Microsoft is now the Apple of my eye

12 years and time to say goodnight to an old friend (Photo:babulous)

(Link to same post on WordPress)

When I first began thinking of getting a laptop, I wanted a Mac. Those days, Macs had this aura of being sleek, powerful machines that ‘just worked’ and had all the software you would ever need. As against Windows computers which conjured images of clunky beige boxes with a mess of tangled cables spilling out from their back, and a software experience epitomized by pirated apps, bloatware, and the infamous blue screen of death. However I was tight for cash at the time, and Macs came at a premium. So I opted for a laptop running Windows XP. It was a huge improvement on the earlier Windows OSes but it was still more a ‘use it and fix it’ machine unlike the ‘use it and forget it’ Macs.

12 years of Mac

Soon after, my financial situation got better and I straightaway got myself a MacBook Pro with a sumptuous 17" LED screen. Four years later, that screen unexpectedly crashed on me midway through a project, and I had to get an iMac. That iMac is now a venerable eight years old, still perfect for browsing, and basic activities like writing a post on Medium, but it can’t do much else.

Surprisingly, my 12-year-old MacBook is still working. I did get its screen fixed, and began using it as my travel companion. But it’s really old, and when its battery died for a second time, I couldn’t find a replacement except on some sidey sites. I did find a workaround of using it without a battery, like a sort of portable desktop. Unfortunately, its 12-year old hardware is no longer supported by a lot of the current software, including the latest version of browsers like Safari and Chrome. So I can’t even recycle it off as a dedicated device to watch streaming services. I ended up packing it away. Maybe, it will reincarnate itself as a relic of its times: a burnished piece of finely-crafted aluminum representing the peak of an era of minimalistic Apple laptops.

Back in the Windows pond

Anyway, that was how I was once again in the market for a laptop. However, in the years since I got my first laptop, things have changed.

Macs have become even more pricier in India, while you can now get relatively capable Windows laptops at a fraction of that price.

Sticker Shock: This 15" Macbook costs $2703 or ₹1,92,900 at my local Apple dealer

But these days, the difference between the Windows and Mac experience has reduced substantially. Some of my designer friends still swear by Macs. It makes sense for them to pay the premium, as it helps improve the quality of their work, as well as their efficiency while working. But Macs are overkill for ordinary folk who use laptops mostly for browsing and word processing.

Besides, technology changes so fast these days that it makes more sense to invest less in a device, and replace it every 3 years with the latest version of the same device. This approach has worked well for me with mobile phones and TVs, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t work with laptops.

That’s how I decided to leap back into the Windows universe. However, in my years away from Windows, I had lost touch with the ‘computer specs’ side of affairs. The only way to approach this issue was to work backward. I had to figure out what I needed the laptop to do for me, and then work out what kind of computer specs I should look for. So that’s what I did.

What I need my computer to do

I wanted a sleek looking, light laptop that starts up fast, runs smoothly, and lasts all day. It should come loaded with all essential software, and preferably have a reasonably large screen. It also has to be sort of future-proof, and not come with outdated hardware that can’t be upgraded. This doesn’t mean I need a powerful machine, as I’m not into gaming or video editing. I would be using my laptop mainly for basic web browsing, web-based apps, word processing, email, video playback, and similar activities. Finally, storage-wise, I don’t need much space these days. Photos and music are no longer the space hogs on my computer that they used to be. The former gets automatically uploaded to Google Photos for easy access anywhere, while the latter comes from various streaming services. Besides, I have a couple of portable storage disks lying around with terabyte capacity. If I could get such a laptop within a budget of around 25000 or $350, it would be perfect as I could upgrade to the latest laptop in a 3–4 years without feeling extravagant.

What the doctor prescribed

Using the above as a guideline, I visited a couple of online laptop forums, to check out what the experts recommended for people with my needs.

One such whizkid was of the opinion I avoid the latest, expensive Intel i5 and i7 processors. He suggested I get the 8th Gen i3 with dual cores (i3 8145U), team it up with a fast SSD disk, and bump up the RAM to 8GB.

I did some more browsing. It seems SSD (solid-state device) disks are similar to what phones and tablets use. They run faster than the old spinning hard disks. They also require less power and can last 6–8 hours, which means you don’t need to cart your charger everywhere. However, SSDs are pricey unless you are willing to settle for basic storage capacities like 128 or 256 GB.

Making the jump

I was fine with compromising on storage with a 256 SSD. That is more than adequate for my current needs while taking care of my need for speed. The 8th Gen i3 chip should give me a window of 3–4 years before I end up in my current situation of having hardware that’s incompatible with widely-used software. At my budget, I knew touchscreen and 4K tech were out, but I just might be able to get a 15" screen with full HD.

