With last week's news about the launch of Apple's newest iPads and laptops, new attention is being directed toward new-generation end-user devices—those things that simply used to be called personal computers.
Despite what some analysts and industry people are saying, not all businesses can or will be run with tablets. Tablets are ideal for a great many types of use cases, but their inherent lack of control without a physical keyboard or a mouse is always going to hold some people back from doing their jobs in the most efficient way possible.
This especially goes for older workers who have figured out time-saving shortcuts on a laptop and don't want to have to learn new ones for new devices. So laptops and desktop computers will continue to be with us for the long haul, despite the current sales downturn the PC industry is now enduring.
PC Market Facing Slump
The economic news this fall was worrisome for companies that make conventional PCs. A report by researcher IDC published in September predicted that for the first time more tablets will be shipped in the fourth quarter of 2013 than PC shipments; and, by 2015, annual tablet shipments will top PC shipments.
Looking at the cold, hard numbers, tablet shipments are expected to reach 84.1 million units in the fourth quarter, while PC shipments will be 83.1 million. PC shipments are looking to drop by 10 percent for all of 2013.
All this can serve as motivation for the makers of these PCs, even though they know that some enterprises are never going to give up desktop and laptop PCs. The manufacturers are now more determined than ever to build machines of higher quality that start up faster, run cooler and have longer battery life than previous generations.
Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Lenovo—and to an increasing extent, Apple—are four of the largest suppliers of laptops in the world, and they intend to stay in business in that sector. Throughout their product lines, we are seeing lighter notebooks and laptops of various sizes with faster, cooler-running processors (mostly from Intel and AMD) and longer battery life. It's not uncommon for the new-gen laptops with lower-power, cooler-running processors to go six to eight hours between battery charge-ups.
Apple Looking at the Enterprise
Apple, looking more than ever at getting more of its devices into a still-Windows-dominated enterprise world, recently updated both its Mac Pro desktops and MacBook Air laptops. Competitors such as as HP, Dell and Lenovo have seen Apple's play and are busy making their machines more elegant, with more responsive keyboards and touch-screens, and with better sound.
HP, in a corporate-wide comeback after CEO Meg Whitman took over in September 2011, has been laser-focused on not only the performance of its new laptops but also of the look, feel and social presence of the devices. The company's Personal Computing Group has become much more Apple-like: fixated on the image of the product.
Whitman has become involved in product development—much like Steve Jobs did at Apple. For the No. 1 executive at one of the world's largest IT companies to get this granular, that's pretty astounding. For example, she has had a lot of input into the overall look, feel and performance of the new-generation laptops and notebooks, and changes have been made. She told the PCG groups in Houston (formerly Compaq) and Palo Alto that she wanted consistency in the products, even such simple directives as putting the on/off button in the same location on every laptop. She also wanted the company logo—and the version of the logo—in the same spot. She wanted the colors and brushed-metal look to be as rich-looking as possible.
In other words, Whitman wanted HP laptop buyers, corporate or consumer, to be as proud of their devices as Apple owners are of theirs. It's taking some time, but the changeover is happening.
Attention to some detail may have been an attribute HP lost at some point, and Whitman is personally seeing to it that it comes back. The truth is that HP, which has always been more about functionality and dependability than fashion and form, is becoming more Apple-like with its user interfaces. After a couple of years of this approach, it now shows in the product lines.
The company has employed new product designers from outside the PC industry to help make these changes. Nerds aren't the only ones building these laptops anymore.
HP Spectre XT Pro Ultrabook
A prime example of this is the HP Spectre XT Pro Ultrabook, which first hit the market last fall and has been upgraded this summer. This 13-inch laptop embodies the thin mobility users have come to expect from Ultrabooks. The Spectre XT Pro offers a professional-looking brushed-metal design—no plastic anywhere but the keyboard—and its 13.3-inch display is the ideal size for such a small, thin unit. This works well in the coach section of an aircraft and even better in first class.
The laptop I have tested over a period of several months has become an old friend. I may be old-school on this, but I've decided for a number of reasons that I prefer native applications and a hard drive over a Web-only notebook, although I really like my Chrome Pixel notebook for some use cases. The Spectre XT Pro is light and easy to carry, it is dependable, has 100GB of storage (everything else goes into the cloud), and gets plenty of horsepower from its Intel Core i5 chip for general business use. One of its top three assets? It boots on and off quickly—always within 10 to 15 seconds, depending on how many apps you have running.
The keyboard and touch-pad are very responsive, and the action is excellent. An added safeguard: The keyboard is liquid-resistant. The display is bright and sharp with a soft glow-type feeling. The Beats sound system, not exclusive to this line but one you can't find in just any laptop, is top-of-the-line. You can connect any size speakers to this laptop, and the music will be almost professional deejay quality.
Battery life is impressive. I consistently get 6 to 6.5 hours doing normal business duties. I do not play video games on my laptops.
A drawback is that there's no touch-screen, so it won't be optimal for Windows 8. Then again, many people are quite satisfied with Windows 7, which comes installed on the Spectre XT Pro. At times, the fan can be a bit loud, but HP has been working on this, and it's only a minor problem now. A plus is that the keyboard can take a lot of wear and tear. After a lengthy test run, all the buttons still work as if new. Can't say that about every keyboard, as seasoned users can attest.
The Spectre XT Pro isn't as thin or quite as fashionable as a MacBook Air just yet. But it's on the right track, and they are not as expensive. These laptops start at $999. The new Spectre X2, which starts at $100 more, has a detachable monitor that can be used as a tablet.
Specifications: HP Spectre XT Pro-B8W13AA; Processor: Intel Core i5; Graphics Adapter: Intel HD Graphics 4000; Display: 13.0 inch, 16:9, 1366x768 pixels, glossy: yes; Weight: 1.5kg.