I originally wrote this as a post on consumerist.com, but it's generally good advice, and I need something to park here as web content anyway. I am not particularly in the mood to HTML-ize it.
OK, here's some truth for folks looking to buy a notebook, or a computer in general (for future reference, not for the poor guy in the article).
1. Laptops aren't made by the company with the name on the label. There are actually only a dozen or so companies that make notebooks, usually called ODMs (Original Design Manufacturers). Acer most typically uses two of the biggest firms in the industry, Compal and Quanta.
... which are the same two companies that make HP, Dell et al.
2. Notebook designs are made to the specifications of vendors. Generally speaking, there will be a difference in the quality of components for a notebook depending on its intended market and use. This is not surprising, right? A $400 Acer is not going to have fantastic electronics in it. It gets to be $400 because the ODM skimped on the quality of capacitors and ICs and whatnot.
This also means that you can't say your Dell Vostro or Inspiron is better than that crappy Acer just because it's a Dell. They're BOTH low cost/low quality models.
3. On top of this - and this is important - Notebooks that are designed and marketed for business use offer a lot to consumers, above and beyond the crap they sell in retail outlets. I don't know of any retail outlets that sell business-model notebooks.
a. Business-model notebooks are designed to have replaceable and interchangeable parts, so that IT workers dealing with a fleet of Latitudes or T61s can easily make repairs.
The other thing about that is that IT workers very often deal with *hordes* of notebooks, if that's their job. One commenter here might say "My personal HP Pavilion that I bought at Best Buy has been fine for two years!" That's lovely. Someone who manages 2,500 HP 6500-series notebook is in a much better place to make a comment about the quality of the hardware they're dealing with.
... and it's an Apples vs. Oranges comparison, because the Pavilion probably wasn't made by the same ODM, nor does it use many of the same parts.
But in terms of having more experience, give some credit to the folks who have to put up with more than a couple notebooks at any one time. b. Extra parts are easily obtainable for business model notebooks. This starts with little stuff like AC adapters and moves all the way up to mainboards and displays; go look on Ebay for Thinkpad or Latitude parts, then look at what you can get for Acer-anything.
c. Business model notebooks have better service options. Personally, after years of having Indian and Chinese professors, I don't have any problems talking to East Asian tech support types, but as a rule Business Computer products sold in the USA are likely to be supported by residents of the US. As an aside, Dell's Vostro line, supposedly targeting small businesses, doesn't qualify as a business product; people who buy Vostros get to talk to the same people who support Inspiron and XPS systems, which is to say the Home Support people. Way to court those business customers, Dell!
d. Business notebooks often have better software configurations. Like, say, Windows XP instead of Vista, and fewer 30-day trials of crappy Norton/McAfee security software.
e. Business notebooks don't really cost more. Go to Dell's Home Store. Configure an Inspiron. Once you get that base configuration to a "sane" point (2GB RAM instead of 512MB etc), you'll find that there's a Latitude in the Small Business store that's around the same price, weighs less, runs longer on its battery and has a more durable chassis.
f. There's an expectation that business notebooks will be moved around a lot. That means that business notebooks will have reinforced chassis and the like. My Thinkpads have a solid, single piece titanium rollcage around the base, for example.
4. Until very recently, 3 year warranties were standard on a lot of business notebooks from HP, Dell and IBM. They aren't, any more, but if a consumer has any interest in owning an actual portable computer, it's important to know that there are two different items that make up a notebook warranty. There's the "Warranty" which is usually sold and covers the hardware for defects. There's also an "Accidental Protection Plan" which covers things like coffee spills and unfortunate baggage handling incidents. My advice is to purchase both, or the equivalent of both, for as long as you plan to care about your notebook. Notebooks are designed to be portable, and they're also very delicate. Stuff breaks, no matter how careful you are.
All in all, the only time consumers should really be looking at those super cheapie notebooks is when they really, honestly don't want anything more than a disposable computer. It's just that simple.