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A Personal Shopper? For Me? For Free?

Shopping for a new laptop at the Microsoft Store
By: James Oppenheim | Created: 2022-11-29 20:24:23 | (Updated: 2022-12-09 13:42:33)

Most laptops, even the most expensive of them, tend to feel like they were designed with the operating principle of “take-it or leave-it”.  That might have worked in the Eighties, when computers came in one shade, beige, but it really doesn’t cut it anymore.

We want options, not “one size fits all”.  We want a machine that not only does what we need it to do, but reflects our personal decisions about color, shape, and form factor.  In other words, we want choice, and if possible, with a bit of pizzaz and extra features on the side!  And yes, we want it to exude quality workmanship.

I don’t think there is another lineup of computers that offers the breadth of options incorporated into the Surface lineup.  Solidly built, they go head-to-head with the best their competition dishes out, often doing so with more style and features, too boot.

For instance, while many laptops forgo a touch screen, all the Surface computers have one.  I agree with the designers at Microsoft Surface:  touchscreens are essential productivity tools, but not everyone uses them in the same way. 

For that reason, while every Surface has a touch screen, the way they are integrated into the product design is often different from model to model, depending on how a user might approach the device. An illustrator might spend most of the time drawing on the screen, and for that the Surface Pro is an excellent choice, a computer that easily flips into a tablet.  But you don’t have to be a designer to reap the benefits of a touchscreen.  Heavy spreadsheet users can benefit from being able to reach out and touch a cell rather than trying to glide a pointer over it.  For users who are looking for a traditional laptop design that is touchscreen enabled, the Microsoft Surface Laptop is just the ticket! 

Enter my brother-in-law, the owner of a textile design house.  He’s a spreadsheet and accounting software kind of guy.  He doesn’t do the artwork, but he does review the various designs and marketing materials that are sent to him. 

Recently, he told me he wanted to replace the laptop he had purchased on the basis of reviews at some other sites.  He picked it up when it was all that he could get his hands on during the worst of the supply-chain crisis.  Yes, it was light, he said, but it also felt flimsy.  Also, he missed the touchscreen he had become used to with the first-gen Surface Laptop it had replaced.  As the owner of a design company, he also wanted something that was a bit more stylish than the black-on-black look typical of business laptops.  He wanted to be able to run the familiar suite of tools used to run his company – and, of course, he needed work-from-home-or-anywhere teleconferencing built in.

Just as important as what he needed, was what he didn’t need or want.  He didn’t mind spending money for quality, but didn’t want to pay for more computer than he needed.  He never games on his laptop, nor does he do high-end editing. 

Rather than just relying on my advice, I suggested we try out the Microsoft Store’s options for folks looking for guidance as to which computer to purchase.  They have a few options: There is an on-line questionnaire you can complete, or you can schedule an on-line, one-on-one session with one of their personal shoppers.  Finally, if you’re near the New York City flagship store, you can meet with a salesperson there.  We tried both the first and second options; both are free.

I ran my brother-in-law’s needs/desires through the on-line questionnaire.  It posited the sort of basic questions that you might expect: How often do I use the computer on-the-go? For work or play? What  type of programs do I use, and whether I tend to store things locally or in the cloud?

It suggested either the 13” or 15” Surface Laptop 5 would be appropriate. That would have been one of my first suggestions for him, too, had I not noticed that the previous year’s models, the Surface Laptop 4 computers were being offered at substantial CyberWeek discounts.  I suggested to him that we should compare the models.

Before that, though, I decided to try the Microsoft Store’s on-line, one-on-one shopping experience.  Scheduling is easy – you pick the date and time on the Microsoft site, and tell them what you’d like help selecting.  In my case the next day, thirty minute teleconference was as easy as clicking on a link.  The Microsoft rep asked me similar questions, and also recommended the Surface Laptop 5. 

Though the initial results were similar, having a knowledgeable person on the line was helpful in pinning down the specifics and getting answers to questions left unresolved by the on-line questionnaire.  For instance, what were the specific differences between the model 4 and 5?  

The on-line questionnaire had suggested two different processors.  Which would be better for my needs, and why?

Ultimately, the answers were well reasoned and explained.  Given the substantial discounts being offered during the CyberWeek sale, the difference in price between the models was surprising low.  If price was critical, the Studio Laptop 4 would probably be sufficient, but with the latest generation of CPU, the Studio 5 would probably be faster, and the Thunderbolt port would make it more future-proof.  In short, both were excellent – though the Surface 4 units, priced lower, starting at $649.99 at Microsoft.com ($599 off!) were beginnng to be sold out.

I had previously asked Microsoft to send me a review unit, and the Surface Laptop 4 they sent confirms what the one-on-one assistants had suggested.  The less expensive 13.5” Surface Laptop 4 with 11th generation Intel Core i5, 16 Gigabytes of RAM, and a 512 GB drive was an excellent choice for him.  He would, again, have a touchscreen display, but he would also have a machine with distinctive styling.  He could choose the color he wanted, and decide whether he wanted a cold-metal interior finish around the keyboard (similar to a Mac), or Microsoft’s textured fabric-like material.  He chose blue and textured, so he wouldn’t have another look-like-everyone-else’s computer.

This is a really beautiful machine.  It has some of the “notes” of one of Apple’s laptops, but with a bit more stylish look.  From the point of view of his company’s IT department, that it was running Windows 11 was a big plus, as they did not have to worry about compatibility with the office accounting package, some of which had been custom built.

Some might ask why not go with the Surface 8 Pro?  It is thinner and lighter than the laptop, but it would have been the wrong choice.  My brother-in-law wanted a laptop that looked and worked like a “laptop”.  The tablet features were not important to him, and he thought the Surface Pro’s stand (perfect for content creators) might be awkward to use on a plane when he was doing his spreadsheets.  He wanted a traditional clamshell design. 

Of course, it is great that the Surface lineup accommodates both designs.  Which one is right for you is, and should be, a personal decision based upon your needs, with artist/creators probably being drawn more to the Surface Pro line and others to the Surface Laptop, as was my brother-in-law.  Likewise, when it is time for the artists who work in his studio to upgrade their machines, the Surface Studio 2 desktops with their large, adjustable, touch and pressure sensitive screens will be on the top of my recommendation list. 

The design philosophy of the Surface line seems to come to this:  Match real-world needs to practical, yet innovative solutions.  It is for that reason that my laptops since 2015 have always been from Microsoft Surface.