Buying a new notebook is a personal and important decision that shouldn't be made on a whim. Even if you wind up purchasing your laptop online, the hands-on experience at a retail outlet could be an invaluable part of the shopping process. Ideally, you should be able to gauge a prospective system's weight, check the display's viewing angles, hear the speakers, inspect the design, and test the keyboard and touchpad. Product reviews and image galleries are a necessary start, but they don't always give you the complete picture.
That makes brick-and-mortar retailers potentially invaluable to the consumer. Not only should you find a location that will let you test drive a potential purchase, but the sales team should be able to answer your most important questions, such as, "Do I need an optical drive?" or "What is HDMI?"
MORE: Best Laptops 2014
To keep you from striking out on your next notebook hunting trip, we went undercover at the biggest national chains where laptops are sold, including the Apple Store, Best Buy, Costco, Staples, and Wal-Mart. The goal? To find a haven where we could lift a machine to gauge weight, type on the keyboard, see the screen and its viewing angles, and connect a flash drive full of documents and media to test the speakers. We visited two locations of each chain, quizzing the staff along the way to test their knowledge of the following topics:
The differences between netbooks and notebooks
The relevance of optical drives
The definition of HDMI
The benefits of discrete graphics
Read on to find out which brick-and-mortar stores soared and which ones sank.
New York, NY (14th St. and 9th Ave., 58th St. and 5th Ave.)
During our first visit to an Apple Store in downtown Manhattan, we were greeted immediately with a warm smile from Michael. When we asked about netbooks, he told us these are small, lightweight, underpowered computers designed as secondary systems--much like the MacBook Air, which he led us over to inspect. This description was more-or-less true (with the exception of the Air's $1,499 price). When we asked about buying a Mac netbook, Michael said we'd need to visit a store that sells PCs, because Apple doesn't make netbooks.
When Michael noted the Air's lack of an optical drive, we asked if missing such a component should be a deal breaker. He told us, "The way technology changes, and as we move to a digital download lifestyle, there may be less need [for a disc drive]." However, he immediately mentioned Apple's $99 external optical drives.
Michael recommended a regular MacBook for most users, and mentioned the Nvidia GPU as a stand-out feature. When we asked what that meant, he said that it was an outstanding graphics card for playing games and editing photos and movies. He gave us a refreshingly thorough lesson on the differences between integrated and discrete graphics. He knew the basics of HDMI, and suggested that if we were to buy a MacBook and wanted to output an image to a larger display or TV, we would need a DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter and an audio cable, because DisplayPort does not support audio.
We were able to connect our flash drive to a MacBook which, while locked to the power cord, was easy to lift off the table. We played some tunes at maximum volume for a few seconds, typed a few lines in Microsoft Word to test the keyboard's build, lifted the machine to judge the display's viewing angles, and joined the dozens of other people in the store who were test driving a Mac (or just checking Facebook and personal e-mail).
At New York City's 24-hour Apple Store on 5th Avenue, we experienced similar top-notch customer service. We were greeted by a big smile from Jesse seconds after entering. Upon asking if Apple made netbooks, he said no, but recommended the MacBook Air for its light weight. He correctly defined this popular category as small, lightweight machines that "aren't designed as primary computers."
On the topic of optical drives, Jesse told us each user's needs are different, but that a majority of programs we may need are available online. For graphics, we prompted him to escort us to a large "Which Mac Is For You" display, which broke down the features of the different MacBooks in Apple's arsenal. He explained the benefits of Nvidia's GPUs in MacBooks: "Good gaming and video editing performance." When we asked about HDMI, he said the connection "provides a great image" and that we would need a DVI-to-HDMI converter to export a MacBook's screen to a monitor or TV with that port.
You have to hand it to Apple. The company has created one of the most welcoming retail environments around; we weren't pushed to get a warranty, the store was clean, and the employees were helpful. Assuming you're in the market for a Mac, no other shopping experience can compare.
