The first thing you will notice if you haven’t bought a computer in a few years is that there are a lot more options than there once were. Buying a computer today is far more complicated than just choosing between a desktop and a laptop, as it were 10 years ago, or choosing between Mac and PC.
When Apple launched the iPad in 2010, the initial reaction by many in the tech industry was simply skepticism. Obviously, the consumer voice was far less hesitant to embrace the new technology and since that time we’ve been fortunate to undergo a tremendously innovative four years of tech releases: particularly in the PC realm.
Your choices for computing now are more cluttered than ever: laptop, tablet, desktop, laptop convertible, laptop hybrid, docked tablet, portable desktop, smartphone, or simply trying to survive off the wire. But, who am I kidding, that last option is hardly an option at all any more.
I recently underwent this process for the first time in two years when my apartment was broken into and my laptop stolen. For the first time in nearly five years, I was not decided on a product before shopping. Competition is a lovely thing, but man does it make for more of a headache when making a purchasing decision.
For a large number of consumers, Macs have become the obvious safe choice. My experience over the last week confirm this. The build quality, screen quality, performance, and particularly battery life remain at the top of the industry. But, where Apple was once the pinnacle of innovation, a thirsty resurging company reclaiming consumer confidence for the first time in two decades, they have lost a step and began to churn out one slightly more refined product after the next.
I was surprised while doing my shopping to find that the PC market is actually booming with innovation right now. Whereas PC hardware manufacturers such as HP, Dell, Lenovo, Sony, Samsung, and others were once backseat to the build quality executed by Apple – who control both software and hardware from the top down – the trend I noticed, above the $1,000 price range, was one of build quality and innovation. Of course, the budget PCs remain questionable at best and, while I’m happy those options exist, any consumer would be better fitted to save their money for a better day when they can really make a reliable purchase.
One of my primary complaints I have always had with PC laptops were the quality of the trackpad. Upon demoing a number of units in store, I am confident that the big players have finally figured out how to make them usable within the Windows interface. Even more rewarding, many of moved to touch screens, which conceptually seem questionable but in practice are simply brilliant. Windows 8 and 8.1 have retooled themselves to handle this feature and the user experience is benefiting greatly as a result.
I wonder how long it might be before Apple releases a touch screen enabled MacBook Pro or Air. While those pulling for Team Mac often scoff at the half-hearted efforts by Microsoft to regain the trust of consumers, I can’t help but wonder how many have bothered to play around with one of these machines.
Take for example the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2. Recently spotted at a Best Buy configured with a 1.8 ghz i7 processor, 8GB of ram, a 256 GB SSD, and a gorgeous 13” 3200×1800 display measuring less than an inch thick and just three pounds in weight. Those specs, on paper, will perk any tech enamored person’s ears, but it gets sweeter when you realize that the laptop folds back into a tablet, in addition to two other usability modes, and that the OS actually handles these transitions seamlessly. Most alarming, interacting with the machine in any of the modes, by keyboard, by touchscreen, by trackpad, or by voice is simply a joy.
Where Apple once cultivated the hearts and imaginations of those looking for a better product, Microsoft has stepped up and encouraged a growth of products that capture the “what ifs” of the “next big thing”.
I’ll admit, the initial batch of Windows 8 machines brought on no shortage of justified scrutiny; but, like so many other 1st generation iterations they were followed up by polished products with a real place in the consumer market. The hybrids, convertibles, and tablets (namely, the Surface Pro 2) are polished and perform incredibly well stacked against any Mac opposition.
Which, truthfully, is what saddens me the most. Microsoft did this to themselves, and far be it from me to feel sorrow for a multi-billion dollar multi-national company losing money each quarter, as a consumer I feel sorrow because the work being done, largely unnoticed by many of those in the market for these machines, invites the idea that competition may suffer as a result and competition is a good thing.
With all of the good things happening, and despite my criticisms of Apple playing it safe, we must admit that the strategy of producing a consistent and reliable – if uninnovative – product bodes well for the long-term growth of the company. The process of deciphering the dozens of options in the PC market before choosing a new computer was grueling. But, by engaging in this process, no matter how painful it was, I was forced to examine each feature, each pro, and each con and, as a result, I was able to better determine the exact kind of device I needed.
Best of all, was that due to the many offerings, I found a computer that fit my precise need.
I wanted something that could be used as a tablet, but I was primarily concerned with a functioning laptop. I wanted something that boasted a good battery life with a good screen and good performance; but was willing to sacrifice dedicated video and substantial storage space for form factor and mobility. I wanted something that could browse the web, watch Ted Talks and check Facebook, but I wanted to make sure that I was able to edit and build an Access database and update a website.
What came from that was a 13” laptop that folds into a tablet, has a tent mode to be used as a streaming media device, and folds out to one of the more enjoyable keyboard and trackpad experiences I’ve had on a PC laptop. Four years ago, this wasn’t even an option; in fact, many consumers were still wrapping their heads around the concept of what a tablet was.
What I’ve seen, by many of my friends, is a fear of the number of options and an unwillingness to explore the market because it is just too overwhelming. However, consumers should welcome the opportunity they have to spend two weeks bashing their heads against their desks reading tech reviews and blog opinions. Scrolling through various manufacturers’ options and checking their various configurations. Then getting mad and walking away from it frustrated with a hopeless feeling that they may never be able to make up their mind.
For nearly three decades, there has been one clear leader in home computing. Although that leader has shifted from time to time, the choice has been mostly obvious as to who was out in front in the consumer market at any given moment. For the first time in my lifetime, we are in an era where multiple massively sized companies have tremendous options that will work in a polished way that does not evoke needless frustration as though you’re competing against the tech you rely upon.
When I told folks I was shopping for a new computer their response was, “Get a Mac”. When someone asks me, my response will be, “Go play with every computer you can get your hands on, write down all the features you want, all the ones you can do without, set a price range and – believe it or not – more than likely there will actually be an option out there for you”.
I’ve never been able to give that advice before, but man it feels good.