Apple's Notebooks Take On the PC Competition

Nathan Edwards

MacBooks have become the darlings of the computer press. They’re capturing the attention of first-time notebook buyers and even converting a growing number of long-time PC owners who are looking for that elusive “perfect” mobile computer. A report on recent notebook sales figures reflects the MacBook’s momentum.

Findings by market research firm the NDP Group show that brick-and-mortar sales of Apple notebooks experienced a 50 to 60 percent growth in the first quarter of 2008, while Windows notebook sales remained flat. In the premium notebook category—encompassing machines costing $1,000 or more—Apple now claims a whopping 64 percent market share.

But are these slick hipster notebooks worth the hype and their spendy price tags? What do you really get for the money when you throw down for a MacBook, and how do these Apple computers compare to their PC counterparts in terms of performance, features, overall usability, and price?

Maximum PC tests and reviews the MacBook Air, the standard MacBook, and the MacBook Pro against five PC models sporting similar price points and formfactors. It’s time we set the record straight.

Categorical Differences

Apple’s presence in the notebook market spans three distinct classes. Here’s how we define them and the key features we think each class demands. Click each heading to jump to the relevant page.

Ultraportable

  • Maximum 4 lbs. lap weight
  • 11- to 13-inch screen
  • Minimum 4-hour battery life
  • Transflective screen surface
  • Real keyboard
  • Video output
  • ExpressCard slot
  • Optical drive (optional)

Mainstream

  • Affordable
  • Dual-core processor
  • 160GB or more storage capacity
  • Maximum 7 lbs. lap weight
  • 13- to 15-inch screen
  • Optical drive
  • Appropriate expansion slots

Professional

  • Dual-core processor
  • Discrete graphics
  • 15-inch or larger screen
  • Maximum 8 lbs. lap weight
  • Appropriate expansion slots
  • Robust video-out
  • DVD burner

Our Testing Strategy

Evaluating a notebook is very different from evaluating a desktop PC .

A notebook PC isn’t like a desktop rig. Tricked out, water cooled, and overclocked like a mutha, your Guns of Navarone desktop rig will live a life that’s similar to your mom’s PC: sitting safely underneath your desk. And while you can freely upgrade your PC’s peripherals—its keyboard, monitor, and mouse—a notebook is everything it’s ever going to be the first day you get it. The trackpad can’t be replaced nor can the LCD screen. If the mushy keyboard annoys you, tough luck.

So our reviews of these notebooks focus on not only performance but also usability and price.

Usability

This is a crucial factor in a notebook’s success. It includes the keyboard’s feel, the placement of the trackpad, the number and variety of ports, the machine’s weight and size, the thermals, the quality of the screen, as well as the overall look and feel. It’s a lengthy list of review points, which explains why usability figures so prominently in our final assessment.

Performance

Don’t get us wrong—performance matters. Unless your activities are strictly confined to Microsoft Office and Firefox, you’re going to notice when, for example, it takes five minutes to enact a simple photo edit. To test a notebook’s performance, we look to our standard suite of desktop benchmarks, which stress video editing and encoding, photo editing, and slide-show creation. We also run two older games at moderate resolutions to see if a notebook will function as a stand-in gaming machine.

Obviously, we can’t run our benchmarks in OS X because the majority of our tests don’t offer OS X support. To truly assess how well Apple’s notebooks measure up as PCs, we dual-booted the MacBooks into Windows Vista Home Premium and ran the benchmarks in that OS—for an apples-to-apples comparison among all models. (To get a sense of the performance difference between a MacBook running OS X vs. Vista, see page 43, where we show the results of tests using apps that are native to both OSes.)

Price

The Mac has historically been at a price disadvantage to the PC, but is this still the case today? Read on and you’ll see how these x86 Macs stack up in terms of specs and price. While not quite as important as performance and usability, price will also figure into our verdicts.

Next: Ultraportable Notebooks Face Off


Individual Ultraportable Reviews

Best in Class: Ultraportable

Not too big and not too small, the ThinkPad X300 delivers the perfect balance of performance and size in a killer package.

