Buying a new computer can be a very exciting experience, but it can also be incredibly frustrating and gut-wrenching when you're not really sure which way to turn. It also doesn't help if you happen to be tighter on funds--either by personality or by circumstance--but you know that you'll be happier when you finally have that new computer in your hands.
We're doing something a little bit different today. Instead of doing a more conventional review of my recently purchased ultrabook, I thought it might be worthwhile to describe my buying experience and my journey to make that decision. The laptop that I ultimately chose is a little off the beaten path and I'm glad I took the road less travelled, but I'm hoping that this rough shopping guide might aid in your future PC-buying adventures too.
Identifying My Specific Needs
The first thing that I did, and the first thing that everyone should do, is to identify the particular needs and preferences that I want to have addressed with my purchase. My desktop PC is far newer and more up to date than the laptop I'm replacing, so I didn't have to think about the whole desktop vs. notebook debate. I also got to forego the DIY vs. pre-assembled thing, because notebook PCs are (generally) not of the DIY variety.
For my part, I do most of my actual work on my desktop. Realistically, the laptop only comes into play when I travel or if I have the occasional remote work session at an office or coffee shop. What this meant was that I didn't need to have a powerhouse of a notebook. What it also meant was that I valued portability, which is why I wanted an ultrabook. Something along the lines of the Dell XPS 13 or similar seemed like it would fit the bill.
At the same time, I recognized that I needed some horsepower for photo editing and light video editing. So, relying simply on a netbook or tablet probably wouldn't cut the mustard.
Performance, Portability and Price
The exact same philosophy applies to buying a PC, except the three main factors are performance, portability and price. You can have a high-powered and reasonably portable notebook, but it's going to cost you. For example, even the base model of the Samsung Series 9 starts at $1,399 and the SKU I reviewed had an MSRP of $2,399 at time of testing. I didn't want to spend that kind of coin.
Now, your particular situation will certainly vary, but for me, I wanted to keep the price on the lower-end (keeping to under $800 or so if possible) and I wanted a notebook in the 13-inch kind of range. A little bit of added performance was also desired, but I knew that this would require sacrifices in other areas. To this end, I was probably looking for something with a 3rd-gen Core i5 and about 4GB of RAM. Dedicated graphics would be nice, but integrated should suffice.
Windows 7 or Windows 8?
Without getting too far into the whole Mac vs. PC debate, I want to state that I did consider a MacBook Air at one point. Best Buy had last year's 11-inch model fully spec'd out with a better processor and bigger SSD for about $800. That seemed like a pretty good deal, considering the same specs would have run about $1600 at launch.
I ultimately decided that a Windows notebook (particularly an ultrabook or an ultrabook-like laptop) would be more suitable, as they're generally cheaper spec-for-spec and it'd be more compatible with my existing software, accessories and so on. And so, the next decision was Windows 7 or Windows 8. I would have really liked to get a touchscreen-enabled Windows 8 machine, so that I'd keep current with the times, but I was willing to go to Windows 7 if the right deal showed up. After all, the Windows 8 upgrade is currently selling for only $40 or so. I'd lack the touchscreen, but that's not a huge concern at this point for me.
Some Viable Candidates
With those rough guidelines in place, I set out on my shopping journey. One product that lept out at me was the Asus VivoBook X202E. Using our pricing engine, I found the X202E retailing for about $550. It hit on a lot of my key criteria: It was cheap; It was Windows 8 with a touchscreen; It was thin and light with a 11.6-inch display. I thought about this long and hard--it didn't help that it was perpetually out of stock--but I ultimately decided against it because the 11.6-inch display might be too small, the Core i3-3217U (1.8GHz) might not cut the mustard, and did I mention that it was almost always out of stock?
Another ultrabook that I considered was the Lenovo IdeaPad U310. Current pricing is in the $640-$790 range, according to our shopping engine, but I originally spotted a deal a couple of months ago. Unfortunately, customer and online reviews cited connection issues with the Wi-Fi. I really didn't want to bother with that. It was also slightly on the heavy side for the size. This might have worked out, but I ended up finding something that may have suited me even better.