I realized something recently.
The only reason I’ve been happy with PC (and specifically, desktops) is that I get to control all the “UI hardware” that matters. The screen. The keyboard. The mouse. The speakers. The primary input and output of a computer. Behind those devices is just a box with cpu, memory, and a hard drive.
PC laptops have existed for a long time. I’ve only bought two. The Sony Vaio Z505, and the Sony Picturebook. Both I liked somewhat, but never were my primary machines. The former was cool at the time, but soon felt underpowered compared to my desktop, and ergonomics were not that great. The latter was just a toy to start with (go Transmeta!)
When I started my current job, I was offered only a choice of a laptop, which is a situation that I had never faced before. Initially, I chose a Macbook Pro, mostly because I was curious, and saw that a lot of other fellow engineers were moving to it. Over the past 2 years, I’ve been switching back and forth, probably once every 6-8 months, and I’m currently on the Thinkpad x220.
Here’s the thing: I think software-wise, my brain still thinks in Windows. Maybe that’s outdated, but it’s just really hard to get over. My brain also remembers all the positive experiences I had with Windows growing up. All those times I built a new PC to do exactly what I wanted.
It turns out, I just can’t find that in the world of PC laptops. Everything is integrated for you. You can’t find the one laptop that has the screen, keyboard, and mouse that you want. Even the brands that give you a ton of BTO options can’t seem to give you any good combinations. In the laptop game, it’s about picking the overall best experience.
When it comes to the overall experience, I think Mac’s currently win. Living with a Thinkpad for just a few months will tell you why. While the Thinkpad keyboard is great, the pointing devices are terrible. Some people seem to like the track point. I think those people are crazy. Anyways, the overall situation leads people to write articles like: http://blog.laptopmag.com/crappy-clickpads-could-kill-the-ultrabook . This article is not exaggerating. The laptop pointing device situation on Windows is atrocious. And it’s telling that it’s still that way after all this time. Any time I feel like I need to do real work on a Thinkpad, I always reach for the external mouse.
So even if my brain can’t quite appreciate all the aspects of OSX (it has a few broken, arcane paradigms of it’s own), at the end of the day, I must acknowledge that as far as laptops go, the mac is what feels the best. They have decent screens, they keyboards are near the top, and the touch/clickpad is top notch. Using their products (typing this on my Dad’s 11inch Air) really makes me feel like they appreciate this one fundamental aspect of computing devices. I see it in their mobile products as well.
I’ll likely be returning to a mac for my work laptop soon, but I’m more writing this because I feel like I’m now seeing the end of an era. I wrote about whether computers were “tools or appliances” before. But I realized, in a way, laptops were appliances all a long. Too many parts of the product are decided by the manufacturer for it not to be so.
I had long hoped for some kind of “build your own laptop” initiative to take off. There were some little-known attempts, but when the size and power characteristics of the end product make up such an important part of the experience, flexibility of components has a high cost. Maybe it will happen someday, but it seems unlikely. The devices are getting smaller, even more integrated, and cheaper. I suppose people must have felt this way about cars at some point. I suppose I’ll just have to get over it and just use my PC building skills to avoid the Apple memory tax.