What Computer Should My Dad Buy?

My parents want to buy a new laptop. They quickly learned that buying a new laptop is a befuddling conundrum of too many choices, low price points, and poor quality hardware. And they don’t even know about the frustrations of Windows 8. So, they frankly told me that they would rather give me the money they want to spend and I have me buy a laptop for them. Challenge accepted!

The only local store that sells all kinds of laptops is Best Buy, a.k.a. the worst store in America. I went to Best Buy over lunch  one day and looked over rows upon rows of laptops, tablets, and transforming laptop-tablet hybrid. The first thing I noticed was how darn bright the screens were. My first task was to figure how to lower the brightness from maximum to a readable levels. The second thing I noticed was the lack of Windows 7. If you want to buy a Windows laptop at Best Buy, you have to accept Windows 8. This was going to be a long lunch hour.

The problem with Windows 8 is that it does not work for Tablets or Laptops. The giant icon interface is great for tablets but very difficult for desktops. Finding anything in the giant icon interface is more difficult than it should be. Windows 8 would actually be great for tablets except the giant icon interface is replaced with a traditional desktop interface every time you open a desktop style app. On a tablet, the easy to read interface is replaced with a micronized Windows 95 interface; everything becomes too difficult to see and touch. On the laptops, the giant icon interface should never exist, yet some of the functional elements of Windows 8 can only be accessed through the cumbersome interface that is very much antagonistic toward mice and trackpads. For the past year, I have heard the debate regarding Windows 8, but I had no idea how bad the OS really is. 

Let us forget about the OS and focus on the hardware. The laptop-tablet hybrids could be awesome. At home and while traveling, I use an iPad 2 and a Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard cover. The tablet-keyboard combination is fantastic. Best buy had laptop-tablet hybrids from Sony, HP, and Acer or Asus. They Sony hybrid that looked solid but I couldn’t figure out how to attach the tablet to the keyboard. HP’s hybrid was so flimsy I was worried I would accidentally crack the screen while holding it in the store. Acer or Asus’s hybrid (I often confuse the two as they both mean “cheap Asian computer” in my mind) had a tablet hybrid with even less build quality than HP. Microsoft had its own tablets with “type covers” that effectively make them hybrid computers, except the “type covers” work on desks and not on laps. The PC industry has effectively taken the solid idea of laptop-tablet hybrids and thrown it into a dumpster full of shoddy products. 

Kindle Fire HDXThe tablets by themselves come in three varieties: cheap Android tablets; and overpriced Windows tablets, and iPads. The best of the cheap Android tablets is the diminutive Amazon Kindle Fire. The price is great and the tablet seems to run well in the store. The brightness controls were also easy to find. The tablet is too tiny to use for serious computer use. Samsung’s 10″ Galaxy Tab is a bigger, more expensive, and slower Android tablet. Android has its fans but in my opinion, kinda’ sucks. The Windows tablets come in two varieties, the cheap and useless Windows RT tablets and the expensive windows Tablets including the aforementioned Microsoft tablets. The problem with all of the Windows tablets is WIndows 8. I think of my parents with their bifocals and how difficult it would be for them to see anything in Desktop mode. All Microsoft had to do was make everything in Windows bigger. They are a multi-billion dollar company; how can they get this so wrong! Compared to the cheap Android tablets and the fumble of Windows tablets, Apple’s iPad Air and iPad mini are without peer. Both tablets look and feel like something out of Star Trek. The screen sizes are also the largest in their class. The only area where the iPad suffers, in my opinion, is backing up files locally. The iPad requires a traditional computer running iTunes for bulk backups.  

The laptops at Best Buy are too divergent to group. Best buy keep keeps one Chromebook laptop next to the iPads. For those not in the know, the Chromebook is an incredibly cheap laptop that runs Google Chrome OS, an operating system whose entire interface is Google’s Chrome web browser and consequently requires an always-on internet connection. On the Windows side, the text on all of the Windows laptops was painfully small. High resolution displays are great, but in Windows, the higher the resolution, the smaller the text. The quality of the Windows laptops is a secondary issue. The least expensive laptops have terrible trackpads and keyboards and looked like they would break on the first day of use. One of the Toshiba’s on display had a few missing key. The more expensive laptops were svelte and well built and correspondingly more expensive. The laptop that most surprised me was the MacBook Air. Not only is it the sveltest laptop at BestBuy, it also has the easiest to read display. (Unlike Windows, Mac OS scales the size of text and icons so higher resolution does not miniaturize the interface.) Pricewise, the MacBook Air costs about as much as the thinner high end Windows laptops. 

For the sake of parity, I also perused the laptop selection at Costco. If you want a bulky, 15″ laptop, Costco is a great store to visit. The stand-out laptop at Costco is HP’s Chromebook. The design of the HP Chromebook is an obvious rip-off of the MacBook Air, except in cheap white plastic. (Most of the good looking PC designs copy the look of the MacBook). As noted, the Chromebook is not a real stand-alone computer, and I would never recommend it for someone like my Dad. 

My thoughts on Windows 8 are apparently shared by the masses, because just yesterday I saw a new story about the return of Windows 7 at HP. The HP Envy in particular looks like an aluminum version of the HP Chromebook and thus a higher quality MacBook Air rip-off. While it is no MacBook Air, it looks sturdier than all of the Windows laptops I saw at BestBuy and it runs Windows 7. Bestbuy should carry these.  

My recommendation to my parents is to buy the MacBook Air. The combination of size, weight, power, and battery life are easily the best I have seen of any laptop. If my parents want to stick with Windows, I then recommended the HP Envy running Windows 7. Knowing my Dad, he’ll probably choose to keep his 5 year old Dell Studio running Windows Vista. (I just shuddered.)

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