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Article: Observations from Best Buy

by on September 8, 2009

I live in a town where the only places you can buy consumer electronics are Best Buy and a few “big box” discount retailers (Target, Wal-Mart, etc.). As such, for any sort of hands-on with technology items, a trip to Best Buy is usually enough to check out the latest gadgetry. Fortunately, it’s also a good place to go to waste a half hour or so. I could drive an hour and be close to an Apple Store or a Fry’s Electronics if I was serious, but what’s the point?

As someone who’s not in the market to buy a new computer Mac, iPod, or television, I often go to check out what is on sale or see what’s being served up in the Windows world. I have to say, I’m thoroughly disappointed. My goal here is not to tear apart Microsoft’s operating systems—I actually have an installation of Windows 7 and am quite pleased with it (no, the site isn’t going to be changing its focus). In the store, the Macs have their own little section, complete with an Apple Store-like wooden table and monitor displaying demonstrations. In the next aisle over, there’s numerous towers from Acer, Asus, Gateway, HP, Dell, Compaq, and eMachines. I’m astonished by the sheer ugliness of the products.

It’s rough to design a tower that is attractive, since you have to use standardized components, such as motherboards, power supplies, and drives. Unlike Apple, where the power supply and motherboard are custom designs, most PC motherboards must be able to fit a certain standard set of specifications. This way, you could replace a motherboard with a better one if you were inclined and didn’t run the risk of ports not lining up in the back. While I can appreciate this, the issue is more about the general aesthetics of the products.

That Plasticky Feel

On machines like those currently being sold by HP, Gateway, and Compaq, the cases feel like flimsy, cheap plastic. The internal structure and sometimes back panel are metal, but by simply applying pressure to any part of the case, you’re due to feel creaks. In the mid-’90s IBMs and Power Mac 7200 that I grew up around, or the Power Mac G4, the cases were plastic, but felt solid. I know Apple has mostly abandoned plastic from their lineup, but the polycarbonate plastic that was used felt quite a bit more sturdy than this glossy, thin stuff that is being passed off today.

Doors, Panels, and Awkward Shapes

Additionally, it seems that the latest trend has been to try to “hide” that this box is a computer. Rather than have empty drive bays on the front of the machine, they are often hidden behind a door or some other way to cover up the idea that this computer could have additional features. Even the optical drives on many machines are hidden behind a panel that has its own cheap-feeling eject button. Although Apple did this with the various Power Mac G3, G4, G5, and Mac Pro models, for consumer machines, slot-load drives have become the way to go. They’re clean, allow you to integrate them into numerous case designs and don’t run the risk of having a tray broken off.

I also love the concept of the card reader built into the computer. It’s handy and offers an ability to offload photos from a digital camera without draining the battery. For some reason, computer manufacturers that do include this feature often hide these handy little extras with a flimsy door or other gimmicky mechanism. This way, reading your cards is a two-step process.

While I’m ranting about gimmicks, I’ve also noticed that a number of machines are trying to look overly “futuristic”. Asus has a model that looks like a giant wedge (the drives and front face slant about 30° upward). The model that eMachines sells features a few rounded slopes for no real reason. Gateway has a machine that matches the profile of Apple’s Power Mac G4s, but there is no handle. Instead it’s just a plastic hump that serves no real purpose other than to house the card reader.

Is There Anything to Make Eric Happy?

Obviously I buy Apple products because I prefer the operating system and the overall combination of hardware, software, and the company that backs it, but if I were to buy a name-brand PC, I’d be seriously considering Lenovo. Since most PCs run Windows, the decision comes down to cost and the manufacturer of the box, rather than the whole experience. Lenovo, although not sold at Best Buy, makes computers that still follow the basic ideas of IBM—plain, well-made hardware. Where I work, they recently purchased a lab of Lenovo desktops and towers. Both have a bit of “design” on the front (an angled vent with a grille), but the optical drive is completely exposed, as is the card reader (it is in a slot that probably would’ve been used for 3.5″ floppy drive just a few years ago). Besides that, the actual machine has a solid feel to it and doesn’t draw attention to itself.

We could talk about laptops, but that’s a different article entirely. Additionally, one could argue that desktops sold at a store like Best Buy are oriented towards consumers, while products like the Lenovo ThinkCenters are oriented towards business users. However, I see nobody complaining that other “home” electronics are understated (TiVo HD anyone?)

I think Apple products generally evoke the same reaction. They’re well thought-out, draw attention to themselves by not drawing attention to themselves, and feel like a premium product. The argument could be made, about Lenovo, for example, that they cost more than comparable products from Dell, HP, Gateway, and the others, but do these minor differences in design and functionality really change the price that much? I’m not so sure.

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