Technobabble (Episode the First)

I’m still going to be talking about expectations in fiction on Wednesday, but I want to divert and talk about my quest for technology a little more.

As I said last week I’m in the market for a new laptop. I’ve had an Acer Inspire One Netbook for a few years, and I’m deciding on giving up and going with a full size laptop for several reasons:

1) Too small. A 10″ screen is just too small for me to be productive. The keyboard isn’t crampy, but it’s always felt a little on the tight side. Even on this docking station for my iPad, I feel like my fingers have room to make their own typos — not their neighbor’s. It looks all right when I plug it into a monitor, but that kind of defeats the purpose.

2) Too small. I have to use a lap desk just to use the thing in my lap. Also, kind of defeats the purpose.

3) Battery life. The normal battery life on the Inspire One was originally 3.5 hours. Now, I’m lucky if I can get it go more than an hour without being plugged in. Granted I could shop around for a replacement battery, but the last time I checked they ran about $150, and as I mentioned before I’m tired of staring at a tiny screen.

4) Acer’s Tech Support… not all that great. Acer’s support is web only. There is no number to call if you’re having problems with your product. For me, that’s fine and dandy when I’m at home with the iPad and the Mini and able to browse the web, but at a con, it’s not so good. Yeah, my phone has a web browser, but any ticket I open gets shunted to my email addy, and I don’t like reading email on my phone. But what if the user is someone who doesn’t have any other means of web access? What if I have a presentation to do in an hour, and my computer won’t start up?

Now, what am I looking to use the laptop for? Writing on the go, and posting on the web. The iPad was going to be my web-posting device, but a recent snafu with an entry to my WordPress page made that less appealing(and to be fair, it could have been a PEBCAK issue or a WordPress glitch — I honestly don’t know). Because of that, memory and CPU are not big deals for me. I need three, maybe four pieces of software to run: Open Office, Chrome, MS Office and (maybe) a good Twitter client.

Why Open Office and MS Office? Well, until publishers and agents stop asking for stuff in .doc formats that’s what I gotta use. Yes, Open Office can export an .odt into a .doc, but I need to double check and fix whatever gets screwed up in the translation. Typically the process makes my headers explode. There’s a fix in Open Office for it, but frankly I don’t feel like mucking around in code I don’t understand.

I would love to have a MacBook Air. A 2.9 pound system with a 13″ screen and a seven hour battery life make it a sweet, sweet tool for writing. It would cost me $1390 — and that’s including paying Governor Corbett his due. I wouldn’t have to by MS Office for it, however, as the package I have has a three site license, and I have one left. But still, 14 Benjamins is a bit steep for what I want. On top of that, I’ve heard rumors floating around about the Air getting a hardware upgrade — some of them pointing to a release this very week. Even the guy at the Apple store told me to wait a while.

So, I’ve been looking in the PC market as well. Today I went out to four stores hunting laptops. I was a salesman’s worst nightmare — a consumer who knows the balance between what he wants, what he needs and what he’s willing to to pay for it. I hit four stores: Office Max, Best Buy, Office Depot and HHGregg. My criteria for the laptop were:

1) Base price of $600 or less. If I go with a PC, I’m going to need to buy a copy of MS Office. That’s $150 right there. If I can keep the total price at $800 or less, go me.

2) Screen size of 14 inches or greater. As most of my potential purchases were either 14″ or 15.6″, this was an easy one to fill.

3) Weight less than six pounds. I intend to go places with this thing, and that includes vacations, conventions and the like. If I’m going to be carrying it around for more than an hour or two, I don’t want a lot of excess weight. At a gaming or writing convention, books will be a part of my load, and if I’m dragging weight, my ass will be sure to follow in short order.

4) Battery life of five to six hours. I’d prefer more, naturally, but this seems like a fair amount. I don’t how one gets this measurement, but I figure light use (i.e. writing and not surfing the net) should allow the battery to last longer.

5) Not Acer. I like having support I can call.

Office Max was my first stop. The selection was… okay, but only one laptop really stood out: an HP Pavilion DM4. It only had a 14″ screen, but it boasted an 8 hour battery and weighed only 4.4 pounds. It also came with an offer to bundle in MS Office at a discount ($50 off), racking up a final price tag of $695.47. Pricey, but the battery life and the weight really caught my eye.

Best Buy had the best selection. Six made the muster, the best deal being a Toshiba E-350. 15.6″ in screen, a six-hour battery, and it weighed in at 5.5 pounds. All for $537.97 (with MS Office and tax). The two runners up were the HP B940 and the HP i3-2310M. Both had 14″ screens, six hour batteries (the i3 boasted 6.75) and both weighed in at 4.4 lbs. The B940 was three dollars cheaper, but the i3 came with a higher price tag (Office & tax: $748.98)

The problem is that, as a consumer, I’m not sure if I trust Best Buy. There used to be a similar BigBoxTech style store called CompUsa, and shopping with them yielded less than stellar results — one of which led to my mother being conned into buying an extended warranty that on paper only covered manufacturer’s defects. In other words the salesman lied to my Mom. That’s an act of war in my book. Plus, I’ve heard many tales of woe when it came to calling on BestBuy for support.

I frequently shop at Office Depot, but for some reason today I felt crowded in by sales people, including an HP rep who really wanted my business. Then she got two other clerks in on the conversation and they moved around me to compare systems while effectively talking amongst themselves. It gave me this odd vibe, like I was wanted as a customer but not valued. Four systems made the list, but the best was a Toshiba L655-S5153 — 15.6″ screen, 5 hour battery, 5.48 pounds, all for $588.39. The other three computers weighed in about the same, had the same screen size and slightly better batteries (by about 15 minutes, but the prices were at least $100 higher. Nothing they had there weighed under five pounds as far as I can recall. It was hard to jot things down while the sales people clustered around me.

HHGregg was actually a waste of my time. Only a handful of laptops met the requirement for battery life and none of them listed to weight or offered an easy way to look that info up. Both Office Max and Office Depot had all the stats I needed, and while Best Buy didn’t, they had those little QR codes for each system, so I could scan them and look them up without talking to anyone. Misanthropy aside, I was just there to gather data — I didn’t want to talk to sales people.

So with all this in mind, I’ve got it narrowed down to two picks. Office Max’s HP DM4, or Best Buy’s Toshiba. The next step is to look up product reviews — yeah, I know it’s kind of like reading book reviews on Amazon, but there might just be a smidge or two of information that could sway my decision.

We’ll see what happens. I could be making a decision later this week…

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