Before you brave Black Friday, make sure you know what you’re looking for.
Technology advancements are swift. With massive R&D budgets and marketing dollars, big named technology companies have teams of creative and smart people thinking up new scenarios, new capabilities and new products to move our experiences forward. All this innovation is exciting, but leaves many of us confused and in some cases completely paralyzed by the complexity. With so many device options, form factors and new features, you might be asking yourself where to start. Here’s a quick primer on how to break it all down.
First, ask yourself: How will this PC be used? Maybe you need a versatile PC that serves as the center of gravity for your home. Or you have a teen heading off to college who needs to balance mobility, productivity and entertainment. Or maybe you’re happy with your desktop PC, but want a companion device to surf the Web. Regardless, be sure you know how you’ll use it and be clear about your budget.
Desktop or Laptop?
Most busy families use some kind of technology to manage complex schedules, light computing and to keep everyone organized, so for some, it’s critical that there be a computer dedicated to the family and easily accessible by everyone. Naturally, this scenario might be well suited for a desktop PC, which is experiencing a resurgence this year as a result of key innovations that impact its size and usability. For example, All-in-One touch PCs have become a popular choice for families to help manage the home, while some desktops with powerful features and capabilities are dedicated to serving entertainment needs, be it movies or graphics-intense games.
On the flip side, some families are constantly on the go and need to take their computing experiences along with them, using the cloud as their family hub to connect multiple devices, including laptops. From tiny netbooks to big and powerful desktop-replacement systems, the differences in pricing, features, and performance are staggering.
Notebook, Netbook or Tablet?
The explosion in innovation has literally changed the look and feel of PCs. Smaller and more powerful computer components, advanced materials and design aesthetics are part of the overall package now. From powerful productivity notebooks and ultrathin laptops to sleek new slates designs, which one is the best fit depends upon lifestyles and budgets.
Ultraportable: Generally weighing under three or four pounds, PCs in this category are skinny and light with fantastic battery life. Great for families on the go, connected by the cloud and with a growing portfolio of connected devices. These PCs command a premium given advanced CPU components, though.
Thin and Light: At a lower price point than the modern Ultraportable PCs, Thin and Lights offer a great alternative for those who need to carry their laptops with them. At 13-inches, this category is the sweet spot for mobility and productivity, but may not be able to accommodate all the functionality of its larger cousins.
Mainstream: Balancing productivity, mobility and performance, this PC does it all. The versatility makes them perfect for families. You’ll usually get a 15-inch display weighing in just under six pounds, powerful processors for quick starts and multimedia performance, like HD video and sound, and often long battery life. Whether desktop or laptop, it’s the perfect machine for most households.
Desktop Replacement: These massive 17-inch and larger laptops are meant to literally replace your old desktop, monitor and keyboard system with a single device that can also be easily transported in a pinch. Often weighing more than six pounds, these PCs are powerful and full featured. For families that balance time between blasting opponents online or watching HD movies, you’ll find these machines have discreet graphics processors, powerful main processors and advanced media components, such as Blu-Ray players. But with all this performance, expect a short battery life.
Companion: Companion PCs are tiny, low-voltage devices that are generally used to consume content like reading online magazines, email and Web browsing, but not intended to replace your primary PC. With eight- to 10-inch displays and weighing less than two pounds, these PCs come in a variety of different form factors, be it mini laptops, slates or something in between (referred to as convertibles). These are great devices to travel with, slide into your diaper bag for an outing or just cuddled up in a chair reading with it.
Making Sense of the Specs
If all that isn’t overwhelming enough, the other very important piece of the puzzle are the specifications you need to look for in your new PC. Once you are clear about how you will use your PC, you need to make sure the specs measure up to this vision. For instance, if you intend to use your PC primarily for entertainment, you’ll need to be sure the specs of the machine can accommodate that heavy workload.
Operating Systems: The Operating System (OS) is the software that makes your device light up, the bridge between the hardware and your applications, like Microsoft Office. It controls your overall user experience, manages the performance and security, and allows you to do things like save your files. You essentially have two choices: Apple’s OS X or Microsoft’s Windows. Apple and Windows platform zealots can be intense, so be aware that passionate supporters on either side of the “platform war” can be overwhelming. Be it Mac or PC, you’ll need to choose your platform wisely. More than 95% of all PCs in the world run Windows. The Mac platform tends to be more expensive than Windows-based PCs, and many popular applications (especially games) are not available for OS X, but its popular with trendsetters for no other reason than…well, it’s trendy. If you choose the Mac platform, you get one choice: OS x, but if you choose the broader Windows platform, Home Premium is usually sufficient for most home use (e.g., playing videos, Web browsing, and using Microsoft Office).
