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A Complex Answer To A Simple Question: What Laptop To Buy?

Yesterday's Web chat had an interesting, somewhat contentious exchange between a reader and myself. It began like this:

Fairfax, Va.: So I'm buying myself a new laptop this holiday season; what's my best bet for a great value? I don't play games on it; I'd want to easily be able to watch video clips on YouTube and DVDs, listen to music, view/edit photos, and do all the standard email, internet, Microsoft Office stuff. Advice? Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: Um, ANY Windows or Mac laptop on sale today can do all those things. Sorry, I need a query that's a little more specific (this kind of question is like asking Tom Sietsema for a restaurant recommendation by saying "I'm hungry. Where should I eat?")

The poster sounded a little irked in a follow-up query:

Posting again re: simple laptop: My point is that I don't need any bells and whistles. I don't need video editing capability, I don't need room for video games or the highest speeds for online WoW playing. I want to be able to easily watch clips like on YouTube; easily watch DVDs; surf the web quickly, and have memory for Microsoft Office plus probably some photo editing software. To use your Sietsma example, I'd say to him "Where's a good place to get a regular American meal, nothing fancy, just something that's pretty tasty and won't cost a lot." I don't want to pay for a lot of stuff I don't need on a laptop.

I answered by saying that I'd need to know what else mattered in this laptop quest, and suggested screen size, weight, Mac vs. Windows and price as possible criteria, but I didn't hear back. (In case there were any hard feelings, I asked Sietsema what he'd recommend for a "regular American meal" and posted his answer at the end of the chat.)

This kind of back-and-forth seems to happen a lot, especially at this time of year. Maybe it's because people have older computers and don't realize how much technology has progressed lately; maybe it's because computers really are becoming a commodity. Maybe my own computer-shopping advice wasn't helpful enough. Either way, I'd like to be of more help the next time around. So if you were thinking of sending me a question like that, please consider these other factors, and whether they matter to you or not:

* Size and bulk of a desktop computer: Does a large, vertical tower case bother you?
* Do you have any interest in ever editing digital video? If so, you'll want a machine with a FireWire port.
* Do you or anybody else at home play any fast-paced 3D games? Then you need to get a computer with a higher-end graphics card.
* How often do you add -- or uninstall -- programs? If your answer is "not much" or "never," then a machine with a good set of bundled programs (i.e., a Mac) will work better for you.
* Are there any programs you run now that you don't think you could live without? This could override the answer to the prior question.
* Who in your family do you call for help with computer questions all the time, and what kind of computer do they use?

I'm sure many of you gotten the "what's a good computer?" query from friends, family member or co-workers. What other follow-up questions have you asked them to help focus their choice?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 12, 2008; 1:23 PM ET
Categories:  Computers , The business we have chosen , Tips  
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When I bought my first one last year....I asked a friend that uses hers in a way I envisioned using mine and bought the same thing. She had spent a lot of time on the configuration she wanted. It worked out great. However, as the technology changes so fast it may not be realistic for me to expect to keep it as primary for more than a couple of years. Seems the way things work. Same happened with my old desktop....when I added up the upgrades I wanted on it, it was better to just buy a new one.

Posted by: tbva | December 12, 2008 1:49 PM | Report abuse

I've been asked "what's a good computer" by less tech-savvy friends/family often and I've come to realize what they really seem to care about is that when they buy a peripheral or a program, they want it work without upgrading the machine. Anything else they say is almost useless. "Oh, I don't need a big screen" quickly becomes "I wish the screen was bigger". So usually going two or three "levels" above whatever the entry level is works for someone who doesn't really know what they want.

Posted by: koalatek | December 12, 2008 2:21 PM | Report abuse

I followed that thread. My impression was that your reader believed he had a unique requirement (or more precisely, he believed that his *lack* of requirements was itself somewhat unique), and thus you might've recommended a particular machine.

But his lack-of-specialized-requirements in fact results in a simple answer, the one you gave him. "Any new laptop." Period.

I think it is what you suggest here - the commoditization of basic surf/mail/type machines. Readers with no-requirements requirements can let their checkbooks decide. It's just that easy!

Posted by: annoyed5 | December 12, 2008 2:33 PM | Report abuse

It's really kind of funny. People who claim they don't need much, often don't get much. And then are frustrated in a year when their PC doesn't do much...

Posted by: JkR- | December 12, 2008 2:56 PM | Report abuse

Rob, I agree that it is difficult when given such a broad statement. I would just point out the features to judge a machine on. For example, if you want a machine to last at least 2 years, have a minimum of 2GB of RAM, 100 GB hard drive, dual core processor, built-in ethernet and wifi card, and one of the higher levels of Vista. Features that are worth adding more money for are larger hard drive (if you have any digital pictures or will store any), independent graphics card, etc.

