Switched On: The $100 laptop challenge, eBay-style

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

This was a big year for the $100 notebook computer, a concept popularized by the One Laptop Per Child organization for developing economies. However, not all $100 PCs are targeted toward the needy. During Black Friday, one retailer offered a $100 Compaq laptop after rebates and a Vonage VoIP phone subscription.

But what can Benny get you in a portable computer if you're not buying educational aids in the millions or lining up at storefronts mere hours after polishing off the pumpkin pie? Finding the answer would require acute knowledge of the technology market, keen insight into seller psychology, and about seven solid minutes of online research at the internet's garage sale, eBay.

Here were the demanding ground rules. To keep the experience as close as possible to a retail purchase, the notebook had to have a "Buy It Now" price of $100 or less. It had to be functional upon delivery (no "parts" PCs), including a hard drive and AC adapter, and had to be able to run a "modern" consumer operating system (Winodws XP or Mac OS X) with, at most, a RAM upgrade. For PCs, I used a Pentium III or Celeron as a rough proxy for this capability. Let's see how I did.

For starters, I didn't include shipping charges (but chose only U.S. shippers to minimize them) or exclude notebooks with unknown or dead battery conditions. However, given the age of most of these PCs, it's reasonable to assume that most of the batteries were dead unless otherwise specified. This is far from ideal, of course, but still portable in the sense you could carry the laptop to a local coffee shop with a lenient outlet policy. Let's face it, the $100 Wal-Mart special isn't going to last more than a half hour on batteries anyway.

My search led me through a museum of staples of corporate computing from a decade ago, through many listings for ThinkPad 560s and 600s, Gateway Solos, Dell Latitudes CPs and the occasional HP OmniBook. Nearly all of them had their share of cosmetic blemishes, usually scratches on the covers. My low-priced winner was a Dell Latitude CPt V offered by a seller with a 99.9 percent feedback rating on 826 transactions -- a pretty solid bet. It included Windows 98 on its 6GB hard drive, a 24x CD-ROM, 256MB of RAM, a Celeron processor, and a 14-inch screen. It even included a 56K PC Card modem with XJack connector and a battery that held out for 1.5 hours. All this could be yours for $89.99 plus $10 shipping, bringing this beauty to your home for under $100.

Next up was a Toshiba Satellite 2210CDT, a 5.6 pound notebook with a 6GB hard drive but only 64MB of RAM, a 12-inch screen and a nonfunctional battery. However, in addition to its Windows 98 edition, it came with a version of Microsoft Office preinstalled. It was $99.99 plus $18.95 for shipping from a seller with a 99.4% positive feedback rating on over 5200 transactions.

But two listings down was a much better deal for those who value trackpads more and brands less -- a Twinhead 750MHz Pentium III with 128MB of RAM, 10GB hard drive, and 13-inch screen ripe for OpenOffice. However, caveat emptor, as the seller noted that "we test what we know to test" and "we look for what we know to look for." It emerged as the challenge's top-of-the-line PC.

I found exactly one Mac notebook that won the challenge, a "Wall Street" PowerBook G3 with a 2GB hard drive and 160MB of RAM, enough to run the included end-of-the-line classic Mac OS 9.2 and Microsoft Office. The seller, who had 98.7% positive feedback on 362 transactions, noted (in all caps) that it was "the most versatile laptop I have ever used" but "has only what's built in." Shipping was a hefty $35 but those using "Buy It Now" got a "free full-sized keyboard and mouse." Could I get any luckier?

Indeed, I could. As veteran bidders know, patience pays on eBay. Relaxing the "Buy It Now" requirement yielded better deals. Searching some recently completed auctions, I saw that the opportunistic had snagged a 1.1GHz Pentium III-powered ThinkPad T23 with Windows XP Pro, 512MB RAM, a 30GB hard drive and a combo drive with "some brightness towards the very bottom of the screen" for $100, and a 500MHz iBook running OS X that had a CD tray cover missing but was otherwise functional for the same price.

Your machines may vary, of course, and a great time to run the challenge again will be after the holiday season when folks replace their aging PCs. But it's clear that for those with modest needs who aren't put off by a few scratches, a missing superficial cover, or scavenging a new battery, the $100 laptop is attainable today.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at