Through the years my friends and family have asked for my advice when they are contemplating a substantial expenditure for new computing hardware. It’s a rapidly evolving market which I try to keep on top of. But I generally use the same methodology regardless of the purchasing decision I’m faced with. Rather than rewrite various versions of this to those who seek my advice at any given moment in time, I’ve decided to try and put together a series of steps anyone can follow on their own.
I’m presented with a number of obstacles though, because the lines have become so blurred between the major types computer technology for home and small office use. The standalone computer category now includes desktops, laptops, and convertibles or ultrabooks. Convertibles or ultrabooks are designed to act as both standalone computers as well as standalone tablets. Which of course then introduces tablet technology into the mix. This is one key aspect that, for me complicates the buying decision process. Because tablets have become so extremely capable and powerful, they can and are used as replacements for standalone computers.
So rather than excluding tablets here, I reference them when applicable, and I’ve written separate articles on those purchasing decisions for greater detail.
Link to Part 2 of this series Computer Buying Advice | Hardware
Step 1 | Research What’s Available Today
The first thing you need to do is to just get a handle of the big picture. Basically you want to get an overview of the current state of the market for computing devices in terms of features, availability and pricing. Don’t spend more than a few hours on this…make it brief and preliminary. What I use for this are apps on my iPad, including, but not limited to: Engadget, TechCrunch, Macworld, Cult of Mac, iGeeky, Tech Port, which are primarily reading apps, and Tech News Tube, Tech and TechSmart for videos.
The goals of this step are to determine what basic category of equipment you want to at look in more depth, get a grasp of current pricing as it relates to features, and hopefully to get a feel for what features are most important to you. There are five main categories which are listed below. Anything else that you may run into terminology-wise is probably just a subcategory within one of these five main groups.
Laptop & ultrabooks (ultrabooks may be just very thin laptops or they can actually come apart to function as 2 separate devices, a laptop or a standalone tablet too)
Convertibles & ultrabooks (these generally offer further multi-form functionality, like a laptops that convert to tablets, either by physical separation of the hardware or by morphing the hardware to resemble a laptop or a tablet)
All-in-Ones (Good examples include Apple’s iMac and HP’s Envy Recline, which both provide a powerful computer within the small footprint of just a screen and keyboard)
Notebooks and netbooks are older terminology for smaller laptops, and really aren’t used much anymore. A Chromebook is a bit of an oddity. It’s a laptop, but it’s designed to be inexpensive, and therefore doesn’t have great overall specs as compared to other laptops. Chromebooks are intended to be web, or rather Google intensive devices, and therefore they rely heavily on the Google ecosystem…using primarily cloud storage like Google Drive and Dropbox. By design they’re intended to offer blazing fast internet speeds, although in practice, this doesn’t always hold true. So, a Chromebook isn’t really a great choice if you need to use your device in non-network environments.
Some of Today’s Most Popular All-In-Ones
Step 2 | Software Considerations | Determining Which Platform or Operating System
If you are really familiar with Windows or Apple’s OS X (currently called Maverick), and you use the management features of it a lot, I’d say switching everything to Apple OS X (or vice versa) might present more of a learning curve than you want to take on. But if you’ve worked with the Apple OS X some, and feel somewhat comfortable with it, then I’d say go with it, because in the long run, Apple is less targeted for viruses and malware, and they will always remain user competitive in hardware and cutting edge technology.
Both Microsoft and Apple’s OS’es have pluses and minuses, and Apple isn’t the panacea many claim it to be. Apple has always attempted to market their products as ‘intuitive’ and easy for users to learn…but for anyone used to Windows, this just is not the case. However, most everyone I know who’s switched to it, and who isn’t techy enough to need good command of the operating system, has been really happy with the outcome.
Well a very simplistic answer is this: The ‘Control Panel’ in Windows 7 (and 8) and the ‘System Preferences’ function in Apple’s OS X, are the main ‘easy’ user interfaces to the operating system. They aren’t the only or the best routes for many things, but they are easy for users to navigate, and offer a lot of customization capabilities. If you use the functions within these a lot, or you are doing command line or terminal types of things often, then you are, by my definition, a heavy user of the operating system. Therefore you will be more likely to find the switch to an entirely different operating system more of a challenge and possible frustrating. But if you want to learn the OS, and many people do, then switching can be a fast and easy form of education all by itself.
