Next week, it’s very likely we’ll see a fresh round of MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs. They’ll be a little faster, and maybe a little prettier. But it’s unlikely that any new addition to Apple’s laptops will be as awesome as MagSafe. Seven years after Apple made the best laptop charger on the planet, no one else has made anything even half as good. Because they can’t.
The original concept for the MagSafe was simple. It would eliminate the risk of some idiot (or more often than not, just you) tripping over the cord and flinging your laptop off of your desk. Sometimes you’d catch it. Other times you’d have a slightly crunchier PowerBook. And so, when Steve Jobs showed it off in the 2006 MacBook Pro unveiling, that’s what he focused on. Fewer broken laptops, everyone’s life is easier.
Except, that’s not exactly the way that the MagSafe as a fundamentally great thing experience has played out. Sure, intact laptops is great and all, but no one has any great affection for crossing guards or their insurance policies. It’s better because it’s just easy — no dealing with finding the right port and blindly jamming a clunky cylinder into it. No yanking the whole power strip with you by accident as you turn over in bed. You sit down and clack in the magnet. Yank it out from any direction when you get up. You don’t worry about it twisting and bending and breaking. Sometimes it falls out in bed, but if you’re paying attention, that’s no big deal, usually. And it’s been years since it’s set anything on fire.
It’s absurd to say, but yes, Apple’s MagSafe chargers are one of the best things it has going in laptops. Because, finally, everyone else seems to have learned how to make a good laptop. Google’s Chromebook Pixel has done it the best, surpassing even Apple’s hardware design and build in many ways. Lenovo and Acer and Samsung are all charging hard. And traditional also-rans like Toshiba are even taking big-if-still-clumsy swings at premium. Keyboards, trackpads, unibody (or close to it) designs and builds. Apple’s still the best by some measures, but increasingly, that’s more a matter of personal preference than it has been in basically a decade.
But Apple’s still got MagSafe. It’s not a spec, or a feature, really. It’s just something that’s there, that’s ineffably better. It speaks to just how gigantic Apple’s lead was a few years ago that every part of a MacBook once had that sort of “It’s just a little better, a little more pleasant” quality in basically every part of its hardware. Everyone else has caught up elsewhere, to one degree in another, but having the best power adaptor — something every laptop user uses every single day — that’s also the best looking (sneaky important as well) goes a long way to making a whole computer more pleasant to use.
So why haven’t we seen others follow suit, as they have with premium laptops and phones? Why are even the best Windows laptops still packed up with the ugly plug-in chargers of the 90s? Patents, obviously, sadly. Apple owns a patent for “Magnetic connector for electronic device”, which it was awarded in 2007, and includes typically vague language which amounts to, essentially, a big KEEP OFF GRASS… arseholes sign. It’s not an impossibility that everyone could just go in on making magnetic power strips the standard and effectively neuter the patent, as seems to have happened with the MacBook Air design patent, but that’s pretty wishful thinking.
Plus, even when others have dared to try to replicate the wonderfulness, the results haven’t been great. Microsoft’s Surface uses a magnetic connector, for example, but it sucks. It’s hard to insert, falls out easily and arbitrarily, and even dumber, the magnetic strip on the body doubles as the clip for stylus. It’s not good.
Apple knows how big its advantage is here, and it basically bent over backwards to not alienate people who loved the original MagSafe so much that they amassed half a dozen chargers over the years. Which is why you have to pay 10 bucks for a magnet serving as an adaptor for the newer MagSafe 2. When your charger is good enough to engender that sort of affection (and accompanying feelings of abandonment), you’re probably going to fight pretty hard to keep that advantage.
But for now, that’s beside the point. (Or maybe it’s the entire point.) What matters for next week’s new MacBooks, and all the other wonderful new laptops we’ll see this year, is that in at least one way, all evidence points to Apple’s being just a little more inimitably pleasant. And that’s not going to change any time soon.