Just when you thought it was safe to shop for a new laptop, a fresh problem stands in the way of laptop buyers: Confusion. The shelves are now filled with shiny new PCs and Macs running revamped operating systems, but it’s suddenly more complicated to choose a new laptop, especially for Windows shoppers.
So, for this year’s fall laptop buyer’s guide, I’ll focus on sorting out some of the muddle. As always, this guide is for consumers doing the most common tasks. It isn’t meant for corporate buyers or for hard-core gamers or serious media producers.
Windows, Mac Diverge Even More
There always have been some core differences among the many Windows laptops and Apple’s MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops. Computer makers using Windows tended to offer much greater variety and lower prices, while Mac models had better software, were much less prone to viruses and were generally more reliable and elegant.
Now, with the release of the new Windows 8 operating system, there is an even more fundamental difference. MacBooks remain traditional laptops, controlled by touch pads and keyboards. Apple has kept the Mac separate from its touchscreen computer, the market-dominating iPad tablet.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro now comes in regular display and higher-priced Retina display.
But Windows 8 laptops combine the two approaches, with two different user environments in the same computer. One is the traditional Windows desktop mode, best used with a touch pad or mouse and a keyboard. The other is the Start Screen mode, which operates like a tablet, has tablet-like apps and is best used with a touch screen.
So, if you’re looking for a familiar laptop, focus on a Mac. If you like the idea of both approaches in one device, and can handle switching back and forth, pick a Windows 8 laptop.
Which Windows 8?
If you opt for Windows, it gets more confusing. Windows 8 comes in two versions, plain Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro. Laptops with the latter have a handful of extra features that make it easier to connect with many corporate networks from home. So, if you need that ability, look for a laptop with the Pro version.
But there is an even trickier division. Some new Windows portables, like Microsoft’s first computer, the Surface, use a variant of Windows 8 called Windows RT. Regular Windows 8 lets you run all the traditional desktop programs in Windows 7, like Microsoft Office 2010, Chrome, Quicken or iTunes. However, RT doesn’t run these common programs. Windows RT machines mostly run the new tablet-type apps that work in the Start Screen. They come with a special version of Microsoft Office, but it omits Outlook. So, if you want to use old Windows programs, don’t buy an RT machine.
Microsoft’s Surface RT uses a variant of Windows 8 called Windows RT, which doesn’t run most traditional desktop programs.
Touchscreen or Not
Windows 8 is a “touch first” operating system. It can be operated with a mouse or touch pad, but its newest, coolest component, the Start Screen, and the tablet-like apps sold for that environment via Microsoft’s online store, are best used with touch. And there are some traditional laptops, like Acer’s slender Aspire S7, with touchscreens to complement their touch pads and keyboards.
However, many if not most Windows 8 laptops available right now lack touchscreens. On a visit to a Best Buy store this week, I found the retailer promoting only three touchscreen Ultrabooks, slim, light, well-equipped Windows laptops. There were a few larger well-equipped touchscreen models and one low-end model. All the others used standard screens.
Because I believe Windows 8′s tablet-style mode works best with a touchscreen, I don’t advise buying a Windows 8 laptop without one.
Tablet or Convertible
Unlike Apple, Microsoft has no separate tablet operating system. Windows 8 was designed to run both tablets and standard computers. In my tests, I have found it runs well, maybe even best, on tablets, which can have add-on keyboards to handle traditional desktop programs. But there are a number of laptops, called convertibles, whose screens can flip, or slide, or twist, so they cover the keyboard and look like tablets.
Don’t rely on these convertibles for extended use as tablets. The ones I’ve seen are too heavy and bulky for more than occasional use in tablet mode. If you use a tablet heavily, stick with an iPad, an Android tablet, or a Windows 8 or Windows RT machine that’s actually a tablet.
Windows 8 and other system files appear to take up a lot more of your storage space than Windows 7. On the Lenovo Yoga laptop I reviewed last week, only 70 gigabytes of the 128GB of storage are available to the user. Get at least a 500GB hard disk or a 256GB solid-state drive.
Despite its new Mountain Lion operating system, the Mac hasn’t changed nearly as much as Windows has. There’s one version of the OS, for home and corporate use, and no stripped-down equivalent of Windows RT. While Mountain Lion borrows some features from the iPad, it doesn’t attempt to mimic a tablet.
However, Apple has redesigned its top MacBook Pro models, and introduced confusion. Both the 13-inch and 15-inch Pros now come in two versions: regular display and higher-resolution — and higher-price — Retina display. Be sure you need the extra pixels before opting for the latter.
The least costly Mac laptop, the 11-inch MacBook Air, is still $999. And you can still buy some poorly equipped non-touchscreen Windows 8 laptops for about $300. In general, expect to spend between $600 and $1,000 for a well-equipped, thin and light touchscreen Windows 8 laptop.
It’s an exciting time to buy a new laptop, especially for Windows lovers. But be careful to wade through the confusing options so you get what you need, nothing more or less.
Email Walt at email@example.com.