Windows 7 is Simple, Notebook Shopping Still Complicated

Say you asked the average notebook buyer the difference between a Dell Inspiron, Studio, Studio XPS, or Adamo. Or what separates the HP Pavilion from a Pavilion HDX or Envy. You'd probably just get a blank stare. Those in the industry know that these are sub-brands, often presented as good-better-best choices for shoppers. But sometimes even I have a tough time discerning the nuances of manufacturers' lineups.

The arrival of Windows 7 presents a huge opportunity for Microsoft and its partners to leverage the positive reviews of the OS to reinforce the message that Windows customers have more choices than Mac shoppers. But there's a fine line between differentiation and confusion.

As an experiment, I configured a Dell Inspiron 15 and Dell Studio 15 with similar specs, both with Windows 7 Home Premium.  The exercise provided an example of just how alike two sub-brands can become.

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SystemInspiron 15Studio 15
Processor2.1-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T65002.2-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6600
Display15.6-inch WLED, glossy LCD, widescreen display (1366 x 768)15.6-inch High-Definition LED display (720p) with TrueLife and Camera
RAM3GB Shared Dual Channel DDR2 at 800MHz3GB Shared Dual Channel DDR2 at 800MHz
Hard Drive320GB SATA Hard Drive (5,400 rpm)320GB SATA Hard Drive (5,400 rpm)
Graphics256MB ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4330256MB ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4570
Optical Drive8X CD/DVD Burner (Dual Layer DVD±R Drive)8X CD/DVD Burner (Dual Layer DVD±R Drive)
Color ChoicesCherry RedRuby Red

There are some minor differences when it comes to the components inside the above two systems, and the Studio line has a slicker wedge-shaped design and optional goodies such as a backlit keyboard. Plus, only the Studio 15 gives you the option of springing for the latest Core i7 processor from Intel, but the fact that you get to choose from over 200 designs from the Dell Design Studio on both models, and that you can configure them so closely, tells you that there might not be a need for separate Inspiron and Studio brands.

Of course, I'm just using Dell as an example. And I think it's a good thing to offer choice to consumers, but I believe some streamlining is in order across the Windows ecosystem. What shoppers need are not more brands, but more useful tools to help them find what they're looking for quickly.

For instance, this week I stumbled upon Lenovo's help me find a laptop page. It helps you find a notebook based on different criteria, including usage (basic computing, mobile workstation/desktop replacement, multimedia) and what kind of user you are (home, small business, student). As you step through these selections a group of notebooks represented by thumbnail images shrinks in size.

Microsoft itself is also attempting to simplify things for consumers, not only by opening its own retail stores (starting in Arizona and California) but by selling notebooks and netbooks on its own site, starting today. It's obvious that Microsoft chose some of the best-looking systems on the market in an effort to put its best face forward against Apple. And we like that you can narrow your searches by brand, price, weight, and other criteria. Although the selection at present is quite limited—we counted only ten laptops and three netbooks—we're assuming it will grow quickly.

Based on our reviews of Windows 7 notebooks, there are plenty of compelling systems available. But Microsoft and its partners should work on thinning the herd and stepping up their efforts even more to help users pick the right laptop for their needs—or they may just throw up their hands and opt for one of Apple's two easy-to-understand laptop brands.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.