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Best & Worst Big-Box Laptop Retailers

Undercover testing at notebook retailers like Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and others proves that not all shopping experiences are the same.


Notebook SelectionC-
Product KnowledgeD
Overall GradeD

Massapequa,NY, and Islandia, NY

After being enticed by ads trumpeting Wal-Mart's efforts to improve its electronics department, we hoped to find better conditions at the retail giant this year. But since this makeover process is still under development, we thought it fair to evaluate one store that had been enhanced and one that had not.

When we strode toward the renovated computer area in Massapequa, we were pleased to see that it looked very much like what one would find in a Best Buy. Instead of appearing hastily cobbled together as an afterthought, the various tech toys and accessories were divided into very clean (but short) isles.

A few feet away, a circular help desk displayed a number of gadgets--something that we hadn't seen at other local Wal-Marts. A friendly woman manned this desk, offering helpful shopping advice. We explored the laptop aisle while she assisted other customers, and came away very disappointed. Despite the new layout, the Dell, HP, and Toshiba noteboks were sealed behind the same plastic, jewelry store-style covering as with anynon-updated Wal-Mart, which meant we couldn't sample a system's keyboard quality, test the viewing angles, or perform any of our other hands-on tests. (Wal-Mart told us after our testing that many of its so-called Project Impact stores feature laptops, cell phones, and other electronics products outside their display units, but it's up to the management team at each location.)

Frustrated, we flagged down a passing associate. The friendly, blonde woman greeted us with a smile, but didn't offer her name. When we asked her for the definition of a netbook, sheoffered that they were "good backup computers that are easy to carry," which is true. We then asked if she could explain the purpose of Nvidia graphics. After hesitating for a moment, she stated that they were for gaming, but she couldn't come up with any other benefit. She told us HDMI was for "connecting to a TV or monitor," but didn'tpoint outthe most basic function: delivering a high-definition signal. Optical drives, she said, were "important for watching movies and playing games," though she didn't mention downloads as an option.

The Islandia Wal-Mart location was a wasteland. We walked through the computer section in legitimate confusion as we simply could not locate any of the store's notebooks. Three workers stood around joking amongst themselves while we desperately attempted to make eye contact. After waiting about five minutes for a response, we approached them.

One of the gentlemen (who didn't introduce himself)escorted us to the notebook section, which consisted of boxed systems sitting beneath the counter in a glass enclosure. When we asked him to remove a notebook so we could inspect it, he said he wasn't allowed to do that. Then he got a call on his cell phone, which he answered without excusing himself.

After he hung up, we asked about the differences between netbooks and notebooks. He knew netbooks are small and portable, but he "wouldn't recommend a netbook to anyone with extremely thick fingers, as one finger could cover two keys." (Granted, the first generation of netbooks were difficult to type on due to small, cramped keys, but the current crop has comfortable, well-designed keyboards.)

When we asked if there were any benefits to netbooks other than portability--even in regards to battery life--he sadly shook his head. "They have small batteries--they're only this big," he said, motioning with his fingers. "You can't get much out of that." He was way wrong; netbooks with six-cell batteries have lasted longer than eight hours on our LAPTOP Battery Test.

In a burst of honesty, the sales rep said we should shop elsewhere when we asked about discrete GPUs, because Wal-Mart doesn't stock computers that offer good graphic performance.

Wal-Mart proved to be one of the worst places to visit for those in need of a new notebook. Being unable to touch a computer is bad enough, but the inattentive and uneducated service only makes matters worse.

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