Unfortunately, they are also eminently nickable. The experience of Jane Melrose suggests that, before buying one, it is as important to think about insurance as the technical specifications.
Ms Melrose is treasurer of London Potters, a group that promotes interest in pottery and has about 250 members. 'The committee decided to buy a laptop computer, mainly for the newsletter but also to enable us to do publicity for the talks and exhibitions we run, and for our membership list,' she said. The laptop, which cost just under pounds 1,000, was chosen so that it could be passed around between committee members.
However, Ms Melrose has now found that this arrangement does not go down well with insurers. Initially, she approached Guardian Royal Exchange, which insures her own household: 'They said no, because the computer is not always here.' Then, with increasing desperation, she tried to find a suitable single-item policy from other insurance companies. At present, the laptop is still uninsured.
Alan Glover, a broker with St Olaf, a City firm that specialises in insurance for voluntary organisations, said the best deal he can find for London Potters would involve a minimum pounds 150 premium. 'The policy would also include an excess, normally pounds 250, although we might get this down to pounds 100. For pounds 1,000 of value, it's questionable whether this represents very good value for money,' he said.
For about the same premium, voluntary organisations can insure their property through a more general insurance policy that would also include employer's liability and public liability cover. For London Potters, however, which has no paid staff and no premises, this additional protection is irrelevant.
Alexander and Alexander, another insurance broker specialising in policies for the voluntary sector, also pitches its product at larger organisations. Its 'special scheme' insurance (underwritten by Cornhill) charges pounds 55 for basic liability protection, with contents charged separately (from pounds 1.23 per pounds 100 upwards, depending on post-code area, and with minimum premiums of between pounds 50 and pounds 100). London Potters would probably have to pay the highest minimum premium of pounds 155 and would find that computer equipment carries a pounds 250 excess. 'I would suggest that the club official most responsible for the computer approaches their household insurer and asks to add it to their policy on an all-risks basis, so that it is also covered when in other people's homes,' said Tony Hughes, technical manager with Endsleigh Insurance. He added that Endsleigh would try to arrange this for its existing customers.
Commercial Union said it would also do its best to take on the risk, but only for its own policyholders. 'The risk is very great, because of the computer's portability. It would need to be all-risks cover, to cover every eventuality,' said CU's Gary French.
Ms Melrose's insurer, GRE, would be more sympathetic if the laptop never left her home, according to a spokesman. 'If she was solely responsible for it, we'd be able to look at it and probably just make a note on the file. Our standard household cover does include computers at home,' he said.
Another insurance pitfall awaits owners of portable computers who use them for business purposes. Insurers tend to make a rigid distinction between personal and commercial policies, and some will exclude equipment kept at home but used for work from normal household contents cover. 'Talk to your insurance company and ask: 'Am I covered?',' advised Ray Facer, household underwriting manager with Legal & General. 'If a computer is primarily an item of business equipment, it ought to be insured under a commercial policy,' he added.
The problem is particularly acute for people working from home, who may find that claims for work-related equipment are turned down. Earlier this year, London brokers Tolson Messenger launched the 'Home Office' insurance policy for people in this situation (premiums start at pounds 120).
Mr Glover blames poor trading results among insurers for recent moves to tighten policy conditions. 'There is a general hardening of attitudes throughout the insurance market. The days of cheap insurance have passed us by.'