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Do you pay dearly for the Apple logo, as Microsoft's Steve Ballmer claims? Or are Apple laptops really a good value, even though they aren't the least expensive models on the market?
To find out, last week I compared the least expensive Apple MacBook, the $999 white model, to two reasonably similar Windows laptops costing about the same amount. My goal was to see what you'd get, in terms of features and specs, if you spent $1000 on a MacBook versus the same amount spent on a Windows machine.
My verdict? The white MacBook's tech specs seem a bit stale in comparison to the two Windows machines I priced online, the HP Pavilion dv3510nr and Dell's Inspiron 13. And your dollar definitely goes further with the Windows laptops.
But what if you're looking for a more powerful laptop and you have $2000 to spend? This week, I compared the features and specs of Apple's low-end MacBook Pro ($1999) to two Windows mobile workstations: the HP Compaq 8510w ($2099), and a Dell Precision M4400 (the unit I configured online was $2013).
Note: I haven't tested these laptops and make no judgment regarding which one performs best. I didn't factor in the costs of manufacturer warranties, either. I'm strictly looking at how much machine you get for the money.
Processor, Memory, Hard Drive
The Dell laptop I configured was the clear winner here. It offers a slightly faster processor than the other two systems (2.66-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 6MB of Level 2 cache); more memory (4GB is standard and it's expandable to 8GB); and a larger hard drive (320GB running at 7200 rpm).
By comparison, the MacBook Pro has a 2.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 3MB of Level 2 cache; 2GB of memory expandable to 4GB; and a 250GB hard drive running at 5400 rpm.
Screen and Graphics Processor
All three systems offer 15.4-inch widescreen displays. The Apple and Dell screens are LED-backlit, which makes for crisp and bright images and can reduce battery consumption.
The MacBook Pro, unlike the other two systems, offers an intriguing feature: It includes both an integrated graphics processor (NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 256MB of shared memory) and a dedicated graphics system (NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT discrete processor with 256MB of memory). This means you can toggle between the two, using the integrated graphics chip when battery life is more important than graphics performance. Or you can switch to the dedicated graphics system when you're plugged into a wall socket and performance is your top priority.
Though I can't speak from personal experience using these laptops, I'd give a nod here to the MacBook Pro, for the flexibility it offers in graphics performance.
All three laptops feature Ethernet ports and Bluetooth connectivity. The HP laptop offered 802.11g wireless networking, but not 802.11n, which is the latest standard. The MacBook Pro includes 802.11n, and the Dell laptop offered it as an option (which I included in the $2013 system I configured).
Among the three laptops I configured online, only the Dell offered 3G wireless broadband options. For an additional $125, I could have added a built-in cellular modem from AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon to the Dell Precision M4400. I'm not a big advocate of built-in wireless broadband, however. What if you decide to switch to a different carrier, or buy a new notebook? A more flexible option, in my opinion, is to buy a USB or ExpressCard cellular modem.
If built-in 3G networking is a priority for you, the Dell laptop is your only option among the three. Otherwise, the MacBook Pro and Dell laptops are fairly equal.
There wasn't a big difference in how much each laptop weighs. The MacBook Pro is the lightest, at 5.5 lbs. The Dell weighs 5.92 lbs., and HP's laptop is 6.1 lbs. Keep in mind these are the manufacturers' specs, which don't usually reflect the traveling weight (the laptop plus its AC adapter).
Apple claims the 15-inch MacBook Pro can go for up to five hours on a single battery charge (using the laptop's 50 WHr battery). When configuring your MacBook Pro online, Apple doesn't provide an option for adding an additional, external battery or opting for a higher-capacity internal battery.
The HP Compaq 8510 battery (73 WHr) lasts up to five hours, too, HP says, and can be augmented by attaching an external HP 12-cell ultra-capacity battery (an extra $189).
Dell's site only says that the Dell Precision M4400 features a "long-life battery." A six-cell battery is standard with the Precision M4400, though you can upgrade it to a nine-cell battery for $69. You can also add an external 12-cell "high capacity battery" to the Dell for an extra $299.
The MacBook Pro bested its competitors in some other areas. For example, with the MacBook Pro you get Apple's excellent iLife '09 suite of applications, which includes iMovie (for video editing), GarageBand (audio file editing), and iWeb (for building basic Web sites). Neither the HP nor Dell system offered anything comparable.
Apple's MacBook Pro includes some elegant touches, too, such as the backlit keyboard; large, multi-touch trackpad; sleek unibody aluminum chassis; and MagSafe power adapter, which attaches to the laptop magnetically. The HP and Dell systems appear to be fairly lacking in the style and elegance departments.
And though Apple laptops slipped a little in our most recent reliability and service survey, they still get high marks in those areas. Comparatively, Dell's reliability and service measures were mostly average, and HP and Compaq scores were primarily average-to-below average. (Compaq is owned by HP.) That said, the MacBook Pro is a bit skimpy on some basics. Consider USB 2.0 ports: the MacBook Pro has just two, while the HP and Dell systems each have four. As for fingerprint sensors (which are usually more trouble to use than they're worth), the MacBook Pro doesn't offer that as an option, though it comes with the HP laptop and is optional for the Dell.
The Wrap Up
If you're primarily looking to get the maximum features and most powerful specs for your $2000, the Dell Precision M4400 looks like the best bet overall among the three. I also like the many configuration options Dell offers.
However, keep in mind I've compared three specific configurations of three laptops. You can buy each laptop in different configurations; Apple offers a 17-inch MacBook Pro, for instance. And there are plenty of other models out there in the $2000 ballpark.
Also, the prices and specs quoted in this article will likely have the shelf life of a spotted banana. My goal here was just to give you a snapshot of what you'd get for $2000 with these specific systems, right this very minute.
All those caveats aside, here's the bottom line: Strictly on the basis of specs and features, your money will go further with a Windows laptop than with an Apple laptop, whether you have $1000 or $2000 to spend.
But does that mean MacBooks aren't a good value? That's where subjectivity comes into play. In my opinion, MacBooks, with the exception of the white $999 model, are indeed good values. I've owned both Macs and Windows PCs since the early 90s, and my Macs have tended to last longer and give me far fewer problems. And Macs are simply a joy to use, thanks to the Mac OS's many ingenious features and Apple's design savvy. I've rarely felt that way about a Windows computer.
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Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.
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.