It’s snowing in my East Coast neighborhood as I write this, but the calendar says spring is here. So it’s time for my annual spring laptop buyer’s guide.
I’d like to report that there have been great new features or big new price drops for laptop shoppers to consider since I wrote my previous twice-a-year guide in October, but I can’t.
The last big hardware benefit delivered by the industry came in June 2013, when laptops started appearing with a new, fourth-generation Intel Core processor that dramatically boosted battery life.
On the software front, neither Microsoft’s Windows 8 nor Apple’s Mavericks — the companies’ latest operating systems — have created much excitement, and in fact both firms had to scramble to revise them to fix problems.
Still, there is one big reason to get a new laptop this spring, and it’s a ghost from the past: Windows XP, which was designed in 1999 and launched in 2001. On April 8, Microsoft will finally cease supporting XP, and won’t even be issuing security updates for it. That means that people who are still clinging to the ancient but familiar system will be exposed to all sorts of new malware.
So consumers who still have XP around will be going shopping. Joining them will be those whose laptops are breaking down, or who simply need a new one, say for school. They can consider new Windows 8.1 laptops, switching to a Mac, buying a low-end Google-based Chromebook, or even adopting a tablet, especially now that Microsoft Office has arrived on the iPad.
With that in mind, here are my tips on what to look for in a laptop this spring. As always, this guide is meant for average users doing typical tasks, not corporate IT staffs or people doing heavy-duty work like video production.
Windows vs. Mac
Even with the improvements made last year in Windows 8.1, consumers continue to show confusion about Microsoft’s latest Windows platform, which has two different user interfaces, one of which is best used with a price-raising touchscreen. Some are still searching for a Windows 7 machine, which is more of a straightforward modernization of XP.
Still, if you’re a committed Windows user, there are plenty of sleek, powerful laptops called Ultrabooks available, with Windows 8.1 and touchscreens, from brands like Lenovo, HP, Toshiba, Acer and others. They typically cost $700-$1,100, though some come in at less. And there are also less-expensive, bulkier models without touchscreens. Windows retains its traditional strength: Variety in both design and price.
But I strongly advise laptop shoppers to consider a Mac, even though the cheapest Mac laptop is $999. Apple has stuck with standard screens and a simple lineup. Mac laptops come in two flavors: The thinner, lighter MacBook Air and the beefier MacBook Pro. Both are first-rate, rugged computers which hardly ever get viruses. In fact, I regard the MacBook Air as the best all-around laptop on the market. The latest version of the Air, which I tested last June, is not only wicked fast, but turned in a 10-hour battery life in my tough battery test, twice what I got when I tested the premium X1 Carbon Windows laptop from another respected maker, Lenovo.
Unless you are on a tight budget, I strongly recommend buying a laptop that uses Intel’s 4th Generation Core processors, which are faster than their predecessors and provide a big boost in battery life. But I don’t advise average consumers to spring for the fastest version of the chip, the i7. I’d stick with the middle model, the i5, at the slowest speed available. More is overkill.
To make sure you’re getting a fourth-generation Intel processor, make sure the “Intel Inside” sticker is a blue, vertical design with a gold strip along the top edge. The model number should also start with a “4.”
If you expect to spend a lot of time in the Windows 8.1 Start Screen and the tablet-like apps that live there, I strongly advise buying a laptop with a touchscreen. You can use these new type of apps with a mouse, but they’re really designed for touch. If you expect to spend the vast majority of your time in the traditional Windows desktop environment, you can skip the touchscreen and save money.
Tablets vs. laptops
The conventional wisdom is that tablets are just for consuming media, but in fact they can do lots of productivity tasks. And the addition of a feature-rich version of Microsoft Office to the iPad makes the top tablet even more of a potential substitute for a laptop, especially with one of the many available add-on keyboards. Samsung’s Galaxy Note tablets are built around a stylus, and have apps that use that stylus for creativity and productivity. Microsoft’s Surface tablets attempt to pack desktop Windows into a tablet form factor with a snap-on keyboard. So I recommend that people shopping for a new laptop at least consider a tablet, possibly with an add-on keyboard.
There has been a surge of interest lately in Chromebooks from companies like Acer, Samsung, HP and Toshiba. They cost under $300, and are perfect for Web browsing, social networking, Web-based email and Web-based document creation and editing. But there’s a major downside — they essentially just run the same Chrome browser from Google, and the “Web apps” it features, as Chrome does on a Mac or PC. But, unlike the latter, a Chromebook can’t run a locally installed program like iTunes or Office or Photoshop. And they are severely limited when offline.
I’m not a fan of Windows laptops that attempt to double as tablets by using special hinges, because they tend to make for thick, heavy tablets. But if you want a hybrid machine, consider what’s called a “detachable” — one where the screen can be totally removed and act as a standard, normal-sized tablet. A good example is the Asus Transformer Book.
There’s no special reason for most people to buy a new laptop this spring — unless they’ve been a Windows XP diehard.