Premium Computing: Is it worth the extra cost?
Computing power is almost ridiculously cheap these days. Consider as an example that a $50 Raspberry Pi computer has about as much computing power as most desktops ten years ago, and you get a sense for how cheaply you can add computing power just about anywhere.
That’s been a function of the evolution of computing, and for the longest time prices stayed more or less steady for computing, because as systems got faster, you paid a “premium” for the very best because the differences were quite stark compared to the budget offerings. The Raspberry Pi is a fascinating machine from an education and ideological standpoint, but there aren’t too many people clamouring to run their offices from them. At the same time, though, if your needs are pretty modest, it doesn’t have to cost you a fortune any more to get a perfectly capable laptop or desktop computer.
That makes the case for genuinely premium computers a really interesting one, because they can no longer simply rely on having faster processors than the previous generation. There has to be some kind of genuine point of difference worth all that extra cost. I’ve recently spent time assessing two completely different premium computing devices, both of which have interesting buying propositions.
You know how you’re not meant to judge a book by its cover? That particular axiom doesn’t really apply to the Apple iMac with Retina 5K display. With an asking price that only starts at $2,999 but that can climb as high as five and half thousand dollars depending on configuration this is undeniably a premium priced machine. Yet it’s one that, despite the impressive computing power under the hood, you can judge by its cover, or to be more accurate its screen.
The underlying hardware under the screen is very nice, and if set up the right way it can be blazingly quick, but the real eye catcher for the Retina iMac is its 5K 5120×2880 display. It’s almost mind-bogglingly sharp for regular web browsing or email, but the real appeal here is for anyone who does in-depth image or video work. Its screen resolution means that you can use popular video editing tools with 4K footage and have both footage and tools on screen in genuine resolution. That’s not a need that everyone has, but if it did describe what you do (or what you’re keen on doing) you’d be aware that a good reference-quality 4K monitor could easily cost you what Apple’s charging for the Retina 5K iMac — and they’re throwing in a very well specified desktop computer along the way.
The reality with the Retina 5K iMac is that while the display really is mind-bogglingly good, it’s not a tool that everyone will need to wield, and as such, Apple still selling its regular “non-Retina” iMacs as well at lower prices. For the vast majority, the 5K iMac would be a luxury buy, rather than a full necessity for work or play.
The iMac is rather thin — I’m personally not a big fan of Apple’s shift to thin-sided desktops, because aside from moving it around it makes little practical difference, and it means that all the ports on the new iMacs live permanently around the back of the display — but it’s got nothing on Lenovo’s new premiume laptop, the $2,099 (and up) Yoga Pro 3.
The Yoga Pro 3 is a competitor to premium devices like the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 , but where the Surface Pro 3 runs a full Core i3-i7 processor (depending on configuration), Lenovo’s opted for something slightly different. The Yoga Pro 3’s the first laptop I’ve tested that runs on Intel’s new Core-M platform. Core-M is essentially a halfway house between the genuinely low-power, low performance Atom processors, and the full fat, power-hungry Core-i series processors. The big benefit for Core-M is that it runs a lot cooler than equivalent Core-i processors, which means laptops with very few or no fans at all — and none of that pesky burning your lap when pushing numbers to contend with at all.
Like the iMac, it doesn’t hurt that the Yoga Pro 3 is a bit of a looker as well. Its particular party trick relies on the “watch band” hinge in its center that gives the screen a full 360 degrees of movement. As you swivel it around it adapts its usage, flipping a virtual keyboard when in tablet mode, or relying on its inbuilt keyboard in laptop mode. You can even go halfway into “tent” mode for presentations, although this is more of a show-off trick than something with a lot of practical application.
Where the Retina 5K iMac has an obvious constituency in the image/video production spheres, it’s a little harder to pin down the ideal Yoga Pro 3 buyer. It’s thin and light and has a definite luxury look to it, bolstered by a keyboard that’s significantly better than that found on the competing Surface Pro 3, but despite the lower-power processor, battery life still isn’t exceptional. Again, that’s something of a function of its thin frame. If you limit the amount of space for batteries, there’s only so many batteries you can fit into a laptop. But ultrathin laptops are quickly becoming the norm, and while you’d have a hard time finding thinner laptops right now, you could buy a system that’s only a little thicker than the Yoga Pro 3 with better battery life. If you like the style (and often premium systems do sell themselves on style) then it’s worth consideration — but shop around and compare against other ultrathin systems as well.