The Christmas Tech Fork

A friend asked my advice about a new PC over the Thanksgiving holiday. He had used my Lenovo employee discount code in the past to equip himself and his sons with laptops, but now the time is here to get new stuff, so the question was put to me: what do I recommend?

My daughter beat me to the punch: “MacAir, I love mine.”

I ignored her, having never owned an Apple computer — only an iPod and an iPad (neither of which I use any longer) — and thought for a minute, realizing that two years out of the PC business has left me a little more ignorant than usual when it comes to staying on the cusp of personal platform discussions. Time was when it was an easy debate: PC or Mac. Now, not so much. So let’s look at the options out there this holiday buying season, and try to understand what to ask Santa for.

  1. The incumbent heavyweight in PCs remains the so-called classic Wintel duopoly of Windows on Intel processors. This puts one into the realm of Lenovo, HP, Dell, Sony, Toshiba, etc. etc. etc..  The old Wintel world was defined by corporate computing standards for desktops and laptops running Windows. Now corporate IT departments are losing their dictatorship powers, and opening up their environments to permit iPhones in lieu of Blackberries, MacBooks in lieu of Inspirons and Pavillions andThinkPads, and in some cases telling employees to buy their own crap and run it off the cloud. So, while the influence of the Enterprise Gorilla is probably still huge for most workers, it’s waning a little bit. So, if you want a classic laptop running Windows, good luck. The things are on the way out to be replaced by an entirely new world – actually a big bet to restore relevance — by Microsoft called windows 8. You can still buy a laptop, now pushed by Intel co-marketing dollars as “ultrabooks” — classic laptops made thin to compete against the MacAir. They look nice, and if you are a keyboard heavy person like me, then that may be where to go for a deal right now.
  2. I have never used Windows 8. It is the new text-heavy, tiled touch-oriented user interface that Microsoft has decided is the way forward for both its vision of the tablet/pad computer — it’s first hardware platform the Surface — and its phone, best experienced in the Nokia Lumia. Think of Windows 8 as Microsoft’s last stand against the insane disruption in consumer computing driven by the iPhone, the iPad, Android, Cloud computing, touch interfaces and Amazon’s store and web services.  I can’t help you here. The Lenovo Yoga and Thinkpad Twist are getting semipositive reviews from Walt Mossberg and others. The Microsoft Surface is getting grief for being expensive (two versions to keep in mind, the cheaper RT and the full version which runs legacy Windows apps). Basically this is a cake-and-eat-it-too world of having a heavy tablet with a keyboard if you need it. I can’t recommend or criticize as I haven’t even touched one in a store yet.
  3. Apple. Riding high but probably working through the pipeline of products influenced by the late Steve Jobs. The holy trinity of iPhone, iPad and MacBook/MacAir is what my wife and daughter have bought into. They love the design, struggle with the iCloud, and essentially are happy where they are at whatever price premium they pay to be there. I hate Apple’s closed environment and predatory approach to intellectual property. I suffered in iTunes, resented the lack of portability of the media I bought there, and in general find the Apple software model too …. simplistic. If you have the cash, love design, and are ready to live in the world as Apple defines it, then get a Mac, iPhone, iPad and live long and prosper. The choices are pretty clear: iPhone 5, iPad3, and some variation of MacAir or MacBook depending on the budget.
  4. Android. My preferred world for religious reasons.  I’m on a Samsung android smartphone and a 7″ Google/Asus Nexus tablet. I use Gmail. Google Calendar, and occasionally Google Docs (I am a Dropbox guy when it comes to cloud storage and collaboration). I have an eye on the Chromebook — $250 from Samsung ain’t bad — but still use a ThinkPad for my portable typing needs. That Thinkpad is now more than two years old and needs a refurb with a SDD to get it snappy again. I like Google Play — it’s attempt to sell content ala iTunes or Amazon — but it isn’t anything to fall in love with. If you are a Gmail person, then Android is your world and the design of the smartphones isn’t half bad.
  5. Amazon: The Kindle was (and still is) a nice light e-reader. I loved my very first Kindle, but never use the Kindle Touch I was gifted over a year ago. The Kindle app on my smartphone and the Nexus tablet (and before that the iPad) is all I need. I think Amazon messed up taking Android and forking it into a proprietary environment for the Kindle Fire.  They are cheap, obviously sold at a loss by Amazon as feeders into its vast store. I am a big Amazon MP3 store fan. It is everything iTunes should have been when it comes to music and sharing.
  6. Also rans: avoid Nooks, Blackberries, and other weirdness.