Or you can just say look at a Dell and Gateway catalog to get a feel for how much you want to spend and what the features are, and go to a Best Buy or similar store to see them in person and see if there are any other features that might be important to you.

Also don't forget people are likely to want to print (so need a printer), possibly want to scan (maybe budget for a multifunction device), and above all else, how you get your internet service.

It isn't a bad idea for the less-proficient (is that the nice way of saying it?) to get an onsite service plan as well to save family members.

One thing you could rate would be services like logmein or gotomypc for those of us with parents who have constant issues and live far away. My parents have both (Dad has gotomypc on his office computer so his IT guy - he doesn't have an IT department as a small businessman - and I put free version of logmein on Mom's home computer) and they seem to work well, although I'm considering upgrading Mom's so I can transfer pictures from our computer to theirs directly.

Posted by: ssolomo | December 12, 2008 5:02 PM | Report abuse

Good question, poorly articulated.

A laptop buyer should be able to answer all the most basic questions about how he/she intends to use the machine. Every performance and connectivity requirement should be listed. Even if the buyer can't identify exactly how much RAM he needs, he should know about how much is standard and how much it would cost to increase it later if desired. If the shopper cannot create a shopping checklist, then he needs to educate himself. Buying what other people buy instead of self-evaluation of requirements is a likely path to disappointment or overspending.

One idea is to practice "creating" a machine at or your favorite computer store, then cross check it with your requirements (with the help of an experienced computer user).

If ultimate versatility is needed, and if upgrading and maintenance is not something you want to spend time in the future doing, then just get a Mac, which is typically available only in fully-spec'd configurations ready to do anything quite well -- including running all your old Windows software if needed.

Posted by: roule | December 12, 2008 6:12 PM | Report abuse

Awww, come on give the guy a break. I bet when you go to buy a washing machine or dishwasher, you say something equivalent to all I want it to do is work. If his needs are so simple, as a poster above said, any laptop will do.

It would be NICE if when you go to Sears to get an appliance, someone said something polite about types of cycles in a machine. But they do not presume that you are an idiot if you don't know the answer; I would like to think they realize you spend your brain cells elswhere.

The best people who give advice are friendly and look upon uninformed questions as a fun time to educate someone about something they are interested in.

Posted by: Lizz1 | December 13, 2008 12:09 PM | Report abuse

The couple of times I've been asked this, I think what people were really asking was, "What computer won't give me a lot of headaches?" I think they want to know if there's one brand that's more reliable in terms of hardware and customer support that will make things easier for them (aside from my tech support).

I don't really know of any one brand that is superior in these respects (I'm a pretty big fan of Macs, but not everyone is willing to go that route), so I usually just ask what they've got at the moment and if they're happy with it.

Posted by: terayon606 | December 13, 2008 12:17 PM | Report abuse

MAC vs PC: Either will do for most users, though personally I think Macs are far overpriced. The deciding factor here is what their friends and acquaintances use. Free, readily available tech-support is a good thing.

From there, the biggest trade off comes in the relationship between portability, screen-size and price. I don' travel much and its not a big deal for me to carry my laptop to the car to get to the local coffee house. I like the screen real-estate and it was the first factor I looked at- I wanted a laptop with a 17" screen.

But the large screen means that the machine is heavier and has a shorter battery life. Fine for me, but for someone who takes their computer on the road a lot, or carries it between classes, this may not be ideal.

On the other side, you tend to pay a premium for lightweight machines.

Posted by: tgoglia | December 13, 2008 1:00 PM | Report abuse

I ask how many programs they are likely to be running at the same time (ram). Also does their idea of portability mean sitting on the couch with it or will they be traveling or taking it to school a lot (screen size/weight/battery size).

I think Rob's response was right. Somebody like that is basically saying they just want the computer to work on its own and they don't want to be bothered with understanding how it works or what types of maintenance it needs. In which case you suggest a mac, not a pc. The flip side to that coin is that macs are more expensive than pcs, but if you asked him directly whether he'd want to pay a premium for anything on a laptop, he'd say no.

It basically comes down to the fact that he wants you to make his decision for him so he doesn't have to educate himself about the basics, which is almost impossible for you to do. Of course with somebody like that, you could choose almost any laptop at random and he'd never know.

Posted by: Booyah5000 | December 13, 2008 10:18 PM | Report abuse

Rob, I thought you were married and as such I would think you'd be better at reading between the lines.

