Tuesday, February 23, 2016

$3000 Laptop Follow Up

Well, the recent post about $3000 laptops caused quite a stir with the overwhelming response being that I have no idea what I’m talking about and $3000 laptops are not only justified but probably a bargain to boot.

You know, I not only post to educate and entertain readers but occasionally to learn something myself.  Maybe this is one of those cases.  Honestly, I had no idea such a laptop existed.  If they are fully justified then I stand educated.

However, I'm disappointed to see the widespread, almost kneejerk reaction to any hint of cost awareness.  On a larger scale, this is what leads to $14B carriers or $200M F-35s.  

Maybe every one of those 2600 laptops has to be absolute, top of the line, throw it in lava and have it still work.  On the other hand, I note that the contract only calls for 450 carrying cases which suggests that most of the computers are not going to be slung around and dropped from airplanes at 30,000 ft but, rather, wind up sitting undisturbed in an office or sheltered area.  It's possible, just barely, faintly possible, that those office laptops could be Dells or even the CF-21 for half the cost.

I also note that the contract calls for a couple hundred spare hard drives.  Assuming they're for failures, that's a 10% failure rate from a $3000 laptop that everyone seems to claim can never fail.  Dell laptops don't have a 10% failure rate within a reasonable lifetime (about three years).  Thus, I see a contract that is paying for a never, ever, under any circumstance, fail, computer that includes a built in 10% failure rate.  So, the common argument from readers that the military can’t afford to allow laptops to fail seems contradicted by the contract, itself.  If 10% are going to fail, anyway, then why not use $300 Dells?

I don’t know enough to argue this further (and neither do any of you) but I can analyze the contract announcement and draw a reasonable conclusion that we might, just might, be over-spec’ing and overpaying.  If not, then great but it’s the failure to ask these kinds of questions that leads to F-35s, LCS’s, and Fords.

Those of you who didn’t at least briefly entertain the possibility that we might have overpaid are either subject matter experts on this (and none of you identified yourself as such) who already know the answer or you are thinking non-critically.  There’s nothing wrong with asking the question – are we over-spec’ing and overpaying – and, based on verifiable evidence, concluding that we aren’t.  There is, however, something wrong with refusing to ask the question. 


  1. A Panasonic Tough book (depending on model) lists for $4,029. For aircraft (or general military use) you do not want COTS laptops. Although with SSDs you can take more vibration than with HDDs.

    So when you factor in repair and spares 3K is not too bad.

    People do not understand what it takes to stock and man repair centers and all of that has to go into the Fixed unit cost.

    1. "For aircraft (or general military use) you do not want COTS laptops."

      This is exactly what I talked about in the post.

      Why do you not want COTS? Most of these laptops appear destined for office duty. Why won't a COTS be suitable. You made the statement, now back it up with some facts or logic.

      I fear you completely missed the point of the post. Demonstrate to me that you didn't and that you had a fact or logic based reason to make the statement you did.

  2. "On the other hand, I note that the contract only calls for 450 carrying cases which suggests that most of the computers are not going to be slung around and dropped from airplanes at 30,000 ft but, rather, wind up sitting undisturbed in an office or sheltered area."

    And thats key
    Failure rates of laptops, even abused ones, within 18months, is minimal.
    I've costed buying new mid spec (£300) laptops every 18 months and its cheaper AND provides better computing than buying "high spec supported" laptops every three (or four, or five, or longer....)

    For things like tablets its even worse, its a consumable, not an asset.

  3. I remember an old story from Desert Storm. This was when fax machines were taking off and media had done stories about mil-spec machine that cost...well a lot of money. Question was asked: Why can't they buy the ones you can get at WalMart.

    Come Desert Storm and the media that were in the desert finding that there WalMart fax machines were melting in the heat, shorted out by dust, etc. The expensive mil-spec ones hummed along just fine.

    1. The story sounds apocryphal but even if it's absolutely true it doesn't alter the question and possible answer. I'm not suggesting that we don't buy any high end, rugged laptops. Any laptops that are even remotely likely to deploy into less than optimum conditions can certainly be as rugged as needed and priced accordingly. However, for the vast majority, they'll sit in air conditioned offices and be subject to no more stress than the odd coffee spill.

    2. And the soldiers who did buy consumer spec GPS units because there weren't enough milspec to go around.

      many years ago when I worked in data centres, high end printers would need constant repair if they were run all day every day, but common use was 3-4 hrs use in 24hrs.
      Even now you can buy home user printers that are rated about 3-5000 pages but pay 2.5x as much for commercial grade and its 50,000 pages. So its skip Walmart and go to Office Depot.

    3. I know in the army, we use a dell variant (dont have one at the moment ao i cant tell what the mosel is.) and their replacement price is 1800ish. For maintance, we use a specialized laptop programmed of the xp system for the technical manuals which cost around 1k. I do believe the dell model is rugged.

  4. 10% failure rate is LOW for actual work laptops. There is a reason why most major biz work locations have an onsite support that has racks of spare laptops and racks of spare drives. It isn't uncommon for something to break on a laptop over a 3 year period (in fact its extremely rare for it not to happen). Most biz just to a swap in place so the employee can continue working. Also it isn't uncommon for software issues to crop up either with the typical solution being swapping in a drive with a clean image and restore data from backup.