After running the benchmarks, crunching the numbers, and spending days doing usability testing the old-fashioned way—using the laptops in real-world situations—we decided that of the three ultraportable machines tested here, the one we’d buy with our own money is the Lenovo ThinkPad X300. Even though you can buy two MacBook Airs for what this ThinkPad cost.

The decision in this category ultimately came down to survivability and usability. Both the Sony Vaio and MacBook Air seemed fragile, and we worried about their ability to withstand the wear and tear of heavy use. The ThinkPad feels sturdier than laptops twice its weight, and its SSD drive should deliver better survivability than the old-school spindles and heads in the other two machines. Unfortunately, that SSD also adds at least a grand to the X300’s price, which is a huge premium to pay if your idea of high-risk computing is balancing the machine on one knee while you veg out in front of the tube during Shark Week. Lenovo desperately needs to add a budget X300 using standard hard drives.

The ThinkPad’s screen might not shine like those of its glossy-paneled completion, but it actually makes the notebook far more versatile. When we took all three of the ultraportable models outdoors, only the X300 remained usable—turns out there’s something to be said for the screen’s dowdy anti-glare coating, which is not an option with the Air and Vaio. Add to that the X300’s comfortable keyboard and plethora of input options and you have a solid all-around offering. Sure, it could stand a few more inputs and outputs, but with three USB ports we’re satiated.

Performance is less crucial in the ultraportable category, but the ThinkPad delivered more than respectable scores in most of our benchmarks, losing to the Sony by a smaller margin than we expected, given the differences in hardware. We’re especially impressed with the X300’s Photoshop results, which show the read benefits SSD users can expect.

That said, none of these laptops is bad—if you don’t mind dealing with the abundance of crapware on the Vaio, that is. Folks shopping for a relatively inexpensive 3-pound laptop will find the MacBook Air to be a stunning value at $1,800. We’d never advocate using it as your only PC, but as a mobile option it’s pretty compelling. The Sony Vaio delivers impressive performance, but we’d expect more solid build quality for the $2,600 price.

Next: Mainstream Notebooks

Ultraportable Benchmarks

Apple MacBook Air
Sony Vaio SZ Premium
Lenovo ThinkPad X300
Premiere Pro CS3 (min:sec)
59:21 47:22
59:01
Photoshop CS3 (min:sec)
6:07 3:08
5:36
ProShow (min:sec)
95:11
35:44
63:25
MainConcept (min:sec) 174:11
59:52
119:36
Fear (fps)
WNR
WNR
WNR
Quake 4 (fps)
WNR
WNR
WNR
Battery Rundown (hrs:min) 2:39
3:02
3:01
Best scores are bolded.


Individual Mainstream Notebook Reviews

Best in Class: Mainstream

The MacBook wins the sprint but loses the marathon

If laptops were dogs, we’d award Acer’s TravelMate Best in Show. The MacBook may be the cute dog that’s the crowd favorite, but its refusal to obey commands cost it points. And the Asus F8Sn would be stuck in its crate in the back doing the one thing it can do right: spin in a circle.

Things would be different if we looked at just a single category. Take gaming, for example. Hands down, the F8Sn crushes the other contenders with its built-in GeForce 9500M GS videocard. The TravelMate’s discrete graphics are no match for the F8Sn’s performance, and the MacBook—well, four frames per second in a game like FEAR is downright shameful, solidifying the white laptop’s standing as a gamer’s foe.

But the F8Sn’s gaming prowess comes at a great cost. To keep the machine affordable, Asus includes a paltry 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo CPU. Thus, the other laptops in this category speed past the F8Sn in nearly every other non-gaming benchmark. And worse, the F8Sn’s mighty graphics card sucks the battery life during normal use.

While the MacBook owns the competition in a few of our encoding benchmarks, thanks to its nifty Penryn processor, the notebook falls flat on more memory-intensive tests. The single gigabyte of DDR2 RAM proves to be this laptop’s undoing once video conversion and high-definition picture processing come into play. Still, the MacBook achieves nearly three hours of battery life—a full 20 minutes more than Acer’s TravelMate.