New York, NY (23rd St. and 6 Ave.), and Bay Shore, NY
Considering the small amount of floor space that some Best Buys devote to computers, it should be easy to find a salesperson, right? Wrong. During our first visit to Best Buy on 23rd St. in Manhattan, we slowly moved from notebook to notebook, which were bolted to the counter,preventing us from picking up the machines. We desperately tried to make eye contact with three employees on the floor, but had no success. So, we popped our flash drive into a Toshiba netbook and played music to test the speakers at max volume. Then we opened a Word doc and tested the keyboard. No employee even blinked an eye.
After nearly five minutes, we took the initiative to ask an employee about the difference between notebooks and netbooks. The rather tall gentleman (who did not greet us with his name) accurately informed us that, in comparison to regular notebooks, netbooks are secondary PCs that are "smaller, slower, and real basic." He recommended an $80 external optical drive, which he incorrectly said would be necessary if we wanted to watch movies. He also suggested that we needed antivirus protection and an extended warranty.
The Best Buy associate recommended we purchase a laptop to play games, but when we asked about graphics, his eyes glazed over. He found another salesperson, who happened to be more knowledgeable. The new, still anonymously unnamed employee explained that ATI and Nvidia GPUs are "more advanced," and that Intel's integrated GPU "is crap." Discrete graphics, he said, improve a screen's resolution (false), and help you play games. He then correctly and succinctly explained HDMI.
We found a Toshiba Satellite T135-S1309 without an optical drive and asked if we needed one. "Lots of people don't use disc drives," said the second salesman,"but I do for burning DVDs. It depends on how you use [the laptop]."
The experience at the Bay Shore location was much better. The store wasn't very crowded, but the computer section was packed. Three employees were engaged in rather deep conversations with potential buyers, so we pulled out our trusty USB key and set to testing. Unfortunately, only a few of the computers were actually usable--the majority were running demos that we couldn't figure out how to exit, or were password protected. We finally found an ASUS desktop replacement to pop our flash drive into; we listened to music at full volume, typed a few lines in Word, and scrutinized the viewing angles (due to the security cable, we couldn't lift it very far from the stand on which it sat).
When we found Aaron and probed him on netbooks, he said that they were full of "old Intel processors that are marginally more powerful than decade-old desktops." He suggested we look at them if we wanted nothing more than a Web-surfing device.
Aaron gave us more information about HDMI than we would ever need. When we asked if the lack of an optical drive would be an issue, he nodded and sadly told us we'd "need one for reinstalling Windows at some point." (This is the easiest way to reinstall Windows, but not all notebook owners will need to do this.) He also explained that Nvidia graphics were great for gaming (true), and for editing photos (false) and video (true).
Best Buy's notebook selection is quite good, but its customer service is hit or miss. We'd also like to see more notebooks that are fully functional for in-store test drives.
Commack, NY, and Brooklyn, NY
Showcasing a total of eight notebooks, the laptop area at the Commack CostCo was very small and, incredibly, six of those systems were HPs. We used our flash drive to test out an HP Pavilion notebook, playing music at maximum volume and typing in Word. We lifted the system up to observe viewing angles, which was easy thanks to a flexible security cable that provided enough room to get thorough hands-on time with the PC. By that time, Steve appeared. He correctly explained the difference between netbooks and notebooks, and when we asked if we needed a DVD drive, he told us they're not as important as they used to be, "because you can download everything."
Steve suggested we look at a traditional notebook when we asked about graphics power, explaining that a machine with good graphics didn't cost much more than a netbook, which is wrong. He said that we could "game and make videos" with the extra graphics muscle. After sharing that we wanted to know how to export a laptop's video to a big screen, he misleadingly explained that HDMI is an "HD cable with the best picture."
The Brooklyn location we visited displayed a sparse ten laptops, but there was a better mix: we saw Acer, ASUS, and Toshiba systems. After getting some hands-on time with the notebooks and using our USB key filled with media files, approximately five minutes had passed without seeing a single employee. So we had to ask for assistance.
