I’m trying to buy a laptop for myself. Nothing too fancy; just something on which I can play some games and watch some movies when I’m not using the MacBook Air given to me by work or testing out loaner laptops for review.
Right now, I’m strongly leaning towards a Windows 10 laptop, not least because I’ve come to prefer Microsoft’s operating system over even the latest Apple MacOS. But it’s also because, you know, Windows laptops are almost always cheaper than a comparable Mac, and I’m not made of money.
And yet, buying a Windows laptop can be an extremely frustrating and time-consuming process, and all the Dell, Lenovo, HP, and Asus machines I’m looking at tend to blur together after a while.
Just browsing the PC section at any given store involves comparing a lot of very similar looking machines, all with very slight variations on screen resolution, processor speed, memory, and the like. I like to think of myself as reasonably tech savvy, and it’s still exhausting — not to mention the fear I might pick the “wrong” PC and waste my cash.
It’s a great reminder of just how smart Apple has gotten in the twenty or so years since Steve Jobs came back to the company and launched the company-saving iMac: Buying a Mac is so much easier and more straightforward than buying a PC ever has been. And it’s a big part of why Apple keeps growing market share in a shrinking PC industry.
The genius of Apple
If you have an older MacBook, the new MacBook is guaranteed to be better. Trade up the thing you know you like for the newest version of the thing you like. Apple only has five PC product lines to choose from — MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air, plus the iMac and languishing Mac Pro and Mac Mini desktop computers.
This is a vastly streamlined process, taking a lot of the stress out of computer shopping. Walk in to an Apple Store with your budget set, and Apple has the right laptop for that price point — provided you’re willing to spend at least $499 for the Mac Mini or $999 for the MacBook Air, the cheapest Apple desktop and laptop computers you can currently get.
And speaking of the Apple Store, that was another big Steve Jobs initiative that really helped the Mac become what it is today. It provides a friendly place to try Macs out, as well as knowledgeable staff members who can help you figure out if you really need a MacBook Pro versus a MacBook Air.
All of this together, combined with its famed “It Just Works” approach to software, is a big part of why Apple can command luxury prices, even when the specs on each individual machine may not be anything special compared to a PC. Macs don’t even have touchscreens yet!
They’re simply easier to buy, and you can be assured you’re getting something better when you trade up from last year’s model to the new one. People are willing to pay when you spare them a difficult decision.
On babies and bathwater
From Microsoft’s perspective, Apple’s oversimplified approach is throwing the babies out with the bathwater: One of the longtime strengths of Windows is that you can get it on expensive, high-end gaming PCs, or you can get it on the cheap $200 laptops you can find at Walmart. It’s been this way pretty much since Windows launched in the 80’s.
As an operating system company, not primarily a hardware company, Microsoft is a big fan of Windows making its way to computers of all shapes and sizes. The variety and choice available to the consumer is a wonderful thing, but it also increases complexity and the difficulty of making a decision.
At the same time, Microsoft is attacking Apple’s market position with its Surface line of hardware. In the same way that this year’s MacBook is better than last year’s MacBook, the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 is better than the Surface Pro 3, which is better than the 2. It’s a clear, logical way to label its own premium hardware line that makes things clear to customers without going into the specs.
And while they’re not as common as the Apple Store in most places, the company has made a big bet on the Microsoft Store, where the company showcases a relative select few Windows laptops and tablets, with employees on hand to guide through the process and offer tech support.
Still, not everybody can go to a Microsoft Store, and not everybody can afford those higher-end machines. I have a hunch that a lot of shoppers end up just buying what’s on sale at Best Buy or Costco that week and moving on with their lives.
That’s how PC shopping has always been, and as long as there’s a PC market, that’s how it’ll always be. And I’ll probably still pick up a Windows 10 laptop. It’s just that this process has really made me reflect on how Apple spotted a real hole in the market, and exploited it for all it’s worth.