For serious work, a computer still beats a tablet hands down, and the newest computers are becoming more tablet-like. Some new Windows 8-based laptops can even morph into a tablet on demand.
Consumer Reports offers this advice on finding the right computer:
Shop smart. Shop at an online retailer. Consumer Reports subscriber surveys have found them generally superior to walk-in stores for selection and price. You can also save money by using coupons and forum sites such as Techbargains, FatWallet.com, and Ebates, which tend to provide information on rebates.
Or buy a la carte. If you have specific needs, order from the manufacturer’s website. Menus show you options and let you see how a change affects the overall price. Configure-to-order will often give choices you won’t get if you buy an off-the-shelf model. But be sure to double-check your choices before ordering, and look for unwanted items some manufacturers include by default.
Shop at the right time. January, July, and October are good times to shop; new models show up in stores at those times, meaning older inventory must be cleared out to make room. If a computer you like isn’t on sale, ask for a better price. Apple often offers free iPods and educational discounts to students buying computers during the back-to-school season.
Macs aren’t discounted that often, so take advantage of the price cuts that usually occur around the time Apple announces new models. That’s when other retailers, such as Amazon.com, MacConnection, and MacMall, tend to clear out older stock. Models from other brands may also be discounted when their successors arrive.
Ergonomics can make or break a laptop. Especially when you’re buying a laptop, try it before you buy it, if you can. The keyboard shouldn’t bend under continuous tapping, the touchpad should be large enough so that your finger can cover the span of the screen without repeatedly lifting it, and touchpad buttons should be easy to find and press. Carry the laptop around for a few minutes and make sure it isn’t too heavy or too big.
Think green when you buy. Some computers meet the new Energy Star standard for efficient power use. Energy-use guidelines cover three operating modes — standby, sleep, and running — with systems entering sleep mode within 30 minutes of inactivity.
Power supplies also need to operate more efficiently. You probably won’t notice much difference in your computer’s operation, but your electricity bill might go down a bit. Look for the Energy Star label on qualified computers. Prices won’t increase because of the new standard, according to an Energy Star program representative.
Another standard is EPEAT, which offers guidelines on what materials can be used in a computer. Depending on how well each computer meets the criteria, it is rated bronze, silver, or gold. A list of EPEAT-compliant systems can be found at www.epeat.net.
Before you toss, try recycling. Most manufacturers have recycling programs that help dispose of your old computer, but the programs vary considerably by company.
Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at consumerreports.org.