This article was first published on 2008-09-19. Due to the age of this article, it is included here for archive purposes only.
Even though I’ve never owned a PC, my friends like to joke that I know more about PCs (because of my knowledge of Macs) than your average person. I doubt that. I used one in an office for a year or so as an Outlook machine next to my Mac. But really, I prefer to play dumb when it comes to PCs. Too much demand for tech support out there.
Now I know that you readers that are PC fans will think not getting the best deal is my fault because of not knowing much about PCs, but I contend that most PC users fit in my knowledge category. If you are a big Windows fan (or Mac fan for that matter) you are probably an advanced user/buyer who knows much more than the average Joe.
So when it came time to buy a PC, I was just like your ordinary buyer, flipping through the Sunday ads seeing what is a good buy this week. In truth, I was shopping for my Mom, not myself. As it turns out, it didn’t make sense for her to by a Mac, so I steered her to a PC laptop and I was her personal shopper. (Reason: She’s in her 70′s and uses a PC at work. I didn’t want to teach an old dog new tricks, so to speak.)
My First Big Hurdle – What to Buy
Here’s our first problem: There seems to be an endless variety of makes and models of PCs. That may sound like a real advantage to a superuser who can fine tune their selection, but to a novice it’s a problem. Especially in this era where even low end computers have surpassed the needs of the common user.
Add to that, there is no well known and regarded guide to the plethora of PC products. I think most people turn to the person who knows a little bit more about computers than they do and ask for advice. But what does that get you other than someone’s slightly better informed guess?
We decided to get a large screen laptop from a reputable manufacturer. Knowing that my mom’s use will be typical (Office, browsing, email) and won’t stress any modern PC, I suggest we shop on price first. We don’t need to squeeze every penny out of the deal, but there is no sense paying for more computer than she will ever use. So the specs aren’t really important to us, other than screen size.
So Where Do You Go?
I bet I can ask five PC users this question and get five different answers. This seems like an advantage to the PC guru, but how does the novice know if Circuit City is better than Best Buy is better than Frys is better than… you get the idea. I suppose you could visit them all and compare, but we want to buy a computer, not spend days shopping for one. Sometimes PC advocates forget time is money.
My experience has been that Best Buy has very competitive prices on the few most popular brands they carry. They seemed to have figured out which 20% of products 80% of the market buys. That sounds fine to us, so we go there. It’s also nice to know they have the Geek Squad service, although you have to pay for it.
What About Dell?
Yes, I know that Dell offers decent PCs. I have a Dell monitor on my Mac right now. But we want to hold it and see it before buying. And I know that only fools buy from Dell’s list price: The intrepid shopper knows that on the third Thursday of the month, you can use coupon codes for this or that and get $300 off or whatever. We’re not that into Dell to be in that club. Also, Mom needs a place to bring it in case of trouble. UPS doesn’t count.
Dell seems to be a great idea for your 2nd or 3rd PC.
In the Store
So we walk into Best Buy with the Sunday ad in hand and find that special, the Toshiba Satellite Pro 355D with 17” Diagonal TruBrite®
Widescreen Display on sale for $550, normally $700. Sounds good. I also know to never pay list price at Best Buy too.
My mom keeps asking me how you know if one of these is better than the other. Here’s the thing: There is no way to know. Really. She will never push the limits on the chip or RAM or hard drive. So what does that leave you? TruBrite® display? What does that even mean?
Other than the marketing-speak terms, there is no way to judge if this PC is better than that PC. And I get that labeling your display "TruBrite®" makes it appear better than the other guys "SupraClear®" display, but it’s not informative in any way. Yes, one can walk around and try to compare screens, but the variables soon get out of hand making that exercise useless.
So you are left staring at the computers wondering what makes one better than another. I say to her, "you can at least tell if you like the way it looks and feels." Except that it’s locked down and the battery is gone.
Unfortunately, this is where PC manufacturers fall on their face. This Toshiba feels like the McDonalds Happy Meal version of a laptop. All rounded and puffy, you can feel the thin plastic flex between your fingers when you pinch it. The keys sound like Legos. For $550, you can only expect so much, so I don’t let on to my disappointment.
The PC Taxes
First of all, I think most PC users expect Microsoft Office automatically comes with each computer. It doesn’t. The Student/Teacher Edition costs $150 (+ $25 installation). The real version: $500.
