Giving a loved one a laptop can be a great experience. As with any gift, the impulse comes from generosity and a wish to improve someone’s life; but unfortunately, there are times when any well-intentioned gift can go badly wrong. With laptops, in particular, it is easy to make a small mistake that can be remedied only by outright exchanging the laptop; and that can mean some hassles at best, and at worst it might cost you a big restocking fee. Frankly, as with any Father’s day gift — or any other gift — sometimes the intention can produce a result that’s, well, less than optimal.
Follow these ten tips and you can be sure that your gift will be the hit of the Holidays this year!
Mistake #1: Not knowing how your recipient will use the laptop
There are so many different laptop choices which are meant to fill specific needs that it is crucial to know exactly how your gift recipient will use the new computer. The most important things to know include: How often and how far the laptop is likely to be transported; what kinds of activities the computer will be used for (Mainly internet usage? Intensive programs, too?); whether access to an outlet for power will be available; and whether Mac or Windows is preferred. The very first thing to do is to make sure that you know how this laptop will be used; then once you know that, you are one big step closer to going shopping!
Mistake #2: Not making sure that you have the needed specifications
Laptops are not nearly as upgrade-friendly as desktops, so with laptops, after you buy, your options for making big changes will be limited. While many companies offer a return policy, return shipping can be expensive and it can be a major hassle. Furthermore, many chain box stores will charge a restocking fee if the box is even opened! Ouch. If you aren’t an expert at laptop specs, then buy from a retailer with very knowledgeable employees who can walk you through your options and help you determine exactly what will fill the bill.
Mistake #3: Not getting the right warranty
There are two types of people in this world – those who buy extended warranties, and those who think that they aren’t worth the cost. While there are times when you can buy an extended warranty after purchase (as with cars), it is also easier and often cheaper to buy the warranty at the time of purchase (that is, if you intend to buy one at all). There are a few things to consider when thinking about a laptop warranty. First, of course, most manufacturers offer a warranty period as standard, but the length varies (a year is fairly common).
Make sure to read the fine print because it is possible that the warranty doesn’t cover things like return shipping, which can be expensive. Then consider the length of time that your recipient plans to own the laptop. Five-year warranties are available from many retailers, but if that laptop will likely be ready to be passed on at that point, it may not be worth buying such a lengthy warranty (we would generally not recommend that length for anyone, since a lot changes in five years!).
Our best advice is to purchase a reasonable extended warranty to complement the manufacturer’s warranty, as long as the price is within your budget… and MAKE SURE TO READ THE TERMS! Some box stores try to sell you watered-down ‘protection plans’ because that is where their real money is made, but what they are selling isn’t worth what you are paying. Read ALL the fine print to see what is covered! If you aren’t willing to do that much reading, then stay away from all extended warranties and just make sure that the recipient takes careful care of the new computer.
Mistake #4: Giving an outdated laptop
Technology changes quickly. We often joke that as soon as you go through the checkout line, your new purchase is already outdated; and while this is not exactly true, shoppers still should keep it in mind. There are some real bargain deals available for cheap laptops!
This can be tempting if you have a small budget, but most of these laptops would have trouble even running today’s most popular programs because they simply don’t have the power. Take heed: you aren’t doing anyone a favor by buying a laptop that will be outdated this year! If you are buying a laptop for a student, keep in mind that he or she would be much more productive with a computer that allows some multi-tasking, with more than one program open and running. In reality, a cheap but underpowered laptop is not going to save you money, since a new laptop likely will be needed soon; try to cover what will be needed during the next two years at least.
Mistake #5: Believing that size doesn’t matter
It can be tempting to buy the smallest laptop in the mobile aisle of your local box store. They look so convenient and so cutting-edge! How could anyone not appreciate all of that in such a tiny package? What is important for a laptop shopper to know is that there are trade-offs: when you buy a mini-laptop, inevitably you are trading power, speed, and ports for a small size. Giving a tiny laptop could severely limit the recipient’s ability to do what is needed; and beyond that, have you ever tried to get some real work done on a 10- or 12-inch screen with a matching miniature keyboard? Smaller is not better when it comes to laptops.
Mistake #6: Ignoring the brands that don’t have multi-million-dollar advertising budgets
Most people are intimately familiar with companies like Dell, HP, and Sony. They join us in our living rooms for TV, in our bedrooms as we read our magazines, and in our cars as we drive to work: it is nearly impossible not to know what these companies are trying to sell us. But don’t ever think that big ad budgets mean that these companies are superior to smaller companies of which you might not be aware: especially where laptops are concerned, brand matters less than do basic things like price and quality.
