A while ago, Marco Arment wrote a post about the design of smartphones before and after the introduction of the iPhone, citing how most smartphones now feature a similar design to Apple’s phone. As a result, smartphone hardware benefited from Apple’s entry into the market, speeding up smartphone innovation at an unprecedented pace. It’s a similar pattern that we are seeing in the tablet market today. Microsoft pioneered the idea of Tablet PCs early in the 2000s, but the design 1 remained stagnant until the arrival of the iPad. Now every tablet is a large touchscreen surface.
This pattern also seems to be gaining popularity the high end laptop market. Putting a smirk on Mac enthusiasts everywhere, the recently announced Dell XPS 15z and Asus UX series laptops make litte attenot to hide their design influences. Despite being produced by huge PC manufacturers, one should be forgiven for throwing the word Knockoff around when describing these two computers. Even if they are merely settlling for creating copycats, it’s hopeful to see that PC OEMs are finally realizing that there is a desire for well designed computer hardware, a good thing for all of us.
PC hardware, especially laptops, have historically been atrocious. Outside of Lenovo’s ThinkPad line of notebooks, you would have been hard pressed to find a laptop or netbook that wasn’t:
- Heavy, yet flimsy.
- Made of cheap plastic
- Using a terrible 6-cell Li-Ion battery
- Lacking a good display
- Burdened with terrible ergonomics, keyboard and trackpad
This was true also of the high end PC laptop market. Apple, with their critically acclaimed notebooks, has been dominating that market for years. NPD reported in 2010 that 90% of computer sold for 1000$ and up were Apple branded. PC OEMs, apparently having grown tired of being eviscerated in this space, have finally decided to try and create computers that could compete with the industrial design espoused by Apple’s line of computers. Heeding the words of Picasso, PC OEMs started to simply design desktops and notebooks that liberally borrowed from the concepts of iMac 2 and Macbook line. This trend became most apparent in 2009, with the introduction of HP’s Envy notebook line. With the Envy, it was apparent that HP had taken design cues from Cupertino on how to build a high-end notebook. It didn’t get everything right, notably the trackpad and battery 3, but the Envy’s combination of a light and sturdy metal casing, impressive display and high performance internals showed that it was possible to create a laptop that -ahem- Macheads could be envious of. Subsequent iterations were much improved. Dell attempted something similar with the Adamo notebook line, a device clearly influenced by the Macbook Air. Unfortunately, Dell killed the Adamo earlier this year, presumably because it still couldn’t compete with the Air, which was getting better components while slashing its price.
That didn’t mean Dell was done taking hardware cues from Apple. Since simply inspiring themselves from the Macbook family hadn’t worked out, with the Dell XPS 15z, they simply decided to stitch together spare Macbook Pro and PowerBook pieces together and call it a day. Asus, for their part, joined into the fray by repurposing a Macbook Air sample they managed to get their hands on and creating a whole new category to go with it. To HP’s credit, the Envy line at least managed to not cross the line between inspiration and theft.
It is easy to criticize this copycat approach to building notebooks. For consumers however, it’s a breath of fresh air to finally be able to purchase a top quality Windows laptop designed for adults. Every one wins when more laptops feature attractive, sturdy designs and long-lasting enclosed batteries. There is one downside. So long as OEMs continue to crib directly from Apple, they’re hardware will always be one step behind. Whenever it actually ships, the Asus UX series laptops will seems comparable to a MacBook Air today 4, but it will surely immediately fall behind as soon as Apple introduces a refreshed model.
Perhaps more interesting is the reason why it took so long for PC notebooks in this style to start appearing in the first place. Apple has been providing amble subject matter to steal from since the introduction of the Powerbook, so why are we only seeing these copycat designs now? I suspect that as Apple’s brand awareness has skyrocketed thanks to the iPhone and iPad, consumers have also become more aware of their other products, forcing other companies to offer something similar. Just as cellphone salesmen started to hear “Do you have something like the iPhone?” back in 2007, computer vendors are probably getting more and more questions related to “Something like that Macbook Pro”. It remains to be seen whether PC makers are looking at Apple for inspiration simply as a quick fix solution to this problem or because they are actually trying to drive hardware innovation. Watching what happens at the middle and low end of the computer market and seeing if the improvements made at the high end segment trickle down might be a good indicator.
Overall, there’s nothing wrong with all these copycats. Consumers win because they have a broader range of high quality computers to choose from. If PC computers continue to innovate and offer competitive products, it’ll provide extra incentive for Apple to continue to deliver the groundbreaking products that they’re known for.
That should be enough to put a smile on everyone’s face.
1. And really, the whole market.
2. PC OEMs still offer very few all in one desktops. Most of them are HP touchscreen enabled computers, which are rather atrocious.
3. You could blame the poor battery life on the early generation i5 & i7 processor in the envy, which weren’t optimized for mobile use.
4. Possibly beating the Air to Sandy Bridge