This is no way to buy a Windows PC

This is no way to buy a Windows PC

Summary: There's no shortage of Windows PCs and tablets from which to choose, but there's still no good way to make the choice.


For the past few months, I've been in the market for a new Windows PC.


Not a two-in-one. Not a tablet. A PC. I wanted a laptop with a permanently attached keyboard and a flat base that also was thin, light, had good battery life and a decent screen. I didn't mind if it ran Windows 7 or Windows 8 and also was indifferent as to whether it had a touch screen. I wasn't looking for bargain-basement pricing; I was willing to pay good money for a good machine.

I discovered a few things during my search. But it all boiled down to this: There's no shortage of Windows PCs and tablets from which to choose. But there's no good way to make the choice.

I live in New York City -- a city with no Microsoft Store beyond a small kiosk in Columbus Circle. (Yes, I know I sound like a broken record.) There are a number of retailers in New York City that sell Windows PCs, including but not limited to Best Buy and Staples. Last year, when Microsoft announced a campaign to work with Best Buy to build "Store within a Store" for Windows-based machines, I was hopeful that I'd finally have a useful way to evaluate Windows PCs and tablets, side-by-side.

I was wrong.

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Repeated visits between October 2013 and just this week to two major Best Buys in Manhattan resulted in frustration. Windows 8 PCs were frozen or broken. Often there was no working Internet connection. Spec labels didn't match the devices. Devices were tethered so tightly to tables that it was impossible to lift them to get a sense of their real weight. During one visit, someone had just pulled the tethered PC I wanted to look at a little too far and an alarm began shrieking. I waited for five minutes and decided to leave when no employee arrived to turn it off.


I just wanted a chance to type on a working Ultrabook, to see for myself how quickly (or not) it opened apps and sites, and to check out whether the track pads actually worked any better than they did three years ago when I bought my most recent Windows laptop.

I read lots of PC and tablet reviews written by my colleagues at ZDNet, CNET and other sites/pubs. I am lucky to know lots of PC reviewers who tolerate my many questions and are quick to make recommendations. But when you're ready to plunk down $1,500+ for a device you want to last for a few years, you want to have a chance to at the very least type on it, surf on it and lift it. At least I do...

Many of the benchmarks published by vendors and reviewers aren't the stats that matter to me. I don't care how long a device can play continuously streaming video. I care more about how long my battery will last when I perform my required tasks intermittently. I had assumed Windows 8 and/or touch was terrible in regards to intermittent/standby battery life based on what I've seen on my Surface RT. I wouldn't have known the truth -- that there are Windows 8 and touch PCs that sleep/wake properly -- without having a chance to use one.

I realize my laundry list of features and usage requirements (must allow for long periods of typing, unplugged, well-balanced on a lap) are particular to what I do and how I work. That's another nice thing about having a choice of form factors. Some people find Microsoft's Surface 2 with a dual-position kickstand "lapable" enough. Some find Windows PCs with four hours of battery life to be plenty because they only need to do short bursts of unplugged work. Some don't care if they can run Win32 apps; for others, it's a must.


After months of asking reviewers and those who'd taken the PC plunge what they liked and didn't, I still didn't feel confident enough to pull the trigger. It seemed every time I turned around, new models of the machines I was considering were appearing on the market with little or no fanfare. 

There is a happy ending to this rant. Thanks to strings pulled by TWiT's Father Robert Ballecer, a k a @PadreSJ, Acer agreed to loan me an Acer Aspire S7 for a couple weeks. After having a chance to put it through its paces, I bought the high-end Core i7 model with 8 GB of RAM, 256 GB SSD and 2560 X 1440 screen a week-plus ago.

I wanted to buy this from the Microsoft online store, so that I could get it crapware-free (Signature Edition), but it was out of stock. (It seems to be back in stock now, of course.) Happily (and surprisingly), when my machine arrived from, it included a card noting I had gotten a Microsoft Signature edition anyway.  

The not-so-happy part of all this: It's still no easier or better to buy a Windows PC in New York City than it was three years ago. For a devices and services company, Microsoft sure makes it tough to try and buy Windows devices.

I'm curious how others out there decide which Windows tablets and PCs to buy, especially if you don't have a Microsoft Store readily accessible. What's your process?

See also:

Topics: Windows 8, Microsoft, Tablets, PCs


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • and YOU'RE a knowledgeable user

    Imagine the experience for my rural-Iowa-farmland Mom if she were to try and accomplish the same thing. THIS is where MS should be focusing its efforts. Getting *proper* representation in stores, not just "there are machines here, we're done" sections
    • Moving Store

      Many, many years ago I was at a large training program and Microsoft had a truck or bus outside that showed off some laptops and their latest products. I was impressed enough that within a couple of weeks I purchased one of the computers I used in that moving store. Maybe they need some more of them.
      • Flag????

        Why does this post deserve a flag? Do people understand that flags are for inappropriate posts to be able to draw the moderators attention to them for deletion. What is inappropriate about the above post? Flags are not votes for agree or disagree.
        • RE:Flag????

          It was probably an accident or someone being a troll. Pay it on mind. I think that you make a great point as far as that would be a great option.

          I'm lucky though that I do have a Microsoft store nearby and in general their staff is very friendly and knowledgeable. I've run them through the paces by playing stupid just to see how they would responde and I've had a very positive experience so far.
          Those who hunt Trolls
        • I agree with you Michael

          The atmosphere in the comments is getting ridiculous. I have abandoned reading several sites because of this issue.