Processor/CPU: The central processing unit, or CPU, is the brains of the system and determines how fast your PC can manage data. AMD and Intel are the leaders in PC processors and are shipped in most Windows-based PCs. Intel is the biggest manufacturer, and you’ll find its CPUs in most laptops, though AMD is often a less expensive option. Look for Intel’s Atom, Celeron, Pentium, and its new Core series (i3, i5 and i7). Atom processors are low voltage processors, but not quite as fast or powerful, suitable for netbooks and slates. Intel’s Celerons and Pentiums are made for low-end machines intended for e-mail, Web browsing and light computing tasks. Given the swift technology advancements happening today, it’s best to opt for Intel’s Core i-series or AMD’s Fusion processor, which are more likely to support future OS upgrades and a must for gamer and editing photos and video. Processor speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz), and higher is better.
Graphics Card: If editing media or playing videos games is important to your household, you’ll want to pay close attention to the graphics card, particularly for 3D games or managing HD media. Ideally, something between 512MB and 1GB is the best option, but don’t drop below 256MB if cutting edge graphics is important.
RAM/Memory: The more Random Access Memory (RAM) your PC has, the more multitasking it can do and the faster it will run. RAM is where the OS stores programs and data for actively running applications and files. You’ll want at least 4GB for modern and basic computing tasks, but 8GB is best, which requires a 64-bit OS (vs 32-bit) to maximize its potential.
Hard Drive: If you’re a pack rat (like me), you’ll want to pay close attention to the size of the hard drive to store your music, videos and photos. You should be able to manage all this with 500GB to 750GB hard drive, but at a minimum 250GB. Consider that the OS and your applications, like Microsoft Office, take up a big chunk of storage on your hard drive. Make sure you give yourself enough space, but also consider its performance. The hard drive is a moving part, a disc that spins inside the computer. The faster it spins, the harder it works, increasing the performance of the machine. Look for at least 7200 RPMs. Another increasingly popular option is the Solid State Drive (SSD), which increases performance and saves power consumption, which expands the life of the PC battery. With no moving parts, SSDs are less prone to failure, and can open and process applications and files faster, but storage capacity is smaller than a traditional hard drive. SSDs are a premium option and found in many ultrathin PCs that are hitting store shelves this holiday season.
Battery: The life of the PC battery is one of the biggest barriers to the ultimate connected computing vision, and is a huge focus for many tech R&D centers. The ultimate goal is to substantially increase power efficiencies and increase battery performance to realize the vision. Today’s PC batteries will get you anywhere from three hours to up to eight hours of battery life, but largely dependent upon how efficient your PC will run, and can be extended to up to 18+ hours with an attachment battery. Another issue with battery life is its tendency to degrade performance over time, so the life of the new battery will be much longer than the life of a two-year old battery.
Display: This is probably obvious, but the larger the display size the heavier the laptop and the more power it uses. For optimal mobility, look for a 12- or 13-inch screen with a resolution of at least 1200x 800 pixels. If you watch a lot of movies or play video games, you’ll probably want a lot of screen real estate, so look for a 15- or 17-inch display with a resolution of at least 1440 x 900 pixels or higher. And look for LCD screens with LED back-lighting, which are brighter and use less power, and a must for modern PCs. If no LED, consider looking at another device.
Connectivity: For me, this is the Holy Grail. Look for a PC with lots of connectivity options so that you can always be connected, whether at home or on the go. If your goal is to always be connected, look for machines that support 802.11 wireless standards, such as built-in WiFi, Bluetooth 3.0, and WiDi, which connects your PC wirelessly to WiDi enabled devices like HDTVs. Many PCs today also have optional 3G or 4G mobile broadband capabilities, though these options require a separate cellular data plan from your carrier. This is a worthwhile option if you need to be connected while traveling on business or vacation and a Wi-Fi signal is not available.
MY POINT OF VIEW
Though some believe the PC is at the center of your digital universe, I say YOU are at the center of your digital universe, supported by a broad device portfolio. The role of the cloud and nearly ubiquitous connectivity has shifted the paradigm from devices to people, getting you closer to the information and people you care about most. That said, the PC will remain an extremely important part of our lives, and as technology advancements are made, the form factors will evolve and morph to a variety of shapes and sizes. So try to think forward a little when you’re shopping for your devices and make sure you’ll easily be able to upgrade with the next wave of software. The goal is to mazimize your investment and keep you connected.