To use a car analogy (I know it's hackneyed, but I just can't resist): This guy just wants a car that will get him to work. He doesn't need/want a luxury model but he doesn't want to be stranded on the side of the road either.

My first questions would be: What are you currently using, when did you get it, and why is it no longer working for you? About half the time this leads to: Spend $50 on RAM and reinstall the OS (XP's system dir get's corrupted over time) and you'll feel like you have a new computer.

A good followup is: Would you rather spend $400 - $500 on a computer you'll want to replace in 2-3 years or $800 -$1000 on a computer you'll want to replace in 4-6 years?

All in all give the guy a break, he sounds like the folks you frequently see in line at the airport Starbucks who step up to the counter and sheepishly ask, "can I just get a cup of coffee?"

On a side note Macs may be expensive but you definitely get what you pay for. If you want a Mac but don't like the price tag, wait for a new version to come out then look around for deep discounts on the previous version.

Posted by: foxn | December 14, 2008 12:00 PM | Report abuse

It's simpler to find out why their current machine can't handle the desired tasks. If he has an older laptop with limited room for expansion, you can make the case for a new system.

As someone else said, adding memory and doing a backup data/format/reinstall Windows project should bring a machine back up to speed. This is assuming he has an older, circa 2002 PC with at least a 1 Ghz CPU and 256 or 512 MB of memory. Increasing the memory to 512 MB or 1 GB should be the top priority. Downloading some free, well-known software along with a few low-cost hardware upgrades can add capabilities.

As long as the older machine is relatively capable, it's really a question of figuring out what software is needed for the task. And if the current tools on his system need fine-tuning or replacement by free open-source alternatives.

a. Watch Youtube: modern web browser, updated version of Flash plug-in, and broadband.

b. Watch DVD's: DVD combo or burner drive, you can use the software included with the drive or use the free VLC media player.

c. Listen to music: playing CD's is a given. Otherwise, you just need to meet the hardware requirements of iTunes or Rhapsody. Broadband required for either.

d. View/edit photos: Download Google's Picasa application for organizing them. Editing photos can be done cheaply with Photoshop Elements or free with Irfanview.

e. E-mail + internet stuff: modern web browser and broadband.

f. Microsoft Office: Assuming the old machine meets hardware requirements, you can buy MS Office (buy the student or small business versions to save money). Or download the free If the older machine has MS Office 2000 or MS Office 2003, there's really no compelling reason to upgrade to Office 2007.

Posted by: taskforceken | December 14, 2008 6:49 PM | Report abuse

I've been that guy who's gone to Starbucks, looked at the menu, and felt stupid because I had no idea how to order what I wanted; I basically wanted a coffee.

True story: Daughter had a number of Starbucks gift cards she received that she let me have (at the time she wasn't going to Starbucks and had been given them as an end of year gift by youngsters she was coaching); I went to a local Starbucks - I've been in Starbucks a couple times previously and asked for "coffee" and had gotten stares but I also got coffee. This time, with gift cards in hand, I went into the local (Germantown) Starbucks, looked at the menu, felt stupid, had the barista (we used to call them the guy behind the counter at luncheonets), he said "Hi, can I help you?" I said, "Uh... plain coffee, black no sugar." He looked at me... said, "What would you like?" "Plain black, no sugar."

There was a very long pause and I said "Plain black coffee, no sugar." He looked at me and said, "With our without?" I said "With or without what?" He was agitated at my answer and said, "WITH or WITHOUT?" I did the only only thing I could think of since I had no idea what he meant, and said, "Without." That was it; I got a cup of coffee, a large cup of coffee, and he said, somewhat insultingly, "Sugar is on the counter."

I've never bought coffee in Starbucks again; I've been back and used the gift cards for travel mugs that don't leak (they don't keep the coffee hot, but they don't leak).

What this guy was asking for in a computer is similar to what I've asked at CompuUSA and have been looked at as if I were a loser (techie-wise, I guess, I am). I believe Mr. Pegoraro's first answer should have been, "What you're saying is similar to 'I'm hungry, what should I eat?' My answer would be (if you were in Frederick) 'I'd go to Tom and Rays's on Main Street; they have great liver and onions; if you can give me a little more information about what you want to do - email, word processing, downloading movies or music, how much you want to spend, do you plan on carrying the the laptop to coffee shops and want to use their wireless connection, or are you going to use it on your desk and simply want to move it around, I can give you a better asnwer, but based on what you've said, probably any brand name laptop in the $400 to $600 dollar range will do the basics."

It wouldn't have sounded so sarcastic.

But, I understand Mr. Pegoraro's first answer.