    And I'm not talking about cheap consumer grade general purpose crap notebooks from various suppliers. I'm talking well designed, well built biz laptops from Dell, IBM/Lenovo Thinkpads, etc. All of them have >10% real world failure rates through normal use in a business environment: they get dropped, they get software issues, track pads/points fail from use, they get cracked screens from travel/plane mishaps, they get stress fractures from repeated day to day use, docking station mating ports get bent pins, etc.

    The whole point of buying rugged laptops isn't that they'll never fail, it is that environmental factors will play a significantly less roll in failure and that the failures will not be as catastrophic.

  5. correct,
    Pretty much, exactly what he said.
    Home laptops, will be expected to be used, on average 2 hours a day at most, 3-5 days a week.
    Work machines, will churn 10 hours a day 5.5 days per week. And will not be well cared for by their user.

  6. It comes down to how the laptops are used. High end laptops can easily run past $5000, especially the workstation ones or the Toughbook series.

    I do know that in industries that do treat their laptops roughly, like oil exploration, a Toughbook is only needed for the more demanding stuff (like 10%).

    In most cases, a Thinkpad will be more than adequate.

    My guess is that while there are some applications where the cost is justifiable, the taxpayer is being ripped off.

    I'd like to see what they bought.

    I mean, in the case of the Snap-on tools, at least there is some justification. They are expensive even in the civilian world.

  7. I don't know what the point of this post is...

    You're disappointed that your readers either knew or looked up the price on a piece of equipment before agreeing with you that it was overpriced and represented an example of malfeasance on the part of the government?

    I think we've shown that by and large were willing to be critical of government procurement, when there is actually a case for it, as opposed to simply accepting whatever you say on the matter.

    1. You could not have missed the point of this post more fully if you tried. The contract announcement did NOT specify what computers were being bought. They might be $300 Dells that the military is paying $3000 for, for all we know. Readers leapt to the defense of the DoD and made the assumption that the computers were high end and ruggedized, thereby possibly justifying the cost. What the readers ignored and I tried to subsequently point out was the few details in the announcement suggested that the majority of the computers would be office use and that it would be very difficult to justify that kind of cost for that kind of use.

      Other than surprising me that a $3000 computer exists, which I did not know, readers have not presented any evidence that the cost is justified because neither they nor I know what computers are being purchased.

      My analysis, limited as it was, suggested that we're overpaying. Maybe, maybe not.

      What disappointed me, to repeat this post, is that so many readers leapt to the defense of the military WITHOUT sufficient data - in other words, a kneejerk reaction. You appear to be in this category.

      Look at the scanty evidence and logic. It SUGGESTS that we may be overpaying. Everyone should read this and, at least, have a doubt.

      This purchase may be perfectly justified but nothing we know now demonstrates that and the logic suggests otherwise, at least to some degree. Further, the military's history of overpaying for equipment offers additional, if indirect, support for my suggestion.

      If you have an open mind, this should be persuasive.

      I expect more of my readers than the typical blog. I hope you're in that group and can analyze rather than react.

    2. Oh yes, they exist.

      Here is an example of a high end workstation:

      Depending on your needs, it may be worth the money.

    3. We've established that $3000 computers exist, much to my surprise. What we don't know is what computers the contract announcement is talking about. We're all assuming that they're high end, ruggedized computers and that may not be true at all. Or it may. We don't know.

      People are trying to defend the military's purchase of these high end, ruggedized computers without knowing whether that's even what is being purchased. They may be buying $300 Dells and just hugely overpaying, for all we know! Before you scoff at that, recall that we've hugely overpaid for toilet seats, claw hammers, etc. in the past!

    4. Generally in the civilian world, if a product has been out for long enough, there's probably a use for it. In the military though ... yeah buying subpar hardware at inflated prices is distressingly common.

      Doesn't mean that this particular purchase was bad, but we need to know what they are buying.

      If it's heavy duty mobile workstations or Toughbooks, perhaps a case could be made. If it is not ... yeah someone needs to be brought to account, likely for corruption.

  8. They're only buying 2600. It's not like all of the DOD and the services are using them. Somewhere else there'll be another budget line for many many more that may or may not be to this spec.

  9. There are good points to be made on both sides of this argument, but as CNO points out, let's not jump to conclusions without the proper data. I looked through the solicitation and supporting documents, and nothing jumped out at me to sway me to "great deal" or "we are getting ripped off".

    The points we should take from this are, government procurements are not the same as going to the Apple store and buying a computer (for the most part). In this case, there are some unique reqs and a fairly robust warranty that the vendor must comply with, and that is indicative of government/military purchase. These "unique" reqs, albeit minor at times, many times erase the ability to literally buy off the shelf and therefore, erode any quantity savings. On the other hand, if you are in a position to write or evaluate a RFP and/or solicitation, question the reqs and see if they can be relaxed. Good for the government (mostly) and good for the vendors.


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