Then of course there is the anti-virus/Spyware combo. The sales guy jumps in with the package they promote. We get the Trend AV GS 2008 V.2 anti-virus ($40) and the SpySweeper GS ($30) spyware combo. Yes, I know they are paid to push these, but again, how do you even know one is better than another? Go over to the Your PC is Insecure So You’ll Need This Software aisle and compare boxes? Installation: $90.
Yes, I know that I could install this for her for free, but as we know, time is money and in this case it turned out to be A LOT of time as you’ll see.
So these computers normally come with 1 year warranties. But you have to send it in to the manufacturer to use it. If you bring it the Geek Squad for help, they will charge you. I realize that extended warranties are normally a rip off, but if any product needs one, it’s laptops. Especially Happy Meal laptops.
The main advantage I wanted from the extended warranty is that she could bring it to the Geek Squad right away with a problem. No dealing with Toshiba. So we got 3 years of that for $250. Buying peace of mind for both of us there.
Lastly there was a California Recycling Fee of $8. A real tax. I don’t remember that with my recent Mac Pro purchase. Whatever.
Total Taxes: $598. More than the computer.
Waiting for Installation
I know, most PC pros will do their own installs when they get home. I’m sure it goes well for them and it’s a pleasure, but in this case, the Geek Squad couldn’t manage to get the spyware app installed. They told my mom to come back in 90 minutes, so she did. Not done. Couldn’t get it to work… trying other versions. Come back in 2 hours. So she did. Still not finished. They told her to come back the next day. So she did.
I did wonder about spending the $105 for installation beforehand, but not when I heard what happened. That was money well spent!
So she picked up her new laptop the next day for $1148 + tax, so that’s about $1237 here in California.
The Apple Store Experience
I know that I am more fortunate than most having TWO Apple Stores right near by. Maybe I’m spoiled. However, if you don’t live near an Apple Store now, you may soon as they are opening dozens each year.
And I know that you can’t make direct comparisons, but there were some things that were really evident to me that makes me appreciate the Apple way of doing things.
First, having too many choices can be a problem for a novice. In an Apple store, your choices are limited, but obvious. Generally, Apple sticks to the Good, Better, Best theory of product lines.
Secondly (and obviously), Anti-virus and spyware software (and associated costs of time and money) are not necessary with Macs. Money saved, headache spared.
Thirdly, the Genius Bar folks will install your software for free and even migrate your old computer’s files for you.
Fourthly, because of the Genius Bar, I wonder if extended warranties are as necessary for Macs as they are for PCs. I can always bring my Mac in to get diagnosed for free. In the first year, repairs are free. Out of warranty Macs still get looked at for free and often get fixed for free if the fix can be done right there and then. If it can’t, you get advised on the cost if you have Apple do it AND advice on how to get it repaired for less. They do refer to local Mac repair shops.
Lastly, (and perhaps most important in this case), Apple provides an unbelievable amount of free classes and support in their stores for novices. Just check out the calendar for your local store. I wish this was available for my mom at her local Best Buy or Microsoft storefront. If there was an equivalent of Apple’s $99 year of 1 to 1 training, I’d pay for her to get that. I didn’t really push my mom to get a Mac, but if I did it would be because there is an Apple store a few miles from her house and I know she would get the training she needs. Most of her support issues could be directed there for some real learning.
So what did I discover on this quest?
Happy PC Conclusions:
Only with a PC could you get a 17" laptop for $550. I’d rather they bundled the software, warranty and service and just called it $1150. We still would have bought it.
Switching to a Mac may have been too much of a learning curve for a non-tech oriented grandmother. I wish they would have offered the laptop with XP to make it even easier.
Bitter PCs Conclusions:
There needs to be a commonly acknowledged reference for comparing the value of PCs. Marketing-speak doesn’t help consumers.
The one thing I could tell is the build quality went up with price. Cheap PCs are cheap.
Damn, PCs are ugly. Have you seen all the crap strewn about on them? Colors, logos, stickers, textures, ports, LEDs, icons… it’s like in the early days of multiple fonts. Oooh… I can have seven fonts on this flyer!
There’s got to be a market for selling an Apple-like experience to people who don’t want Macs. Maybe that’s what Sony is trying to do with the Sony stores, but they cram every Sony product made in there.
I’m definitely spoiled.
What about you? What experiences have you had? Let us know in the Comments section below!