The opposite of Apple: A Mac user's weird experience buying a PC laptop

Lenovo Y40 Gaming PC

So, I bought a PC.

Like a lot of long-time Mac users, I expect, I had never purchased a PC. I’ve used a lot of them in the workplace, which is why I use Macs at home. It’s not that they don’t work, it’s just that I don’t like them.

Technically, though, this PC was for my son. My son is “into gaming,” which is the nice way of saying that he’s at an age where he’d sit and stare at a video screen until flies started swarming over him if his parents didn’t put a stop to it. When it came time to replace the aging and falling-apart MacBook he had been using, he indicated that, for a variety of reasons, he wanted a Windows computer this time. It happens. His two best friends have PCs and developers of mods for his favorite game, Minecraft, often make Windows-only installers that make the installation process easier.

Normally, I’d protest, but I think he’s old enough to make his own mistakes. The burned hand teaches best, I always say (yes, my hands are covered in burns, what’s it to you?). So, having agreed to sacrifice my principles (again), my big question was “Who sells a decent PC laptop these days?”

I asked around on Twitter and did some research on my own and found there wasn’t really a good answer. Razer makes some nice gaming laptops that match Apple’s hardware quality, but new units start at $2,200. I wanted a quality product, but my son spilled a glass of juice on a keyboard once. That’s a little rich for the juice-spilling demographic.

The next best option seems to be Lenovo. Lenovo has been rising steadily up the sales charts (via Daring Fireball) and is widely regarded as one of the more successful players.

The purchase experience

Which is maybe more impressive when you see how convoluted its product lineup is. Where Razer has all of two current models, Lenovo has 20. Pay a visit to its web store and try to figure out which laptop is the right one for you. Devices are divided into Professional, Entertainment & Gaming, and Student, because students would certainly not be interested in entertainment and/or gaming. The Professional category has eight different lines, each one of which comes in multiple configurations. The ThinkPad E line is described as “Stylish & Affordable Productivity” while the ThinkPad L is “Affordable, All-Purpose Productivity” (style is clearly at odds with all-purpose productivity). Some categories allow a touch-screen option, some don’t. Some have hinges that turn around, some don’t.

pc purchase 1 lenovo website

“You want options? Oh, we’ve got options.”

After wandering through this morass for a while, I finally settled on a Y40, which features a 14-inch screen, a 2GB Radeon video card, a 2.0GHz i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a spinning 1TB hard drive. The price for that configuration was $1,199 but, for you, because Lenovo likes you, it was knocked down to $719 with an “eCoupon.” The next model over was $1,179, but you could get it for $749 “After Instant Savings.” I have no idea what the point of having “eCoupons” or “Instant Savings” is unless it’s to give you the feeling of a toupé-wearing car salesman who would love to set you up with a laptop today, but he has to talk to his manager first.

Despite the ridiculous pricing charade, you truly cannot get a MacBook with 8GB of RAM and a dedicated graphics card for $719. And there’s a reason for that. Lenovo's web store said it wouldn’t ship for 8 to 10 days, but it actually shipped the following day.

What’s in the box?

pc stickers 2

Modern PC vendors respect the time-honored tradition of covering computers with stickers.

The unboxing experience was not Apple-esque, but it was, at least, minimally appointed. The device did not have an optical drive so there were no discs included and only a few pieces of paper, most of which were offers for services like three free months of Google Play Music. The box was small like a MacBook box, with the laptop suspended in styrofoam, wrapped in plastic and, of course, adorned with stickers.

I had heard decent things about the build quality and the unit did feel a lot better than I expected it to. It’s not all plastic, and the plastic that exists is decent. The keyboard is not backlit but, hey, you can’t get everything for $719. Instead, the keys are painted red around the sides to provide the illusion of backlighting. Which is really not the same thing at all.

There’s a snake in my boot!

Then we get to the software, which is a mixed bag ranging from good to bad to ugly and back to bad again. The setup process was relatively smooth. However, despite my somewhat favorable first impression of Windows 8 and the fact that I still like the interface formerly known as “Metro,” it’s ultimately a confusing mishmash of touch-optimized and desktop-optimized interface elements. Some settings, for example, can be changed by accessing the charm bar, but for the majority you still need to go into the Control Panel in the desktop environment. It’s meant to provide quick access to frequently used settings when in touch mode, but it’s largely meaningless on a device like the Y40 which doesn't have a touch screen.

Just as the outside of the machine is festooned with stickers, the inside is festooned with third-party software. McAfee’s antivirus software is installed by default, but it’s a subscription service. Once it runs out, McAfee does nothing but incessantly pop up to nag you to buy a subscription. There are also almost a dozen applications from Lenovo, few of which I know the purpose of so I’ve uninstalled most of them.

Family Safety beats OS X’s parental controls because it sends weekly emails about your kids’ computer usage.

Since this was a laptop for my son, I did like Microsoft’s Family Safety feature, which allowed me to set up his computer with a child’s account and track the websites he visited and how many hours he was using each application. OS X has a similar feature that lets you access parental controls on your child’s computer from your own, but Microsoft provides a web interface and sends a weekly email summary. Family Safety actually helped me realize that some kind of adware was installed on the machine, forcing every bit of web traffic to make a call to an ad site. This either came installed on the machine or my son broke the record for getting infected, as the report indicated it was accessed from day one.

And that’s the thing about the standard PC user experience. Between the adware and crapware that’s preinstalled it’s hard to figure out what’s actually malware. Microsoft has tried to help by selling computers through its own stores that are bloatware-free and by allowing OEM customers to make clean Windows installs for a nominal fee.

You don’t have to do this. You can instead choose to live in the equivalent of a 19th century workhouse, continuing to slave away for free for a PC OEM or an adware company. But at some level the cost of cleaning up the computer or the opportunity cost of not cleaning it up should be factored into the price. Yes, I technically got the computer for $719, but this extra junk reminds me that I didn’t get something approaching Apple’s level of user experience (and something only vaguely close to Apple’s build quality).

Whose life is this anyway?

Ultimately, who is responsible for the user experience here? With a MacBook, it’s Apple. Simple. With a PC it’s Lenovo. And Microsoft. And some other unexpected party that somehow got its software onto your machine.

What I don’t understand is why there’s no PC OEM that takes the user experience as seriously as Apple does. Why isn’t there one with a rationalized product lineup, aimed at a broad swath of customers (Razer’s is rationalized, but only focuses on high-end gaming), that all come with a clean Windows install? OK, I’m not a great businessman, but if I were in the PC OEM business what I’d copy about Apple is not the silver body and black keys but the giving a darn about the user experience. Yes, you’ll never get Microsoft out of the mix, but that’s no excuse for junking up everything else.

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