I bought my current workhorse notebook, the HP Envy 14, in November of 2010. At the time, it was a relatively thin, light, and powerful Windows notebook. Today, it feels overly large, clunky, and fat. When a random mood strikes me to write something, I find myself straining to pull out this monstrosity. Often enough, I leave it in its bag and pull out my tablet instead—and proceed to struggle with the much less efficient keyboard and mobile OS (whether iOS or Android).
Of course, I’m joking, mostly. In fact, the Envy is a perfectly serviceable notebook with as much performance as I need (and less battery life than I’d like), particularly after I replaced the stock spinning disk with an SSD. However, surveying the technology landscape in the summer of 2012 has me hankering for a notebook that’s lighter, lasts longer on a charge, and just looks better. It’s a pretty crowded landscape, however, and so the choice of which new notebook to buy is not an easy one.
Much of today’s frenzy of new introductions is because of two primary factors. Both have been driven by Intel, and both are at least in part in response to the success of Apple’s MacBook Air.
First, Intel created the Ultrabook specification in 2011 that dictates a specific (albeit evolving) set of criteria for machines that bear the Ultrabook label:
- They have to be thin (from 18mm to 23mm depending on the configuration)
- They have to have a minimum of five hours of battery life
- They have to resume from hibernation within seven seconds
- They have to have fast storage (minimum 80MB/s transfer rate)
In general, Ultrabooks are thin and light Windows notebooks that boot quickly (typically in 25 seconds or less), wake up immediately (typically two seconds or less), have long standby so they’re always ready to work (measured in days or weeks, not hours), and offer good enough performance for typical productivity work.
- Faster CPU performance, from 5% to 15% increase
- Faster GPU performance, from 25% to 68% increase
- PCI Express 3.0
- Lower power requirements and an improved heat envelope
In general, Ivy Bridge was worth waiting for, and most notebook manufacturers timed the introduction of their next generation of notebooks (Ultrabooks and otherwise) around the release of Ivy Bridge.
And so, a person looking for a new notebook today has both great timing, and a real job ahead. I can’t remember a time when there have been quite so many excellent choices, and the key word here is “choice”: every manufacturer, from Apple to ASUS to HP to VIZIO, is offering a wide range of excellent notebooks that meet pretty much anybody’s needs. Whether you want a small, light, decent performance notebook that starts instantly and is pretty much always ready to go (i.e., an Ultrabook), or a high-end gaming machine, you’re not only covered in choices, you’re downright smothered.
I’ve not really changed my opinion of Apple in terms of how they seem to be driving technology downward towards the least common denominator. They seem to want to appeal to the laziest technology consumers—those people unwilling to spend even a modicum of time learning a new device—and in so doing, Apple has cut important functionality and flexibility from many of their products.
This is most true with their iOS devices, where my iPad is a study in frustration. A lack of customizability, widgets, file system access, and inter-application sharing makes the iPad a far less productive device than it could otherwise be. It’s aimed squarely at the consumer of content, with only a nod here and there to someone who wants to get real work done. And the frustration builds once you consider just how good the iPad could be if it were just a little less simplistic.
So far, their OS X machines seem to be relatively free of the same mindset. I owned a 2008 MacBook Pro running Snow Leopard, and while I didn’t like how OS X manages windows and files, it was still a full-on, “full size” operating system with few compromises. The same seems to be true with the most current version of OS X, Lion, and will likely remain the same with Mountain Lion—although Apple is taking baby steps toward limiting application installations by offering the option to restrict to apps downloaded from the Mac App Store.
All of that said, the new MacBook Pro with Retina display is, without a doubt, simply the most elegant, beautiful, and downright sexy piece of computing hardware I’ve ever laid my hands or eyes upon. It’s as thin as many Ultrabooks in spite of having an ultra-high-res 15.6” screen with unbelievable contrast and color performance, and light enough that the difference is pretty much negligible. It also uses the Ivy Bridge Mobile CPU as opposed to the Ultra-low Power version, and so should perform significantly better than Windows Ultrabooks or the MacBook Air.
Mostly, though, it simply feels as much better than Windows notebooks as the iPad does than the typical Android tablet. In short, it’s the kind of difference in materials and manufacture that compel rational people to spend over $100,000 on a Mercedes Benz, when they could get as much performance, safety, and—in fact—quality from a car costing less than half as much. When I put my hands on a MacBook Pro a few weeks ago at Best Buy, I felt like I was touching a work of art, not just a piece of technology.
