Time for an Upgrade?

Consider the advantages and trade-offs between portable laptops or tablets and more powerful desktop models.

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Perhaps you've been tempted by ads touting the capabilities of a new computer, or maybe you recently realized your old computer really is old. Whatever the reason, you've decided to buy a new computer (or computers) to run your business. Now comes choosing the computer that best fits your needs.

Which way should you go – familiar desktop models, laptops, ultralight laptops or maybe tablets? The answer isn't always simple and straightforward. In reality, one solution won't work for everyone. Let's explore which options are right for your business.

Portable vs. powerful

Laptops tend to be slightly less powerful than desktops of comparable price because lower-powered processing chips help extend the time between battery charges. But power is a relative term. Laptops or desktops are equally capable these days for all but the most demanding work. If you're editing videos for your website, you will be happier with a more powerful desktop machine. Otherwise make sure whatever you're buying matches the requirements of your business software, and maybe allows a bit more oomph to meet the greater demands of future software releases.

What the laptop has on its side is portability. You can mount one in your truck and type information directly into it, saving you and your office staff some time. If you pay for a cellular data plan or know where the free Wi-Fi access spots are in your area, you can transmit information back to the office or answer emails while you're on the road. At the end of the day, the laptop can go home with you. This provides another backup of your crucial business information, and you can sit in your favorite chair with your favorite beverage and catch up on lower-priority chores during the evening.

A desktop machine provides a more comfortable working position for the person sitting in front of it all day, and it allows for a larger screen. Don't discount the value of that. You can work more efficiently on a large screen because you can have several windows open simultaneously and need only shift your eyes instead of pressing keys to flip from one window to another. The hybrid solution is to buy a laptop capable of connecting to a large external screen, giving you the best of both worlds.

Netbooks and tablets

The newer entries in mobile computing are netbooks, such as Google's Chromebook, and tablets such as Apple's iPad.

Netbooks – the term for small, very portable laptops – are generally underpowered for all but the simplest tasks and are intended for use primarily with an Internet connection. Tablets have the same limitation. But the advantage of both types of computers is the elimination of a spinning hard-disk drive, which makes these machines much less vulnerable to the bumps and bangs of being carried around.

Netbooks and tablets also excel at simple data entry. If you're in the truck and want to update your customer list, check your calendar, or keep a simple log of where you've been, these may be the solutions for you. They're typically cheaper than a laptop and – with an Internet link – allow you to exchange information with your office.

PC operating system issues

If like most people you use Microsoft Windows, you also need to confront the company's new operating system called Windows 8. You've probably seen the television ads already. Gone are the familiar task bar and Start button. Microsoft divides the screen into a series of colorful tiles, which you tap or click to access functions. It is a system designed for computers with touch screens, but users and reviewers have complained mightily. Mostly they have said the new system is confusing and hard to learn and navigate.

There are options if you want a new computer but don't want to jump headfirst into Windows 8.

First, any computer with Windows 8 Pro preinstalled is eligible for a downgrade to the previous system, Windows 7, which still works and looks as Windows always has.

Second, Windows 7 will not disappear instantly. Microsoft tends to support its operating systems for at least a decade. (The third major update to Windows XP – introduced in 2001 and still a mainstay of many businesses – will be supported until April 2014.) The first major update to Windows 7 will be supported until at least 2020. Retailers will be selling boxed versions of Windows 7 until at least this fall, and computer manufacturers may continue selling PCs preloaded with Windows 7 until October 2014.

Smooth running

This is a good place to talk about reliability, because everyone wants a computer that will run without bother for as long as possible and can be repaired speedily if it fails.

According to the December 2012 issue of Consumer Reports, the top four companies for providing technical support, in order of satisfaction, are: Apple, Dell, Lenovo and HP/Compaq.

The top four most reliable desktop computers are, in order: Apple, HP, Dell and Gateway. The top four most reliable laptop computers are, in order: Apple, Acer, Sony and Lenovo.

Speaking of Apple, you may be wondering about those. Comparably equipped PCs and Apples are about equal in price, with Apple tending to be slightly higher. But Apples hold their value very well. Look at the prices on used machines and you'll see. And with some additional software, an Apple machine will run a Windows operating system if that's your preference.

But if you're tempted, remember that although PCs and Macs look similar, it will require time and effort to fully learn a different system. If you're not that adventurous or don't like to tinker with computers, stick with what you know. In the end, you'll be happier and will work more efficiently.

Choices, choices

There are a lot of choices to sort through, no doubt. Technology is complicated and not well understood by many people including, sometimes, those who sell it. But there is one consoling thought to keep in mind: Whatever is out there now will change in a year or so. If you don't like the options, wait. There will be others, and they will probably be better. The only thing you need to be careful of is missing a crucial deadline. If, for example, the thought of using Windows 8 turns your stomach, you may want to consider buying a new computer before Windows 7 disappears.


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