For many years, the $99 PC was the stuff of movies, fantasies and legend. If a PC could be purchased for that price, it would be an educational deal changer, a way for every child to have a computer.
Well, in a sense, the $99 PC exists now, and its arrival has been met with little fanfare. Perhaps it’s because the cost of computer ownership has fallen dramatically over the last few years, or maybe it's because the definition of what constitutes a computer has changed so much. In an era of smartphones, netbooks and tablets, it's hard to know when something counts as a device and when it qualifies as a computer.
What can you get for $99?
Though they have not been well advertised, you can buy off-brand netbooks running the Android operating system for $99. These products have largely been failures, so you can also search around and find them for less on the various daily deal sites. A school buying dozens – if not hundreds – of them could probably buy in quantity at a discount.
For your $99, you get a not-very-durable laptop with a small screen (seven inches in most cases) and a low-powered processor. These “computers” can access the Internet through Wi-Fi, though they may have trouble with certain sites. They can also run a variety of Android “apps” or programs that were likely written for use on Android-powered phones.
What is Android?
Android is an operating system, like Windows, that was created to be used on smartphones and mobile devices. It takes up less memory than Windows and costs a lot less, which allows for lower-cost computers.
The drawback for Android comes in the fact that while Windows and Apple's operating systems have scores of programs and apps created for them, Android does not. Yes, you will be able to find basic software to do things like word processing or spreadsheets, but you will not have nearly as much choice.
What does a “real” computer cost?
If you're looking to buy laptops for every student in your school, you can readily find netbooks running Windows for around $250. These computers would have the advantage of running the popular operating system and offering access to all the software that entails. For $250, you're still getting a low-powered system with little in the way of storage or processing speed.
If you wanted “real” laptops (ones with full-powered processors), the market starts around $350. At that price point you could by a full-sized, albeit clunky machine with a fair amount of processing might. If you wanted desktops, they would be around the same price once you factor in a monitor, keyboard and mouse. Of course, if you wanted Apple Macintosh computers, your cheapest option would come in at $1,000.
To further complicate matters, most of the low-end Windows netbooks can instead be purchased running Linux. An open-source program, Linux is more like Windows than Android, and it has been around longer. Buying a netbook with Linux will save you around $50, but for non-tech-savvy users, that savings is probably not worth it.
Should we buy $99 laptops?
Just because something exists does not mean that it makes sense to purchase it. The $99 laptop has its place as a very basic Web browser/word processing machine. If cost is your only factor, then these will do in a pinch, though it's unlikely they will have a very long life span. In many ways, while it's amazing what you can get for $99 (or even less), it's also obvious that you get what you pay for.
The $99 laptop might be useful as a device to have in the classroom when it's not possible to put in a full-powered computer or even a low-powered netbook. They are computers and they do allow access to the Internet. They are very limited beyond those basic functions but for the price, it's hard to complain.