February 10, 2016

Computer Shopping – Summer/Fall 2013 Edition

Yes, I know, we’ve been quiet. There’s been a lot going on behind the scenes at Beyond The Defaults, preventing us from posting much. Starting with this post, we hope to get back into a little better routine – so we’ll start off this mini re-boot of the site with something that I’ve been asked at least twice a week for the last month:  computer shopping.

Image: Apple.com

The usual line of questioning has three basic parts: Do I get a desktop or a laptop, should I get a Windows machine or what about a Mac, and should I just get a tablet device instead of a computer?

I’ll cut to the chase:  buy a laptop, get a Mac, and you might want to get a tablet too.

Too simple, I know. And for most people, that’s nowhere near enough information to spring for the extra cost of a Mac, let alone a Mac and maybe an iPad to complete the set. So here’s the longer answer.

Buy A Laptop

Desktop machines are getting less expensive all the time, but it’s not necessarily because they can be made and sold more cost-effectively; it’s because most people simply don’t want desktop machines anymore. They’re big, they require furniture and space, and most of all, they’re not mobile. I’ll use my wife as an example – who four years ago said no to an offer of a laptop in favor of the desktop. Two years ago, she lamented that she has to go to her office all the time to use the computer and that “it sure would be nice if I could be able to do this at the kitchen table, or the front porch, or…” Today, she’s using a laptop and I don’t think it could be wrestled away from her. If you’re looking for a computer for that soon-to-be college student (or current high school junior or senior), portability is a “must have” feature.

It’s not just the portability that makes it a consideration. The price of laptops has finally reached the point where they rival desktop machines – a reasonably powered Windows laptop that will meet the needs of most people can be found for around $400. So for a premium of perhaps $100, your computer can go wherever you go.

Buy a Mac

This is where it gets sticky for a lot of people – because a Windows laptop can be purchased for much less than a MacBook Air. That $400 price tag is for a Windows-based machine, probably running Windows 8. The entry point for a MacBook Air (11″ with 128GB of storage) is $999. I’d recommend the new 13″ model, which starts at $1099.

So what do you get for the premium?

  • A great machine that “just works” right out of the box. When you design the operating system to run exactly with the hardware on which it’s installed, it just works much more seamlessly.
  • One of the best laptop screens you will ever stare at for hours on end. Yes, it’s that nice.
  • Tremendous support from Apple, whether it’s via the phone or at an Apple Retail Store. Their customer support is second to none.
  • Something that’s not Windows 8, which by all accounts is a very confusing and disappointing version of Windows. I’ve tried it, and I just plain don’t like it. If it’s confusing for me to use, that’s not a good omen for most people with whom I worked on computer issues.
  • Software that by all accounts is much less expensive to purchase and is much easier to install if you’re getting it from the App Store.
  • A lot of “built-in” software to manage the things that most people use (Preview, Mail, Notes, Reminders), and a few things that are just cool add-ins (iMovie, iPhoto, Garage Band).

So here are the questions I hear most often:

  • Is the Mac hard to use? Is it that different? The answers are no and no – especially if you’re faced with having to figure out Windows 8. I’ll go back to the example of my wife with the new laptop. She’s not at all a technical person, and she made the leap to Mac in a matter of just a few hours. Was it foreign to start with? Yes. But the more you use it, the easier (and more intuitive) it will be.
  • What about things like Microsoft Office – does it run on a Mac? There is a version of Office for the Mac, but I read and hear that it’s buggy and crash-prone. As is usually the case, there are home/student and business versions of it, and to get Outlook you need to get the business version of it (which is more expensive). One option is use VMWare Fusion, which lets you run Windows inside of OS X (as something called a virtual machine). That’s what I use in my work, where Windows-based software is my only option. Office for Mac is anywhere between $110 (home/student edition) to $195 (home/business edition).
  • I don’t need Outlook, but I do need something for spreadsheets and documents – what are my options? If you don’t need Outlook and are simply looking for substitute tools for Word, Excel and PowerPoint, look at these:
    • Pages, Numbers and Keynote – this is what makes up Apple’s iWork suite. They’re good tools, can be purchased independently (you don’t have to buy the whole suite). $20 per title.
    • Apache OpenOffice v4.0 – Native Mac, Windows and Linux versions for word processing, spreadsheets, presentation tools and a few other utilities. A very functional and powerful package, at a very attractive price: free to download and install.
    • LibreOffice – A derivative of the OpenOffice package, also offering word processing, spreadsheets, presentation tools with some different twists in how it does some things. Also a very functional and powerful package, at the same very attractive price: free to download and install.
  • Do they get viruses? This is always a loaded question. Any machine can be infected with a virus – laptop, desktop, tablet or smartphone; some machines and platforms are more attractive targets – in this context, Windows and Android. The sheer volume of users of these platforms make it more financially profitable for the “bad people” to target those populations, so their efforts are spent there. And while Apple is quite often bashed for being a “closed system”, one of the benefits of this is there are far fewer avenues the “bad people” have to exploit the Apple operating systems. There are anti-virus solutions for the Mac, but most users I know don’t run one.

