Mac vs. Windows Laptops

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A few weeks ago, I bought my first Apple laptop, the MacBook Air. I've never loved a laptop more. The skinny profile, the ease of carrying it around, the full-sized keyboard and screen, the slick Mac OS X Leopard operating system, the...

Okay, enough of that. I'm not interested in writing another "Macs are great, Windows computers are dog meat" religious conversion story. I've been using both Macs and Windows PCs for years. Each has its pros and cons.

Instead, I'm interested in addressing the lingering concern about Macs: They're more expensive than comparable Windows machines.

So I decided to see if this concern is valid. I didn't perform an exhaustive, detailed survey. Rather, I compared the specs and prices of three current Apple laptops--the MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro--against their likely Windows laptop competitors. (Keep in mind computer prices and specs change often. Prices and specs mentioned in this article were accurate as of 6/20/08.) Here's what I found.

MacBook vs. Dell XPS M1330

The MacBook is Apple's most mainstream laptop, and Dell's XPS M1330 seems to be a reasonable counterpart. Both have 13.3-inch displays and built-in Webcams, and are aimed at general-purpose users who like multimedia features.

I configured online a MacBook and Dell XPS M1330 with specs as closely matched as possible. Both had 2GB of memory, a 160GB hard drive running at 5400 rpm, a 2.4-GHz Intel Core Duo 2 processor, Intel integrated graphics media accelerator (X3100), and Bluetooth 2.0. I chose the Dell 56Whr battery option (an extra $79), which is comparable to the MacBook's standard 55Whr battery. I also added the $99 optional bundle of Adobe Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements to the Dell laptop. The MacBook ships with Apple's iPhoto and iMovie applications, part of its iLife suite, at no extra cost.

The bottom line: The Dell laptop that I configured cost $1308. The MacBook was $1299.

Worth noting: When I upgraded the hard drive in both computers to 250GB, the Dell laptop cost $1358 and the MacBook, $1399, tipping the balance slightly in Dell's favor. Also, Dell offers more configuration options than does Apple.

Price advantage: Apple, by a hair.

MacBook Air vs. Lenovo ThinkPad X300

Lenovo has gone head-to-head with Apple with its ultra-thin ThinkPad X300, going so far as to creating a TV ad spoofing the MacBook Air. The ThinkPad X300, compared to the Air, is a "no-compromise ultraportable," Lenovo's ad claims. Our reviewer agreed. Darren Gladstone wrote: "What the ThinkPad X300 lacks in style, compared with the Air, it more than makes up for with better features and more functionality."

It seemed fitting to compare the Air to the X300 in configurations as closely matched as possible. Still, there were differences. When I configured these systems, the X300 was available only with an Intel Core 2 Duo chip at 1.2 GHz, while the Air could be configured with 1.6-GHz or 1.8-GHz versions of the Intel chip. In the X300's favor, that laptop can be configured with a built-in optical drive, but not the Air.

Here's what my configurations of both laptops had in common: a 13.3-inch display, 2GB of memory, light weight (the ThinkPad X300 weighs about 3.4 pounds vs. the Air's 3 pounds), a built-in Webcam, and a 64GB solid-state drive.

The bottom line: The X300 cost $2612 as of 6/20/08. Add $99 for Adobe's photo and video editing software and the total cost was $2711. In comparison, an Air with the 64GB solid-state drive is $3098. Add another $99 for an external optical drive and the Air costs $3197, or $486 more than the X300.

Worth noting: When I configured these two systems, Lenovo had a "limited-time offer" of 20 percent off the X300. Without the discount, the X300 I configured would have been $3370, plus $99 for the Adobe software, or $3469. That's $272 more than the Air. Also, if you're not wedded to a solid-state drive, you can buy an Air with an 80GB-hard drive for $1799. Add the $99 external drive, and this Air costs $1898 compared to the X300's discounted total of $2711. That's a difference in the Air's favor of $813 with Lenovo's 20 percent-off discount and a whopping $1571 without it. Also, a standard hard drive is not an option with the X300.

Price advantage: The X300, but only if you get the discount. If you don't, the Air gets the nod. [Update: Soon after this article was published, the price of a MacBook Air with a 64GB solid-state drive dropped to $2598, making the Air less expensive than the ThinkPad X300--even with a discount. --Editor]

MacBook Pro vs. HP's Compaq 8710w Mobile Workstation

As its name implies, Apple's MacBook Pro is designed for professional users. It's a particular favorite among still image and video editors as well. So I compared it to HP's Compaq 8710w Mobile Workstation, also built for professionals.

My configurations had this in common: 17-inch displays with 1680 by 1050 pixel resolution, dedicated graphics cards, 250GB hard drives at 5400 rpm, 2GB of memory, and 2.6-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processors.

There were some differences, of course. For example, the HP computer features a biometric fingerprint scanner, which the MacBook Pro lacks.

The bottom line: The MacBook Pro that I configured was $3049. The HP Compaq 8710w was $3561. Adding the Adobe image and video editing software brings it to $3661. The HP Compaq 8710w came standard with a three-year HP extended warranty. A similar warranty from Apple costs an extra $349. If you factor that in, the price difference makes the MacBook Pro just $263 less than the HP notebook.

Worth noting: HP offers similarly configured laptops marketed to consumers for less. For example, I configured an HP dv9700t for consumers with specs similar to the MacBook Pro and the HP Compaq 8710w for $1818 (I configured this system on 7/7/08, so it may not provide an apples-to-apples price and spec comparison to the systems I configured on 6/20.) The dv9700t I configured didn't include an extended warranty, however, which would have added $249 or $349, depending upon the warranty option chosen.

Price advantage: The MacBook Pro.

Other Considerations

Price aside, there are other factors in the Mac vs. Windows debate. Among them:

  • Windows computers are perpetual targets for spyware and viruses. Macs are targeted, too, but not to the same degree.
  • The Mac OS and Apple computers both come from the same company. While Macs aren't trouble free, you're less likely to experience as many unexplainable crashes and incompatibilities as you might on a Windows PC.
  • Apple has earned top scores from PC World readers in reliability and service. See "Laptop Buying Tips, Part 1," for more detail
  • The Mac OS X Leopard is a clever, nimble operating system and a pleasure to use. Windows Vista is a behemoth. While not the demon it's often made out to be, it ain't the Mac OS, either.
  • Apple laptops have thoughtful design touches, such as keyboards that illuminate automatically in dim lighting.
  • There are many more laptop choices in the Windows world, and at a greater variety of price points.
  • There are still plenty of software applications available for Windows only. (You can run Windows on Macs, of course, using Apple's Boot camp, which is included in Mac OS X Leopard, or a third-party virtualization program such as Parallels Desktop for Mac (about $68 online).

Adding It All Up

Don't buy into the old argument that Mac laptops are categorically more expensive than Windows machines. Sometimes that's true--but they're often on par with, or cost less than, their closest Windows laptop equivalents.

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