I’m not much for playing politics, particularly with technology companies, but there is one event every year that I’m glad Microsoft likes me enough to keep inviting me to. Craig Mundie’s official title at Microsoft is Chief Research and Strategy Officer, but you could call him Microsoft’s Chief Genius for short, I suppose. Inside his brain is the future, and every year since Bill Gates retired, he’s held a small event, TechForum, in which a half dozen or so tech writers get to take a peek at it. I’ll tell you more about it—you know, the future—later. It’s actually pretty amazing.
But the very first thing that struck me this year is that every single writer who pulled out a laptop pulled out a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. Every. One. Apple machines ruled at one of Microsoft’s most exclusive events for tech writers. We’re talking about some of the heaviest hitters on the Microsoft beat from the New York Times, Slate, Fortune, Forbes and MIT Technology Review, among others. And I’m pretty sure every one of them had iPhones, too. “To tell you the truth, it makes me kind of squeamish,” one of the guys said. So, why?
Because the state of PC laptops is sad. Real, real sad.
Sad like Dell says it’s “not really a PC company anymore.” And the biggest computer maker in the world, HP, was going to spin off its entire PC business before it suddenly decided not to. Sad like both of those companies killed their most innovative laptops a couple of years ago—the thinner-than-thin Adamo and Voodoo lines, respectively—and never brought them back. Sad like the entire crop of actually decent laptops (hurray?) that are set to come out in the next couple of months are basically the product of a $300 million slush fund established by Intel to get PC makers to produce laptops which you could say—if you were feeling generous—are merely “inspired” by the MacBook Air, even though the raging success of that little machine in every metric is very much why that $300 million piggy bank exists.
And I’m just talking about hardware, even as I think it matters less and less beyond expressing software to the best of its abilities in a beautiful package. Not even about Windows vs. OS X—for the record, I run both. But there is not a PC laptop in you can buy today that is as well designed and constructed as the MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. And the Pro is nearly four years old at this point. It’s somewhat ludicrous that PC makers won’t or can’t, match something that, well, old.
Lenovo ThinkPads are bulletproof marvels of engineering. But they’re designed like Death Star technology. I think they were used to fire on Alderaan, even. Sony’s Vaio machines have been deeply innovative and well designed, on occasion—they originated the chiclet style keyboard you see on nearly every laptop now—but they make the idea of a Mac tax laughable, and the build quality’s never quite matched the design. HP’s Envy line is more appropriately named than it should be, when you look at it next to a MacBook Pro. And a MacBook Air running Windows 7 still manages to deliver the only multitouch trackpad on Windows that won’t make you want to pinch-to-zoom your eyeballs until they explode. The ultrabooks’ battery life is finally approaching MacBook Air levels, though.
I mean, the bottom line is that there is not a superlative PC laptop I could tell you to buy. (Though if I was going to buy one, it would probably be a ThinkPad.) That’s true of everybody that was in that room. And apparently a lot of other people too, if you look at the growth in Mac vs. PC sales. There isn’t one amazing machine.
It’s getting better, though. Some of the new ultrabooks look alright, like the Dell XPS 13, and the all-glass-clad HP Spectre. And there’s this ridiculous gaming laptop, the Razer Blade, that’s genuinely trying to do something new. Someone cared when they designed these machines. So maybe next year, when Microsoft brings a crowd of us together to show us the future again, it’ll be different.
Then again, we haven’t seen the next MacBook Pros yet.