The perfect laptop and the race to the thinnest

Tech Life

Three things have inspired me to write this. 

Thinsistence

I know the pictures at 9to5Mac are not of a real MacBook Air, that they are a rendition based on information purportedly received from Apple. But let’s play along and pretend that this is a faithful rendition of the future 12-inch MacBook Air. Am I alone in thinking that it’s overall quite ugly?

Some selected quotes from the article to emphasise what’s driving me nuts lately about laptops, and Apple laptops in particular: 

Apple is preparing an all-new MacBook Air for 2015 with a radically new design that jettisons standards such as full-sized USB ports, MagSafe connectors, and SD card slots in favor of a markedly thinner and lighter body with a higher-resolution display. 

The 12-inch MacBook Air will be considerably smaller than the current 13-inch version, yet also slightly narrower than the 11-inch model.

Apple has squeezed the keys closer in order for the computer to be as narrow as possible …

Apple has also relocated some of the function keys across the top and simplified the arrow key array in order to keep the keyboard as narrow as possible without taking away from overall usability.

The elimination of physical feedback in the click is part of Apple’s plan to reduce the thickness of the MacBook to a bare minimum.

As can be seen in 9to5Mac artist Michael Steeber‘s rendition above, the new 12-inch Air (on the left) is far thinner than the current 11-inch model (on the right). Taking cues from the current Air, the future model has a teardrop-like, tapered design that gets thinner from top to bottom.

The upcoming laptop is so thin that Apple employees are said to refer to the device as the “MacBook Stealth” internally. In order to reach that new level of portability, Apple not only slimmed down the trackpad and tweaked the speakers but the ports as well … 

Thin, thinner, narrow, narrower, as narrow as possible, reducing the thickness, far thinner, slimming down…

Let me get this out of my system: I am sick and tired of this obsession to make laptops as thin as possible. It’s becoming an exercise in design, a race to the thinnest machine. And yes, I believe that usability suffers in the process. What sells thinness to the customer is, I think, the lightness that goes with it. And yes, of course your laptop has to be lightweight and the least bulky there is. But when such thinness and lightness are achieved at the expense of usability (a more cramped keyboard, a bigger trackpad further reducing the palm rest area, a trackpad without physical feedback) and even ports and connections, I simply don’t understand and begin wondering how much sense it all makes.

Yes, as I’ve said I’m assuming that the information revealed in the 9to5Mac article is good, and for the sake of argument I’m taking it at face value. I tend to believe the bit about Apple “planning to ditch standard USB ports, the SD Card slot, and even its Thunderbolt and MagSafe charging standards on this new notebook” and leaving the 12-inch MacBook Air with just one USB Type-C port. Perhaps it won’t remove the MagSafe connector just yet, but Apple is always looking for new solutions and is obsessed with this kind of optimisation. It’s a move that can be expected from Apple. Just look back at the first MacBook Air — it only had one USB port, a Micro-DVI video port, an audio jack and the MagSafe connector, where a regular MacBook of the time had Ethernet, two USB ports, a FireWire port, audio in and out, and a Mini-DVI video port.

In early 2008, I loved the idea of the MacBook Air. It certainly was more compact and lighter than a regular MacBook, weighing only 1.36 kg against the 2.27 kg of the MacBook and the 2.45 kg of the 15-inch MacBook Pro of the time. I’ve had a Mac laptop as primary machine since 2003, when my beloved blueberry iMac G3 broke for the second time. When the first MacBook Air was introduced, my main machine was still a 12-inch PowerBook G4 — believe it or not — and was starting to feel limited for my needs. The future was with the Intel architecture, and for a moment I considered purchasing the MacBook Air as my first entry to Mac Intel machines. 

But the MacBook Air wasn’t the ideal laptop for me. I wasn’t really concerned with pure processor performance: lots of reviews said the first-generation MacBook Air was underpowered and slow, due to its small 4,200 rpm hard drive and a lackluster 1.6 GHz Core 2 Duo chip. But hey, I was still using a 1 GHz PowerPC G4 machine. The Air was lightning fast in comparison. What felt limiting to me was the Air’s lack of ports. And not just because I would have also used the Air as a desktop machine. Even when used as a laptop, only one USB port and the lack of Ethernet and FireWire was a deal breaker for me.

I’m digressing. In 2008 I thought that, while the MacBook Air was not the laptop for me, its thinness and lightness were truly revolutionary, and I was sure that the MacBook Air would be the perfect laptop for many other users. And that was an easy prediction. The original 13-inch MacBook Air was light, thin, and quite usable, as usable as a regular 13-inch MacBook (the keyboard was the same size and so was the palm rest area). 

When the 11-inch MacBook Air was introduced in late 2010, I was a bit perplexed at first, but again, an even smaller Air made sense for those wanting a truly ultra-portable machine that was also rather powerful. And it was nice to have more choices for the MacBook Air line of products. All the people I know who do a lot of work while flying were quite happy to have such a tiny machine with them in their trips. In late 2010 I was one year into my new Intel laptop, a 15-inch MacBook Pro, so I wasn’t thinking about a new laptop. That 11-inch Air was surely appealing: it had more connections than the original MacBook Air (well, one USB port more, but still), a solid state drive, the maximum RAM was 4 GB instead of 2… And above all, it had a very nice battery performance. But again it wasn’t the ideal laptop for me because I did not find it very usable for long writing sessions.