In point of fact, all laptops originate from the same region in Asia, and often from the very same factory floors, so many laptops are nearly identical across brands except for the name that is on the lid. If you want the best laptop at the best price, then investigate lesser-name brand options that are generally cheaper, and that often offer a personalized level of service that you cannot get from giant corporations. Try companies like PC Torque to see what options are available.
Mistake #7: Not knowing the most useful upgrade options
Laptops are notoriously difficult to upgrade, but there are a few options to keep in mind. One common area to upgrade after purchase is the RAM. RAM is a little like our ability to think about more than one thing at a time: try to do a math problem in your head at the same time you’re planning your grocery list and you will find that you can’t do both at once; but if you could add RAM to your brain, then doing two (or more) things at once would be easy. And so it is with computer RAM.
With just 256 MB of RAM (which is standard on some laptops), a laptop would have difficulty doing more than one thing at a time; but if you are on a limited budget, then it is possible to add more RAM at a later date – and this is something that your gift recipient can do with his or her own money. Make sure to verify that RAM can be added to your laptop of choice before you buy.
The hard drive also can be upgraded in some models, and if the recipient needs more USB ports, these can be added through an external device that adds ports (likewise for media drives, card readers, and other commonly used devices). Remember, though, that each external device that must be added makes the laptop less portable! Try to take each upgradeable item into account before you buy, so you can be sure that you get all the non-upgradeable items just right: it is better to skimp on something like the RAM in order to get the right screen size and processor, since more RAM can be added later.
Mistake #8: Forgetting the software!
Shoppers often spend so much time on the hardware choices that they forget about the software. Some manufacturers include a certain amount of software to get the user going (often trial versions, which can be frustrating to use since only limited features will work), but it is unlikely that the computer will come with even Microsoft Office products, let alone with anything more specialized. While planning your gift, you have probably spent lots of time making sure that you are getting just the perfect computer for your giftee; but make sure to take it one step further and buy some of the software that will be needed to get started.
For example, if you know a budding photographer who is eager to start editing photos and you have carefully chosen the right laptop for that task, then it’s a good idea to add some photo-editing software to your Holiday gift. Since software can be expensive, so be sure to factor this into your budget from the start.
Mistake #9: Overspending
On the other side of the spectrum from people who feel that they can ‘get away with’ an inexpensive laptop in any situation are the people who feel that you always have to buy the newest processor, motherboard, and other technology. They think that since technology is soon outdated, it must be smart to buy whatever is newest. But they could not be more wrong! The newest thing might turn out to be a lemon, and no matter how much you pay today your cutting-edge laptop will soon be last year’s model anyway.
And there is a premium to be paid for new technology: the processor that costs $1,000 today could cost $400 in just a few weeks (once a new one comes out to replace it). Unless you are willing to pay a big premium, let others be the testers for new technology. Instead, try to find the middle ground: buy very good, well-proven technology that still carries some staying-power. Where is this perfect middle ground? And how do you know what you should buy? Your best choice is to examine all the offerings and then go with whatever is a step or two down from the most expensive options. The cheapest will be outdated quickly, and the most expensive really aren’t worth it, so somewhere above the middle is your ideal bet.
Mistake #10: Going it alone
Find a savvy friend or family member and go shopping! There is nothing better than having a knowledgeable coach by your side as you poke and prod and consider. While the salespeople at the store are there to help you, there is no doubt that someone you know and trust can give you a lot more help because, after all, the salespeople are there to sell to you. You can ask your personal guide the pros and cons of different sizes and technologies while standing right in front of them without feeling any pressure to buy; and then once you have a few ideas in mind, you can head home to scour the Internet to try to get the very best deal with a confidence that you really know what you are doing.
Bonus Tip: We would love to see every new laptop user follow this bit of advice: Do a burn-in period. Your gift recipient should open the laptop, start it up, and let it run for 24 hours straight. Make sure that every feature is in use (sound, capturing devices, ports, etc.) to be certain that everything is working as it should. Keep all packaging and paper enclosures close by and undamaged, since if there is something major wrong with the laptop right out of the box, it should surface in this time. And make sure that your gift recipient always keeps the box in case the computer has to be shipped later, since original packaging generally is safest.