Mac vs. Windows: What Does $1K Get You?

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Apple's been criticized a lot lately for charging premium computer prices during a recession. In its defense, though, I hasten to add that Apple generally delivers value with its computers. In my experience, with a few nits aside, Mac laptops are imaginatively designed, well built, and a pleasure to use. Macs aren't subjected to all the viruses and malware aimed at Windows computers. You can run Windows on a Mac. And though Apple laptops slipped a bit in PC World's most recent reliability and service survey, they still get high marks in those areas.

I should also mention that in July 2008, I compared the specs of Mac laptops to those of similar Windows machines and found very little price difference. In some cases, Apple laptops were less expensive than similarly configured Windows laptops.

But with the recession continuing, I took another look at how Apple's laptops compare price-wise to Windows notebooks. This time, I made a different comparison. Instead of starting by comparing specs and then comparing price tags, I flipped the equation. I asked the question: What would I get if I spent $1000 on a MacBook, and what would the same amount of money buy me in a reasonably similar Windows laptop? That's the focus this week. Next week: What will $2000 buy in a MacBook vs. a Windows laptop?

The Laptops

I compared Apple's least expensive MacBook (the white model, costing $999) to two Windows consumer laptops that also have 13.3-inch screens: the $999 HP Pavilion dv3510nr and a $1005 configuration of Dell's Inspiron 13.

Note: I haven't tested these laptops and make no judgment as to which computer is best.

Processor, Memory, Hard Drive

The Apple, Dell, and HP laptops have relatively similar Intel Core 2 Duo processors, ranging from 2.0 GHz to 2.4 GHz. But there were significant differences in memory and hard drives.

The Pavilion comes with 4GB of memory expandable to 8GB and a 320GB hard drive (at 5400 rpm). The Inspiron 13 I configured included 4GB of memory (not expandable) and a 500GB hard drive (5400 rpm).

By comparison, the $999 white MacBook offers only 2GB of memory (upgradable to 4GB for an additional $100) and a measly 120GB hard drive (at 5400 rpm). An upgrade to a 320GB drive adds $175 to the MacBook's cost. In other words: A white MacBook comparable in terms of memory and hard drive to the Pavilion would cost $274 more than the Pavilion.

Screen and Graphics Processor

All three laptops have a glossy, wide-screen 13-inch display. The HP's is also LED backlit, which tends to be brighter than a traditional LCD. More expensive MacBooks and MacBook Pros, as well as other Dell laptops, offer LED-backlit screens.

The Inspiron 13 has an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100, which is part of the laptop's system chip set and relies on the computer's main memory. Apple's white MacBook features the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics processor with 256MB of shared memory. The HP laptop looks like the winner here, as it uses the NVIDIA GeForce 9300 GS discrete graphics system with 512MB of dedicated graphics memory.

Generally speaking, a discrete graphics system provides smoother video and graphics than a graphics chip set that's integrated with the computer's system chip set and memory.

Networking and Weight

All three laptops included Ethernet ports and support for 802.11n wireless networking and Bluetooth. None offered built-in 3G cellular data networking. There wasn't much difference in their weights, either; all weighed 4.6 to 5 pounds, according to the manufacturers.

Other Features

There are lots of other differences between the MacBook and the two Windows laptops. A few examples:

  • The MacBook and the Inspiron 13 offer two USB ports, compared to three for the Pavilion.
  • The MacBook includes Apple's iLife 09, a terrific suite of integrated applications including iMovie (video editing), iPhoto (photo editing), GarageBand (audio editing), iWeb (for creating Web pages) and iDVD (for burning DVDs). Though the Windows laptops offer software applications for many of those functions, none is an integrated suite, like iLife.
  • The MacBook doesn't ship with office productivity software. The HP Pavilion and Dell Inspiron 13 both come with Microsoft Works, a basic suite.

The Wrap Up

If you've got $1000 to spend, there's no question: Your dollar will go farther, in terms of specs and features, with the Dell or HP notebooks. The white MacBook seems a bit stale, in terms of tech specs, especially compared to the more expensive, refreshed MacBook line Apple introduced last fall.

Of course, the comparisons I've made here aren't the whole story by any stretch. For instance, in my opinion, Mac laptops are still easier--and more pleasurable--to use than Windows laptops. You can't attribute a dollar figure to that. And if you've got your heart set on a MacBook but you can't go above $1000, be aware that refurbished MacBook Airs are available from for $999. (Refurbished laptops are returned to the store or manufacturer for a variety of reasons. The laptops are tested for defects and resold at a discount.)

Beyond the two Windows systems I've mentioned, there are countless other worthy models costing $1000 or less. Example: The Lenovo Ideapad Y530, which recently received a PCW rating of 85 (very good), is available for $829 and up. (I didn't compare it to the $999 MacBook because the Ideapad has a 15.4-inch screen, compared to the MacBook's 13.3-inch display.) You can even buy decent Windows laptops for around $500.

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Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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