Having been in the technology industry for so long, and specifically Microsoft for the last 10+ years, I often have friends, family or even random encounters at social gatherings asking me about which device they should be buying. With the launch of the new Surface 3 this is even truer than ever.
So, if you are in the same situation, here is the types of questions (and my answers) I usually ask people to help them make their choice.
Disclaimer: I’m talking here about Windows devices. Although Macs are actually really good Windows machines, my focus will be on the Windows ecosystem, although, as you will see, my guidance is more about form factors than actual devices.
To help them chose I usually start with the following questions. Unfortunately, there are too many of them that a simple 2-D graph could be used to directly map the answers to a particular device. Still, answering these questions should help get someone to the best possible answer.
- What is your budget?
- What apps do you plan to run on it? How much storage would you need? (I bundle these because apps –like video editing- will influence storage needs)
- Do you think your needs will evolve quickly in time? (particularly useful to go either the cheap and change often or more expensive and keep routes, or to go for all-in-ones vs. desktop one)
- How do you plan to use your device? (in % time for each usage)
- At a work desk (when you know you’ll have access to (a) large display(s), keyboard and mouse, maybe wired Ethernet connection)
- On a table (be it in your kitchen, at Starbucks, on a touch-down space at work)
- In a plane – working
- In a meeting (presenting and/or taking notes)
- On your coach at home, on a plane entertaining yourself, on a treadmill – all types of “content consumption” scenarios.
- Other modes?
I will use this framework applied to a particular scenario to show how I come to my conclusions. No rocket science here, just a bit of structure.
But first, let me list what are the devices form factor options:
- Traditional desktop machine, whether a low, mid or high-end one.
- All-in-One integrated Display+PC
- Traditional Laptop (touch or not)
- 2-in-1 Laptop (that can convert from Laptop to Tablet either by folding or removing the keyboard
- Surface-like device: a Tablet with an good Laptop-like keyboard and stand experience
- Tablet (of various sizes, 8” to 12” mostly)
Usually, question 4) is the one to get started with: how will you use your device the most?
Here are a few scenarios:
- A: A typical knowledge worker, I’m working most of the time on my work desk with my big display but I regularly go to meeting where I present and/or take notes. I also need to be able to works for several hours from my laptop when I travel. Finally I seldom use it as a passive consumption device, except maybe in the plane. I don’t really run CPU-intensive apps (like CAD, Video Editing, development tools…) but I often have multiple apps open and running such as Outlook, OneNote, several Browser tabs, Skype or Skype for Business (or both!), PowerPoint, etc. I have a typical corporate budget for this machine.
- B: I mostly work at touch-down spaces or at Starbucks. I do lots of my email and prep-documents reading while on my treadmill or watching TV in the evening. I don’t want to spend much on this device.
- C: I’m a stay at home mom. I don’t really have a desk so I need to bring my machine from a place I put it away to the dinner table. I don’t really use it for any content consumption, mostly to take care of kids and house stuff so my typical apps are m browser, Word, Outlook, Skype and I love to have some music playing in the background (Pandora, Spotify, etc.) while doing this.
- D: I travel a lot, use my “free” time (such as plane rides) to code some new cool tools for my product, and like to watch Netflix in bed on my device. I can spend around $1,500, give or take a few hundred dollars.
I could probably come up with another dozen examples but these should suffice to explain the thinking and decision process.
Assuming I have a decent budget (~$1,500-2,000) in this case I would advise a mid to top of the line (i5 or i7, 4-8GB RAM) 14” touch laptop, with a SSD drive, with a USB 3.0 port replicator and large displays. Here is the rationale:
- I’m working most of the time on my work desk with my big display => Need (a) large display(s) and a PC with a graphic card powerful enough to drive this/these display(s), maybe even multiple displays.
- Regularly go to meeting where I present and/or take note => Avoid laptops with display sizes >14” else it will be too cumbersome to walk around with.
- Need to be able to works for several hours from the laptop when I travel => Need good battery life (so SSD definitely better than regular HD), and a display large enough that it is not too strenuous on the eyes. I personally find 13.5-14” to be a good size/legibility compromise.
