Which laptop to buy? A computer nerd's advice to a non-techie

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What follows is an email (much of it paraphrased) from a non-techie asking a couple nerds for computer buying advice. It was forwarded to me for my two cents.

I have been advised by my niece and sister that I should get a laptop computer so that it can be used in another part of the house. I want a video camera built in for Skype and need good virus protection software. My ISP recommends that I get an Apple because of the better virus protection. From what I have seen, I do not like Windows 8.


What advice can you offer? My budget is not what it used to be, so frugality is important. I like to play music on the computer, so YouTube figures in to the mix also. Thanks. 

Here's my reply 

There is no one best answer as everyone is different in their needs, their skills and their finances.


To me, the biggest issue is that non-techies really have no  business running Windows. Windows machines need a lot of care and feeding and it pains me no end to deal with a Windows computer owned by a non-techie that's infected with malware. Life is too short for that. To borrow from an old joke, if you have to ask, you don't belong with a Windows computer.


If your needs are simple, look into a Chromebook laptop. Chromebooks are cheap ($200 - $350), easy to use, virus free, have the built-in camera you want, support YouTube and are available from most stores that sell computers. The downside is that they are limited in what they can do. Skype, for example, is not available on a Chromebook. But, they offer services that compete with Skype including one from Google and the very new talky.io which is much easier to use than Skype. Another downside is printing, which is a pain. Chromebooks generally have 12 inch screens though you may still be able to find a somewhat old HP model with a 14 inch screen. 


If you need something a Chromebook does not offer, then get the cheapest Macbook laptop offered by Apple. To save some money check Apple.com for refurbished Macs. Only buy a refurbished Mac from Apple.  


Then too, for just Skype, YouTube and portability, a tablet fits the bill, and, they all come with cameras. You can get a name brand Android tablet with a 7 inch screen for as little as $130, or an iPad with an 8 inch screen for $300. Tablets have no keyboards however, a big problem if you write even a little. Most people use a tablet as a secondary computing device so the lack of a keyboard is not an issue. That said, there are many keyboards that can be paired with a tablet. I have no advice on picking a particular keyboard other than to budget about $100 for it. 

This being Computerworld, what would you have advised?

Update: Nov. 26, 2013: Harry McCracken just wrote about buying his mother a new computer. He considered a cheap Windows laptop, an iPad and a MacBook Air, but he bought her a Samsung Chromebook.

As he tells it, his mother is "an ideal Chromebook candidate: She does mostly web stuff, Gmail and light word processing and does her computing at home on her Wi-Fi network. She doesn’t need any of the things Windows computers can do that a Chromebook can’t — and definitely doesn’t need the additional complexity and security headaches of a Windows machine. Or, for that matter, the learning curve of a Windows 8 one; a Chromebook, weirdly, provides her with a more familiar environment than the latest-and-greatest Windows systems."  

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