As I pondered over what to do next, the decision was taken out of my hands with the arrival of the Festival of Lights (Diwali) in India. These days in India, people go into a buying craze during these festivals because that’s when online retail giants like Amazon and Flipkart have massive sales. It’s similar to Black Friday in the US, except offline retailers can’t match the online prices. It was no different this year during Diwali. Suddenly I could see Windows laptops going at heavy discounts.

Specs sheet for the nerd

Accordingly, I went back to Amazon and searched for SSD and i38145U. After a bit, I found an Acer model that seemed to fit my bill, except for 4GB memory (RAM) which was however upgradable. The SSD was SATA whatever that meant. The pre-sale price was Rs 28,900 or $408. Once the sale kicked in, the price dropped to Rs 25,240 or $355. I jumped for it.

Sleek and slick: the 2019 incarnation of a $350 Windows laptop

Using Windows feels like using a Mac

I have been using this laptop for a couple of weeks now. It’s plasticky and not a perfect block of my aluminum, like my old MacBook, but it’s thin, light and the battery easily lasts 6–7 hours. The screen is only viewable from certain angles, but it’s full HD and has a lid that opens out to 180 degrees, which makes that a non-issue. The picture quality isn’t as rich as my 11-year-old Macbook, but its blue light shield makes the screen easier on my eyes at night.

The pleasant surprise was ‘It just works’ out of the box, to use the old Apple slogan. It just took a few minutes or so to follow the simple Windows setup process of linking up the laptop to my Microsoft ID, and I was good to go. There was a moment when the laptop wouldn’t connect to my internet while all other devices in the room did, which brought back memories of spending hours fixing windows, but the issue resolved itself.

Everything was weirdly reminiscent of the Mac in an opposite kind of way. The search window (spotlight) on Macs is in the top right corner, whereas it’s in the bottom left on Windows. The keyboard shortcut to open spotlight is tapping on Command (Apple logo key) and spacebar. On Windows, you just tap the Windows key.

Scrolling timeline on Windows 10 in Dark Mode

While working, I accidentally did the iPad gesture of sliding 3 fingers upwards on the trackpad. Surprisingly, it worked exactly as expected, as the screen revealed all the open windows. Intrigued, I swiped downwards, and in a flash, all open windows disappeared to reveal the desktop. Once again, I swiped upwards, and all windows reappeared. I swiped upwards again to see if anything would happen. A scrolling timeline of the app and pages I had visited recently opened. I had never seen anything like this before.

Cortana is trying to take over from Alexa

That was when I realized that Windows reminded me of the magical feeling of discovery, a unique feeling which I only used to get while using a Mac. In a way, it was a bit funny as it felt almost like Windows copied the Mac. But with a kind of mirror image with the search window, almost as if to childishly say, “No, I didn’t copy you.” I mean why bother. Apple itself is famous for copying stuff and trying to differentiate by doing it better. Even Cortana, the Windows assistant was doing a good job of copying Alexa and trying to take over from the Echo Dot sitting on the desk beside my laptop. I asked Cortana to remind me to do a recharge, and she wanted to ‘when’ which is exactly how Alexa would have reacted. The thing is no one cares anymore, as long as things work.

All-in-one machine

Moving on, Macs used to have the advantage of coming with all the basic software. Operating System, browsers, photo storage, and editing, music, email, and iWork, which is Apple’s equivalent of Microsoft Office.

Turns out Windows has caught up with Macs, and now does the same, except for Microsoft Office. However, if you can manage without Office (which I can), you don’t need to install any software. Besides, a lot of the time, I can do stuff directly in my browser without the need for additional writing software, like this post for instance.

Security used to be another major issue with Windows, and you had to install processor hogs like Norton Antivirus, which would constantly nag you to update stuff or renew the annual fee. But Microsoft now has security covered with Windows Defender which runs discreetly in the background, keeping out viruses and malware, and even automatically updating itself.

Not perfect but likable

After the first flush of excitement of playing with my new toy, I did find some bloatware and games. Who needs Candy Crush or Norton Antivirus? Again, getting rid of them wasn’t too hard. I just had to double-tap on the app, select ‘uninstall’ from the popup menu, and follow the instructions. I even found one of those apps useful as it connected to my phone’s bluetooth and allowed me to use my phone to unlock the laptop. Perfect for Mr. Lazybones.

All in all, I found Windows 10 to be surprisingly stable. The laptop starts almost instantaneously, the apps zip along, and using it is intuitive and fun. I guess it’s not all due to that speedy SSD.

The other pleasant surprise was the look and feel of Windows. What was once basic and functional, now has a distinct identity of its own, and comes across as polished and confident in a way that Windows never used to be.

I like it.

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I am you and you are me

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