Laptop? Desktop? Tablet?!!!
December 16, 2013 11:17 AM   Subscribe

Please help me decide what kind of computer, and if possible what brand and model we should get. Special snowflake details inside.

Hello Hivemind

I'm sure that there are literally dozens of questions out there in regards to this type of question, but, I'm not sure if all of the specifics that I need addressed would be there, so I'm hoping that all the "computer hivers" out there can help me.

Our possibly 10 year old (we can't remember exactly when we bought it) HP desktop is on its last legs after a few upgrades in the past few years, and we are ready for a new computer.

Our problem is, that we have no idea what is out there that would be the best fit for us. We would use it primarily for web surfing, shopping, etc.. but it would also be used for doing our income taxes yearly (using Turbotax) and also my spouse likes to download music from Itunes and burn CDs for which he uses Itunes (obviously) and a program called ExPressit S.E. 2.2.

We get our internet/wifi service through Comcast, so it should also be able to accomodate their Firewall/anti-virus software that is provided as part of our service through Norton. (I mention this only because the last time that I had the computer serviced, the tech told me that apparently the software for this was using a good chunk of our computer's memory!)

The only absolute necessity is that it has to be "Windows" driven. My spouse doesn't do well with change, and no matter how easy it might be, I would prefer to not have to show him how to use an Apple. Thanks!
posted by Hanuman1960 to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, if you're using Windows XP on your current desktop (which is most likely), Mac OS X is probably more familiar than Windows 8.1 will be. I'd see if I can track down a retail machine using Windows 7 if you can, they're still relatively common on "business" machine but they're starting to die out on the consumer side.
posted by Oktober at 11:22 AM on December 16, 2013

Get something with Windows 7, not the new Windows 8. The interface for W8 is new and different enough that many people complain about. If you spouse is really change averse looking for a W7 machine will save you many headaches. (W7 is basically just like Windows Vista or an updated version of XP.)

For what your talking about any modern computer will do. If you are set on a brand, look for a Lenovo (they are pretty reliable.)
posted by oddman at 11:23 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Which version of Windows does your old HP desktop run? Because if your husband hasn't had any experience with Windows 8, he's going to be a grumpy person if he doesn't like change.

That said, you should get a new Desktop. A tablet won't do half of what you're asking, and if you're not traveling around a lot and not in need of a laptop then you will get more out of your money with a desktop.

I know people are like AH DELL BAD, but I've never really had a bad experience with their home computers. go to, look into the desktop sections (might be under an "home and home office" type of link) and pick a desktop that is in your budget.

You're not going to do anything with the desktop that a premade moderately priced computer won't be able to tackle easily.
posted by royalsong at 11:26 AM on December 16, 2013

If you do things that require a lot of typing, get something with a keyboard. If you need to move the machine around a lot, don't get a desktop.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:27 AM on December 16, 2013

Well, if you only plan to have one computer in your life a laptop is probably the most versatile option. Tablets excel in portability, but if you ever need to run more full-featured applications or type more than a very little you'll find them frustrating. A desktop isn't really necessary these days unless you really need the power and upgradability and don't care at all about portability. So I would say you're probably looking at a laptop, and that a good "budget" machine would probably suit your needs just fine.

Some more detail would help narrow things down, though. What's your budget? Do you expect you'll use it mostly around the house or mostly outside the house? (i.e. How important is portability to you?) Do you plan to watch movies on the laptop's screen very often, or will you be more likely to plug it into a TV or standalone monitor?

I really like Lenovo Thinkpads. They are plain-looking and a little more expensive than some other brands, but they are also much more durable and long-lasting than most other laptops so to me it's worth it. They're also generally easier to upgrade than most other brands, so overall you tend to get more life out of them before they need replacing. And they have good keyboards. They do have some limitations but for your uses (i.e. not graphics-intensive gaming) I don't think that they would be an issue at all. There are lots of models out there, and if you can give more detail about your needs I could help identify some candidates.

Also, if there's one "premium" feature that is ever so worth it, it's a high-res display. Anything better than the 1366x768 that is standard on most budget machines -- at least 1600x900. Very very worthwhile if you ask me.
posted by Scientist at 11:28 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agree with Oktober and oddman - find a W7 machine. For your uses, any modern PC, even in the $400 range, will more than suffice, especially as compared to a 10-year-old PC.

If you don't need portability, stick with a desktop. Easier to upgrade down the road, and much more comfortable to type on, as well as adjusting your desktop monitor to a good viewing angle.

