For the "QHD+" models, the XPS 13 uses a true 3200x1800 display. However the UX330UA uses a PenTile (RG/BW) not-true-3200x1800 display, which also has less-good contrast and colors than the UX330UA FHD. This is commonly regarded to be its own form of deceptive marketing.

    The UX330UA's FHD display has higher color gamut and similar contrast to the XPS 13's. The main pro to the XPS 13's display I would say is the slim bezels.

  • Abhay Says:

    Great writeup encouraging smart consumer behavior. People need to learn to conduct a more thorough research before spending their hard earned money away.

  • Diego Says:

    Good article, however the McDonalds analogy was bad... they do offer extremely cheap ways to "feed" you... so you might not get a BigMac but you might get a 99¢ burger.

    On the other hand, even Apple does this. They used to be known to avoid this and the costumer would either get it at a high price or look elsewhere.... but with the newer MacBook Pros, the starting point is significantly crippled compared to the "good minimum"... don't get me wrong, the base Pro is still extremely powerful for its size, but it made no sense to offer less ports, less power, less novelty (touchbar) for the price difference.

    I do think that there are specific cases where the base model will still suffice for certain people:

    I got my mom a Surface Pro 3 (i5, 4GB, 128GB) and she is very happy with it. She is an artist and illustrator, so it is enough for her use... Not a file hoarder, and very light use otherwise.

    On the other hand, when I was getting a new laptop, I chose a Surface Book (1st gen, i7, 16, 512, dGPU) and I would have got a 256 version if the RAM was 16, but there was no such configuration, though I needed it for 3d designing on the go, note taking, on site sketches, and overall versatility. The price was what you would expect from Apple, and after a year of use, I think it was worth it, I got a ROI very early and the performance is great. Extremely happy with it and looking forward to a similarly specced Surface Book 2...

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