In Praise Of Microsoft Store, or, To QHD And Back Again (Another Laptop Journey)

There are two pieces of information that will inform this article, and I’ll get them out there first.

One, I’m not a Microsoft fanboy. My favorite MS products are still the 16KB expansion card for the Apple ][+ and a selection of their keyboard and mouse options. I liked Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows 7, and when each was current it was my daily driver OS for the most part. But I’m usually no more likely to advocate them than I am any other jumbo company.

Two, I probably buy more laptops than you do. As in, personally purchasing out of my own pocket (not IT department purchases). Probably twenty in the last 14 months. These ranged from old HP “thin client” laptops to play with, to my current daily driver, the ASUS Zenbook UX32VD I talked about in my Pitfalls blog post last August (more toward the cheaper side of course). I’ve agonized over details of some (like the Zenbook) and just thrown the cash down on others (like the thin clients or some other cheaper ones). So I’ve been through the process before.

You already want another laptop? And what’s QHD?

So I’ve been thinking about upgrading the daily driver role again. I went from a very heavy but very powerful Sony VAIO with 16GB ram, 4c/8t, 1080p display, USB3… to the Zenbook with 10GB ram, 2c/4t, 1080p display, USB3, and about half the mass/weight. But I’d like to get that memory back up there, and add some real estate, and get rid of the proprietary third display connector while keeping discrete graphics. Getting a 1920×1200 (WUXGA+) display requires 17″ LCD and/or Core2 processor, neither of which is optimal, so I have to look larger. I did pick up a 1920×1200 Macbook Pro last year, but it’s limited to 6-8GB of RAM and has a Core 2 processor.

QHD, for those among you not familiar, is “quad high definition,” generally 2560×1440, WQHD, or 4x 720p. There’s WQXGA+, which is 3200×1800, which also gets called QHD or QHD+, which is 4x 1600×900. Don’t confuse this with lower-case-q qHD, which is a 960×540 standard, a quarter of 1080p resolution. I’m okay with 2560×1440 or 3200×1800 or anything in that range, to be honest.

QHD? Could you spell that?

As an aside, I go to Fry’s a couple of times a week, as I live a mile from one store and work 3 blocks from another, so I just do. One time I wandered around looking at laptops and one of the helpful but useless sales associates asked if he could help. “Yes,” I said, “I’m looking for a QHD laptop, you know, 2600×1800 or so resolution?” He scrambled for a piece of paper to write on, asking me to spell Q-H-D, and then handing me off to another sales associate who told me what I’d already discovered–they didn’t carry any such devices.

So I’ve been browsing the web every so often, searching eBay for Precision M6500 (17″ 1920×1200 with 32GB capacity and first gen i7 processors), looking at other retailers when I’m in their laptop sections, and pondering what to do when the urge to upgrade finally takes over. I don’t really have to explain the decision to my significant other, although she wonders why I need a new laptop in less than five years.

The first three I found online were

  • Fujitsu Lifebook u904, an i7-4600U with 14″ 3200×1800 display, 10GB max RAM like my current ultrabook, 802.11abgn; $2154 with 4GB RAM from shopfujitsu.com.
  • Dell XPS15 6842sLV, which has an i7-4702HQ, 15.6″ 3200×1880  display, 802.11ac, and 16GB max RAM; $1766 used with 16GB RAM from Amazon.com
  • IBMLenovo Thinkpad W540 with i7-4700MQ, 15.5″ 2880×1620, 802.11ac, and support for 32GB on the quad-core models. $1830 with 16GB from lenovo.com

Yeah, that’s kinda pricy, but I’m looking for what turns out to be workstation-class hardware, not pure 720p ultrabook.

I suspect I’d do nicely with either of the 15″ displays, but as you might guess, I’m nervous about buying into a product line I’ve never touched or seen in person, especially when it’d set me back $2000.

So I just kept looking, and asked around on Twitter about any Bay Area retail or showcase options. Jake Ludington came up with a good suggestion, just about the time Google found a hint to the same effect.

So, having had an uneventful morning, I headed out to the Microsoft retail store at Valley Fair.

Microsoft Store? What’chu talking about, Willis?

Here’s where I used to be a little bit critical, and some of my friends downright ridiculed the idea. Apple has their retail thing down cold pretty much after 13 years… you can find Apple Stores all over the place and go in and see what they want you to buy.  You can talk to a person whose boss has declared him or her a “Genius(tm),” in much the same sense as some companies declare all their managers “Leaders(tm).” And you can buy one of their preconfigured options for a laptop.

