This post goes out to two of my homeboys: Brian Desmond and Brian Hill. It was sparked by a discussion that Brian, Tony Redmond, and I had at breakfast this morning about laptops; more specifically, Brian D claimed that buyers who opted for Apple laptops were doomed to pay a premium price relative to the PC laptop world. I decided to spec out a few different machines from Apple, Dell, Lenovo, and H-P to see whether this is actually true.
A few rules: I wanted to keep the configurations as close as possible. Although I only buy (and highly recommend) refurbished machines from Apple, I stuck with new hardware from each vendor. Although it might have been cheaper to buy from third parties, I used Apple’s MSRP for RAM expansion.
I started with Apple’s online store. A current-generation MacBook Pro with a 2.5GHz quad-i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 750GB 7200rpm disk, a 1080p camera, and a 1680 x 1050 15.4″ display costs $2549. Full specs are here. One spec of note: 0.95″ thick and 5.6 lbs. (OK, so that was two specs. So sue me.) You can drive an additional 2560 x 1920 display by using the built-in Thunderbolt port.
Then I went to Lenovo’s online store. There’s currently a special on the W520 line. I configured a W520 with a 2.5GHz quad-core i7, 8GB of RAM, a 1920 x 1080 15.6″ display, a 500GB 7200 RPM disk, and a 720p camera. MSRP for this configuration is $2990– so the MacBook Pro wins! Not really, because Lenovo’s sale price is $2059. The W520 can accommodate up to 32GB of RAM and drive two external monitors, so those are points in its favor as well, plus you can swap its DVD drive for a second hard disk (though you can do this on the MacBook Pro via third-party kits). The W520 is about 1.4″ thick and weighs 5.7 lbs in its default configuration. At this price point, the Lenovo has an advantage: $500 less for a higher-resolution display (but see my note on that below), more expandability, and a better graphics subsystem. (Oh, and a color-calibrated display, if you care, which I don’t.)
What about H-P? The EliteBook 8760w line only seems to have quad-core processors if you spring for the 17.3″ display, which is waaaay too big for many people, me included. Leaving that aside, you could have a 1920 x 1080 panel for $2499 with a 2.7GHz quad-core i7, 8GB of RAM, and a 500GB disk. No camera, no external monitor support (that I can see on the specs page, anyway), and a 7.6lb weight. There are various other combinations of (slower) CPUs and GPUs, but this seems like the best value offering from H-P. So: significantly heavier than the MBP, with a faster CPU and a higher-res display but a smaller disk for the same price. I’m going to give the nod to Apple on this one because of build quality (see below.)
For Dell, I priced a Precision Workstation M4600, their 15″-class machine. MSRP on this configuration is $2934, but Dell’s selling it for $2154. For that price, you get a 1920 x 1080 panel, a quad i7 (with 8MB cache, unlike the 6MB cache on the Mac, H-P, and Lenovo machines), 8GB of RAM, a 750GB 7200 RPM disk, and AMD’s integrated graphics (though Nvidia graphics are available for a couple hundred bucks more.) Interestingly, Dell offers a secondary SSD and a touch display as factory options. I’ve got to give Dell the price advantage here as well.
Now, about display resolution: for my poor eyes, 1920 x 1080 in a 15″ panel is too many pixels. Great for watching movies, but the high DPI means that I can’t read text at standard font sizes. I’m happy to admit that the higher-resolution panels are a point against Apple. I don’t know enough about the specs of the various graphics adapters involved to be able to authoritatively say which one is better for normal use (obviously the fancy Nvidia adapters would be more useful for CAD, etc.)
Battery life? All I can say is this: on my MBP I routinely get 4 solid hours of writing code from one battery charge, and I’ve gotten 6+ hours when just doing e-mail and web browsing. Apple claims a life of 7+ hours for light browsing. I don’t have enough data to evaluate the battery life claims of the other vendors.
Of course, there are other factors involved, too, besides the machine configuration. The Dell and H-P laptops I’ve used in the past were squeaky, plastic-y, festooned with stickers, and cheap-feeling, with displays that wobbled, flexing cases, and poor build quality. Lenovo’s build quality is excellent, with a great keyboard, a case that doesn’t flex or squeak under pressure, and good durability. I think Apple’s build quality is better, though; the aluminum unibody construction on the MacBook Pro means that there’s absolutely no flex in the case. The keyboard is as good as Lenovo’s (plus it’s backlit), and the overall industrial design is top-notch, as you’d expect from Apple. There are lots of little touches, like the magnetic power adapter, that set Apple’s hardware apart.
So, bottom line: yes, Dell and Lenovo will sell you less expensive laptops with specs equal to or better than Apple’s. H-P apparently won’t. Is the price premium worth the Apple features and industrial design? For some people, probably; for others, probably not. For now, though, it looks like the two Brians are right. Darn it.