I’ve had a chance to take a hard look at both the MacBook Air and the Lenovo ThinkPad X300 and as amazing as these products are; I think you can draw a line to what likely will be the next hot notebook computer. Having said that, let’s start by talking about what makes these two products different and how they are likely to appeal to different kinds of people. I’ll leave the whole OS discussion for others, but it should be mentioned that this OS choice probably has a great deal to do with who ends up using either of these very different products.
The MacBook Air leads with a form –over-function design strategy and makes some massive tradeoffs to get there. However, there is no denying that it is arguably the most attractive notebook computer currently in the market and there is also no denying that appearance is incredibly important to a large portion of the buying audience. It comes in at under $2,000 which is a comparative bargain in a class that is typically defined by products costing substantially more.
The trade-offs to get to this level of aggressive appearance include a built in battery that folks are reporting between 2 and 3 hours between charges. No optical drive, no built in GPRS/Edge etc, one USB port, and no choice of pointing device. It uses either an early generation and very expensive flash drive or a slow, but more reasonably priced and higher capacity small form factor hard drive. While it was designed for the flash drive (SSD), most will likely get it with the iPod drive (newer drives coming to market now are much better in both classes and many expect Apple will upgrade this before year end).
The ThinkPad X300 isn’t as attractive and the MacBook Air and trades function for form, but some think it is the best in class. Its one major downside is price, costing substantially more than the base level MacBook Air, but more in line with the SD based Air. Advantages include a removable battery, DVD writer (replaceable with a secondary battery), 3 USB ports, ThinkPad keyboard with both Touchpoint and Touchpad pointing devices, near military specification frame (it is built to be industrial strength), full set of management tools (companies care you probably don’t), and a more advanced flash drive standard (this product was held back to get the newer/faster drive). It also complies with EPEAT Gold (means it is about as “Green” as you can get).
In terms of networking, the ThinkPad is well endowed. It has WiMax, WAN, UltraWideband, and even GPS built in. In fact, to my knowledge, it is the first with this much wireless technology built into a laptop.
The tradeoffs are price and appearance. While attractive, (it is much better looking in person) the ThinkPad has a more industrial look and it is designed more for the business buyer while the MacBook is designed for the consumer. Granted the business buyer we are talking about is more likely an executive or top sales rep who can afford/justify the price but it really is most likely someone substantially different than who buys the MacBook.
Which is Better?
This is really like comparing a 2 seat exotic sports car to a 4 seat exotic sports sedan. The buyers needs will be the biggest thing driving the difference and both of these products target their intended audiences very well. This is with one exception and that is the MacBook Air’s battery limitation. I just don’t think 2 to 3 hours of use is enough for a laptop in this class and, at the very least, there should be an option of an extended battery so you can go longer if you need to. The folks that I know who are using these (despite Apple’s 5 hour claims) say that they are getting under 3 hours and there is no easy work around other than a very large aftermarket external battery. On the Lenovo an SD slot would have been really nice but its price point takes it out of range of a lot of folks who might otherwise buy it. This price is largely driven by the flash drive that both products were designed to use and points us to what is likely an interesting future.
The Next Hot Laptop
The next “Big Thing” is probably going to have two drives (one small capacity flash drive which keeps the price down and where you put your OS and applications, and a larger capacity micro-magnetic drive for your data so you can get fast load times), some of the reliability and a lot of the power savings, but keep the cost of the product down to something the market can afford.
Backlit LED screens (which both the Lenovo and the Apple laptops have) is a given, but the outdoor viewable screen that the Toshiba R500 has, I think, makes a lot of sense for this class. I don’t know about you, but I like to work outside when I can and having something this light makes that possible only if I can actually see the screen outdoors. Toshiba had the thinnest product before the MacBook Air launched and they are the only ones with this screen right now.
While I think the loss of the optical drive in the MacBook Air was a good idea, the fixed battery wasn’t and I doubt others will follow. I think Apple will eventually rethink this themselves (it didn’t carry over into the new laptops they just announced for good reason). Until fuel cells (which always seem 5 years out) actually arrive think we are stuck with the battery bay.
Cell phone integration seems an obvious next step. The problem with the WAN solution that the ThinkPad has is that it forces folks who have an iPhone or other Smartphone to have two data plans. If you can connect through your existing Smartphone (which is possible but not as easy as it should be) you get many of the same benefits at a much lower price. You can’t use the phone and the data connection at the same time though so this will likely be quickly replaced by WiMax once that becomes widely available.
Hybrid graphics, which will be hitting the market shortly, are an obvious addition to this class. Hybrid allows you to put more graphics power into a notebook like this but only have it available when the notebook is on AC power. This gives you the possibility of having a notebook with both long battery life and gaming power just not at the same time. Here I expect someone like Alienware or Voodoo PC to get this right first.
Finally I see this class as more personal than corporate long term and that makes colors important. Lenovo, Dell, Sony and Gateway/Acer have color choices today and I think this class will eventually benefit from this tremendously.
Both Lenovo and Apple should be complemented for bringing out products that advance this class of cool offerings. We are going to see many more laptops in this class going forward thanks to these two companies. Toshiba and Sony are likely burning the midnight oil to take back this segment which was once theirs exclusively. But their earlier products were simply too small and made too many tradeoffs to be as big as the Apple and Lenovo products, but they too blazed this trail. Apple and Lenovo have reset the bar and the next generation of incredibly thin notebooks will have a lot to do with what both companies have recently showcased.