I was asked for advice from a non-technical person about buying a laptop for their 15yo daughter. They were looking to spend $200 or $300.
I suggested that stretching their budget to $500 for a new EeePC would be a better option than the risks associated with a second-hand laptop (laptops are all different in their hardware).
I also suggested that waiting a few months to see what happens with the new EeePCs might be a good idea. There are rumours about the development of new EeePC models with bigger screens, this would be a benefit for those who can afford it, and for those who can’t the current model may drop in price. They took that suggestion very well and I suspect that they weren’t planning to purchase in the near future anyway.
I asked for advice on the LUV mailing list  for further suggestions that I could offer.
One suggestion was that larger laptops of a more traditional design have been driven down in price recently and might be worth considering. I will have to mention it, but suggesting that someone who wants to spend $200 should spend $500 seemed enough of a stretch, suggesting that they spend $700 or more might not be taken well. Of course there is the weight issue that Matt raised in a blog post . The last thing I want to do is to convince people not to buy computers for their children!
A complaint was raised about the size of the keyboard in the EeePC (personally I wouldn’t want to use anything smaller than the T series Thinkpad I’m using now). In a quick google search the best information I could find about average finger sizes was the Danforth Diamond blog  which says that in the US women average a ring size of 6 while men average 10. According to the ring sizing page on the same site  that means ring finger diameter of 16.5 and 19.8mm respectively. So it seems likely that given the same level of typing skill an average woman could happily use a keyboard that’s 83% the size of the keyboard that an average man uses. Of course there’s a lot of variation between individuals, for example my fingers are thinner than average and I prefer a full-sized keyboard.
One thing I recommend when considering a keyboard (or a laptop) is to type your name a few times quickly. Typing something about a quick brown fox will take some thought, but typing your own name requires no thought so you can concentrate on the feel of the keyboard. Using this method it is very easy to go to a store and determine whether a laptop is likely to suit you.
The screen resolution and size is a significant issue, one EeePC owner described it as “too small to do anything useful“. Rumour has it that the next version will have a screen that’s a significant increase in size and resolution.
A final interesting comment was about the social aspect of owning a laptop. The suggestion was made that a teenager who owned the smallest (and possibly cheapest) laptop in class might have other kids tease them about it. I will be interested to see comments on this issue, it had never occurred to me that the laptop use in schools would be high enough for the ownership of any type of laptop to be a cause for harassment. Also I’m not sure which would be considered as being of lower status, an old second-hand laptop or a new low-end laptop. I’m pretty sure that owning either would be considered to have higher status than having no laptop.
A quick scan of the GraysOnline.com.au auction site suggests that a second-hand Pentium-M laptop (a few years old) could be purchased for about $550 and a Core 2 Duo based laptop might go for about $700. So it seems unlikely that for less than $500 you could buy something suitable for a novice user (something that will just work with recent software). I’m not planning on offering the full IT support package that I offer to my relatives so I can only recommend things that can be self-supported.
Of course as the people doing the buying seem to have no definite plans for the use of the computer then anything they buy will fail in some way to meet the requirements that they discover. :-#
Update: fixed a bad link.