Michael answered our netbook versus notebook question correctly by telling us netbooks were small and portable, but then said that everyone is making them, "even Mac" (false). When asked if the lack of a DVD player in a netbook would be a problem, he mentioned that most items we'd want are available as downloads, which is true.
When it came to the topic of discrete graphics, Michael said they're good for games, but not much else (false). He also told us that HDMI was a new port designed to connect to HDTVs and monitors, which he offered to show us.
Despite the paltry selection and one flub about Mac netbooks, the salespeople at CostCo were relatively attentive and knowledgeable. Just don't expect much variety.
Manhattan, NY, and Bayside, NY
Our first Staples visit in Manhattan offered fast and friendly customer service, but the employees appear to know very little about notebooks. A salesperson greeted us at the door without stating her name, escorting us to the laptop section that was home to only a handful of netbooks and notebooks. When we asked about the difference between the two types of machines, she correctly told us that netbooks "don't have DVD drives," and that they're good for Web surfing. Then she told us we'd need an external DVD burner because netbooks only house 1GB of memory, which is wrong. We believe she confused 1GB of RAM with the 160GB hard drive, because she also told us that when that 1GB of memory is full, the system will "get slow."
Although the Staples associate identified price, size, and weight as the primary differences between netbooks and notebooks, she didn't mention the meager Intel Atom processor, or its performance. In fact, she wrongly asserted we could play Call of Duty 4 on the ASUS Eee PC we held. When we inquired about the graphics inside, she led us to the desktop GPU section of the store, where she said discrete graphics are ideal for gaming. Why she led us there was a head-scratcher, because you can't install a graphics card on a netbook or notebook. It was there that the associate tried to explain HDMI, saying it "is just a cord. It just depends on the LCD screen."
The Staples rep then pitched us an optical drive as an add-on for the Eee PC, but she pushed an internal drive, not an external one. "We can install it for you," she said. "We have external and internal." We did our best to hold back the laughter. When she stopped to help another customer, we pulled out our USB key to start testing a Sony notebook. Initially, we had a problem finding an open and available port due to the large, ugly brackets that held the laptop in place, but we managed to wedge the drive into a slot and perform out tests. When the Staples rep returned, she annoyingly pushed us to purchase an extended warranty.
The second Staples location offered far better customer service, but displayed some of the worst systems we've seen at retail. The standard-sized notebooks were in excellent condition, but the netbooks were either cardboard mockups or password locked--meaning we couldn't open a document or play music. A few of the systems were even missing keys. After looking for assistance for about five minutes, we spotted two young women behind a counter. When we asked for help, an associate promptly produced someone for us to talk to from the back room.
Steve knew about netbooks. He said mini-laptops are "smaller and less powerful," and only good for Web surfing and other lightweight tasks. He was also on point about HDMI being a high-definition connection that is used to connect gear to high-def monitors and televisions. Discrete graphics, he said, were "good for gaming, but not much else," which is a bit misleading. Steve correctly asserted that optical drives aren't as important as they used to be, as computer users can now pretty much download anything. He recommended that we purchase an extended warranty, and tried to sell us Microsoft Office, which was on sale.
In addition to some inoperable and broken display units, this retail chain's hands-on experience was poor, and the level of service was mixed.
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 notebooks were sealed behind the same plastic, jewelry store-style covering as with any non-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, she offered 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't point out the 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.
The Best Laptop Shopping Experience
If you're looking for top-notch in-store customer service, no retailer comes close to the excellent experience offered by the Apple Store, but the selection is naturally limited to Apple products. The PC shopping scene, however, is in a far greater state of flux; it can range from decent (Best Buy) to outright horrendous (Wal-Mart). We suggest visiting a retailer with a solid selection of computers that will allow you to get hands-on time with the systems and then going online to find the cheapest price.
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