Reducing the Cost of a Laptop, Part 1

Last week I told you about laptops from Acer, Dell and Hewlett-Packard available for $500 to $600, depending upon configuration. But what if none of those notebooks floats your boat?

By James A. Martin

Last week I told you about laptops from Acer, Dell and Hewlett-Packard available for $500 to $600, depending upon configuration. But what if none of those notebooks floats your boat?

You can still trim the cost of any laptop you're considering. This week I've got some tips on how to save money on productivity suites such as Microsoft Office, which can add up to $350 to your laptop's price tag.

Next week, I'll have more tips for shaving dollars off your laptop purchase. If you've got a money-saving laptop tip, please share it with me.

Weighing the Office Alternatives
Recently, when configuring an HP Pavilion dv5t (beginning price: $600), I was given several choices for office productivity suites:

Microsoft Works, included at no additional cost
Corel WordPerfect Office, for an additional $59
Four different versions of Office, at $99-$349
If your productivity software needs are relatively modest, Microsoft Works or Corel WordPerfect may be all you need.

While it lacks some of the features and applications of Office, such as a presentation program, Microsoft Works includes a word processor that opens Word files and produces compatible files, a spreadsheet program that creates files that are interchangeable with Microsoft Excel, a calendar program, and more.

Similarly, Corel WordPerfect Office X4 offers a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program (all files are compatible with Microsoft Office applications), visual data analysis tool, e-mail program, and more. WordPerfect Office even provides better PDF support than Office 2007.

Free Productivity Apps
But you might not need to buy any software. Another alternative is to sign up for Google Docs or Zoho. Both offer free online tools for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. All you need is a Web browser and an Internet connection to use them. Your documents live in "the cloud" (the Internet), so you can access and edit them from any computer with a browser.

You can even work with some Google and Zoho files offline. For example, last year Zoho announced you can work with its word processing docs offline. Zoho recently added offline capabilities to its e-mail service, too. I've tested Google Docs and recommend it, though it doesn't have the full range of tools you'd get with Office. See "Working Offline With Google Docs" Part 1 and Part 2.

There's yet another option:, a free, open-source productivity suite available for both Windows PCs, Macs, Linux-based systems, among others. includes a spreadsheet, word processor and presentation program. It can open some older versions of Word files that not even Office 2007 can handle. New features for 3.0 include the ability to import PDF documents.

By the way, you might want to read Scott Spanbauer's "Life Without Desktop Software," in which he went without desktop applications for a week and reported on his experiences.

Office Buying Tips
Still convinced you want Microsoft Office on your new laptop? Fine. But there are a few things you should consider.

In essence, there are two versions of Office: OEM (original equipment manufacturer) and retail. If you bought Office preinstalled on a laptop or desktop, you have an OEM version. Conversely, a retail version of Office is sold independently; you'd buy it through outlets such as or any software store.

An OEM version of Office is licensed only for use on the computer on which it was installed. Licensing issues aside, the average user can't successfully install an OEM version of Office on any machine other than the one on which it came. Your copy of Office was engineered to prevent that, because of software piracy concerns.

However, you can legally install a retail version of Office on your primary machine--a desktop, for example--and a secondary computer as well, say your laptop. The end-user licensing agreement for a retail version of Office 2007 states "you may install another copy" of the retail version of Office "on a portable device for use by the single primary user of the licensed device." In other words, as long as you're installing Office on your laptop and not someone else's, and you're going to be the only user of Office, you're good to go.

Given the licensing restrictions on an OEM version, it may make sense to buy a retail version of Office and install it yourself. This is a good idea if you need to use the software on a desktop and a laptop, or you might want to install it on a second laptop later. If you shop carefully, you can pay about the same for the retail version as you would adding an OEM version to your new laptop. For instance, the retail version of Microsoft Office 2007 Small Business Edition was recently available for $260 to $420 online. Comparatively, adding Small Business Edition to the laptop I configured on HP's site cost an additional $249.

You can usually find good deals on Office 2007 on eBay and from sellers. However, make sure you're buying a full version, not an upgrade. If possible, confirm that the seller hasn't registered the software on another computer. When you install Office, Microsoft uses an online registration system to ensure, among other things, that the copy you're attempting to install hasn't exceeded the allowable number of installations. Also, buy only from a seller with a high rating--ideally, 95 percent or better.

Keep in mind that if you didn't have Office preinstalled on your laptop and you run into problems later, your laptop maker's tech support may not help you. They may tell you they can't troubleshoot the problem because you didn't buy Office from them. If this is a serious concern for you, having Office preinstalled on your new laptop may be the way to go. If your computer maker sells the retail Office versions, you might get around the tech-support limitations by buying it from them. However, a spot check of retail versions of Office Small Business Edition on and found prices of $420 and $405, respectively--significantly higher than many other online store.

The Wrap-Up
If you're trying to cut your laptop costs, I'd recommend at least experimenting with Google Docs, Zoho,, or any other free productivity suite. You've got nothing to lose, and you'll be able to open in Office any files you create using one of its alternatives. You might save as much as $350--and discover that you don't miss Office so much, after all.

Stop Cell Phone Spam: Are you receiving unwanted text messages, e-mail, and voice calls on your mobile phone? "Put an End to Cell Phone Spam" offers tips for stopping the junk sent to your phone. For example, many spam text messages are sent to your phone via e-mail. AT&T cell phone subscribers can block such messages by signing in to, then clicking check boxes to block MMS (multimedia message service) and text messages sent through e-mail.

Securing Your iPhone: If the data stored on your Apple iPhone falls into nefarious hands, you could be in for a world of woe. Better be safe than sorry by protecting the data. Fortunately, that's not difficult. For example, the iPhone includes a feature that erases all its data after ten failed passcode attempts. For this to work, you must enter a four-character passcode each time you turn on your iPhone. Read "Six Essential Apple iPhone Security Tips" for more advice.

Nokia's Sleek, Useful 3G Phone: The E71, Nokia's first 3G phone, features a slick design and many useful features. The candy-bar phone has a full QWERTY keyboard, is remarkably slim, fits easily in your hand, and is extremely light. at only 4.4 ounces.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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