Over the years, notwithstanding the persistent background drone of complaining about the so-called “Apple premium”, I’ve never had a lot of difficulty justifying the higher up-front cost of using Mac laptops. As a rule, despite a few lapses, my Apple PowerBooks, iBook, and MacBooks have been built like fine watches, lasted like anvils, and had the priceless advantage of running the Mac OS as opposed to clunky, inelegant, and malware-besieged Windows.
All of which made it easy to dismiss the nattering critics as exemplars of those who as Oscar Wilde observed “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
However, the personal computing environment has evolved. Most of us now have smartphones and tablets (often both) in addition to a full-featured PC, and except for those of us who have power-user needs, desktops and laptops are tending to more and more get shuffled to the back burner, with the mobile device(s) getting the most intensive use.
Not only that, Windows laptops, while retaining a price advantage, have been leaving Apple behind with features like touchscreen support and convertible laptop/tablet hybridization. With Windows 10, the desirability, usability, and security gap favoring OS X has also diminished.
Meanwhile, Apple’s newest laptop design, the 12-inch Retina MacBook, is a year old, the current MacBook Pros haven’t had a major redesign since 2013, and the rumored to be lame duck MacBook Airs date all the way back to late 2010.
A new generation of MacBook Pros are widely rumored to be in the works for introduction later this year, but if scuttlebutt is accurate, their engineering emphasis will be mainly focused on Apple’s obsession with extreme device thinness rather than practical functionality. With no hardware announcements at WWDC, we’re likely in for a summer and early fall of continued rumors and speculation about the next notebooks from Apple. While July or August hardware releases aren’t unprecedented (the original clamshell iBook comes to mind), they’re unusual, and a MacBook Pro rollout tacked onto the traditional September iOS device event is possible but also improbable.s
This confluence of factors has made it easier for even those who prefer Macs to opt for Windows laptops. My daughter, a longtime Mac afficionado, currently has an old PC laptop running Windows 7, and spends most of her screen time on her iPhone and iPad mini. Her partner has a middle-aged Acer notebook running Windows 8.1, and her stepdaughter — a graphic arts student — a 19-inch PC laptop running Windows 10.
There’s a reasonable case to be made that even a low-priced Windows laptop is now overkill for many users’ PC needs. Steve Kovach over at Tech Insider last week posted an opinion piece entitled “Why you shouldn’t spend more than $300 on a laptop,” arguing that with so much of our computing activity having shifted into the mobile sphere, there’s no good reason to spend a thousand bucks or more on a laptop, especially when there are servicable, affordable options like Chromebooks available, which typically sell for $300 or less.
Chromebooks, which run an OS based on Google’s Chrome Web browser and use Google’s suite of Cloud-based productivity applications, have been quietly eating away at U.S. domestic laptop market share, with IDC analyst Linn Huang confirming to The Verge’s Tom Warren that the “Chrome OS overtook Mac OS in the US in terms of shipments for the first time in 1Q16” in a May 18 report. Although IDC reported that Apple Mac U,S. shipments rose 5.6 percent year over year to nearly 1.8 million (13.0% market share) in the quarter, they estimated that Dell, HP, and Lenovo cumulatively sold nearly 2 million Chromebooks in Q1/16.
Notwithstanding the logic of his sub-$300 contention however, Steve Kovich reveals that he personally uses a MacBook because he just likes “having the best of the best,” not because he really needs it. “I’ve been using Macs exclusively for the past 13 years,” he explains, “and I’m locked in. I enjoy the design, power, operating system, and build quality of a MacBook over every Chromebook out there,” further observing that obviously users who need to do heavy work like video editing or who want to play hardcore games will need a powerful PC or Mac system to get that done.
DigitalTrends’ Bruce Brown notes that Cromebooks have been eating Apple’s lunch especially in the U.S. education market where Macs once ruled. For the past several years Apple has been promoting iPads — not MacBooks — as its education market focus, but has been bleeding educational market share, with Windows OS system sales now exceeding those of iOS devices, but schools increasingly opting for the free Chrome OS and inexpensive Chromebooks.
Brown observes that while Apple CEO Tim Cook has spoken dismissively of Chromebooks, referring to them in December 2015, as “test machines,” that year the “test machines” racked up 51 percent of K-12 school computer sales in the U.S. and had already been outselling Apple devices for two years according to cited figures from FutureSource Consulting for non-desktop systems. In 2015, Windows devices garnered a 25-percent market share, the Mac OS accountiing for four percent, and the iOS taking 17 percent of education market sales, Mac OS and iOS devices combined falling from a 34 percent market share in 2013 to 25 percent in 2014, and to 21 percent in 2015 while Chrome OS devices increased their slice of the market from 38-percent to 51-percent.
Like Steve Kovich, I am likelier than not to continue using a MacBook of some sort. After 25 years on the Mac and half a decade on the iOS, I’m seriously locked in, and can’t switch without incurring a major productivity hit as I climbed the learning curve of restructuring my workflow with a different suite of tools. The elegance and low-hassle nature of Macs and the macOS also continue to appeal.
However, especially for users who just need a PC for the gradually diminishing list of tasks that can’t be done on an iPad, iPhone, or Android mobile device, the substantial up-front cost advantage of a Chromebook or Windows notebook is difficult to argue with.