I recently found myself in the market for a Windows-based notebook computer. This led to the single most unpleasant consumer experience of my life. If I had not been absolutely dedicated to the task of purchasing a particular type of mobile computer (a “tablet”) I would have given up early on and, well, bought a Mac instead.
Right off the bat I’d like to clarify that I’m not commenting on Windows PCs in general here. I’ll write that column once my new machine arrives and I’ve had time to play with it.
No, this is a column about the pain and agony one must endure to research and purchase a new Windows-based laptop computer on the web. And I’m not exaggerating, it is truly a torture par excellence.
Even for a geek like me, purchasing a PC required a high level of sustained commitment and dedicated research. I estimate that I invested about 30 hours in this fool’s errand.
Early-on I narrowed my scope to three brands: Fujitsu, Toshiba, and Lenovo. (Lenovo bought IBM’s PC business a few years back, so they are really Big Blue in disguise.) Even with the limitations of exploring and comparing just three companies’ products, however, the complexity of choice and configuration was often overwhelming.
I found that there are three key areas that negatively impact the Windows PC buying experience: overwhelming configuration options, inconsistent information, and complex terminology.
Consider what it’s like to buy a new television or stove. You’re offered what a manufacturer figures is the best technological configuration, period. Why should buying a computer be any more complex, really, when most people perform the same basic tasks: email, web, and music?
Probably because of the company’s background in a wide variety of consumer electronics, Sony sells computers in this fashion. They offer absolutely no configuration options on their excellent line of Vaio PCs. I like that. Unfortunately, Sony doesn’t offer a tablet PC.
Then there’s Lenovo. On one web page they offer over 120 configuration options for a single notebook computer. This long list of generally indecipherable technical jargon is bad enough, but the company seems to have made a conscious decision to design the page to be as user-unfriendly as possible. Composed of a garish colour scheme and eye-crampingly tiny text, it’s a page that only a die-hard geek could love (though I suppose that’s the intent).
All of the manufacturers’ web sites I visited were extremely inconsistent with the quality of their information. The Toshiba Canada web site promised features that are only available in US models. The Fujitsu web site sported specifications that were for very old and discontinued models. The Lenovo web site promised Vista pre-installed when, in fact, that wasn’t the case at all.
After a very brief time with these sites I learned that I couldn’t trust them. To counter the misinformation being spread by the manufacturers, I ended up spending countless hours in web forums to find out what new buyers were actually finding in their boxes. Telephone sales staff, I should add, were no help. They typically reviewed the same web sites I had access to when fielding my questions.
Finally, one thing quickly became clear to me during my extended time as a prospective PC buyer: you gotta be a geek. The amount of deep technical knowledge required to make configuration decisions was just too much for Joe Consumer.
On Fujitsu’s web site they want you to choose between XGA and SXGA displays during the purchase process, and they expect you actually know the difference. (These are just two different screen resolutions.)
Toshiba thinks you know what “i.Link IEEE-1394” means. (It’s Firewire in layperson’s terminology, but that still doesn’t mean much to most people.)
Lenovo expects you to choose not just the size of your memory modules, but also their speed. (Is the difference between 667 MHz and 533 MHz that big a deal?)
I have three pieces of advice to offer most PC manufacturers if they want to improve their online commerce services for consumers: verify and manage the information you publish, strictly limit the configuration options, and speak English (or French, as the case may be) instead of Geek. Web site beautification wouldn’t hurt, either.
As for my own journey, I settled on a Lenovo Thinkpad. But that’s another story (that can only be told after the 2-week wait I must endure before they even ship the damn thing). Stay tuned.