Should you buy a cheap laptop or an expensive smartphone? Is that even a choice? They’re not interchangeable, are they? Most business professionals and road warriors know that you can do a lot of business on a smartphone, but to do a deck or a report or a spreadsheet, you really need a … wait. What do you really need?
Smartphones are now owned in 87 percent of U.S. homes, behind only televisions (96 percent), according to the Consumer Technology Association (CTA). Laptops are a fairly distant third (72 percent).
Most flagship smartphones are more powerful and have as much internal storage as low-to-medium-priced laptops. The new Samsung Galaxy Note 9, for example, can have up to 1TB of internal storage, has a very fast processor, and includes Samsung DeX – an app that allows any compatible Samsung Galaxy device to connect to any HDMI-compatible video monitor, connect to any Bluetooth-compatible keyboard and mouse/trackpad, and act as a pretty respectable PC.
Interestingly, while smartphone sales are on the rise – revenue in 2018 will reach $78 billion, a 13 percent increase from 2017 – so are laptop sales, especially convertible and cloud-based models. The CTA projects laptops sales will reach 50.1 million units (3 percent growth) and earn $28.4 billion in revenue (nearly unchanged from 2017).
While the line between smartphone and laptop specifications continues to blur, many professionals still need (or want) a laptop. But as more programs are outsourced to the cloud (you can get a year of Microsoft Office 365 for $99, or Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite for as little as $9.99/month), how powerful does your laptop need to be? If all you need is a really good monitor, a good graphics card, and a fast internet connection, which should you buy?
Sales Figures: In case you haven’t heard, everything at Apple is selling well. While Apple recently announced that quarterly Mac sales were down 13 percent year over year (YoY), that number is a bit misleading; in 2017, Apple released new MacBooks, MacBook Pros, and iMacs, but the timing didn’t line up the same way in 2018. It’s difficult to distinguish between sales of MacBook Pros and iMacs, but analysts earlier this year were predicting an increase of 13 to 16 percent in MacBooks shipped, which would mean stronger annual growth than either the iPhone or iPad.
Cost: $1,299 to $6,700 (seriously), depending on your configuration
Who’s It For? Once upon a time, every professional in the creative services world had a MacBook. If you made your living using a music or art program, you bought the best computer at the highest price, which was an acceptable price to pay because it’s how you paid the bills. Today, Apple has refocused its aim from professionals to consumers. Rather than giving the select few the best tools, it gave everyone very good tools, blurring the line between pros and amateurs. Now everyone can be creative with a Mac.
Sales Figures: The history of the Microsoft Surface is a rocky one. At the end of its FY2013, Microsoft announced a $900 million write-down after the uber-flop of the Surface RT. Since then, though, the Surface has become increasingly more popular (as opposed to the rest of the stagnant PC market), with revenue booming from $2B in 2014 to $5B in 2018. This year, Microsoft’s Surface business recorded nearly $1.1 billion in revenue, up 32 percent YoY.
Cost: $799 to $2,699, depending on your configuration
Who’s It For? The Surface Pro scratches the itch that the iPad never quite could: it’s the tablet that also doubles as a high-end laptop. While Apple’s tablet offers most (if not all) of the same productivity and creativity software as the Surface Pro, the Surface’s ability to run all Windows 10 apps (in the same style and presentation as a laptop) is a major selling point. The Surface Pro is designed for everyone from newbies to power users. It is Microsoft’s direct answer to the MacBook Pro and, if you’re a Windows person, an obvious high-end choice.
Sales Figures: The Surface Go is a brand new device, so sales numbers aren’t available yet. However, its reason to exist is to compete with the iPad in ways the Surface RT could not. The early reviews are in, and they’re glowing, so it looks like Microsoft may finally have a winner on its hands in the low-end computing market.
Cost: $399 to $549, depending on your configuration (+$99 to $129 for the keyboard you’ll buy)
Who’s It For? If you’ve ever owned an iPad and wished it was a bit more like a PC, the Surface Go is for you. Priced to compete with the iPad, you get a solid tablet experience and a solid laptop experience (provided you plunk down the extra hundred bucks for the keyboard) without having to spend a thousand dollars. It’s not meant for gaming or other processing-heavy creative endeavors, but it’s perfect for web browsing, email, light gaming, general productivity … anything you can do on your smartphone you can do here, too.
Sales Figures: Chromebook sales pale in comparison with their Windows counterparts, but thanks to a strong showing in schools, Chromebook sales are on the rise. Gartner estimated the number of Chromebooks shipped worldwide in 2015 was 6.8 million, which rose to 9.4 million in 2016 (a boost of 38.2 percent). Late last year, Gartner predicted that Chromebook shipments will continue to grow, to 10.9 million in 2017 and 11.9 million in 2018.
Cost: $219 to $299, depending on your retailer
Who’s It For? If you are in the market for a device like the Surface Go but don’t need its tablet functionality and want to save a few hundred bucks, the Acer Chromebook 14 may be the device for you. Chromebooks are, by their nature, limited in what they can do, but for anyone who only wants to check email, use Google Apps for Business, and watch YouTube videos, devices like the Acer Chromebook 14 are more than capable.
Which Is Right for You?
If you mostly browse online, send a few emails, and watch videos, purchase the device with the best WiFi specifications, fastest graphics card, and best screen resolution you can afford. Don’t worry about processor speed or internal storage (unless you need a lot of internal storage). You will think a PC that has a great modem and a fast graphics card is faster than a PC that has a faster processor but a slower graphics card and low-end WiFi specs.
If you’re a power user (gamer, road warrior, financial analyst, engineer, videographer, etc.), just buy the most horsepower you can afford.
But if you are a “normal” person, who just uses a few apps, chats, spends some time on social media, and watches lots of videos but only occasionally uses office apps (word processing, spreadsheets, presentation tools), you may be a candidate for a flagship smartphone, a Bluetooth keyboard, and a couple of dongles.
Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.