Posted by: Dungarees | December 14, 2008 7:01 PM | Report abuse

"It would be NICE if when you go to Sears to get an appliance, someone said something polite about types of cycles in a machine. But they do not presume that you are an idiot if you don't know the answer; I would like to think they realize you spend your brain cells elswhere.

The best people who give advice are friendly and look upon uninformed questions as a fun time to educate someone about something they are interested in."

Lizz1, you are absolutelty on point in your response. I think many of us tech savvy types fail to realize that everyone isn't as hopped on technology as we are. I call this the "angry technical support syndrome", where someone asks a generic question and we look at them dumbfounded. We're thinking, "How do they not understand technology?" Mr. Pegoraro needed not to have replied with the typical tech sarcasam, condescension, and arrogance. This turns people off very quickly and gives all of us in the IT support world a bad reputation. Here is a broadcast for everyone listening: There are still many people who do not understand computers, so rather than look down on them educate, enlighten and encourage them. "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."


Posted by: vtpilot110 | December 14, 2008 8:10 PM | Report abuse

I think Rob was reasonable to ask for a better description of what the questioner intended to use the new computer for. Perhaps he could have phrased his response better. As a diplomatic maneuver, he might have done a checklist and got yes and no answers from the commenter. Other participants could have recorded the questions for their own use.

Most coffee sold at Starbucks is just plain coffee. (Albeit high quality, sometimes exotic beans.) So, I do not believe any barista would be surprised to have anyone order coffee, usually phrased as 'drip coffee.'

Posted by: query0 | December 15, 2008 11:40 AM | Report abuse

With 27 years ownership of a computer repair business, I believe every portable computer should be decided based on the quality of cooling components, and the reliability of the manufacturers components.
Too many make decisions based on how pretty a laptop is when new.
One indicator of quality is the opportunity to get a three year warranty. If they don't believe in their computers, you should probably should not either.
Another is the ability to upgrade key components... memory, hard drive, ethernet, video graphics, if you need them at a later time.
A light-weight computer is suspect, as is a low-cost one.
And finally, a high selling name-brand laptop is important for buying parts and getting quality service later on.
This boils it down to the more costly versions of Lenovo, Apple, HP, Compaq, Gateway, Toshiba, and just a very few others.

Posted by: ray1bay | December 15, 2008 11:51 AM | Report abuse

From my experience most of the 'coffee' sold at Starbucks is burnt espresso laden with milk, sugar and other garbage. I only wind up there when I'm traveling and have no better options. While no Starbucks barista has ever had a problem with my "small drip coffee" order, I've seen plenty of people who after standing in line for several minutes listening to orders like "half-caf, soy, hazelnut, viente with shavings" get up to the counter wondering what the secret code words are to get simple a cup of coffee.

My intent isn't to hijack this into a referendum on Starbucks, rather to point out that jargon, while useful can also be intimidating and therefore excluding.

I still think the guy's description is reasonable. Sure "ANY Windows or Mac laptop on sale today can do all those things" but some of those will be useless in a few years while others will never see their full potential if that's all they're asked to do. Anyone in the business of recommending computers should have a short list of 'middle of the road' desktops and laptops that are of decent quality, reasonably priced, and should provide 4-5 years of reliable service.

If you still feel the need to get more data, you'll get a lot more information asking what they don't like out of their current setup than badgering them for answers that require jargon outside of their vocabulary.

On yet another side note. I don't mean to hound Rob. I think he's a solid writer who is both enjoyable to read quite helpful. I just think his line of reasoning during the chat missed the mark.

Posted by: foxn | December 15, 2008 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Your experiences are not sufficient to know facts, foxn. One needs to do research. That is why the commenter was asking Rob for advice. He has expertise in technology beyond just personal experience. Also, if you do even basic research (Googling) you will learn that Starbucks serves much more drip coffee than specialty drinks.

Posted by: query0 | December 15, 2008 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Trying to give a too complex answer won't solve the thing. A practical one where the reader can find info for himself such as a store, online or offline would have been more helpful as this will lead to more specific questions. Think of it as a start of a whole bunch of queries and I'm sure he'll be able to see his needs more clearly. Right now, I think he's groping in the dark!

One thing is certain, he looks up to you Rob for your valuable advice so treat him kind!

Alain Yap
Morph Labs

Posted by: friarminor | December 15, 2008 11:44 PM | Report abuse

It's about price!!!

I think the person who didn't want "bells and whistles" was trying to find something cheap and reliable.

Good luck with that!

Actually, I would have suggested a refurbished Mac or Windows laptop from a reputable dealer.

Posted by: tony_in_Durham_NC | December 17, 2008 9:35 AM | Report abuse

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