Remember when buying a laptop just involved trying to get the highest specs for your dollar? Now Apple machines are a huge deal, Microsoft just released a whole new OS that barely even resembles “Windows” anymore, and everyone’s selling either tablets or things that’re trying to be tablets and laptops at the same time.
Don’t fret! Here’s how to decide what to gift, plus answers to most common questions.
Should I gift a laptop or a tablet?
If you’re gifting for someone who’s never had a computer before? A tablet, definitely. Either an iPad or a Nexus for most people, or a Kobo, Nook, or Kindle for book lovers. (We’ll talk about the Microsoft Surface in a moment.)
If you’re gifting for a “computer person,” who’s owned and used a lot of traditional computers before now, they’ll probably get more use out of a laptop. The exceptions are if they’ve specifically told you they want a tablet, or if they just recently upgraded their laptop and don’t need a new one. Keep in mind they tend to be particular about their hardware, though, so it pays to ask what to get.
What about Surface tablets?
The Surface is like a cross between a tablet and a laptop. It has a kickstand you can flip out, and a Touch Cover or Type Cover that’s like a flexible laptop keyboard which doubles as a screen cover. Reviews are positive; it’s a well-made device, and the cover’s good for typing.
It has a few problems, though. First, the $499 “32 GB model” actually has more like 16 GB, because Windows and Office take up so much space. Second, the Touch Cover starts at $100 extra, and that’s if you buy it with the Surface. And third, it has hardly any apps as of yet. You’d think a Windows tablet would be able to run Windows apps, but you’d be wrong; “Surface with Windows RT” tablets can only run new apps designed just for it. Surface tablets which can run classic Windows apps haven’t been made yet.
What are these ultrabooks I keep hearing about?
“Ultrabook” is a marketing term, which basically means “a PC laptop that looks like a MacBook Air.” Sometimes uncannily so. This means they’re thin and light, but wide enough to type on comfortably, and powerful enough to run most apps except for high-end games.
So they’re sort of like netbooks, then?
The netbook — a mini-laptop that starts at around $300 — is dying out and being replaced by tablets, on account of they cost about the same but are a lot more pleasant to use for most people. That’s because a tablet is like a really big and fast smartphone, while a netbook is like a really tiny and slow laptop. Which would you rather use?
Ultrabooks are thin and light, but they aren’t tiny and cramped like netbooks are, and they’re also not nearly as slow. They start around $1,000, though, like the MacBook Air, so it’s a case of “you get what you pay for.”
Speaking of MacBooks …
Apple laptops are a great choice for kids, college students, creative professionals, and pretty much anyone who isn’t a Windows PC enthusiast. They generally don’t get viruses, and they come with some amazing apps like iLife.
The cheapest ones start at $999, though, unless you buy used or refurbished, and they can’t run a lot of PC games. So if you’re gifting for a gamer, it might be good to at least make sure their games will run on a Mac. This isn’t as big a problem as it used to be, though.
What about Windows 8?
Windows 8 barely counts as “Windows” anymore, to the point where you might not recognize it. It’s designed for tablets first, and PC laptops second. And while it has a classic desktop mode for older games and apps, this was basically left out of the new Surface tablets that run Windows 8.
Windows 8 laptops aren’t a good choice right now, because they might confuse or frustrate people who are used to Windows and they may have trouble running certain games or apps. Better to gift a Windows 7 laptop, and let the person you’re buying for decide whether or not to upgrade.