Know Your Options
Your “user type” will ultimately dictate the type of computer you need, and we’re not just talking about different operating systems here. Rather, we mean literally the “form factor” (a fancy term for the basic shell that holds the computer’s insides) that your family needs. Even within categories (laptops, for instance) the options can be confusing, so we’ve broken down the basic types of computers by usage to help your family make a smart choice.
Laptops and Tablets
Otherwise known as notebook computers, laptops make great choices for students, working parents, or anyone else who needs the freedom to work, study and play remotely. Conversely, because they omit things like tactile QWERTY keyboards and productivity software, tablets are more about consuming (as opposed to creating) stuff: streaming movies, checking social media sites, or playing your favorite games. Though as these devices get more powerful, some old lines are starting to blur.
Everyday Laptops: “Everyday” might seem like shorthand for “middle of the road,” but this wide category includes everything from budget-friendly options to sleek entertainment systems. Broadly speaking, everyday laptops run between 14 and 15 inches and include a few notable features that more specialized models omit to save space and reduce weight: things like a built-in CD or DVD drive; a wider, brighter screen; more memory (RAM); and more powerful processors for multitasking chores such as browsing the Web and doing homework at the same time. (Hey, we know it’s going to happen.)
Ultraportable Laptops: We know what you’re thinking: “Aren’t all laptops ultraportable?” Well, yes, to some degree, but have you ever tried lugging around an eight-pound desktop replacement? True ultraportables bridge the thin-and-light gap between netbooks and general-purpose laptops. This makes them ideal for families who need to do more than send email or take notes in class, but who also spend a lot of time either on the road or away from power outlets. Price ranges can vary wildly in this category, too: from to the $399 Dell Vostro V130 to the $1,000-plus Macbook Air and Samsung Series 9. You’ll know a laptop is ultraportable based on screen size (generally speaking, 11 to 13.3 inches) and weight (under four pounds). Many ultraportable laptops also promise longer battery life than their general-purpose counterparts.
Netbooks: Just a few years ago, these pint-sized devices, with their 10-inch screens, super-efficient processors, and ability to run productivity software such as Microsoft Office, were the ideal solution for catching up on work, sending email, or taking notes without having to lug around a full-sized laptop. However, as tablets have gotten more powerful and productivity tools have gone into the cloud (meaning most of your stuff is available 24/7 via the Web), the only benefit netbooks seem to offer is the fact that they have physical keyboards. Granted, Netbooks also offer a price benefit, ranging between $179 and $300, as well as long (generally upward of six hours) battery life. This makes them ideal for taking notes, writing papers, or catching up on email. Just don’t plan to do any of these things simultaneously – there’s no such thing as multitasking on a 10-inch screen.
Chromebooks: Powered by Google but manufactured by companies ranging from Acer to Samsung, this relatively new laptop category seems poised to bridge the gap between tablets and netbooks – which is to say, it’s the missing link between computing comfortably (with a full-sized keyboard and 11- to 12-inch screen) and doing everything free online via the cloud. Unlike every other available laptop, Chromebooks have no means of storing files or programs internally, so if you have no Wi-Fi or Web connection, you basically have no computer. With an active connection, however, you have all of your documents, files, friends, and email messages with you at all times, continually backed up via one of Google’s gazillion servers.
Desktop Replacements: True, all laptops are “desktop replacements” in some way, but not all laptops can replace a desktop equally. You’ll know you have a true desktop replacement when your laptop feels like a burden to carry – well-stocked desktop replacements can run upward of eight pounds. However, being able to take it with you has benefits if you’re a traveling gamer or graphics geek, or simply someone who wants the freedom to have a powerful computer on the road. With their large screens (16-plus inches is common) and roomier insides, desktop replacements from HP, Dell, Sony and others can accommodate the sort of memory, graphics and storage capabilities you’d traditionally only find in a large, stationary tower PC.
Tablets: You know Apple’s iPad, but how well do you know the gazillion Android tablets on the market, or the lone WebOS (HP’s operating system) tablet, the HP TouchPad? All of these devices have their fans and detractors, but the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that tablets haven’t yet risen up to overthrow the home computer (yet). That’s because, unlike computers, tablets have a few built-in limitations: namely, their relatively small screens (from seven to 10 inches) and their lack of a “true” tactile keyboard. True, you can dock a tablet to a monitor and keyboard, and whether free (Google Docs) or paid (Quickoffice Pro HD), productivity software is fast becoming standard on tablets. Where your family is concerned, however, a tablet would probably work best as a secondary gadget – something you use to browse the Web, stay in touch with friends and family, and keep the kids entertained. At least until Microsoft Office enters the picture.
Desktops and Tower PCs
Simultaneously larger and more expandable (usually via a slide-out case or latch) than their laptop siblings, desktop PCs offer room for more internal gadgetry, such as memory and graphics cards, that can make a huge difference in your computing experience, particularly if you and your family play a lot of games and use a lot of different programs at once.
Performance Desktops and Workstations: Whether your family includes a gamer or a graphic artist, a performance desktop or workstation gives you a computer that can withstand intense graphics rendering and content creation under long hours of use. Both categories of desktop come armed with the same heavy processing, graphics and memory capabilities, as well as plenty of room to add memory, graphics cards and related hardware as technology improves. The primary difference between the two categories is classification: A workstation tends to be used in professional settings (and may even be certified to run CAD software or other graphics-intensive programs), while a performance desktop may be anything from an off-the-shelf gaming PC (such as an Alienware system) to a fully tricked-out, home-built model.
Slim Towers and Mini Towers: Previously noted performance benefits aside, desktop PCs present a few issues for space-constrained families. Not only are those towers immovable, but you also need a place to store them – (preferably away from dust and little fingers). Slim towers and mini towers – both increasingly common form factors – solve for this with slimmer cases (generally a hair over four inches wide) that accommodate powerful hardware in far less space.
All-in-Ones: The main benefit of having a monitor, desktop PC and speaker system in one device isn’t related to computing at all. It’s about how the computer looks and fits in your home. Sleek and space-efficient, all-in-ones also offer the benefit of one-cord setup, which means you can plug-and-place them virtually anywhere you have a free tabletop and an open power outlet. Add a wireless keyboard and mouse, and you have zero cable clutter to interfere with your workspace. With some all-in-ones – Dell’s Inspiron 2305 or Sony’s VAIO L, for instance – touch-screen capability means you barely have to touch use the keyboard or mouse at all.
Miniature Desktops: We’ve showed you how your family can save space with a slim tower and economize your accessories with a sleek all-in-one – but what if you’re extremely space-conscious? A miniature desktop, such as the adorably efficient Mac Mini ($599) or made-for-entertainment Dell Inspiron Zino HD ($399), could be just the solution you need. Though bereft of a keyboard, mouse, or monitor – which is to say, all the stuff you need to turn them into a workable computer – these teeny-tiny pieces of tech make ideal everyday desktops for kids’ bedrooms and other small areas. Plus, because they easily connect to TVs, game systems, and other devices, they can also be used as streaming-media entertainment systems, easily tucked behind the TV when not in use.