Because I'm the editor in charge of laptop coverage for PCWorld, I'm frequently asked for advice by friends, family, and coworkers looking to get a new laptop. That's not really surprising, and it's not even unwelcome. What surprises me is just how similar the conversations are to one another. From home to business users, casual shoppers to dialed-in tech professionals, the memes are the same. Basically, every conversation I have about buying a laptop goes something like this...
Buyer: Hey Jason, you got a minute? I want to get a new laptop and I want to pick your brain.
Me: Sure thing. How old is your current laptop?
Buyer: Oh I don't know... maybe 2 years?
Me: Well what model is it?
Buyer: (lists some 4-year old mid-range model)
Me: Yeah it's probably time for an upgrade. What are your needs?
Buyer: Something lightweight and easy to carry around.
Me: Well you could get (lists a couple of cheap netbooks).
Buyer: Yeah I was looking at those, but I do a lot of stuff with photos/video/flash/whatever and they say those netbooks aren't powerful enough.
Me: Oh, you didn't say that when I asked about your needs. You need a more powerful ultraportable. There's (really cool $1,200 ultraportable with good processor and plenty of RAM and hard drive space)...
Buyer: That's too much money. I was looking to spend like $500 or $600.
Me: Well you didn't say that when I asked what your needs are. That's pretty tight, you can't spend more like $700?
Buyer: Well I don't really have an exact price, I just don't want to spend a lot of money. What about ($600 laptop they saw on some special deal online)?
Me: (Grumbles something about how a $2,000 PC used to be considered "cheap") That's not a bad deal...it's got plenty of RAM and a decent processor. But it's about 5 and a half pounds. You said light and easy to carry... you want something closer to 4 pounds, or even less. You're going to have to make some compromises. There's this ($700 ultraportable without an optical drive), but it has sort of a low-resolution screen. The screen upgrade option costs $100 more.
Buyer: It's so ugly.
Me: Okay, so your needs are: lightweight and easy to carry, $700 or less, sexy, and powerful enough for the photos/video/flash/whatever. Do you need an optical drive?
Buyer: A what?
Me: A DVD drive. Do you frequently install software from disc, or mostly just download it? Do you watch DVD movies?
Buyer: Oh I want to be able to do that for sure!
Me: The computers with optical drives tend to be thicker and heavier than ones without. Really, when was the last time you watched video off a disc on your PC? Do you really need the optical drive? Could you make do with an external USB optical drive if some rare emergency comes up that you need to install something off a disc?
Buyer: I guess so.
Me: What about games? Do you play any games?
Buyer: Not really.
Me: Not even (lists a bunch of common popular mainstream games)? You don't want the ability to play those?
Buyer: Well I don't want a machine that can't play those.
Me: Okay so you want a sub-$700 laptop that is around 4 pounds or less, looks great, has a good screen, really long battery life, has a decent enough graphics chip to play some basic 3D games, has enough CPU power and RAM to do all that other stuff you said...
Buyer: And I want it to last. I don't want to buy another laptop in just two years!
Me: Okay...and enough power for tomorrow's apps as well. I think I talked you out of the need for an optical drive, but I'm going to assume you want a keyboard that's nice to type on and a good touchpad.
Buyer: Sure, of course.
Me: Let's see what we can find!
What follows is inevitably a search of our own reviews, other site's reviews, Amazon, Newegg, vendor websites, and more. Everything has a glaring flaw. This one doesn't have enough RAM or CPU power, and upgrading those makes the system too expensive. That one has enough power and a great keyboard and touchpad, but is far too big and heavy. This other one has everything they want, but the battery doesn't even last 4 hours. The prospective buyer and I both agree that there are way too many models with confusing names and model numbers, many of which aren't really very different from one another.
After half an hour of searching and discussing options, we find that there are no systems that meet the criteria everyone, and I mean everyone, seems to be looking for: $700 or less (usually they want lower prices), around 4 pounds or less, attractive, good keyboard and touch pad, and powerful enough to do "everything" they want to do, including running tomorrow's apps well enough that they won't want to go through this process again real soon. And they still, for some reason that makes me bang my head against my desk, think they want an optical drive even though they can't come up with an example of why they'd need one.
That's when the question inevitably comes: "Well, is there anything coming out soon I should wait for?" Of course there is. There's always something better, just around the corner. That's why you haven't upgraded your laptop for four years. I tell them about those upcoming AMD "Brazos" chips that should end up in systems similar to today's netbooks, but offer more CPU and graphics power. I tell them about Intel's upcoming CPUs (code-named Sandy Bridge), which will offer better battery life and far better graphics and video performance than the typical Core i3 or Core i5 based laptop of today, but probably won't be in the really tiny netbook-sized systems.
Buyer: When are those coming out?
Me: Early 2011. Like first quarter, probably. But I don't know exact models and how much they'll cost.
Buyer: Should I wait for those? I wanted something before the holidays...
Me: I think those chips are pretty cool, and worth it, but it doesn't mean the laptops will have a good screen, or keyboard, or touchpad... and something better is always right around the corner. At some point you have to put a stake in the ground a just buy whatever is closest to what you want.
How do these buying advice sessions end up? Again, it surprises me how often the situation repeats itself. Half the time, I see them with a system we looked at early in our search, a system they had considered too expensive. They'll say, in a long-winded and over-justifying way, "I decided it's worth paying more to get something I really like." The other half of the time, I see them toting around a new system that doesn't meet their criteria; it's bigger and heavier than they wanted and the battery doesn't last as long as they hoped for. "It was on sale at Best Buy for only $499!" they'll tell me. I'll spend the next several weeks listening to complaints about it.
Every time I go through this process, it reaffirms three major opinions of mine about the current laptop market:
1. The average person buying a laptop is on a budget, but it's often not quite as tight they say it is. Everyone would rather pay less, but they want quality.
2. People are confused by the dizzying array of models and the terrible product naming in the laptop market. This confusion causes some buyers to become paralyzed, putting off that laptop purchase to some indeterminate time in the future.
3. Laptop manufacturers make too many compromises in quality and performance to get to artificially low price points that many buyers don't really need to meet, no matter what they insist on at first. It's making people unhappy with the cheap laptop they bought last year.