          Sometimes valid and useful comments are worth their weight in gold.
        • Welcome to the "net", Michael..

          Unfortunately, Michael, many posters don't care what any of us think. They made up their minds many years ago, and keep them in a refrigerator where they won't be disturbed. You made a good point, and many of us know it. The "flaggers" don't care...
        • FLAGING

          forums for what for what ever are full of trolls who just love to screw with people who speak the truth, besides being a certified computer tech who takes a lot of mary joes write ups to being hard cold fact or warning of things to come, I moderate in 5 automotive web sites, people if your not in one, you would not believe what some try to do or get away with,

          if you don't agree use the vote button not the flag of which i'm 100% sure several who post here are going to do to me.
        • Troll Bait

          I figured this post would be troll bait. As I am sure that "Those who hunt Trolls" knows trolls are always hungry and easy to catch.
          • These flags are getting ridiculous.

            Honestly, 269 flags on a comment that I made?

            Come on people, the flag button actually does things.

            Are you sure you want to alert the moderation 269 times about a perfectly normal comment?
          • Maybe....

            Personally, I think that (1) Real names should be used in a technical blog. It you can't stand behind what you have said---you shouldn't have said it. (2) Do away with the "Like" crap (here and in other blogs), including flags, and (3) If you don't like what is being said, (A) Go somewhere else, (B) Mention to the moderator, (3) write a civil reply to the originator explaining your displeasure.
        • Flags or something more universal

          Maybe the word Flag should be replaced by something that is more universally recognised such as "Report as offensive or inappropriate" Then perhaps moderators could track Trolls and suspend them for inappropriate behaviour.
        • Voting

          Hi :)
          Most sites make it possible to give posts a positive or negative vote. Negative votes push the post further down so that less people see it and if there is a large enough gap they sometimes hide the comment so that you have to click a few buttons to read it at all. It makes such sites much more popular.

          ZdNet used to have this functionality but removed it and then seemed to find viewing figures started to drop so they re-added the vote and the flag. At first people treated the flag in the way you describe but then discovered that it doesn't really work that way. The ZdNet implementation of the flag is more like a most normal site's "down thumb"

          It's a shame that ZdNet don't have a proper flag system! They would need to reintroduce the "down thumb" system before re-introducing a proper down-thumb because people have learned that ZdNet do it wrong and would continue to use it as per the current design.

          Looks like a fish but steers like a cow
          Regards from
          Tom :)
          • tpyos!

            Hi :)
            Grrr, sorry about those!
            Regards from
            Tom :)
          • Exactly

            It is a rebellion against the trend that "no downvotes shall exist or be seen!" With an option that can be interpreted as a negative reaction to the words they read, the flag is going to be used. If Zdnet doesn't like it, then have vote up, vote down, and report offensive post buttons. This isn't kindergarten where you need to protect little kids feelings from being hurt when someone disagrees with them.
      • RE: Moving Store

        Not sure if they were the same thing, but I saw the big MS tractor trailers at seminars also.
        IIRC, they were deployed to a Gulf Coast Disaster (Katrina?) as mobile communication sites
        and I never heard about them again.
    • Rock, meet hard place.

      Microsoft can be "focusing its efforts" on that all it wants, but it doesn't mean anything until an OEM does too. And any OEM that tries is going to get killed because the vast majority of technology buyers who are willing to pay a premium for a better buying and computing experience already went to an Apple Store and bought a Mac.

      "High-end Windows" buyers represent such a small portion of Windows buyers that it's not worth the effort for any company, Microsoft or OEM, to go after them. They've basically ceded that market to Apple.
      • You're kidding right?

        Apple's OSX has less market-share than Windows 8. But you're saying that all the "high-end" PC shoppers are going to the Apple store? I find that hard to believe. There are plenty of high-end Windows shoppers. I am one of them, and am currently looking at a high-end laptop for myself. It is true, that very few OEMs replicate the level of quality that Apple does when it comes to hardware. But they're getting better.
        • Apple can do it better because

          ...they make and sell the PCs as well as the software to run on them.

          MS don't do the hardware thing (except for a few minor peripherals), so they don't have the chance to sell the Apple way.

          But in the UK I can go into PC World, and try out HP, Toshiba, Fujitsu tablets, laptops and desktops all running Windows - or Apple machines running Apple software.

          Maybe it's just US retailers who need to get their act together?
          • I think you're right

            An MS store only makes sense for MS products. With regards the surface, yes it does make sense to have microsoft areas of stores like pc world, but they should follow apple's lead, and train the staff who work in those areas.

            In pc world their apple store within a store is actively overseen by apple retail uk who help train the staff for those areas. Ms should be looking to adopt a similar store withon a store with pc world for their surface line.

            As for the pc in general, as i can see it warehouses like PC world are surely the only way to go? They are the only logical way to compete with online sales of pcs. To get just some of the range of machines outthere, a warehouse industrial park outfit is the way to go. Mumma and papa's lil computer store would be eaten alive by amazon's price and range so fast it just couldn't be viable.

            The only high street computer retails the work are part of the giant chains and only sell the biggest selling machines or are the small chains that get by selling higher priced machines, but offering instore laptop repairs to build a client base.
          • Today's "high end" PC

            Is next year's bargain-priced computer. I never saw a good reason to buy the latest-and-greatest technology. It would make me feel like a sucker doing so.