Last week during the Thanksgiving holiday I skillfully avoided conversations about politics (for the most part) and talked tech instead. It was easy enough to do: people were asking which new laptop to buy, whether to upgrade to an iPhone 7, what’s the best budget Android phone to get, and when Apple’s AirPods are coming out.
The latter three are pretty straightforward conversations. But laptops are a different story. As The Verge’s Dieter Bohn pointed out, it used to be that you would just tell people to go get a MacBook Air. Now, there’s a 45-minute conversation to be had about 2016’s premium laptops.
This year’s high-end laptops are feats in fine design, with thin metal bodies, liquid-looking high-resolution displays, and in some cases, gymnast-like flexibility. They have futuristic keyboards, cool stuff that has made its way from the R&D lab into an actual consumer product. They also have outdated processors, oddly positioned webcams, and an irritating lack of popular ports. Rather than it being the Year of The Perfect Laptop, 2016 has become the Year of Laptop Trade-Offs.
The 2016 MacBook Pro might best encapsulate this, with its gorgeous build, new Touch Bar, and its exclusion of regular USB, Thunderbolt, and SD card ports. The 12-inch MacBook could be considered the new MacBook Air, but it’s underpowered (also, it has only one port and it’s the limited USB Type-C variation). USB-C is the future, but that future is coming slowly, and the interim solution is for consumers to use a bunch of specialized cables and adapters in the meantime.
But MacBooks aren’t the only new laptops with trade-offs. High-end Windows laptops have gotten so good that it’s become much easier to recommend them, but some of them still come with caveats. The HP Spectre x360 is a highly rated convertible laptop with Intel’s seventh-gen processor and both USB-A and USB-C ports, but it too lacks an SD card slot and HDMI port. Lenovo’s new Yoga 910 has a gorgeous 4K display, Lenovo’s famous watchband hinge, and a fast processor. It also has a noisy, ever-running fan and an annoying keyboard, of all things. The new Surface Book is great; it’s also relatively heavy and very expensive.
Dell’s XPS 13 comes closest to The Perfect Laptop of 2016, especially the updated version, but even that model allows room for nit-picking: the webcam is in a weird place, and it still doesn’t have a fingerprint sensor or camera for authentication.
And the hardware isn’t the only thing to consider. Windows 10 has gotten a lot better since its initial launch, but it’s still not as fluid or as intuitive as it could be — and many third-party apps on the OS are still maddeningly rough around the edges. Mac’s OS, now called just macOS, is friendly and familiar and has a voice-controlled search assistant, but has started to become susceptible to the kinds of issues we used to only associate with Windows: spyware and ransomware. When did that happen? (This past March, actually.)
That’s not to say that laptops have been completely perfect in the past, but they served very specific needs, and they served them well. The MacBook Air was thin and light and got stuff done. The MacBook Pro had more oomph and more ports and was, well, built for pros. There were sub-$500 Windows laptops that weren’t very good but were mostly used for web browsing at home; there were ThinkPads for business users; there were fancy-looking Ultrabooks that gave Windows lovers a little more style and power.
Basically, the conversation that has to happen now when it comes to deciding which premium laptop to buy is a virtual flow chart of questions about a person’s computing needs, desires, and non-negotiables. Do you need a lot of ports? Do you take a lot of photos and love your SD cards so much that you carry them in an organized little SD card pouch? Do you use your webcam a lot? Do you run heavy-duty apps and keep 20-something browser tabs open at all times?
Do you want a computer that folds into a tablet? Do you think that a computer that folds into a tablet is silly? Do you want a touchscreen? Do you not care about a touchscreen (why would I want to get my computer screen dirtier than it already is)? Do you want an Intel processor built on the Kaby Lake architecture? Do you know or care what Kaby Lake is? Do you hate adapters? Do you already use a few adapters and it’s not A Big Deal?
This is the conversation you have to have, whether with yourself or a friend, if you’re in the market for a new laptop. And at the end of the conversation there’s no right answer right now. 2016, it turns out, is not the year of The Perfect Premium Laptop. It’s the year of the Almost There But Not Quite There Laptop, the year of 45-Minute Conversations About Laptops. The end of which might just be: hold off a little bit longer.