Let’s say that you are in the market to buy a new laptop or ultra book to replace that old clunker that you have been suffering with. You want to be able to check out a number of different brands and models, hands on, and you want to see some better quality hardware than you will see at somewhere like Best Buy, Staples, or Office Depot. Where are you supposed to go to do this?
One place that I suggest you check out is the local Microsoft Store. There are 23 locations, soon to be 27 locations around the United States and Puerto Rico. This is a very small number compared to Apple, which has 363 stores worldwide, (according to Wikipedia), but the number is starting to grow a little more quickly, which I think is a good thing. I hate to see Microsoft completely concede the retail and consumer market to Apple without a fight. Having a retail presence, where Microsoft can show off their latest stuff, on good hardware, with a knowledgeable staff to support it seems like a good strategy to me.
Assuming that one of these few Microsoft Stores is close to you, you will find that they carry a pretty decent selection of higher quality laptops and ultra books compared to other brick and mortar stores. All of their machines are configured with Microsoft SIgnature, which means that they do not have any of the standard “bloatware” that you will find when you buy a Windows PC from somewhere else. They also are not covered with stupid product logo stickers, and the display models actually have their battery installed (so you can feel how much they really weigh). Right now, they have laptops from $499-$1899, but they have quite few models in the $799-$1299 range, many with Intel “Ivy Bridge” processors, SSDs, and greater than 1366 x 768 screen resolution. These are good, mid-range laptops, which are much nicer than the $399-$599 plastic wonders that you will find at Best Buy.
It really pains me to have watched this “race to the bottom” for Windows laptops over the last two-three years. Due to price competition from netbooks a couple of years ago, and more recently from tablets, the Average Selling Price (ASP) for laptops has been steadily going down, leaving very small margins for the system vendors. Because of this, you will find most low-end laptops have terrible quality 1366 x 768 LCD screens, many will have very slow 5400rpm magnetic hard drives, and many will have only 4GB of RAM. They will also be loaded up with performance sapping bloatware, and they will be covered in those annoying product logo stickers (since the system vendors can make some extra money by polluting their systems with that stuff). When questioned about this, the system vendors used to claim that all most of their customers cared about was the price, and that they were willing to live with lower quality components (probably because they did not really know any better). Now, probably because of Apple and its infamous Retina Display, we are beginning to see some of the PC system vendors such as Samsung start to offer a larger selection of better machines that have very nice 1600 x 900 or 1920 x 1080 LCD displays which is a step in the right direction.
If you are in the market for a very high-end mobile workstation, with four memory slots, multiple drive bays, etc., so you can run a complete SQL Server 2012 AlwaysOn Availability Group infrastructure on multiple virtual machines, the Microsoft Store is not going to have what you are looking for. You will have to order a beast like that directly from your system vendor of choice. If you are looking for a good quality, mid to upper range machine, the Microsoft Store might have what you are looking for.
If you do not live near a Microsoft Store, another decent brick and mortar alternative is Micro Center, which also has 23 locations. They carry a pretty wide range of laptops starting from the cheapest netbook to a few big, expensive 17” gaming laptops. Their machines are straight from the system vendor, loaded with all of the standard bloatware, but they do have a wider selection than the typical Best Buy. Their sales people are also more knowledgeable than the kids at Best Buy, but they are equally as aggressive about selling extended warranties. One thing I like to do whenever I am in a Best Buy or in a Micro Center is to listen to some of the tall tales that sales people tell to their credulous customers. It is quite entertaining for me!