Where should SMBs buy new Windows 8 devices? Here are 6 lessons learned from my dive into retail and online options.
Microsoft Pop-Up Stores: Hands-On Look
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I'm in the camp that thinks if you're going to take the Windows 8 plunge, you should also upgrade your hardware.
Sure, I could run Windows 8 on my current laptop. But that doesn't mean I should. An optimal Windows 8 experience includes touch, no matter the form factor. As Cindy Bates, Microsoft's VP for small and midsize business, told me in a recent interview about Microsoft's broader SMB strategy, "Touch is absolutely how Windows 8 comes alive."
For me and many other Windows users, touch means a hardware upgrade. I've decided to stay put with Windows 7 for now, but I do see the upsides in Windows 8. So the recent launch-related fanfare got me wondering: If I did buy new Windows 8 gear, where would I go to find the best deal? Like a lot of small businesses and self-employed professionals, I'd buy at retail rather than on a commercial account. And like most big-ticket retail purchases, it would be well worth my time to shop around for the best combination of price and configuration.
So I went window -- er, Windows -- shopping. In a nutshell, I wasn't wowed by my Windows 8 retail experiences, online or off. I found no Godfather offers. That's not too shocking with new technology. You'll find more discounts on Windows 7 hardware, though I definitely didn't see any fire sales.
[ Get expert guidance on Microsoft Windows 8. InformationWeek's Windows 8 Super Guide rounds up the key news, analysis, and reviews that you need. ]
Based on my browsing, however, here are six things I would keep in mind if I wanted to buy Windows 8 hardware today.
1. I would wonder where all the ultrabooks and tablets are.
I'm predisposed to purchasing PCs and related hardware online. But with the combination of the Windows 8's new "Modern UI" and a dizzying menu of new hardware options -- all-in-ones, touch PCs, ultrabooks, tablets, and hybrid models -- I was curious to see some in-store retail displays and find out if they increased my interest in Windows 8.
I stopped by a Best Buy near me. The electronics chain is leveraging its existing trade-in program, offering "at least $100" to buyers who trade in a working laptop and purchase a new ultrabook. There are, of course, conditions -- for example, Best Buy must have carried your trade-in model in the past. Also, you have to go to a brick-and-mortar store. (Best Buy offers a trade-in estimator online.)
For all the hubbub about ultrabooks -- Intel has said it expects to see 110 of them on the market in 2013 -- I found only four Windows models at the Best Buy I visited. And speaking of hubbub, tablets were even scarcer: I actually found no Windows devices, just a slew of Android-based models and an Apple display. The Windows hardware was still dominated by laptops and desktops, including touch-screen models.
A sales associate eventually passed by while I was gawking and asked if I needed help. I said I was interested in Windows 8 and asked if the models on display were all they had. (I did not identify myself as a reporter.) Indeed, it was. I asked if they were running any promotions around the launch. She said they were offering a discount on Geek Squad services for Windows 8 purchases. (I'm pretty sure it's the same offer they're offering on non-Windows 8 gear, too.) And I asked if they'd been selling much Windows 8 stuff. She thought about it for a few seconds and said, "We have." I thanked her, and that was that.
I also stopped in the neighboring OfficeMax because I noticed the "Windows Reimagined" sign in its storefront. There I found only one ultrabook: a Windows 7 model from Toshiba, selling for $749. (Seems a bit steep for hardware that is already obsolete.) There were no tablets in sight, nor was there anyone who seemed likely to ask what I was looking for, so I left.
Finally, I whisked through a Wal-Mart in the same commercial complex, but its computing section resembled an island of misfit PCs.
I mentioned my brief, dissatisfying retail experience in an email exchange with Techaisle CEO Anurag Agrawal. His response: "Business PCs are not available at retail stores." Well then.
2. I would buy online. Indeed, I've never purchased a business PC in a physical store. And I wouldn't start with Windows 8; I see no upside in buying off the shelf.
Online, the supply is obviously much greater -- but it helps to know what you're looking for. Otherwise you'll spend a ton of time parsing through a dizzying amount of search results, reviews, recommendations and so forth. Search "Windows 8" on sites like Newegg.com or even an aggregator like Google Shopping, and suddenly filters and keywords become precious commodities.
Amazon.com has tablet fever, though it's not pumping Windows hardware on the homepage. Rather, it has been pitting the Kindle Fire HD against the iPad Mini in a side-by-side comparison graphic. (Guess who wins?) Some cursory searches there were a bit puzzling. "Windows 8 PC" returned a hodgepodge list that included a Seagate external hard drive fourth on the list and something called a "Skytab S-series Windows 7 Tablet PC with ExoPC UI" in fifth place. "Windows 8 tablet" produced slightly more relevant results, with an emphasis on slightly. Page one of nearly 18,000 results included anime production software and the aforementioned Skytab tablet. When you do find an actual Windows 8 device, like Acer's Iconia line, don't expect Amazon's usual price cuts. (The Iconia models were out of stock, to boot.)
The best bet: Do your homework on form factors and configurations, decide what you need, and then figure out which manufacturers make it. I've found a tried-and-true formula is to shop the manufacturer's site directly while checking deal-hunter sites like Deals2Buy or Retailmenot before completing the purchase. Don't expect many deals on brand-new Windows 8 devices -- they're non-existent at the moment, as far as I can tell -- but you will find discount codes for Windows 7 models. Online or off, you're going to pay the early adoption tax for Windows 8 hardware right now; my guess is that won't change until next year. (And if you've got a better buying method, by all means, do share.)
The online purchasing route requires a good dose of the do-it-yourself ethic. Short of that, SMBs interested in Windows 8 are likely going to rely heavily on the vast universe known as "the channel" -- third-party IT providers that many smaller businesses rely on for support -- to advise them on what to buy. That might be good news for Microsoft, which currently counts around 10,000 such partners in its fold, according to Bates.
3. I would check out a Microsoft Store before buying anything. I've been somewhat skeptical of the increasing number of physical Microsoft Stores; the pop-up versions, in particular, seem a little gimmicky. But they have been getting generally positive reviews. Beyond the obvious consumer angle, Bates told me Microsoft is allowing some of its partners to hold customer events in Microsoft Stores, adding that there are currently 59 of them and counting. The partner events are often aimed at helping SMBs get a better handle on Windows 8.
I haven't been to the store in my area yet, but after looking elsewhere I'm starting to think I should. "Check out the Microsoft stores," Techaisle's Agrawal advised. "They are really good."
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