Also... Not a direct answer to your question, but FWIW - you don't have to use the Comcast-provided antivirus. Norton is a known resource-hog. There are many lighter-weight, more effective, and free antivirus products out there.
posted by trivia genius at 11:29 AM on December 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

If you have omitted game playing, you'll need to get something a bit beefier than anything I'm mentioning. There are a host of graphics card issues that would need to be addressed if you are not mentioning anything about games. But, as long as there is a "no games besides facebook games" going on - well then - what you really want is just a simple business machine

Find the cheapest 'craptop' you can find. We are past the age where computers last 10 years. Get something that won't make you balk when you have to replace it 2-3 years from now. Laptops get people out of one area and onto the couch ignoring each other briefly by finding out where you recognize Jos Viramontes from and then having a conversation on all the shows you liked them in.

We'll occasionally surf on our favorite actors. We can have a discussion about shopping on amazon for Christmas presents. There's all kinds of stuff.

Honestly I'd go with a cheap or 2 cheap laptops, that also prevents spousal bickering. You only need one with tax software, but two means that you can both use it at the same time.

Do not plan on upgrading what ever machine you purchase unless you are buying a custom gaming rig. If you need more hard drive space, get an external drive to tide you over until cloud storage is the defacto standard and bandwidth issues are minimized.

At this time, I do not think any current tablet will meet your needs.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:38 AM on December 16, 2013

I just looked at the Dell website and their lowest-end desktop ($329) has 4 GB of memory, which should be plenty for your needs, and you can get something nicer for under $500, especially of you keep your existing monitor. If you are used to a desktop and like it, a lower-spec model from most manufacturers should be fine.

A laptop is nice, even if you never take it out of the house, because it can travel from the desk to the kitchen to the couch, etc. A laptop will take more abuse, and it's harder to repair/replace certain parts, so build quality is more important. I've had bad luck with HP, my Dell is still kicking after >6 years of fairly heavy use, and Lenovo is the PC manufacturer typically associated with quality.
posted by domnit at 11:39 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend getting an inexpensive laptop with a cheap-o docking station. He can plug his mouse, keyboard and monitor into it, and it will look and feel like your old Desktop, without all the ugly a desktop brings.

I've been perfectly happy with my Dells lo these past few years. We bought Husbunny a beater Toshiba that's been really great too. Here's one at Office Depot for $359. It's running Windows 8 though.

Wal-Mart has an ASUS for $249, which might suit your needs.

Neither of these comes with Microsoft Office. You can get Student or 365 for around $100 (give or take.) Check with your employer, mine had a thing where I could buy it for $15.

For what you use a computer for, you don't need anything special or expensive.

You can have the guys at Office Depot move the stuff off of your old machine onto your new one, for a nominal cost, if you're not comfortable doing it yourself.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:40 AM on December 16, 2013

Windows 7 machines are getting hard to find new, for what it's worth, and downgrading from Windows 8 to Windows 7 is not as easy as it could be because manufacturers don't always make it easy to find Windows 7 drivers for the new machines.

At this point if I were you I would resign myself to Windows 8 (which will be supported with updates, new drivers, and new software for longer than the now-obsolete Windows 7 anyway, a not inconsiderable factor if you want a machine that will be trouble-free for a long time) and just follow a tutorial online that will tell you how to remove the worst of the new annoyances and make the interface more "Windows 7-like".

I'm as much of a Windows 7 stalwart as anyone (I just finished a downgrade on a new eeePC the other day) but holding onto Windows 7 is in my opinion an advanced option at this point, not something that's worth bothering with if you're not comfortable messing around with drivers and system settings and hunting down older versions of things. It's not too bad so far, but it's only going to get worse over time.
posted by Scientist at 11:41 AM on December 16, 2013

It sounds like you need something very, very basic (and a desktop, not a laptop or tablet). I think even the cheapest desktops, like this one, would probably be fine for you, if you're willing to keep your current monitor.
posted by crazy with stars at 12:03 PM on December 16, 2013

Wow! Thanks everyone! What I've read so far has been very informative! (And also brought up some additional questions that I need to talk with my spouse about!)

To answer some of the questions:

We definitely would not ever use it for gaming. Neither of us is into that. Also, we don't see at this point a need for taking it anywhere outside the house. Regarding watching movies or TV on it, probably not, but who knows?

I hadn't really thought much about a budget at this point, as I wasn't sure which model would best suit us. If I had to put a price on replacing what we have I would guess 700-1000 dollars, as we would also need a new printer and if we get a desktop a new monitor (the one we have now is as old as the PC and I have noticed the image flickering from time to time!)

I didn't realize that there were free versions of firewall/antivirus out there. I always associated "free" with not worth much! Can anyone recommend one?

My work actually offers employee discounts through Apple, Dell, HP and Lenovo and discounts on Windows software so I guess I have a lot of web shopping to do!

Any other suggestions would be appreciated! Keep them coming! :)
posted by Hanuman1960 at 12:25 PM on December 16, 2013

Good printers can be had for $49.

