2013 Last Minute Holiday Buyer’s Guide – Part 2

Desktop PC

The best thing about (most) desktop computers (Apple’s Mac Pro line, notwithstanding), is that they tend to be very  cheap  affordable.   After that, most of them are easily end user upgradable.   With the right case, you can swap just about anything and everything in and out, including the mother board, as time, need and your budget dictate.

However, the classic tower configuration isn’t as popular as it once was.   More and more desktop computer users are opting for all-in-one configurations. They tend to be very thin, are a huge space saver, but aren’t as upgradable as their tower counterparts, especially since the display is tied into the body of the computer.   However, in many instances, since Windows 8.x now supports touch, all-in-ones now come with touchscreens, adding to (or at least attempting to add) to the desktop experience.

When choosing a desktop PC, you’ll need to make certain you’ve taken all of your requirements – budget, upgradability, space and technology needs into account.   In summary, here’s what I’d recommend in a desktop PC:

  • Apple Mac Mini

mac mini 2012 03-580-90


Starting at $599, this 2.5Ghz Intel Core i5 PC comes with 4GB of RAM and is end user upgradable to 16G. It comes with a 500GB hard drive and has an SDXC card slot; and for additional storage and expandability, it has 4 USB 3 ports, 1 FireWire 800 port, gigabit Ethernet, an HDMI port and a Thunderbolt port.   With a very affordable Thunderbolt to VGA adapter, the Mac Mini has no problem connecting to a (legacy) VGA monitor to help hold down costs.   You can use a monitor you already own, or as VGA monitors tend to be much cheaper, you can purchase a new HD VGA monitor and not break the bank.

With the Mac’s ability to natively run just about any desktop OS under the sun, including both OS X and Windows XP through Windows 8.x, the $599 on this entry-level Mac desktop really buys you at least 2 or more computers.

I’m not crazy about all-in-one PC’s of any flavor, either Mac or Windows based. While I really like their space saving designs, when the screen goes out, the whole PC goes south.   I have also yet to see a desktop PC that integrates touch well, and the touch screen/digitizer adds an additional cost that in most cases is in-proportionate to the rest of the machine.


I love my MacBook Pro; but if I wasn’t a tech journalist, I don’t know that I would have purchased one.   My 15″ MBP was expensive, about three times what a Windows laptop costs.   While it does run both OS X and Windows natively via Boot Camp, and has killer quality and longevity built in, it was expensive at 1/2 that price.

The Early/Late 2011 models were still end user upgradable. The introduction of the Retina MBP’s killed that, however. Now, you buy your MacBook Pro in its permanent configuration and you live with it the entire time you have it.   If a Mac laptop is the way you want to go, make certain you buy as much as you can in terms of RAM and SSD/Storage space, because you won’t be able to add on or upgrade, later.

Assuming a Mac laptop is out of the question, here’s my recommendation in a laptop PC:

·    Dell Inspiron 15R Touch

At $649 in its base configuration, the Dell Inspiron 15R Touch has a 4th generation Intel Core i5 processor, 6GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. While these specs aren’t going to win any speed trials, its clear to note that this is a capable 64-bit machine with a touch screen.  Its also end user upgradable (both RAM and hard drive), has a built in DVD drive, Wireless N, Bluetooth 4.0; and is about a full third of the price of any similarly specked Apple laptop.  It also comes with an HDMI port, 2 USB 3.0 and 2 USB 2.0 ports. It also has a full sized keyboard, including a 10-key number pad and a built in 8-in-1 SD card reader.

This laptop clearly has (moderate) power and value written all over it.  I like Dell equipment due to the company’s longevity and high quality levels over the years. However, this is a Windows 8.x only machine.  You may get a Linux distribution to run on it, but I haven’t seen or heard of any distro yet that supports touch, so count on that not working if you give the dual boot Linux thing a shot.


I really had to think long and hard about breaking ultrabooks and laptops into two different categories for this last minute Holiday buyer’s guide.   Ultrabooks are really smaller, “ultra” compact, highly portable laptops.   Their battery life tends to be longer, giving you the opportunity to be mobile more often.   Their processor and RAM options are often similar to those of notebooks; but they may not be as upgradable either.

This also translates into higher costs, too. So, in many cases, you’re going to pay more for an ultrabook than you would for a laptop PC. If an ultrabook is the right gift for your loved one(s) this holiday season, be prepared to pay more and have less post-purchase upgrade options.

In many cases, ultrabooks tend to be either desktop or desktop replacement (a super-powered laptop) COMPANIONS, and often have specific uses – you tend to travel for work and instead of taking the “big” laptop, you take the ultrabook or you go with an ultra book with a touch screen and use it as a digital notepad for meeting notes, etc.

In light of all this, I’ve got two ultrabook recommendations that cover these specific use cases; but they’re generic enough that they should cover most needs.

·    MacBook Air
At its entry level price of $999, the 11″ MacBook Air is an expensive ultrabook. It comes with either a 1.3Ghz dual core i5 or 1.7Ghz dual core i7 processor and can be configured with either 4GB or 8GB of RAM and has a 128GB SSD.   The top of the line configurations can easily push you into full MBP price ranges, so you’ll need to consider this particular choice carefully.

While the whole concept of the MacBook Air is really cool – I mean, having a clam shell PC that fits into an inter-office envelope, yet is powerful enough to handle most of your desktop productivity needs is really cool.   Unfortunately, its easy to break the bank on a Mac purchase; but with the right online services (iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.) and the right productivity tools, you can easily get work done while on the go and not have to compromise with pocket or mobile versions of your desktop software, as you might on a tablet.

·    Microsoft Surface Pro/Surface 2 Pro

Though this device comes in a tablet form factor and can function as such if truly needed, do not mistake the Surface Pro/Surface 2 Pro for a tablet. Its clearly an ultrabook. Its also, unfortunately, priced as one, too.

The Surface Pro/Surface 2 Pro also isn’t upgradable, and its accessories are expensive. You’re going to want to purchase the version with as big an SSD as you can afford, however, for an additional $45 to $60 bucks, you can also get a 64GB micro SDXC card that is perfect for putting your Dropbox or Google Drive synced data on.   I was able to locate some really GREAT instructions on Paul Thurott’s Supersite for Windows that has instructions on how to fool your Windows PC into putting the Documents Library on a storage card. It works very well, and can save you tens of gigabytes of space, depending on the size of your Dropbox or Google Drive.

The Surface Pro/Surface 2 Pro is a great ultrabook and when paired with the right accessories can be a huge productivity booster.


Picking up a new computer for the Holidays is often very exciting, but it can be a bit stressful, and may not be as easy as you initially thought it might be.   You have to consider

·    What are you trying to do; and how mission critical is it?
·    What software tools are available to satisfy that need; and at what cost(s)?
·    What hardware configuration best meets that need; and where do you need to perform the work?
·    What is your hardware budget; and how flexible is it?

Answering these questions will direct you to the right type kind of PC to get – desktop, laptop or ultrabook. Once you decide on a form factor, you can concern yourself with what operating system you want or need to run.   Once chosen, come back to Soft32 to find software and games for your new toy.   We’ll have links to most everything you could want or need to help make your Holiday the best yet.

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