Indeed, at a later date, I had the opportunity of testing an 11-inch MacBook Air thoroughly. While I’m sure that owners of such a machine will disagree with me on this, I have to say that I didn’t find its size and form factor very usable after spending one day writing on it. And I don’t mean writing the occasional email and doing light typing stuff. I mean writing long-form pieces for hours. I found the 11-inch Air too cramped for my tastes, and I ended up with aching wrists because I couldn’t rest them comfortably in the limited area around the trackpad. I had to take more pauses, frequently readjusting my posture, etc. I remember thinking: I hope it doesn’t get any smaller or more cramped than this.

Where am I going with this? I’m simply saying that while in 2008 a laptop such as the first MacBook Air made sense compared to the other laptops produced by Apple and by Apple’s competitors (the Air was really the thinnest, lightest notebook of the time, there was only one Sony Vaio model, I think, with a similar form factor); and while in late 2010 a smaller, thinner MacBook Air still made sense — what sense does it make to build an even thinner 12-inch MacBook Air now? In 2008, getting a MacBook Air meant saving a lot of bulk and getting a laptop that weighed almost one kilogram less than the lightest Apple laptop of the time. In late 2010, getting an 11-inch MacBook Air meant saving a decent amount of bulk and almost 300 grams compared to the 13-inch model — enough to be worth considering the smaller Air. But I don’t think that a thinner 12-inch Air now is going to offer a comparable weight and bulk loss to justify this obsessive trimming. (Again, assuming Apple is really building such a laptop.)

The purported killing of most ports, and the purported aim to produce an even thinner MacBook Air just seems arbitrary at this point; a mere design exercise, as I already said. You sacrifice connections, keyboard space, trackpad feedback, and usability to have what, a laptop that may weigh 50 grams less than a 13-inch Air and be a couple of millimetres thinner? Can we stop for a second and ask, What’s the point? To beat a record? To claim to have the thinnest computer with a high-resolution screen? At that point, let’s just make an iPad Air with a keyboard attached (hint: still not great ergonomically.)

The perfect laptop

As Ben Brooks said:

The first thing we have to realize is that there is no perfect laptop. What is perfect for one person won’t be for another. It all depends on your values (speed, size, battery, screen, etc).

Having said that, I won’t be stopped from thinking about this a little more. The way I look at a perfect laptop is in the bigger picture of my entire setup. To that end there are two possible setups:

  • Desktop based: either an iMac, or larger 15” laptop at home.
  • Highly portable: MacBook Air as a main machine.

I won’t get into which is better, both have their merits, but to determine what a perfect laptop is I like to think about it in the vein of the above two setup scenarios.

Since 2004, my home office setup has always consisted of a Mac laptop in desktop configuration — attached to a bigger external display, to an extended keyboard and mouse, and attached to any external drives I’ve had on my desk. When I needed the Mac with me, I just disconnected everything and put the laptop in my backpack. The size of the laptop only mattered in one regard: how often I would use the laptop while out and about. Since in 2004 I was often off-site, a compact laptop was in order, so instead of buying a 15-inch PowerBook G4, at the time I opted for the 12-inch model, and it ended up being a very wise move. The 12-inch PowerBook G4 is probably the laptop that’s achieved almost-perfect status in my extended experience. Compact and lightweight enough, a decent battery life for the time, and with enough connections and enough power to be used as a desktop machine, connected to a 20-inch 1680×1050 external display.

By the time I had to upgrade my setup in 2009, I wasn’t commuting or moving around as I used to do five years before, so the need of having a small, highly portable machine with me wasn’t as strong. Also, my sessions at the computer while out and about were getting longer, so it made sense to consider a bigger laptop, and that’s why I got a 15-inch MacBook Pro instead of a 13-inch model (or an Air). The bigger display and trackpad, and the ample space in the palm rest area are great for long writing sessions.

Matt Gemmell, in his piece, emphasises what he looks most in a laptop:

What I do need, though, is true portability: small size, light weight, and the robustness to carry off the first two qualities without compromise. And I certainly need the reassurance that this tool will be ready for use whenever and wherever I might want to work.

Matt is very satisfied with his 2013 11-inch MacBook Air: This laptop already does all those things. It’s tiny, very light, and very solid. Those problems are solved.

He adds:

Portability isn’t a special requirement for a laptop. It’s not a premium feature. It’s the essential promise of the device’s whole concept. And until recently, they came with compromises that were technological, eating away at the ideology of the category. But that problem has pretty much gone away. Now, subnotebooks can find their natural home: the casual user. Me.

To conclude with a thought that ties to the observations I was making earlier, and to follow Matt’s drift, what I’d like to point out is this. Now that we have (Apple) laptops which are sufficiently thin, sufficiently lightweight, extremely portable and with batteries that last a day and let us be highly productive overall, perhaps it’s time to focus on other things that aren’t “how to make this laptop even thinner.” People still use bags and backpacks and briefcases and, as I observe every day in the city, they typically carry around a lot of stuff. I doubt that shaving off two millimetres or 50 grams from an already incredibly thin and light machine is going to make all that difference for the regular user. How about working on comfort? How about making a laptop slightly wider to accommodate a regular keyboard, with enough space to comfortably place your hands when you need to write or navigate the interface with the trackpad? If I buy a laptop with great portability, that allows me to work for hours and hours without needing to charge it, I’d like to have a laptop that’s also comfortable to use it for hours on end.

The Author

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