Tablets Are Not Laptop Replacements (at least not entirely)

I’ve written before that tablets are not laptop replacements (see Laptop vs. Tablet 11/2011). My thinking hasn’t changed much on that front, but I have softened a little bit on it. Can a tablet do what a laptop can do? The answer to that is no, but if you don’t need all of the laptop power and features, it just might be enough for you. There are Bluetooth keyboards and cases available now that can make using an iPad a lot like a laptop experience, but here’s the catch: by the time you fully accessorize your tablet, you’re very close to MacBook Air pricing – close enough to say for just a little bit more money, you’re going to get a whole lot more computing power (and at least double the storage, a bigger screen, more memory and great software options) for the money.

I have both a laptop (MacBook Pro 15″) and an iPad – and I use them both quite often, depending on the need/situation. If I had an Air, I might not be as inclined to reach for my iPad, since the Air doesn’t weigh that much more or is that much larger than the iPad. for what it’s worth.

Now That You’re Going Shopping…

For just about anyone who follows us here at Beyond The Defaults, this configuration (and a few options I’ll throw in for good measure) should meet the majority of needs:

MacBook Air – Get the 13″, put 256GB of storage in it ($1,299), and if you’re a power user or technical/photographic/videographic type of user, bump the RAM/disk up to 8GB/512GB ($1,699).

One thing to note about the Air – there’s no physical media slot other than an SD card – meaning no DVD player/burner. If you really think you need that option, consider an external SuperDrive ($79) or look at the MacBook Pro (which does have a drive). If the MacBook Pro is your choice, don’t buy now – wait a few months. Something tells me there’s going to be a refresh on that line of machine that will bring to the table a different processor and much better battery life.

Extra things to include in the budget:

If you’re going to get a tablet, I think there are two devices to consider: the iPad (particularly if you’re invested in the iOS ecosystem with an iPhone) or the Google (Asus) Nexus 7. Both are very good, very functional devices. I reviewed the Nexus 7 (along with the iPad Mini) last November; the new Nexus 7 has been available for about a week now, and it’s a retina quality screen in a smaller footprint than the iPad Retina. It’s also a lot less expensive at a $229 entry point, and can be found in all the usual places (Amazon, Staples, etc.). If you’ve never considered an Android device in the past, this is one worth checking out – it’s a very high quality piece of equipment.

If you’re thinking iPad, you might sit tight as Apple is due for new hardware announcements most likely late September/early October. All indicators are that new iPhones/iPads are on the menu (along with a few other things). I don’t know about you, but if I purchased a new device now only to see it upgraded in a few months, I don’t think I’d be very happy.

I realize that this is a very “slanted” post – I’m not going to lie, I like Apple gear. It’s because I don’t have the time to be fiddling with my machine to get certain things to work – it needs to just work when I turn it on – and that’s been my experience with every Apple device I’ve owned.

Happy shopping!

Have a question I didn’t answer? Have a different opinion or want to share your recommendations? Join in the discussion by leaving a comment.

About the Author

A banker-turned-technologist, Sam is programming and technology consultant and self-described electronic gadget freak. He’s been a personal computer user for nearly 25 years (think about that for a minute), and is someone who firmly believes that technology, when used the right way, makes life better for those who use it.


  1. Great information, Sam! I can vouch for the unwieldy-ness of Windows 8. We’ve got one PC. I only touch it if I have to. Other than that, our house holds an iMac, a 4(or 5)-year-old MacBook Pro, a new MacBook Air, a first generation iPad, and a third generation iPad. Like you say, they just work. We’ve never had so much as a squeak out of any of them.

    I highly recommend the iWork apps, too. They’re intuitive, plus the compatibility with Office documents is pretty amazing. Just my two cents.

    P.S. I will post this response on FB, too.

    • Thanks Sharon – good to hear from those of you who’ve had the same experience I’ve had. See, world? It’s not just me being a fanboy…

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