Computer buying hassles

Thursday night, tragedy struck the Wandering Nerd househould. Our cat accidentally spilled a glass of water onto my fiancee’s laptop, shorting it out. While we did manage to salvage it by putting it in a pan full of rice, it wasn’t the same afterwards. It went really slowly and kept crashing. This is normal behavior for her eight-year-old laptop, but my fiancee assures me it’s doing it more than usual now. So now we’re looking for a new laptop for her… and boy is it complicated. It used to be that you could just walk into a computer store and buy the one with the biggest numbers that you could afford. Or if you were a Mac user, like I was for years, you could just walk into an Apple Store and buy the shiniest one you could afford. But nowadays it’s gotten so complicated. I mean, how is the average computer shopper supposed to know about:

  • All the different processor types there are now. Currently, Intel sells CPUs with Atom, Celeron, Pentium, i3, i5, and i7 branding. Then they’re split even further into dual-core, quad-core, Haswell, Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, Pentium B, Pentium G, Hyperthreading, Vpro… all these terms… It used to be that you knew that a 486 was better than a 386 because it had the bigger number. But how do you compare a Pentium G2020 with a i5-2300? Is an i5 running at 2.5 GHz faster than an i7 running at 1.7 GHz? 
  • And if you shop for an AMD processor, sure they’re all sorted by numbers, but they’ve also gone the Intel route of breaking their product into multiple types. And how do they compare against Intel chips of the same price? Unless you spend your whole life researching these things, you won’t know just by looking at the box.
  • Graphics cards. Everyone knows that Intel integrated graphics are crap for games, but how good is that AMD Radeon or NVIDIA chip in that laptop? Usually the box or ad will only list the RAM it has. But what about clock speeds, number of cores, Vsync, antialiasing, frame buffers? Which version of DirectX does it support? Does it support CUDA, OpenGL, OpenCL, or WebGL? You could buy something that looks great on paper, but when you take it home, it won’t play your favorite game or it might not have any driver support for your operating system of choice.
  • Operating system. It used to be that whichever Windows came with your machine was normally your best (and in most cases, only) choice. But my fiancee is really worried about adapting to Windows 8. We’ve all heard the horror stories. Do we buy a Windows 8 laptop off the shelf, or do we hunt for something still running Windows 7? And do we want to run the 32-bit or 64-bit version of the latter? Do we want Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, Business, or Ultimate? Or should we scrap the OS and build a Hackintosh? If neither of those are an option, which of the thousand different varieties of Linux or the dozen different varieties of BSD do we want to go with instead? 
  • Brands. Well, there aren’t nearly as many companies selling PCs as there were during the tech boom of the late 90’s, but even today, you’ve got HP, Dell, Toshiba, Lenovo, Asus, Acer, Gateway, Samsung, and many others. And they’ve got very little to distinguish them from all the others. If all they’re competing on is price, pretty soon you get into a situation where it’s a “race to the bottom” and you get a lot of products that differ from each other only in how crappily they are constructed.

Choice is normally a good thing, but when there’s too much choice, it can be confusing to the consumer. I think this is why a lot of consumers are leaving the PC market in droves and going towards things like Chromebooks, gimped laptops that only run a web browser, and Android tablets and iPads, devices that lock you into a particular app store, but at least maintain enough compatibility amongst models so that you know you can run whatever new game or program comes out. There’s less freedom in those, but they are a lot simpler to deal with. However, that’s not an option for my fiancee. She still wants a laptop with a full travel keyboard and the ability to play her old Windows games like Cave Story, and Windows-only writing software like yWriter. Maybe anything made in the last five years will do, but I still want to get her the best laptop we can afford. I just wish it wasn’t so gosh darn hard to choose.

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