Your budget is pretty large. You can get two computers!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:05 PM on December 16, 2013

The Windows 8 hate is... absurd. It exists as a meme, and because it's easy to hate on Microsoft. Reality does not support it.

Windows 8 boots to a screen that you curate that lists your most commonly used programs. You can go to your desktop by hitting the big button labeled desktop, or by using the old shortcut win + d. That is NOT a major interface change worth crying about, and you know what you can do on your desktop? Almost nothing. You will almost certainly want to launch a program, which the new start screen excels at.

Win + start typing is still the best way to launch programs, in Windows 7 or 8.

Metro programs (tablet style programs) are completely optional. You can use windows 8.1 exactly like windows 7 in every respect except the screen it boots to, if that's what you want to do.

Windows 8 is slightly faster than Windows 7, and it's secure. You should ditch Comcast's software/Norton and just use the built-in Windows antivirus. It's fine.

Please don't let Conventional Wisdom convince you to avoid it.

Fortunately for you, you don't have to decide between a laptop or a tablet. There are three _very good_ convertible options to choose from.

Yoga 2 Pro
+ Best build quality
+ Simplest conversion
+ IPS screen that has the best viewing angles and color reproduction
- Retina resolution in a world that isn't really designed for it yet (about 4x the pixels in a 1080p screen)
- In tablet mode the keys are exposed on the back of the unit and it can feel weird on your hand (though they're cut off as inputs and you don't have to worry about that)
- Lower battery life simply because it's pushing so many pixels

Sony Flip Laptops
+ They really are lightweight, well built, and beautiful
+ Great IPS screen
+ Built-in keyboard
+ An array of sizes to choose from, ranging from tablet-sized to traditional laptop-sized
- Loud fan issue (I believe this has been addressed)
- Complicated hinge mechanism (may be a source of failure over time)
- Lots of flex on the keyboard, which drives me crazy

MS Surface Pro
+ Great build quality and beautiful screen
+ Integrated Wacom stylus with 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity -- the killer feature
- Have to buy a keyboard cover seperately (get the more expensive one with the articulated keys)
- Total cost is higher than the others due to the cover issue

For longevity's sake, I'd purchase one with at least 8 GB of ram, which means you'll be paying just over a thousand for any of the above.

All three of these are available at Best Buy (although you may have to order the particular configuration you're looking for--most locations don't carry the 8GB Surface Pros, for example) so you can actually do an in-person, hands-on comparison with all of them.

They are the cream of the crop, and they function beautifully as laptops and tablets, and they run the best Windows OS to date--Windows 8.
posted by jsturgill at 1:08 PM on December 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

There was a Dell ad a few weeks ago that showed computers with Windows 7 for sale. No idea if they were snapped up by people turned off by W8.
posted by Cranberry at 1:18 PM on December 16, 2013

That's a pretty realistic budget, you can do quite a bit with that. It should certainly be enough to get you something that will fit your needs.

I am still going to recommend a laptop, especially since you are going to need a new monitor anyway if you get a desktop which pretty much negates the price savings that desktops sometimes offer. In my opinion, the only reason to have a desktop is if you need performance that is not possible from laptops (which you don't), you need to be able to perform major upgrades (which it sounds like you don't) and portability is a complete non-issue.

Even if you aren't planning to take the computer out of the house, it's really nice to have the option of easily moving it around within the house, so that you aren't tied to a specific "computer spot". You may not quite realize how nice this is if you've been on a desktop for the last ten years, but trust me – it's super nice indeed. And you know what? You say the computer will probably never leave the house, but I'd be surprised if you wouldn't end up doing it once in a while if you had the option. (Travelling, taking files or movies to a friend's house, etc.) It's also nice to be able to clear off the "computer desk" if you need the space, which is a pain to do with a desktop.

So that being said, I'm going to assume you're looking at a laptop here. Since portability is not your main issue, I'd go with a full-sized 15.4" machine. The extra screen and keyboard space will be a welcome improvement over a 13" or 14" model, and since you're not going to be toting it very often or very far the additional size and weight will probably not be an issue. (For what it's worth, I carry a 15.4" laptop with me pretty much everywhere, and it's fine. It goes in my messenger bag.)

I'm a Thinkpad loyalist (I really do think that the build quality, ease of upgrading, and keyboards are second to none in the Windows world) and I've found one that I think would work well for you. It's in your budget at around $950, though you could go lower if you wanted.

