Has laptop design reached singularity?
By David BRAUE
Depending on where you are in your laptop buying cycle, you may or may not have noticed the recent announcements about 'ultrabooks', that extremely thin class of laptop that uses less power, replaces hard drives with solid state drives (SSDs), is made from aluminium, and for all intents and purposes looks and works exactly like an Apple MacBook air.
There's a reason for this, of course: the MacBook air has proved to be an incredibly popular addition to Apple's MacBook laptop range, which has been embraced even by many people who swear they are die-hard Windows enthusiasts. Longer battery life, nearly instant suspension and resumption of sessions, and a sleek design that's to die for have all contributed to the laptops' cachet – so much so that nobody's really been complaining about the removal of DVD-ROM drives.
Even big-name Windows laptop makers, who have in the past kept flooding the market with Blu-ray disc playing units toting massive screens and blink-and-you'll-miss-it battery life, are getting in on the ultrabook story.
Witness ASUS's new ZENBOOK, which I am told will ship this Friday at prices starting from $1399. Like Interestingly, that's $300 more than Apple's entry-level 64GB MacBook air, and $50 more than its comparable 128GB model; so much for the conventional wisdom that Apple laptops are overpriced.
Pricing aside, however, a look at the specs for the ZENBOOK reveal little difference to those of the MacBook air: there are 11 and 13-inch models with 128GB or 256GB SSDs, 5 to 7 hours' battery life, lots of USB, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The keyboard layout, chiclet design, trackpad, and general look and feel scream "Apple" – as do the designs of basically every ultrabook we've seen so far.
If blatantly copying Apple is as innovative as laptop makers can get these days, I'm forced to consider the possibility that the MacBook air has pushed the laptop market towards singularity – that theoretical point where design and functionality have reached their zenith, and where further improvement is simply unattainable.
There will be steady boosts in CPU speed and storage capacity, of course, as sure as the sun rises in the east. But if the main differentiator between the ASUS and Apple laptops is their operating system, where are manufacturers to take this ultrabook form factor next?
More importantly, is there still room in the market for their general-purpose laptop designs?
Will consumers continue flocking to everything-but-the-kitchen-sink units that must be tethered to the nearest mains outlet to power their souped-up GPUs, optical drives and extra-bright screens? Or will they steadily reject that kind of laptop for something that provides real mobility and a full day's worth of computing without gimmicks – in other words, a laptop that just Bloody. Well. Works?
Ultimately, price may be the thing keeping the old-style units alive, since quite a lot of people are happy to buy $500 laptops despite their having disgraceful battery life and questionable build quality that all too often ends in tears. But looks count for a lot – and if there's a higher tier of device hovering just out of reach above that magical $1000 price point, we have to consider the possibility that even low-end buyers will start saving up until they can get an ultrabook in their hands instead.
Fast-forward a few years, and there's only conclusion: every laptop will be – or, at least, look like – a MacBook air. Analysts certainly think so: IHS, for one, recently came out with a prediction that ultrabooks will account for 40 percent of all laptop shipments by 2015.
Unless, of course, someone – and, let's face it, in the laptop market that means Apple – does something radical to reinvent the whole idea of a laptop.
What else would you add to today's laptops? Or have we indeed reached laptop singularity?
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And Intel are mightily steamed that noone can make a cheaper McBook Air than Apple.
I fully expect to be flamed - 99% of the world's laptop users hate it with a vengence. And most devs never have both hands at the keyboard due to excessive cutting & pasting. :)