No question about it: PCs are getting prettier.
The beige boxes and generic laptops of a few years ago are giving way to new generations of sleek machines running Microsoft’s Windows 7 -- and ready for Windows 8 later this year.
For evidence, take a look at Sony’s Vaio Z, a 13-inch notebook potent enough to replace a desktop, and Samsung’s latest Series 9, the thinnest 15-incher you can buy. Yes, they’re expensive, but they’re also beautiful.
A lot of the credit goes to Apple. The entire laptop category has been in a state of upheaval since the iPad’s launch two years ago. Meanwhile, the MacBook Air raised the bar on design and spawned a new class of Windows PC competitors, called Ultrabooks, featuring Intel microprocessors, speedy solid-state storage and much faster boot-up and shut-down times than hard-drive-based computers.
Windows 8 may accelerate the trend. It’s being designed to run on touch-based tablets as well as PCs. Microsoft and its partners say they hope to spawn new kinds of hybrid devices that combine the best of both. Maybe so. Still, it’s comforting to know that the new operating system is promised to work on any hardware running Windows 7.
Apple’s success has also shown that buyers are willing to pay premium prices for features and style. And “premium” doesn’t even begin to describe the Vaio Z and Series 9. A better word would be “breathtaking.”
The Vaio Z is one of the most adaptable ultraportables out there, allowing you to add layers of functionality depending on your needs of the moment. Closed, the Vaio Z is just .66 inches high, measures 13 inches by 8.27 inches and weighs a mere 2.57 pounds. The tapered case further shrinks its footprint, making it convenient to use in tight spaces, such as an airplane tray.
Compared to other laptops, less of the Vaio’s weight is in the screen, giving it a springy feel when closed that makes it feel less solid than it probably really is. (Sony says the extra give is deliberate, to help cushion the computer from the rigors of travel.) When the screen is opened, its hinges prop up the unit’s rear, ever-so-slightly angling the backlit keyboard. That’s a good thing, because the low-lying keys had too little travel for my liking. Tilting the keyboard helped.
The real power in the Vaio Z comes from its expandability. The unit comes with a compact external docking station for desktop use that provides easy access to its high-definition video and USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, with options for a DVD burner or Blu-ray drive. And a $150 screw-on sheet battery, augmenting the Vaio’s minimalist four-hour life, provides enough juice to get through more than a full day’s untethered work while still keeping it less than an inch thick.
Here’s where the bad part of “breathtaking” comes in: The price may leave you gasping. Sony is currently selling the base-model Vaio Z -- with an Intel Core i5 chip, four gigagbytes of installed memory and a 128-gigabyte solid-state drive -- for $1,700. That’s rich enough, but outfit it with an i7 processor, a more usable six gigabytes of memory and 256 gigabytes of storage, Blu-ray and the extended battery, and you’re suddenly at $3,000.
A top-line model, with more memory and SSD storage, is a staggering $4,500. I’d like to meet the person willing to spend that much on a PC.
By comparison, the Samsung Series 9 almost feels like a bargain at $1,500 for a model with a 15-inch screen, Core i5, eight gigabytes of memory and 128 gigabytes of storage. (There’s also a 13-inch model for $100 less.)
The Series 9 weighs about 3 1/2 pounds and measures 14 inches wide by 9.3 inches deep. But the number that jumps out is its thickness: .58 of an inch. How thin is that? Really, really thin. Crazy thin. Thinner than the already-impossibly-thin MacBook Air.
It’s so thin, in fact, that it can’t accommodate Ethernet or standard high-definition video cables, though it does have space enough for, among other things, three USB ports and a slot for an SD expansion card.
One of my complaints about last year’s 13-inch Series 9 was the poor, 4-hour battery life. The new model allows for a larger battery that should give you six to seven hours, depending on what you’re doing. And the charcoal-gray aluminum alloy body feels more solid than the Sony’s.
When I looked at the previous model of the Series 9 last summer, I described it as “gorgeous and capable.” The description applies equally to this new, bigger version.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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