The Sweet Spot is Small, Light and Probably a Mac
Issue   |   Wed, 04/04/2012 - 00:17
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For most college students, the MacBook Air is the perfect computer — it’s fast, efficient, portable and durable.

I have a brother headed off to college in fall, so he’s started thinking about what sort of computer he needs. Over break, we shopped around an Apple Store for an hour or so, comparing screen sizes and specifications. And, resident tech nerd that I am, I asked my brother a few questions about what he uses a computer for in order to get an idea of what he needed. He responded with the usual suspects: writing papers, browsing the web, listening to music and watching movies. In short, he fits the standard user profile.

I haven’t done a comprehensive statistical analysis, but I would wager that over 50 percent of the models we saw had more processing power than what 70 percent of consumers have a use for. With the exception of programmers or content creators, most users have no need for the cores and clock speed available in a lot of these machines. You don’t need a quad-core processor to read memes or write a research paper while iTunes blares in the background. And that processor doesn’t make your internet connection or your hard drive any faster, so you’re still left waiting on other components.

To see real returns, you need solid-state drives and more efficient power management. You run out of charge far more often than you max out your processor. You’re left waiting for a few dozen songs to transfer far more often than you’re left waiting for Final Cut or Photoshop to finish processing. We consume media and transport our machines, tasks which tax parts of our machines that consumers can neglect all too often.

At the Apple Store, a sales associate told us that the most popular model sold for college-bound students was the 13” MacBook Pro. At Amherst, that also seems to be true; heck, I’m writing this on a 15” Pro. When we bought them, it was the best choice in the store. But the new versions are ridiculous, equipped with dual and quad-core processors, capacious but sluggish hard drives and meager battery life. These aren’t the computers we want.

There is a sweet spot for student computing. I would argue that, right now, it’s the MacBook Air but that’s just personal preference. But in general, that spot represents a light, long-lasting computer with a reliable, fast solid-state drive. It’s portable, durable and can allow us to move and consume movies, music and the web with ease. Sure, solid-state storage is small, but you should have an external drive anyways that can handle backups and overflow (you do, don’t you?). Call it the Air, call it a Sony VAIO, but that’s our ideal computer.

Manufacturers recognize this, and that market is growing. Apple expanded the Air line just two years ago and even discontinued the original MacBook at the same time. Intel started the Ultrabook program, cooperating with manufacturers to produce similar machines in an attempt that has proven less successful thus far. Time will tell whether Apple dominates or the market opens up, but products in the sweet spot are growing.

Of course, we all have other small devices too. But iPhones and iPads aren’t the same; web browsing, writing and media consumption might work well on them, but we still need true computers for the occasional task not possible on tablets. It seems that soon tablets will be able to replace traditional machines for almost all users, but we’re not quite there yet. That’s a whole different issue. Until then, student (and general consumer) use requires a sort of ‘transitional computing’ and more products to satisfy that need.

It’s too late for this round. We bought our notebooks before solid-state drives or tablets, so we’re stuck with the slow clunkers of 2008 through 2010. And it might be too late the next round, too; advances tech always threatens new products just months after we bought the last one. But if your sibling is headed off to college or you’re graduating this spring, take a good look at these sorts of computers. Regard with skepticism anyone who tells you that you need the new hexacore behemoth with dual hard drives. Because right now, at least for a little while, it appears as though there’s a sweet spot for portable consumer computing. It’s the MacBook Air.

Bob (not verified) says:
Sat, 11/07/2015 - 01:58

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