The MacBook Air-Dell Adamo Deathmatch

Two Laptops: One's a Mac, One's a PC. Which is better? PC World takes both notebooks and stages a computer kumite to make a couple quick calls.

The Tale of the Tape

You know all about the on-again, off-again PC-Mac turf war, of course. Which is better? One thing we can tell you is that PC makers sure are taking note of Apple's awesome design work. And that's the setup for the welterweight matchup we have going on today.

In this corner (pictured at right), the MacBook Air, the sleek standard-bearer for how Apple does computing. In the other, the Dell Adamo, the spunky up-and-comer that packs on ports…and takes some not-so-subtle jabs at the big "A."

Neither company really positions its ultraslim ultraportable as a high-performance hot rod. Heck, both of them eschew optical drives to stay lean and mean. But they're both expensive--very, very expensive. We figured it was time to find out if either the Air or the Adamo has what it takes to win.

Now before these two palookas start mixing it up, let's look at what they each bring to tonight's fight. The MacBook Air is the cagey vet. Since it first showed up on the scene, it has improved its game by providing better processors and an honest-to-goodness graphics card, nVidia's GeForce 9400M. That means it can actually play some games--not many, but some.

The Air we last reviewed offered a 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo CPU and 2GB of RAM, and scored a 78 in WorldBench 6. In our battery-life tests, the Air survived for about 2.5 hours before sputtering out. It can accommodate a 120GB hard disk (our more-expensive model came with a 128GB solid-state drive). But then, of course, there's also the dreaded "Apple Tax": These machines range in price from $1799 to $2499.

The Dell Adamo, on the other hand, offers lesser parts and…charges…more? Really? Let's go over this. Dell's high-style PCs cost between $1999 and $2699. The Adamo maxes out at a 1.4GHz CPU but compensates with 4GB of RAM to handle a 64-bit version of Windows Vista Home Premium. Supposedly its battery will last 5 hours in tests, if we're to believe promotional materials. In our internal battery life tests, it lasted four hours. Still, that's way better than how MacBook Air fared. But, not much of a surprise, the Adamo got slapped around by our PC WorldBench 6 suite. It scored a 64. As far as ultraportable performance goes, it's sad. Very sad. That's probably the biggest mark against the Adamo, up front. But there are some more features that are worth consideration besides horsepower.

So buckle up for a feature-by-feature smackdown.

Hey, you two silicon status symbols: Are you ready to rumble? FIGHT!

Round 1: The Packaging

Apple: Ships in a neat little box. It's tiny. It's mostly white. It comes with a handle. Yay!

Dell: When the Adamo arrives at your doorstep, it looks as if someone froze your new laptop in carbonite. Yeah, I went there. It's a minimalistic plastic display case that houses the small handful of accessories (a DisplayPort-to-VGA cable, a power cable, and a microscopic manual) that come with the Adamo.

Winner: Draw. If you're going by cool factor, Dell out-Appled Apple in this department. Environmentally friendly plastic casing, not so much.

Round 2: The Keyboard

Apple: The Air didn't invent the notion of cut-out Chiclet keys--it just popularized them. The buttons are reasonably spaced, and you rarely run the risk of mistyping. That said, the function keys are shrunken down a little bit too much for my tastes. Otherwise, the Air has a slick set of backlit keys.

Dell: One editor here refers to the little dip in the middle of these wide keys as "finger buckets." The fancy-pants Dell marketspeak for it is "scalloped keys." Whatever. The point is, the keys are flat-ish and wide, as I've grown to love on a number of laptops (the HP Mini 1000 being among them), and they have a little lip for your fingers to rest in. The Adamo also finds room to accommodate a couple of multimedia-shortcut keys next to the power button. The only drawback here is that making out some of the keys without the ambient backlighting turned on is a little difficult.

Winner: Dell. Bigger keys and more of them equal a win in my book.

Round 3: The Touchpad

Apple: Looking at the touchpad, it's pretty obvious why the Air gave up some ground from the keyboard. The mousing area on the MacBook is big and beautiful. While some people (ahem, me) have trouble with getting the multitouch functions to work 100 percent correctly, all the time, it feels--and looks--great.

Dell: The Adamo's touchpad borders on the average side. It's not bad by any stretch; the buttons are firmly in place and give the right amount of pressure. Like the Apple laptops, this Dell model provides some multitouch functionality as well.

Winner: Bigger surface area. Feels better. Apple.

Round 4: The I/O Ports

Apple: I can count the number of ports on three fingers. You can guess which ones they are. You get a single USB port, a mini-DisplayPort, and a headphone jack. That's it.

Dell: Here’s where the big "D" gets it right. The Adamo has two USB ports, ethernet and headphone jacks, one eSATA connector, one DisplayPort, and a user-accessible SIM-card slot for WWAN service.

Winner: Dell. As if this one was even going to be close. At least both machines offer Webcams and built-in microphones.

Round 5: The Screen

Apple: A crisp 13.3-inch display stays protected behind a big, aluminum bezel. With the Air's native 1280-by-800-pixel resolution, you'll get some great, colorful images on the backlit LED screen. Of course, the glossy coating means you're bound to get a little bounce-back in broad daylight, too.

Dell: Ditto on the glare from the glossy coating, but this screen is worth it. The Adamo offers edge-to-edge glass that's securely locked into place on the 13.4-inch screen. Its WLED display one-ups the Air's with a 1366-by-768-pixel resolution (translation: 720p-friendly). Initial tests show that the screen looks pretty sharp. But one thing I keep mulling over is the obviously Mac-esque shortcut bar that sits on the desktop (shown here). It provides clean, quick links to all the main apps you'd use on the computer. And it's easily customizable.

Winner: Dell. The Adamo has a bright, bigger screen with a higher resolution? Sold.

Round 6: The Overall Design

Apple: Thanks to its simple, spartan design, the Air has much cleaner lines. Then again, managing without all of the perks that have been nipped and tucked out of the 12.8-by-9.0-by-0.8-inch, 3-pound Air in order to make it so small is a bit of a pain. As in life, it's all about trade-offs.

Dell: As slim as the Adamo is (13 by 9.5 by 0.65 inches and 4 pounds), it's still a bit boxy. Hey, that's not a knock. After all, just about every laptop is a little on the square side (even Apples, until pretty recently). The dotted grillwork on the back pops, and the two-tone top makes the Adamo look more like a fashion accessory than most laptops on the scene do.

Winner: Draw. This one boils down to a matter of aesthetics and taste. Whether you like clean and simple or you want to try to match your shoes to your laptop, either machine works.

As I said at the beginning of this slide show, hang tight: We will have a full review of the Adamo up soon with all of our WorldBench 6 test results in place.

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