Most businesses and anyone who wants to customize their computing environment on an ongoing basis, generally sticks with Windows, because Microsoft has more ‘enterprise’ software, and less compatibility issues. Windows also gives what they call ‘Power Users’ way more control, and because it was first and continues to dominate in the commercial world, there is a vast amount of software, forums, and tech advice readily available. Apple generally doesn’t believe in the ‘open source’ mentality…they are way too controlling for me and most of my techy friends. We’ve all tried it at some point and have ended gone back to Windows at some point for our main computing needs. But most nontechnical people are fine with Apple’s OS X, because they doesn’t really know or utilize either OS much beyond the initial setup, and they don’t care to learn more about the customization capabilities provided by learning their way around their specific OS.
In my case, my husband is stuck with Windows, because that’s what I know and use. I can’t adequately keep up with the evolving changes of both, and he just uses his computer for web surfing, emails and his photography, while I do all the updating, upgrading and maintenance, as well as fixing when something goes wrong. So his primary goal is to have a computer that works for what he wants…mostly, and really either would be fine. But that leads me to one more important consideration for choosing an operating system. And that is the question of support.
In terms of support, there is more outside support available for Windows, especially if you want support on site (i.e. in your home). Getting help with Apple, outside of the Apple store is tough. Apple Care, which is Apple’s extended warranty and support add-on, in 2014, is mediocre at best. Their home support involves spending time figuring out how to even contact them first, and then setting up an on-line appointment time for telephone support. At the designated time you may spend a few hours re-explaining your problem to various customer service employees, who, upon grasping the complexity of the problem will route your call to a more specialized person, who in turn will do the same, until you arrive at the one person who can really answer your question…most often with an ultimate answer that really doesn’t help anything. The ‘geniuses’ at the Apple Store can be great or not, depending upon who you get.
Before my family had a multitude of network problems (i.e. our network was hijacked) we used a small retail service bureau for many Windows problems. Earlier in our lives, before kids and family, I did everything. But at some point I became too busy with kids, family and life, to stay on top of the ever-changing landscape. Concurrent to that our computing needs increased and it became easier to bring our computers to the small local business. The scope of our network problems ultimately, were beyond their level of expertise as things progressed. And the only good long term solution was for me to get up to speed and stay on top of the changes. But I still use service bureaus and/or consultants when necessary. Currently we use one for our firewall hardware and network maintenance, and another who’s assisting me with a NAS server, and a 2nd form of cloud backup.
Overall, I have repeatedly found that there is much more support available for Windows products. Neither of the consultants I’m currently working with understand anything Apple related. In addition, we have an iMac, iPhones and iPads, and they don’t always play nicely with our Windows and Android stuff. These devices are completely foreign to most of the hardware support providers out there…which is just one of the reasons I feel I have to stay current myself. When we did finally find consultants who were able to diagnose and fix our network issues, they were at a complete loss regarding our Apple devices, and we had to occasionally find someone knowledgeable in Apple networking technology, to integrate that hardware into our firewall protected network. The end result was that I had to learn how to do most of this myself, because we need things to work when we need them, and can’t wait weeks for someone to fit us into their schedule.
Apple vs Windows application considerations
What kind of software do you want to use most of the time, and what are the types of applications will you be using the most? If you use Outlook for emails, and MS Office products like Word, Excel, PowerPoint etc. a lot then staying with Windows makes more sense than trying to convert that to an Apple product and learn new software. There are Mac versions of Office, but they are different and don’t have the smooth easy interface you’d expect. If you don’t really use those much, Apple has their own iLife suite (Microsoft’s Office Suite competitor), which is equally good on a computer, and excels on a touch screen like the iPad. This includes software like Pages for word processing, Numbers for spreadsheets, Keynote for Power Point type presentations, and iPhoto and iMovie, which MS doesn’t really offer counterparts for. MS does have Windows Photo Gallery, and Windows Live Movie Maker, an online video editing application, but neither is great. So if you take, organize, enhance, modify, and just generally mess around with a lot of digital images or videos, Apple becomes a much more serious contender.
The things we use the most for this are Picasa, Adobe Lightroom, and a bunch of iPad apps. Back when I used Apple’s iPhoto’s, it was fine, but I liked and still like Picasa a lot more. Picasa is a Google product for photo organization and editing, it’s free, fairly powerful, and the last time I looked, not available for Apple OS X. But I use iPhoto on my iPad quite a bit for editing, and if the desktop version is equally enhanced feature wise, iPhoto is getting pretty good, if not surpassing Picasa’s desktop functionality.
