With the debut of Apple's newest laptop this week, the sleek and super skinny MacBook 2015, it's a good time to check out how it stacks up against other new mobile computing devices pushed into market this year.
As vendors innovate on past generation devices in different ways, and with different ideas of what consumers want, they're all dealing with the same reality: there are always design and form factor concessions to be made as not all laptop components (think battery) have come as far as others (think processors). Until all the various pieces are as innovative as displays, there will continue to be trade-offs.
That's where laptop buyers need to pay attention. Vendors are hoping they're giving today's road warriors and mobile computing enthusiasts the features and experience they want and need. But it's a very subjective quest as what one consumer wants can be very different from the next. One may not care, for example, if a slew of USB options just disappear. Others may care a great deal. Learning how to maneuver on a new keyboard technology might be OK for some, and a turn-off for others.
So let's take a look at what the various laptop manufacturers are banking consumers will love and what they think those same consumers are willing to give up in terms of design, size, portability and features.
During the MacBook's official debut Monday at Apple's Spring Forward event, more than one attendee tweeted about the super sleek, super thin form factor design — with one stating that it nearly disappears when it's closed. It's 20 percent skinnier than the MacBook Air and weighs just 2 pounds. Apple even redesigned the battery form factor to fit the new bigger battery size. To make that happen, though, Apple also took out a few things, such as the fan. Now fanless devices aren't new, but they're far from being a tried and true strategy. Fans have been part of computing systems for good reason and whether a lack of fan presents serious issues down the road will only be discovered in time.
Apple also pulled out some USB ports (as well as the HDMI and DisplayPort connectors). Now there's just one, which Apple is calling USB-C, that doubles as a charging port and can be used as a USB port, display port, HDMI port or VGA port through various adapters that are already available from Apple, but they're aren't free nor is the needed cable. On the bright side, the MacBook is Apple's first laptop that comes in gold for those who love glitz and it does have a 12-inch 2340x1440 Retina display which ain't too shabby, and which Apple claims features 3 million pixels.
One of the biggest design-related changes is the keyboard, which now works off what Apple calls a butterfly mechanism. Supposedly, it will make for more precise and accurate input and every key has a backlight. There's a multitouch surface, force hinges, and a Taptic Engine for haptic feedback. The bigger battery promises nine hours of surfing and 10 hours of music play.
"The definition of portability has changed in the past few years, so we challenged ourselves to do something incredibly ambitious and bold. We challenged ourselves to reinvent the notebook. And we did it," Cook said during the MacBook debut.
Dell XPS 13 (2015)
Dell's XPS 13 was the first new ultrabook to arrive in 2015, and it's been getting consistently good reviews since arrival for two big reasons. Dell's design team managed to make a 13-inch laptop that only takes up the space of an 11-inch device, which brought some big kudos from tech media outlets.
At $800, it's about $500 cheaper than Apple's new MacBook. Yet it boasts an award-worthy display, comfortable keyboard and zooms, given the new fifth-generation Intel Core processor. The battery life isn't as expansive as MacBook's, but that's a small price to pay for road warriors who want all the comfort and power of a bigger-sized laptop in a small compact form factor that weighs about 2.6 pounds. As one reviewer notes, Dell managed to keep all the usual ports in play, except for a HDMI port. Up until the new MacBook arrived this week, the Dell XPS 13 was being heralded as the laptop that beat the MacBook.
"Dell's sexy new XPS 13 just rolled into town with a list of features that eerily sound like every MacBook Air rumor story you've read on CultofAppleRumorMongering.net for the last few months," states one review, which also made a big point of how the XPS display is a real MacBook competitor. The XPS 13 base display is 1920x1080; the high-end resolution option is a 3200x1800 version.
Asus ZenBook UX305
In assessing Asus' ZenBook UX305, one reviewer didn't mince words, describing the ultrabook as "one of the best and most affordable" available. In fact, the ZenBook is viewed as the greatest MacBook knock-off in market to date, and most of that holds true even with the latest MacBook 2015 in play.
That's because the ZenBook is speedy and thin (as thin as a sketchbook notes the reviewer), weighing in at 2.6 pounds, and offers up an "excellent" trackpad and keyboard, states a review. It's got the Intel Core M processor like the Dell, it pulled the fan out just like Apple did on the MacBook and it's the cheapest of the four we're looking at here, with a starting price point of $700. The extra long battery life of nine hours is nothing to dismiss.
Another review, written just two weeks ago, notes how analysts believe the PC industry tends to race to the bottom in building new cheap devices to spur revenue, and in that regard, the ZenBook UX305F is "proof that racing to the bottom doesn't always have to end in a duffel bag of compromises and tears." In fact, the ZenBook UX305F proves there can be high-quality hardware at a very reasonable cost. But there may be a substantial catch at some point as the reviewer does point out how hot the laptop became during a one-hour test. Imaging of front and back indicated temperatures were above 118 degrees, which is pretty warm on a lap, so maybe that fan needs to be dropped back in down the road. Yet, overall it is getting some big kudos.
"At $699, the ZenBook sets a new standard in what to expect in a budget ultrabook. I dare say it feels like an injustice even to call this a budget ultrabook. In fact, maybe it's not that the ZenBook is low-priced, maybe it's that the others are overcharging you," states a reviewer.
Lenovo Yoga 3
First off, no one can dismiss that Lenovo knows how to innovate. As one reviewer points out Lenovo and its hybrid laptop design in 2012 ignited one of the latest trends in mobile computing — the clamshell laptop boasting 360-degree fold-back hinges — is pretty much found on competitors' products, including Dell and HP.
Yet, of the four laptops in this comparison the Lenovo Yoga 3 is the one that best illustrates how tradeoffs in features and functionalities, in the name of design and form factor, can sometimes backfire. While Lenovo Yoga 3 is a thin as the Zenbook and boasts a very nice high-resolution display of 3,200 by 1,800, the tradeoff might not be a winning decision given it led to a weaker performance and battery stamina (about six hours).
In aiming for skinny and sleek, Lenovo decided to pull its well-liked comfortable keyboard and go with a shallower, pretty much flat version. Yet, Lenovo didn't shave down the price given the starting baseline of $1,300.
"We hope that over time, super-light laptops like this come with fewer trade-offs," notes a review.