In the end, I would ask Santa for:

  • A Google Nexus. I love the 7″ form factor. If you want to spend an extra $100 for the Apple Mini, go for it. But I declare the best product of 2012 to be the Nexus 7″
  • A Samsung Galaxy IIIs: great phone, huge screen, nice design. Apple can shove its patent suit up its butt. Innovate don’t litigate.
  • A last generation ThinkPad on discount running Windows 7. BestBuy was touting a black friday doorbuster of a  wimpy Lenovo IdeaPad around $275, that’s almost too good to be true. There are deals in the last generation of WinTel to be found.

I would wait a few months for the dust to settle on the Windows 8 landscape. The Lenovo Yoga, while interesting, is showing some SDD issues with not much room due to bloatware and bad partitioning along with some touch pad bugs. The Surface — ehhhh, too expensive. And again, Apple is a self-selecting decision. You’re either all in or you aren’t and this post won’t do anything to persuade you one way or another. Kindle? Get a Google Tablet and run the Kindle app if you are looking for an e-reader.

I have nothing to say about gaming platforms, you are on your own there.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

4 thoughts on “The Christmas Tech Fork”

  1. Great post, Chuck! I recently bought a Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon after more than a decade with Mac laptops. It’s an awesome machine, light, suave, solid, pricey though. I jumped from Apple because I was tired of the monoculture, the increasing moves at lock-in and/or incompetence in the last two updates of OS X and the desire for a different form factor than the all-aluminum, sharp-edged piercer.

    Windows 8 is a piece of work and I don’t think I would recommend it for any average user of a laptop. I don’t think the have your cake and eat it too bit is going to fly. But with a few tweaks which seek to minimize the unwieldy “metro” touchy side, I feel like I have a great Windows 7.1 laptop! Pokki Menu was a key find.

    I posted “A longtime Mac user’s first impressions of the Thinkpad X1 Carbon” here:

  2. Wow, I had no idea you switched Aaron. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the X1 Carbon but am going to hang on to my T410s for another two years by doubling the ram to 8 gb and reinstalling the OS (Win 7). I am not a fan of the island keys, but guess I could be persuaded otherwise. Reality for me — with a diminished travel schedule — is a desktop on Cape Cod and another in my NYC office — using Dropbox, Google Drive, Gmail and Google Calendar as a cloud sync mechanism is perfect. I built my box via newegg and have big 23″ dual Acer panels. Life is much better.
    Good luck with the transition. I would imagine it would be wrenching.

  3. It’s really not that wrenching at all. IN part, that’s because corporate overlords have required use of Windows PCs at my last 4 jobs (The Industry Standard, may she rest in peace, was all Macs). And we have long rolled our own Windows gaming boxes for each successive new version of Sid Meier’s Civilization, which always came out on PCs way before it reached the Mac (although given the horrid-ness of Civ V a couple of years ago, we’ve probably ended that approach).

    The other big thing that’s different from 5 or more years ago is the amount of cross-platform and cloud-based software I use. All the Google services, Dropbox, 1Password, Postbox for email, Adobe Lightroom, Evernote, Microsoft Word (unavoidable, sadly) and even, crazily, Apple iTunes. When I switched to the Mac in the late 90s, I had to run like three or four different conversion programs just to export messages and import them into a Mac compatible program. This month, I literally just copied my Postbox user folder from my Mac to the Thinkpad. Done.

    So far the spelunking about and searching for new useful utilities and hacks has been fun. We’ll see how it goes. It also feels mentally engaging and stimulating to be working on both systems — like learning a foreign language.

    I like the idea of powerful desktops given the Dropbox-ability of things now. I am testing out the USB 3.0 Thinkpad Docking station thing to get some big screens attached but maybe I should go back to light computer/heavy computer.

  4. I’ve been using Windows 8 for a couple of weeks now (in a laptop). The desire to touch the live tiles is constant, the thing was definitely not designed with a mouse (or an, *ahem*, “clit”) in mind. But it is not all that terrible.

    One thing I could do without is the co-existence of the old and the new paradigms. I would be happier seeing the traditional desktop die, but I can understand the need to support old apps and everything.

    It IS quite rough around the edges, but it is refreshing. My only hope/fear is developer adoption. As a (proud?) owner of a PlayBook I can assure that there is nothing sadder than a device with no apps to fill it with.

    On the hardware side, after Lenovo screwed me over support I’ve plead not to buy (or recommend) their hardware ever again. Mac? I despise the things. Probably going to get a Samsung, fine built, nice TCO and sufficiently mainstream to get support when needed.

    I can certainly see myself migrating to a PC-Surface-Lumia 920 universe in the future. But I’ll refrain for a couple of months and see how things evolve (I think Microsoft WILL trim the pricing for the surface once the PRO comes out).

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