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You can still buy laptops with Windows 7, but Windows 8 is the new standard. Some people dislike the tiled interface and new controls in Windows 8 while others find them fresh, modern and easy to use.
Some concerns about Windows 8 are likely to fade this fall when Microsoft rolls out a free update — Windows 8.1 — that gives users more ways to tweak and customize the system.
Don’t fret about the pending 8.1 update. I’ve installed it on several machines and it’s a breeze, as long as your PC is up to date when you start the process.
Apple also is preparing an update to its OS X operating system, dubbed Mavericks, which is coming this fall — if you’re planning to lasso a new Mac.
Laptops running Google’s Chrome operating system are available for $200 to $300, which is remarkably cheap for a decent laptop.
The trade-off is that these Chromebooks are “closed gardens” managed by Google and bound to its online services. They have minimal storage because they’re designed largely to access files and programs on Google’s network. I don’t think the price is low enough to justify this unsettling loss of autonomy.
PC makers also are offering fun “convertibles” that switch from laptops to tablets, but they can be hard to find on store shelves. Some have detachable displays that can be used like an iPad. Others have displays that slide or rotate down over the keyboard. I’ve seen nice hybrids in the $500 to $700 range, but some have smaller storage capacity and lower-powered processors, meaning they’re fine for general usage but not heavy-duty video games.
Having a touch screen isn’t absolutely necessary, but it’s nice to have on a Windows 8 laptop. It’s handy to reach out and tap and swipe the on-screen “buttons.”
Intel’s new Haswell processors have dramatically improved battery life on laptops, but they’re not cheap or widespread yet. Apple began using Haswell processors on its svelte MacBook Air in June, but hasn’t yet added them to its full-size MacBook Pro models.
Windows PCs with Haswell processors may cost $800 or more. Air models with a 13-inch display start at about $1,100.
Haswell PCs may run eight or more hours on a charge. That’s important for business users and air travelers, but not critical if the PC will be mostly used near power outlets at home or school.
The trick to spotting Haswell processors — if they’re not being trumpeted by the PC maker — is in the series of four digits in the processor’s name. A series that starts with “4” is fourth-generation, or Haswell. For instance, an Intel i7 4600 is fourth-generation while an i7 3520 is a third-generation processor.
Other things to look for
If you’re buying a PC for a student, Microsoft Office is a good addition, but don’t overspend on the software. Students get phenomenal discounts on Office through schools or Microsoft. The company is now offering, for instance, a four-year student license to the full Office suite for $79.
Look for a laptop with at least one USB 3.0 port. USB 3.0 passes data through far faster than USB 2.0 ports — up to 10 times faster, according to the USB trade group. The plug design didn’t change, so you don’t have to worry about buying new cables.
There’s a new, faster flavor of Wi-Fi available now called 802.11ac. It’s a nice addition, but it’s not essential or widely used yet. The current standard is 802.11n. If you need to upgrade later, you can plug an 802.11ac adapter into your USB 3.0 port.