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You Always Pay Extra for the Last Step Up: Why Is That?

I’ve been shopping around for a new laptop lately. There are lots of interesting choices out there, but I’ve noticed something very interesting about pricing. Let me illustrate:

1. MS Surface Pro 3 i7 256 GB SSD, 8GB RAM $1,549 512 GB SSD $1,949 Difference $400 Cost of Samsung 500 GB $280 (Newegg)
2. Lenovo ThinkPad W540 Base model $1,569
Add $140 for i7-4800MQ CPU, $380 for i7-4900MQ, $930 for i7-4930MX
Add $70 for 1920×1080 screen with color sensor, add $200 for 2880×1621 IPS display, $70 more for same with color sensor
Add $250 to upgrade from NVidia Quadro K1100M 2G to K2100M 2G display card
Add $140 to upgrade from 8 GB to 16 GB RAM (4x4GB), $260 for same (2x8GB), $650 for 32 GB (4x8GB)
Add $170 to upgrade from 500 GB 7,200 RPM HD to 128 GB SSD, $270 for 256 GB SSD, $620 for 512 GB SSD
Add $40 to install 40 GB M.2 SSD (no other options available, though 42mm M.2 SSDs up to 256 GB are available for around $180)
3. Fujitsu Stylistic Q704 Hybrid Tablet $1,649 i5-4300U, 128GB SSD, 4GB RAM
Add $160 to upgrade to 8 GB RAM
Add $300 to upgrade to i7-4600U vPRO CPU
Add $200 to upgrade to 256 GB SSD

In cases 1 and 3, the ultra-slim tablet format for each of those PCs means that the builder must often choose to solder devices onto the motherboard rather than use a socket mount of some kind, simply to achieve the narrowest possible height profile. But they do mark up additions to memory and storage well beyond the retail price difference (and they’re not paying retail, either) between higher and lower capacity memory and storage configurations. To some extent, I can see this as taking advantage of a captive audience (which must either buy the higher capacity from the maker or forgo it completely). I don’t have to like it, though, and it bugs me to see this as a standard industry practice.

Lenovo’s W540 is more puzzling. Lenovo is always good about making its maintenance manuals available to owners of its equipment, where they’ll find detailed instructions on upgrading most internal components for those devices that can be swapped out in the field. Here’s what I did to my current traveling laptops, for example:

  • I upgraded an X220 Tablet from 4 to 16 GB RAM, from an HD to an SSD, and to which I added an mSATA SSD in the PCI-e Express socket available for either storage or a WWAN device
  • I did likewise to a T520 ThinkPad, and swapped out its DVD drive bay for a 2.5″ drive caddy that now accommodates a 1 TB Seagate SSHD for backup and extended storage as well

For the W540, there’s nothing to stop a motivated buyer from purchasing the minimum default configuration, then installing more RAM, swapping an SSD for the 500 GB HD, adding one or two M.2 42 MM SSDs into the available slots on that machine for up to 512 GB of additional SSD storage, and replacing the optical drive with an HD/drive bay combination. The cost differential between DIY and paying Lenovo to it for you could be over $1,000, even accounting for extra parts (additional memory modules, the 500 GB default HD, and a drive bay to replace the optical drive) that a DIY-er must buy that Lenovo need not purchase.

Is there a moral to this story? Yes, actually there are several. First, if you want to max out ultrabooks or tablets, you and your employer will have to resign yourselves to paying a premium to acquire added processing power, storage, or RAM. Second, if you decide to acquire a field-upgradable notebook or laptop, you may want to perform a time-vs-savings tradeoff analysis for management to ponder. Even accounting for the fully-burdened overhead cost of labor for acquisition, installation and testing of in-house upgrades, it may still be cheaper to use company staff to handle those tasks and do it yourselves, rather than to pay the premium prices that PC vendors routinely charge to deliver PCs with more oomph than standard configurations deliver.

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