By now you're maybe sick of hearing about ultrabooks, the best chance Windows rigs have to catch up to Apple laptops in design, usability, build quality, and general good-and-wantable-product-ness. Don't be. What's coming from PC manufacturers in 2012 isn't the inevitable, dreary sameness that's made laptops so boring for the last decade. In fact, it's the opposite.
If what we've seen so far this year is any indication, the notebooks of the near-future look good and thoughtful and true. The design elements are inspiring. The features are useful. And most importantly: They don't just imitate, they improve. Which means it's finally time to get excited about PCs again.
The roll call of eye-catching ultrabooks, ones we'd actually buy tomorrow, is much longer than we had expected: the Dell XPS 13, the Lenovo Yoga, Samsung's updated Series 9, the HP Spectre, and maybe Vizio's little monster. But just rolling through the best machines sort of misses what's up with ultrabooks generally. It's not just that they're getting better; it's that they're at the point where their design, quality, performance and innovation in these things, as a whole, are on par with Apple. That hasn't been the case in a long time.
Case in point: Lenovo's swiveling Yoga tablet/laptop hybrid. The U300s was a really, really nice machine, and Lenovo could have absolutely run out a guts refresh, improved this spec or that, and rested on the promise of Windows 8 driving sales. The Yoga is the exact opposite approach. Yeah, it's way gimmicky, but the sort of gimmicky that's based on actual needs and usefulness, given Metro's touch-friendly implementation. Stuff like that, or the wake-for-email function on Dell's XPS 13, is the kind of differentiation from Apple that Windows users have been starved for.
And these aren't even the best laptops we'll see this year, not by a long shot. Intel's Ivy Bridge platform (you know, the one that will boost integrated graphic performance and improve battery life) will be inside most of these bad boys by this summer. That's when the real fun starts.
The other major strategic change, at least for now, is that most companies aren't spamming us with a ton of models. They're mostly just giving you one or two screen sizes, and adding customization options. Ultrabooks have given laptop makers an excuse to focus on one machine at a time, instead of having to spread attention around on 20 different models that no one ever asked for. Which is, like, really great.
Across the class, build quality is to the point that the old putdown "MacBook Air clone"—Samsung's Series 9 wasn't one last year, but totally is this time around—is maybe a little more complimentary than you'd think. Because, umm, some of them might have actually leapfrogged Apple's offering. The new Series 9, for instance, feels almost exactly like the MacBook Air in materials and solidness, but it's got a matte screen and comes in black (!). The XPS keeps your reproductives intact with its heat-deflecting carbon fiber ass. And the ALL GLASS HP Spectre might not be your design nirvana, but masses of the Beats-loving public will be delighted with it. It's one thing to copy a MacBook and poop out a junkish half-measure; it's another to borrow almost everything good and add even more desirable features to it.
Yeah, there were some clunkers, like LG's guys-this-really-needs-to-be-better Z330, but they were mostly from first timers learning the lessons that everyone else seems to be getting right this generation. The companies that figured things out last year are making genuinely terrific-looking machines. And for the first time in a long time, Windows laptops are more exciting than Macs.