Although the MacBook Pro costs $2,199 in its entry-level configuration, I have no doubt that it’s worth every penny. First, that “entry-level” is at the Ultrabook high-end: 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, discrete graphics, and a plethora of high-speed ports (both USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt). Second, just like a Mercedes, the MacBook Pro just feels like the ultimate in quality. Yes, it’s a very sensual thing, one to which you can’t really relate without actually getting one in your hands. So, I recommend highly that you do so. It’s also very subjective, and so once you try one out yourself, you might think I’m full of hyperbole.
All of that said, I’m torn on the screen’s resolution, mainly because if I did buy the thing, I’d likely want to run it at least some of the time in Boot Camp mode with either Windows 7 or Windows 8. Neither Windows operating system, however, is particularly good at handling higher resolutions without making text absolutely tiny, and the MacBook Pro with Retina display has an obscene 2880X1800 resolution. I struggle to use notebooks with 1600X900 resolution because of my aging eyes (yes, I use reading glasses regularly), and while Apple has done a good job with OS X and such resolutions, I’m not sure how it will work with Windows.
Also, Apple has applied another of its recent tendencies to the new MacBook Pro: making products incredibly thin and light, but impossible to upgrade and difficult or even impossible to service. Wired put it succinctly:
The success of the non-upgradeable Air empowered Apple to release the even-less-serviceable iPad two years later: The battery was glued into the case. And again, we voted with our wallets and purchased the device despite its built-in death clock. In the next iteration of the iPad, the glass was fused to the frame.
The new MacBook Pro cannot be upgraded or easily serviced, meaning that it’s very much a scenario where what you buy is what you’re stuck with—forever. Note that most Windows Ultrabooks are also limited in how they can be upgraded and serviced, and so this is really more of a concern when you’re comparing the MacBook Pro Retina to other “full-size” notebooks. In general, when making a decision on what notebook to buy, we now in many cases have to think very hard about how long we plan to use it and what we’ll do when we outgrow it.
Therefore, while I absolutely love the machine’s form factor, build quality, and specifications, I’m not sure I’ll be able to actually use it or trust in such a large and potentially limited-time investment. And, when I get right down to it, $2,199 is mo9re money than I want to spend on a machine that I’ll mostly be using for writing fiction and blog posts, not editing video or photos, for which this machine is eminently suited.
MacBook Air 13”
That leaves Apple’s other attractive option (for me, at least), the MacBook Air 13”. As mentioned, the MacBook Air was the inspiration for Intel’s Ultrabook initiative, and remains the benchmark for thin and light notebooks. The 2012 version has recently been updated to Ivy Bridge and the entry level price reduced to $1,199. So, there’s really no excuse for leaving the MacBook Air out of my analysis.
I started writing this post a few weeks ago, and was waiting to finish it up until I’d had more opportunities to get my hands on some of the machines on my short list. After spending some time with a number of them, I actually decided to give a MacBook Air a try, and am actually writing this post primarily on Windows Live Writer running in a Parallels virtual machine on a MacBook Air with 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD.
I know I’m giving quite a bit away when I say this, but the MacBook Air is an impressive machine. It’s built extremely well (in spite of some issues I ran into with this particular unit), performs like a dream, and as I outlined in another post, Apple’s customer service is simply excellent.
Before giving this machine a try, I had written the following:
However, as I’ve already implied, I’m a Windows user through and through. I don’t like OS X, and so many of the advantages of the MacBook Air—good battery life, excellent performance, good thermal management—have to be reconsidered in light of how the machine performs in Windows running in Boot Camp. Yes, I know I could run a virtual machine, but I’ve found that approach limiting in the past and I have no reason to assume it’s any different today.
The MacBook Air offers the typical Apple quality, with an solid build that remains thin and light, plenty of expandability with two USB 3.0 ports, Thunderbolt (that can connect via adapters to HDMI and other standards), and an SD card slot, and excellent performance. Its screen is bright with great colors, and a moderately high resolution, 16:10 ratio screen at 1440X900. It also has one of the best keyboards and trackpads of any notebook on the market.
I’ll have more to say in future posts, but I take back some of what I was going to write. Windows runs just fine in Parallels, booting and resuming from standby almost as quickly as most Windows Ultrabooks, offering almost as good battery life as OS X, and in general benefitting from some of the advantages of Apple notebooks (such as a vastly superior trackpad experience). And, I’m enjoying OS X Lion more than I expected, meaning I might spending less time in Windows than I thought.
This is getting to be a long piece, and so I’m breaking it into parts. Part 2 will provide a short survey of the Windows Ultrabooks I’ve taken a look at, and provide my ultimate conclusions.