By Shadoe Huard

June 1st 2011

If You Want to Get Better, Steal.   

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 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

Posted at 3:27pm and tagged with: apple, asus, copycat, dell, macbook, one column, tech, readlater,.

May 8th 2011

"How Heavy is the Bag?"

Marco Arment, with some thoughts on “needs” and how you should take into consideration the transportation of your computer.  Always good to know we agree on some things.

Posted at 12:38pm and tagged with: macbook, laptops, size,.

Ben Brooks making a great point, but not before going on his own long tirade about specs and performance.  Maybe he can’t, but I can find a ton of reasons to pick a 13” Macbook Pro(which I own*)  over a 13” Macbook Air, all having to do with how I use computers. 

The point is that I’m happy with my computer, as he is with his, since they both allow us to do the things we need to get done.

*I haven’t used a 13 MBP exclusively.  I’ve gone from a 15”MBP to an inferior 13”, to a MBA and iMac i5 with SSD, to iMac and iPad, back to a 13” MBP.  When I decided to cut down to a single machine, it’s the 13” MBP that gave me the best experience I was searching for.

Posted at 11:44am and tagged with: macbook, air, pro, performance,.

It’s not about performance specs, it about user experience and how people use their computers

May 3rd 2011

Es-tu Thunderbolt?   

New iMacs today, some sporting not just one, but two whole Thunderbolt ports, presumably, for the monitor jockeys in all of us.  At least until there’s actually something else to attach it to.

With this kind of push, it’s clear Apple (and Intel by association) is going for broke with this.  With a tiny footprint, and a tech spec sheet reading like any power user’s ultimate fantasy I/O device, it’s not hard to imagine Apple doing away with every port save the magsafe and as few thunderbolt ports as needed on some future ultra svelte Macbook.

If only USB 3.0 didn’t stand in the way. While not as technically proficient, the latest USB spec does have a few advantages, namely broader OEM support and lower manufacturing costs.  To the latter point, some agree with me:

“Mind you: daisychaining can be a good thing … if you’re a user: it saves you the cost of buying a hub. But it only transfers that cost to the device OEM. And when there’s another more established connectivity standard out there that’s “fast enough” and cheaper to implement, the OEM’s going to choose it instead. Another ironic downside of daisychaining is that because it exists, the incentive for developing hubs is sharply reduced. Ever seen a Firewire hub? Neither have I. This means that peripheral OEMs either absorb the cost of an extra port or ship a 1 port device that severely limits the utility of the end user’s PC Thunderbolt port.”

While I don’t espouse Judah Richardson’s overall pessimism towards Thunderbolt, I do share his questions about daisychaining:

“Did I mention how hard it is to troubleshoot a daisychain? With USB, disconnecting a device means severing only the connection between it and the host PC or it and the hub. With a daisychain, unless the device in question is at the end of the chain, you have to disconnect 2 cables and then connect the other devices that were ahead of and behind the troublesome device to each other. 3 times the effort.”

How are regular people supposed to use daisychaining without falling into a mess? You have to presume that Apple wants you to use this feature rather then them including a bevy of ports on future Macs. Yet, beyond just the troubleshooting woes, it seems like it would be a chore to manage anything beyond two devices linked together.  Devices like hard drives aren’t so bad since you don’t have to move them often but for things like cameras, iPods(or equivalents) or any other mass market consumer electronic you need to use often, it seems so counter-intuitive. Imagine the caucophony of plugging and unplugging going on as a family tries to orchestrate all their devices on a single Thunderbolt enabled computer.  Ugh.

And, just like in war, there is no room for two winners.   While thunderbolt is clearly the superior technology, both it and USB 3.0 are vastly superior to anything existing right now, and it’s not clear that there’s a mass market need for such thoroughput speed, even in the forseable future.  Not everyone is doing such extravagant things in their everyday life.

If Apple and Intel’s plans work out like they plan, all the better.  Like I said: power user’s fantasy.

Just saying we should excecise some cautious optimism here.

Posted at 5:40pm and tagged with: Apple, thunderbolt, macbook, air, pro, mac, usb, firewire,.

October 28th 2010

Living in a Netbook World   

On the new 11” Macbook Air living in a netbook world:

Ben Brooks:

“Here is a scenario that keeps popping into my head, and seems to make a lot of sense. A stay at home mom wants to get a computer that she can use when the kids are gone, and when she is waiting for them and working on her various projects – in other words, light computing needs in short spurts. She has been turned off by the iPad because she has been told it is not a ‘full’ or ‘real’ computer, so instead she has been looking at a cheap Net book. Most likely playing with them at Costco and Best Buy, but the MacBooks keep catching her eye. Now she sees there is a Net book sized MacBook, that, while more expensive than all other Net books, really looks good. So she walks over and starts playing with the 11 and talking with the Apple Rep about it. She eventually says forget it – the price is way too high, and she just doesn’t need it.

Now what happens when she goes back to the Net books? She is going to find herself waiting for things to open. All of a sudden the 11 doesn’t just look like a sexy little over priced Net book, but instead a really, really, small computer. That is powerful, being able to draw a consumer in that would not normally look at your computers (in this scenario a stay at home mom) and give the a compelling reason that is hard for competitors to compete with – flash storage.”