Thinkpad L540:
• Intel Core i5-4200M Processor (3MB Cache, up to 3.10GHz)
• Windows 8 64
• Windows 8 64 English
• 15.6" FHD (1920x1080) LED Backlit Anti-Glare Display WWAN
• Intel HD Graphics 4600
• 4GB PC3-12800 DDR3L SDRAM 1600MHz SODIMM
• Keyboard with Number Pad - US English
• Ultranav without Fingerprint Reader
• 1TB Hard Disk Drive, 5400rpm
• DVD Recordable 8x Max Dual Layer
• Gemplus 54mm ExpressCard Smart Card Reader from Lenovo
• 6 Cell Li-Ion Battery (2.2Ah) 48Wh
• 65W AC Adapter - US (2pin)
• Intel Dual Band Wireless 7260AC with Bluetooth 4.0
• Integrated Mobile Broadband upgradable
• Publication - US English
• 1 Year Depot or Carry-in

I've upgraded the processor, screen, hard drive, and WiFi on this machine and also added a SmartCard reader. If you wanted to lower the price, I would remove upgrades in this order: WiFi, processor, SmartCard reader, hard drive, screen. I would not downgrade the screen, the 1920x1080 is much nicer than the 1366x768 option both in terms of resolution and overall appearance (brightness, color, viewing angle). As configured above, it comes in at $942.65 with Lenovo's current coupon offering. (Their coupons change every few days, but there's always some sort of discount.) It's also available with Windows 7 if you want to go that route, for $50 extra. Yes, I know it seems weird that it costs more to get the obsolete operating system, that's how it is these days.

On the antivirus front, I recommend the free version of Avast. The paid-for antivirus programs (Norton, McAfee) actually suck pretty bad. Not only are they huge resource hogs that will really slow down your system and get in your way, they are not even particularly good at finding viruses. In fact, they have a reputation for being more of a pain in the butt than most viruses are! The free Avast does everything that you'll need it to do (they make their money by selling more feature-rich versions, mostly for corporate clients) and has a great virus detection engine. It's much lighter-weight than Norton or McAfey, and won't bog down your computer. I promise, it's a much much better option. I would also get a copy of Malwarebytes (also free) as a back-up program, as it finds things that regular antivirus programs don't look for. It's also light weight (it doesn't run in the background at all) and won't screw up your system.

Good luck out there, I hope you enjoy your new computer whatever it ends up being.
posted by Scientist at 2:27 PM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Note that jsturgill's three laptop/tablet combos do not have CD drives, which were one of the OP's requirements.
posted by crazy with stars at 3:48 PM on December 16, 2013

Yet another laptop benefit: it's much easier to adjust you v machine. IME, it's dramatically changed the level of joint/neck pain compared from previous setup, where I plugged my body into the desktop's position.

Weird thing about printers these days: they've become razors. Ink costs three times as much as the printer. It's easy to find an inexpensive starter printer; I've had good luck with HPs; the models change every year; don't stock up on ink cause it dries out (and you may have a different printer model by then).
posted by Jesse the K at 3:55 PM on December 16, 2013

If you can afford $ 900.00, after an exhaustive search lasting weeks on foot and on the web, I purchased a Toshiba S55T from Costco for 900. It is fantastic so far. It has the top Intel CPU plus 1920x1080 graphics and a whopping 16GB memory.

If you plan on keeping the computer for a long time, then get one with the 4th Gen Intel CPU, i7 Haswell is the best.

Make sure your computer is not noisy and does not get hot when used.

Don't buy any of those with 1366x768 screen resolution. I checked Staples store and every laptop had that poor resolution.

Don't buy a hard disk smaller than 1TB, because now days Windows 8 uses lots of space, so does Windows 7.

Get Windows 8.1, it is the future so you might as well join it.
posted by nogero at 9:11 AM on December 17, 2013

I've had recent bad experiences with build quality (and therefore durability one would presume) on Toshibas, for what that's worth. If you're considering going with one, I'd just make sure that you can actually handle it in person before you buy it. Try the keyboard, open and close the screen, press on the panels to see how sturdy they feel. Ask yourself whether or not it feels like a machine that will last a while without falling to pieces. If it seems good then you're probably OK (I imagine build quality varies some from model to model) but I wouldn't buy one sight unseen.

Also, RAM upgrades are very easy to perform on most laptops (certainly on Thinkpads) and about 75% cheaper to do on your own rather than as a manufacturer upgrade. You generally just order the relevant RAM, unscrew a little panel on the underside of the computer, pop in the chip(s), screw the panel back on, and you're done. It's practically as easy as changing a lightbulb. That said, 4gb is probably enough for your purposes. Lots of current machines ship with only 4gb, and it's only ever been a problem for me under the most demanding circumstances. Admittedly, all my experiences are on Windows 7. I don't know for sure how well they would translate to Windows 8 but I bet it would be fine.
posted by Scientist at 4:34 PM on December 17, 2013

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