So in my opinion, in 2014, photo editing functionality is almost equal in the Windows and Apple debate. Video editing is a different story. Window’s Movie Maker or Microsoft’s ‘Live’ product, whatever it’s now being called, is not great. It doesn’t offer the variety features that iMovie does, and it doesn’t provide much information on how the software works. It has improved some in the last five years, but not enough to make it a real contender for someone interested in editing a lot of videos. Since it’s not great, if you’re interested in video editing more than every once in a while, you’ll need to look elsewhere for software that runs under Windows. There aren’t a lot of other great products out there either. I currently use Cyberlink Power Director for video editing on Windows, which is a powerful, but time and hardware intensive program.
Apple’s iMovie is great! There is a fairly steep learning curve initially on the desktop application, but if you’ve used other video editing software, the learning curve is less noticeable. There’s tons of easy to find help information to get you started in iMovie, the software is really powerful, and the huge advantage for me is that it interfaces so beautifully with the iPad version of iMovie, which is an amazing pp that’s now free. A recent upgrade to the ios version of iMovie has pushed it light years ahead of any other alternative in my opinion…except for one big problem.
iMovie: One Big Caveat
That problem is the rendering of the completed video into something that’s usable or watchable virtually anywhere else. Currently, iMovie may or may not render the finished project. If it doesn’t…you’re stuck with a video project that you may have spent days working on, and that can only be watched by other people on your iPad, or who you can send the completed project to after you’ve managed to import it onto your desktop with iTunes. After importing it you need to either email it or share it in a cloud like Dropbox, where the person you’re sharing it with can download it and try to import it onto their own iPad, and into the iMovie app, using iTunes again. The end result of these efforts allow the ‘sharee’ to finally play it, in a very small project screen, while all of the editing and scrubbing bars for editing are displayed below it.
If I sound more than a little annoyed by this issue, it’s because I am. I recently decided to test run the new iMovie app on my iPad, and was delighted with the app. It’s hard to understate how impressed I was with the software. I then proceeded to spend a day and a half creating and editing a 9 minute video that I intended to share with friends, only to discover that it would not render. I literally spent 2 entire days trying to figure out a solution, testing various alternatives, and researching suggestions on forums. When this proved futile, I employed stage 2 of my solution, which was to contact Apple Care. I spent another day on this, only to ultimately be told that the best solution that they could offer was to try it all over again.
Final Cut is even more powerful video editing application, and it’s what professional editors often use. It’s only available on Macs. I’ve had a little experience with it, and although it’s a complex, powerful application, it has a huge learning curve and probably isn’t suited to those who only occasionally create videos. My purpose in mentioning it here, is so that serious video creators know about it. Due to the winning combination of Final Cut, which is perhaps the ‘gold standard’ of video editing applications, along with iMovie (the full application not the mobile version), makes the Apple platform the obvious choice for most video artists.
These are the major software considerations in my experience. Of course Apple has things like Garage Band and Photo Booth as part of their standard apps, but really, those are for kids. They are fun to play with once. But don’t offer much ongoing utility for adults in the long run. So after you’ve thought long and hard about how you really intend to use your new computer, you can move on to the stage 2 part of the process, which is selecting the hardware.
Running Dual Operating Systems on Apple
It is possible to run dual operating systems on a Mac. This means that you can run Windows alongside OS X. Two main applications for doing this are Boot Camp and Parallels. This used to be an expensive and clumsy alternative which didn’t provide a great user experience overall. In recent years Apple began offering Boot Camp as a built in utility to the OS, making it less expensive and more viable. You need to provide your own copy of windows and create a different partition however, so it still takes time and money to setup. The end result using Boot Camp is that you can boot your mac to either OS X or Windows, requiring restarting if you want to switch.
If you don’t want to have to reboot all the time, but want a virtual version of Windows…that’s where Parallels comes in. While researching this topic in May 2014, I discovered a third alternative which is another virtualization method called VMware Fusion. Both Parallels and VMware cost around $70. Running an operating system in a virtual mode has some problems, most notably speed, but theses have improved with time. Still, running two operating systems, whether in dual boot mode or in virtual mode, isn’t an easy, user friendly experience overall, and not one I’d recommend unless there were a very compelling reason for doing so.
Some Popular Convertibles or Ultrabooks
Links to more information:
An old ‘How Stuff Works’ article provides historical context