Microsoft started opening up their own retail stores almost five years ago. They’re not quite the same, as Microsoft doesn’t manufacture/brand a whole lot of systems. So instead of the company’s hardware, software, and blessed accessories, you get a lot more partner products. For example, alongside the Surface tablet line you’ll see Nokia and Dell tablets. Next row over, you’ll find laptops and ultrabooks and convertibles from Samsung, Acer, Dell, HP, ASUS, and probably some I forgot about. There’s a corner for XBox (including Disney Infinity), a corner for accessories and gadgets, and a display section for Windows Phone. And you’ll find “Technical Advisors” available to help you… a bit more down-to-earth ranking, I’d say. 

Those of you who were in San Francisco around the turn of the century may remember the Microsoft store on the second floor at Metreon, and the XBox Store on the first floor. It’s like that, but combined and a lot more focused, and there are 60+ of them in North America.

Some people joke that the Apple Store is filled to the gills with customers, whereas the Microsoft Store has 3-5 sales associates for each customer. That was probably true five years ago. But I’d guess the buying-customer to browsing-customer ratio is higher under the four-colored logo. It’s seemed that way each time I’ve been in the Microsoft Store.

So how’d your visit go?

It was actually pretty good. The store has tables set up like the Apple Store, with a couple of demo products on either side. There are stools for you to sit on while you try out the devices, which is a nice touch… unless you use a standing desk you won’t get a feel for the keyboard and display without sitting down and relaxing a bit.

The labeling of the laptops was concise and easily compared. Some models had multiple sample devices out. I tried four models that mostly met my requirements:

  • Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus, a 13.3″ i5 with 8GB RAM/128GB SSD and 802.11n for $1449. The i7 with 256GB SSD is listed on their site for $1599.
  • Acer Aspire S7, a 13.3″ i7 with 8GB RAM/256GB SSD and 802.11n for $1499
  • Dell XPS 15, a 15.6″ i7 with 16GB RAM/512GB SSD and 802.11ac for $2299
  • HP Envy Touch 14, a 14.0″ i5 with 8GB RAM/500GB SATA and 802.11ac as well as 200MB/mo free mobile broadband, for $899

(The links above are to approximate analogues on Amazon; there are a lot of configurations and they don’t always match with what’s in retail locations or microsoftstore.com.)

The machines were all logged in to a regular user account (Device Manager warned me about this on each system), wireless was working, and I was able to check out the details without sales reps acting like I was trying to stick my tongue in the USB ports.

I probably could’ve stayed longer, and there was one idle sales rep of about half a dozen who was available should I have any questions. However, I was fully aware that I wouldn’t be making a purchase today. Even if I were, I’d have done my own research (probably on one one of the sample laptops) before engaging the staff, but they seemed friendly and reachable despite my not befriending or reaching for them.

So I just got the stand-out details tapped into my Evernote client on Android, and even disqualified one of the machines because it had a very weird keyboard (the Aspire S7 has some weird keyboard features including Caps Lock sharing its traditional space with the backtick/tilde key)

Then I wandered around looking at what else was available. There was a Surface Music Kit cover on display which, while not set up with the app, looked pretty cool. Lots of tablets were present, including my 2-in-1 ASUS T100TA and the Dell Venue 8 (Pro, I think).  The staff were smiling but not creepily so, and thanked me for visiting when I left to find some caffeine.

So where do you go from here?

Well… as I mentioned, I am not buying just yet. So I have some time for absurd amounts of research, review-reading, comparison shopping, maybe even looking into fan/rumor sites to see what’s coming out in the next four weeks.

I may head back in to look into any other interests or concerns I have during the research phase; it seems like the odds of the model systems being functional and available are higher there than at most consumer electronics stores I visit (hi Best Buy, Fry’s). And I can give the sales associates a chance to show their chops in terms of customer experience with the QHD laptops.

But assuming the prices aren’t that different from competitors and the specs I want are available, I’d be happy to head back to the Microsoft Store to buy my next laptop.

If you’ve had an experience buying a laptop at a Microsoft Store, or have recommendations or warnings about QHD/WQHD/QHD+ display laptops, feel free to chime in on the comments below. I’m especially interested in anything with 32GB memory capacity, and I’ll be digging deeper into specs in the near future.  I’ll keep you posted as my search progresses.

Disclaimer: I’ve received no consideration or influence from Microsoft on this post. I’ve not yet spent even a penny at a Microsoft Store. Although I wouldn’t turn down promo codes or coupons of course.