Anand Lal Shimpi & Vivek Gowri :

Apple won’t call it a netbook, but that’s exactly what the 11.6 inch MacBook Air is: a netbook with much better hardware. You get a full sized keyboard, an old but faster-than-Atom processor and a great screen. If you’re a writer, the 11-inch MacBook Air is the perfect tool just at an imperfect price.”

It doesn’t matter whether you consider to new 11” MBA to be a netbook or not.  It matters that for many consumers, that’s what they’ll be comparing it with.   It must be a scary time if your a netbook maker not named Apple.

Posted at 5:45pm and tagged with: netbook, apple, macbook, macbook air, mac, review,.

October 27th 2010

How are you supposed to pick?   

With benchmarks for the new Macbook Air quickly making the rounds, it’s becoming quickly apparent that for alot of people, it can be their goto machine( At least in the case of the 13 inch MBA). 

If your shopping for a entry level mac notebook right now, your choices are:

1. 11” Entry model Macbook Air: $999

2. 13” Entry model Macbook: $999

3. 13” Entry model Macbook Pro: $1199

4. 13” Entry model Macbook Air: $1299

With performance being relatively equal across the whole bunch (Save perhaps the 11” if you need to do anything more than browsing/writing), how are you supposed to pick?  If you don’t care for expandability, firewire or storage, then really, how are you supposed to choose?  Sure, you might need a DVD drive, but probably not.  About the only software people still buy on a DVD are anti-virus softwares and Office.  Either model of the Air offers so much advantage in size and battery life with so little compromise on power and price that unless you have a real specific need that only the Macbook/Macbook Pro can solve, there’s never any reason to pick anything but the new Airs everytime.  

As a photographer, I need the firewire port my 13”inch Macbook Pro has, and I’ll appreciate the ability to max out at 8 gigs of ram or have dual SSDs (removing the DVD drive).  And even still, if I was purchasing a laptop today, I’d have to seriously consider getting an Air, and adapting to it.  

The Macbook lineup, for all intents and purposes, should be either:

a. 11”/13? Macbook Air

b. 15”/17” Macbook Pro

It begs the questions: how long before they just drop the Air moniker?  Why even keep the white Macbook or the 13” Pro?

I’d be curious to find out just who specifically Apple thinks these four Macbook models cater to that justifies keeping all four SKUs.

Posted at 11:53pm and tagged with: macbook, macbook air, macbook pro, apple, benchmarks, mac, mac,.

October 22nd 2010

The Ipad Pro   

What’s most amusing about Apple releasing what amounts to a Mac netbook isn’t that they had ridiculed the entire notion of a netbook back when they announced the Ipad. It’s rather that they’ve given consumers better reasons than ever to want to buy a netbook type device.  One might assume that most people purchased netbooks for the portability, weighing whether or not the reduced computing power was worth it. The presence of the Ipad changes that.  After having my Ipad for the better of two months before going back to my laptop, I would conclude that Ipad owners at some point come to one of 3 realizations:

It’s the only computing device they’ll ever need from this point on to get their work done.

-  It’s great a great companion to a desktop/laptop, because they still need those to get most, if not all, of their work done.

-  It’s perfect for most every situation they encounter, but sometimes a traditional computer is still needed to get some work done.

 It’s the customers in the third category that the 11 inch Air, to me, is targeting. The 13 inch is redefining idea of a modern laptop in terms of portability and size.  It’s smaller brother is for, presumably, Ipad owners who need a little more computing maneuverability.  The Ipad has popularized the notion that you don’t need the fastest processor to get through the day in a way that was never communicated by netbooks.  Ipads created a need for something in between itself and regular laptops and desktops.  An Ipad Pro, so to speak.  When people usually think of netbooks, it’s mostly about their size, not how it suits their computing needs.

Although Apple will never call it so, the 11 inch Air rightly belongs in the netbook class of mobile devices. For comparison:

What does the higher price tag of the Air net you?

-  Better Design & Construction: From the unibody casing to the new battery design to the high resolution LED display, the new Macbook Air simply outshines the other models I’ve outlined here in terms of build and component quality.  The performance difference between the flash storage and regular Hard Disks must be worth it alone to lots of people.

-  IOS-esque influences: This was the crux of the Back to the Mac Event, bridging the gap between IOS devices and Mac OS devices: instant on, desktop app store, battery life…

That’s where, to me, the price difference is justified.  So why release it after the Ipad? 

Even though it seems backwards, the idea might be  that the Air completes or complements your experience of using IOS devices, hence the new IOS like features shown in the Air and the preview of Mac OS 10.7.  

Macbooks compete in the high end laptop market, where they are competitive in pricing and specs,  inline with their competition. On it’s own, the 999$ Air isn’t even in the high end netbook segment, it’s stratospherically above it.  However, if you consider the Air as the high end Ipad so to speak, it makes much more sense.  Only need email and internet? Go Ipad/Iphone.  Need a little more, get an Air that turns on nearly just as fast, and thanks to the mac app store, feels similar to other IOS devices. Or both.  

Posted at 9:31pm and tagged with: ipad,, macbook, apple, macbook air, computers, IOS, netbooks,.