The Great Vista/Mac Showdown: Unboxing the ThinkPad X60 and MacBook Pro

There is a long process between the decision to buy a computer and actually starting it the first time, before anyone gets the chance to murmer "Wow" over the technology itself. There is the handing over of the boxed computer to the customer, paying for the system (all the while the customer gazing at it, for this is the first experience of ownership and where the seeds of buyer's remorse can take hold), driving home or back to the office, and then, opening that box.

There is a long process between the decision to buy a computer and actually starting it the first time, before anyone gets the chance to murmer "Wow" over the technology itself. There is the handing over of the boxed computer to the customer, paying for the system (all the while the customer gazing at it, for this is the first experience of ownership and where the seeds of buyer's remorse can take hold), driving home or back to the office, and then, opening that box. Throughout that time, the packaging is the only message available to reinforce the value of theApple excels at portraying quality in its packaging and the experience of opening a product, an art most PC makers don't understand. purchase and build excitement and enthusiasm in the new owner.

All this sets the stage for the first impression you get from the system itself. For this comparison process, I choose the best PC hardware, in my opinion, but Lenovo is going to lose the packaging contest. It doesn't reflect on the system, it simply shows that packaging is considered an afterthought for many PC companies.

PC makers have started to change their enclosures, moving from beige boxes to sexier designs, but most of their packaging remains firmly planted in the 1980s. Only Samsung and Sony have begun to introduce design into their packaging. I recently saw Samsung's Q1 UMPC packaging, which looks like a jewelry box and opens with a series of "reveals" of the product and documentation that are reminiscent of Japanese gardens, each step of the unboxing presenting a different vista.

There's a side-by-side photo gallery here, and I'll point to individual images in this discussion. 

Steve Jobs, Apple's chief judge of the design of everything that goes out the door, on the other hand, understands the sex. Unwrapping a MacBook Pro is a singular experience in the PC world. From the moment the salesperson hands over the box, one feels the convenience and quality of the product purchased. The MacBook Pro comes in a slim box with a handle, so you are immediately carrying the product as you will when using it, like it is in a briefcase. The cardboard used in the Apple packaging is very high grade. The black body of the package has a product image on every side exposed to the buyer and complete specs on the top, where someone holding the box by the handle is likely to look while standing at the checkout or walking to their car.

Lenovo's ThinkPad comes in a brown corrugated cardboard box. If you purchase the multimedia base station for the ThinkPad, you get two brown boxes in a larger box that is an armful to carry. The irony here is that the ThinkPad is lighter than the MacBook, but you get several pounds of extraneous packaging with it that makes the ThinkPad appear clunkier when it's not.

Once the MacBook Pro box is opened, you're in the Jobsian presentation space. The styrofoam, which has its own aerodynamic vents, is imprinted with the product name. The first thing seen inside the ThinkPad is the edge of the computer suspended in two styrofoam pads and a loosely fitting plastic bag. It's uninspiring.

Lifting the MacBook Pro styrofoam reveals almost everything purchased. The system is framed, wrapped in a tightly fitting fiber envelope through which the Apple logo on the lid is visible. The power supply, the power cord, video adapter and Apple Remote are arranged with a minimum of additional packaging. Under the computer is the documentation in another black box imprinted with the "Designed by Apple in California" message that is familiar from all Apple products. That box contains two small manuals, Everything Mac and Everything Else, and the backup discs, which focuses the user experience on the device.

Lenovo's packaging includes a lot of additional paper, mostly short explanations in a variety of languages, and posters explaining how to setup and turn on the ThinkPad. In short, you spend a lot of time looking at pictures of the ThinkPad rather than using it. Accessories are delivered in a separate cardboard box with closed compartments for the power supply, power cord, documentation. The pen arrives in a hard plastic case, which seems like just more to throw away. There's also a separate box for the Ultra Base dock, which includes a lot more carboard, paper and plastic.

All in all, the ThinkPad comes in about three-and-a-half pounds of stuff you need to dispose of or store. Apple's MacBook Pro comes in a box one might almost want to leave out in view because it's beautiful and useful, because it could serve as a carrying case. 

The last thing to look at is the final layer of packaging around the systems. Apple's computer comes, as I said, in a tightly fitting fiber envelope—the material itself appears engineered and it seems made for the device rather than general use. Inside the clamshell, the MacBook Pro has a screen protector to prevent the keys from scratching the display. Lenovo's ThinkPad comes in a plastic bag that could be used for a variety of ThinkPads. The difference is that everything seems designed to emphasize the MacBook Pro's unique features, while the ThinkPad is treated as a generic product.

In the end, we've unwrapped two really great machines, but the Apple packaging has created an impression of quality, albeit it's only skin-deep. It's an important element of the ownership experience at which Apple excels while the rest of the PC industry are laggards. Moreover, the Apple packaging is spare and more ecologically sound than the many boxes and dozen or so plastic bags and packages left after unwrapping a ThinkPad. As the industry adopts cleaner manufacturing technologies for systems, it should also be thinking about reducing the amount of packaging that will end up in landfills. Apple wins this particular contest hands-down.

Note: This is the second in a series, the purpose of which is explained here