The HP Spectre x360 convertible laptop features a full HD touchscreen and multiple ways to use it

Tablet, Laptop or PC: How Much Computer Do You Need?

By Chris Rechner

Shopping for a new computer used to be simple. That simplicity often came with a heavy price tag, however, as families loaded up on expensive one-size-fits-all systems, complete with the fastest processors and flashiest gadgets.

The good news for consumers looking to upgrade their tech this fall is that you no longer need to fork over a few mortgage payments if all you need to do is check email and chuckle at YouTube videos of cats doing yoga.

The key to shopping smart, says Macky Rebelo, the Category Sales Manager for The Source, is to take stock of your day-to-day needs and then zero in on the category that suits you best.

“It all comes down to what the customer wants to do with their computer. A well-trained product expert in store can help by asking the right questions to narrow down the category and features,” Rebelo says. “Some consumers still have the impression that bigger is better, and they end up buying more than they need.”

With traditional desktop computers now mostly niche products for hardcore gamers and professionals who need the horsepower, it’s laptops and tablets that reign supreme. Both categories offer a wide range in power, performance and portability, and new “convertible laptop” and “2-in-1 detachable” products provide flexibility and value.

Entry-level tablets can cost as little as $100 and hit the sweet spot for mobility with about 10 hours of battery life. They’re great for checking email, playing games, reading e-books and shutting down the “Are we there yet?” from the back seat. Just be wary—although Pokemon Go doesn’t use a lot of data it really “chews through your battery life,” Rebelo says. And though these devices are definitely useful, they’re not exactly future-proof: Many consumers upgrade as their needs change.

A top-tier tablet like the Microsoft Surface Pro, Apple iPad Pro or Samsung Galaxy Tablets can run from $500 to $2,500, depending on its features. Apps, games and those 300 photos of your nephew’s birthday party take up plenty of memory, and Rebelo notes that 64GB and 128GB models are starting to outsell less expensive 32GB versions. Certain tablets help your cause with expandable memory, and cloud storage can give you access to files on the go.

Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S2 runs on the Android operating system and comes preloaded with a variety of useful apps

Not only have they gotten lighter, today’s laptops are virtual offices in a shoulder bag, combining powerful processors with sleek design. A decent everyday laptop will start in the $500 range and give you about seven to eight hours of battery life, depending on how hard you push it.

“The guts in some laptops are very impressive,” Rebelo says, pointing to the fact that even high-end gamers may find what they need without having to make space for the tower and keyboard that comes with a desktop. And with high-end features like high performance graphic cards, 1TB storage and powerful speakers, a good gaming laptop can become an entertainment centre when you travel.

The affordable Acer Aspire E5 is kitted out with Windows 10 and a one-terabyte hard drive, among other features

Rebelo likes these relatively new personal-computing options—as much for their flexibility as their novelty. The 360-degree hinge on convertible laptop models can transform the computer into three distinct modes, from traditional clamshell to tent to tablet mode. Touch-screen features make them a great grab-and-go option for everything from work presentations to passing around at a family function. As in other computing categories, both affordable and high-performance options are in play. Expect to pay $400 or $500 for a basic model, and closer to $1,500 (or more) for more powerful and feature-loaded computers.

With similar multi-function usability (but less portability) new all-in-one computers deliver a big screen PC experience with a smaller footprint. Large touch-screen monitors house the memory, graphics card and all the rest, so there’s no need for a bulky tower, but fast quad-core processors and plenty of ports for accessories help recreate the traditional desktop advantages. Look to spend between $600 and $1,000 to get started.

This sleek HP all-in-one desktop computer has a 21.5-inch widescreen monitor

• According to The Source’s Macky Rebelo, Back to School season means great deals. “After the holidays, it’s our second busiest time of the year. Lots of stock, door-crashers and great discounts make it a good time to buy.”

• Get your Office on! “Ninety percent of laptop buyers will need Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook. Buy an annual Microsoft Office 365subscription for $70 to make access to upgrades easy, and you get 1TB of cloud storage included.”

• Still running Windows 8.1 or Vista? It’s time to move on. “The Windows 10 operating system is great. Don’t get slowed down by older versions. All the new features make it a good-value upgrade”

Get smart advice and great deals on all your back-to-school tech. AMA members save up to 20% on great tech in store and online at The Source.