- Seldom use it as a passive consumption device, except maybe in the plane. => Don’t really need a Tablet mode. Therefore, 2-in-1, Surface-like and Tablet computers are therefore not necessary. However, if I do use it to consume content on a plane I definitely don’t want a display larger than 14” (unless I can convince my boss to always fly me business )
- I don’t really run CPU-intensive apps (like CAD, Video Editing, development tools…) but I often have multiple apps open and running such as Outlook, OneNote, several Browser tabs, Skype or Skype for Business (or both!), PowerPoint, etc. : Lots of editing, so I want a real full-fledge keyboard for my travels (for meetings a Surface-like keyboard could suffice but if I do a lot of data entry I’d rather go for a real keyboard), and enough memory and CPU power to have all the apps opened at the same time.
Scenarios B: Mostly work from my laptop
A 13-14” 2-in-1 would be probably the best option for this person. Alternatively, depending on the budget, (s)he could also go the 2-devices route with a cheap 8-inch tablet (such as the Dell Venues) for content consumption, and a regular low to mid-end laptop for the rest.
- I mostly work at touch-down spaces or at Starbucks => A real laptop is needed to get a decent sized display and a real keyboard. However it should not be larger than 14” for portability reasons.
- I do lots of my email and prep-documents reading while on my treadmill or watching TV in the evening => 2-in-1 to be in Tablet mode for your treadmill/TV, or buy a second, inexpensive, 8” tablet.
The beauty of this 2-devices solution is that even a cheap $200 Windows 8/10 tablet supports all your PC apps and can be used as a spare device (in case of problem with the first one), or for “just in case” times when you don’t want to carry your main machine (weight, size, risks of being broken or stolen) but where a 8” tablet, maybe with a small mobile keyboard, can work good enough for a little while. You can even plug this tablet at home or work to an external display, a keyboard and a mouse and use it as a full featured –though not very powerful- desktop PC!
Scenario C: Stay-at-home mom
A 14” to 15” low to mid-range laptop is probable the best bet.
- I don’t really have a desk so I need to bring my machine from a place I put it away to the dinner table. => Need a laptop/Tablet/2-in-1, not a desktop or all-in-one, to be able to use it around the house then store it when done.
- I don’t really use it for any content consumption => No real need for a Tablet or 2-in-1.
- mostly to take care of kids and house stuff => No need for high-end device CPU, RAM and HD-wise
- I don’t want to spend a lot => An inexpensive (<$500) laptop would be sufficient here. 14” or 15” will provide her with enough screen real estate to work comfortably and as weight and size is not an issue, would cover her needs from a mobility standpoint.
Scenario C’: What if she does want to do the same plus lots if content consumption (web, videos, etc.) while not on her kitchen table?
In this case, as content consumption becomes important, a device like the Surface 3 (not Pro 3) would be a good bet if the display size (10.5”) is sufficient. Affordably priced ($500), she could use the nice type-cover keyboard, or if she wants a cheaper/better one use any $20-$40 Bluetooth keyboard. This Atom-powered Surface 3 and its small display could be the best compromise in this case. However, this won’t work if the 10.5” display size is too small.
The alternative in this case, for probably a total budget of $100 more or so than a Surface 3 + keyboard, she could also find both an inexpensive Laptop and an 8” tablet and buy both. The obvious advantage of the 1-device (Surface 3) solution being that if she also plan to carry the device around this is a much more convenient (keyboard, weight…) solution than the 2-devices one.
Scenarios D: The road-warrior
For this scenario, depending on the user, either a 2-in-1 or Surface Pro 3 device would be the best bets.
- I travel a lot => Has to be a light device with good batter life.
- Use my free time (such as plane rides) to code some new cool tools for my product => Powerful (i5, i7) machine. Not an Atom processor. Also a real keyboard. I can’t use an onscreen one only.
- Like to watch movies in bed on my device => should be able to easily go into tablet mode.
Depending on the person own preferences or priorities (including budget), the scale will tilt towards the 2-in-1 (potentially larger display, better keyboard, potentially lower cost) or the Surface Pro 3 like device (weight, width, ratio consumption/production of content). Either one of them could them have a docking station/USB 3.0 port replicator at home or work for desktop-like usage. A nice icing on the cake.
There is no one-size-fits all device. That’s one of the reasons I prefer the Windows ecosystem to the Mac one. Scenarios, budgets, etc. all have influence on what the best device is. Hopefully the framework above and the examples I gave will help you find you “perfect” device(s).
If you have a specific scenario not covered here and you can’t figure out what to buy using the framework above, leave me a comment and I’ll try to help you figure this out. Just answer the questions 1 to 4 above first.