So how does one decide a clear victor? It’s not easy. Each laptop comes with little bits and pieces that we’d like to see changed: the TravelMate’s 160GB hard drive and inclusion of Windows Vista Business, the F8Sn’s horrific processor speed and lackluster battery life, the MacBook’s lack of external connection options and poor gaming performance. But at this price point, the midrange laptop class is all about sacrifices. You’re not going to find a perfect notebook in this cohort, but you can definitely find one that includes most of the qualities you’re seeking.

In that sense, the TravelMate comes out on top by a wide margin, mostly because you don’t have to sacrifice a great deal of performance to get what you want. Its gaming prowess isn’t the best we’ve seen, but the laptop holds its own in our benchmarks without crushing the machine’s overall battery life. Its application performance rivals the MacBook’s best, and we’d much rather have the extra 40GB of hard drive space, faster Premiere and Photoshop times, and larger display—not to mention the external connection options, where the TravelMate far exceeds the MacBook’s limited offerings.

When it comes to mainstream notebooks, we’d happily take Acer’s TravelMate on the road any day of the week. But if someone gave us a MacBook, we wouldn’t complain—we can’t say the same about Asus’s F8Sn.

Next: Professional Notebooks

Mainstream Notebook Benchmarks

Apple MacBook Asus F8Sn
Acer TravelMate 5720
Premiere Pro CS3 (min:sec)
38:43 48:38 35:59
Photoshop CS3 (min:sec)
5:48
4:12
3:53
ProShow (min:sec)
38:10
56:53
40:32
MainConcept (min:sec) 68:11
83:10
68:08
Fear (fps)
4
22
15
Quake 4 (fps)
10.3
79.2
29
Battery Rundown (hrs:min) 3:26
1:42
2:32
Best scores are bolded.


Individual Professional Notebook Reviews

Best in Class: Professional

Don't rub your eyes, the MacBook is the winner (!)

In many ways, Dell’s XPS M1530 is the better notebook of the two. Its screen is better by a country mile in photo rendering, it’s faster in gaming, it has built-in EVDO—something you can’t even get from Apple—and it costs $500 less for comparable hardware.

So why are we declaring the MacBook Pro the winner? We had a few issues with our XPS unit, such as unexplainably low scores in our Premiere Pro CS3 test that gave us the shivers: It took more than twice as long as our MacBook Pro to render video and was quite a bit slower in our Photoshop CS3 test.

We have no idea why. The XPS was just about as fast as the MBP in our MainConcept encoding test and faster at slide-show creation, which would typically translate to comparable scores in our two Adobe-based benchmarks.

As for the XPS’s beefy 9-cell battery, the machine pooped out after 2:45 (hrs:min) of DVD playback. The MacBook Pro, running the OS X-based DVD app, had us up past midnight waiting for the damned thing to die at 3:15—and that’s using an internal battery that doesn’t pork up the formfactor. Whether the weak rundown time was caused by the unoptimized Windows Media Center DVD player or some CPU-sapping third-party app that Dell installed on the XPS, we weren’t happy with the results.

The XPS is redeemed in port selection, with three USB ports, as well as S-Video, HDMI, and VGA, compared to the MacBook Pro’s single DVI and two USB ports. And the XPS clearly has the better screen. Although favored by professional photographers, the MBP’s screen is subpar and displays horrible banding in OS X. The XPS also bests the MBP with EVDO.

And remember, the XPS is $500 less—and that’s without taking into account the cost of a Windows license if to run your games or other applications on the MBP.

That’s what makes our pick stick in our craw so much. The XPS is better in many respects, but it has the same weaknesses as most OEM PCs. From the get-go, even though Dell’s load out is better than most others here, it’s still bogged down by third-party bloatware. And Vista drivers might be better today than they were, but something, somewhere in the XPS is dragging down battery life and performance.

That puts the admittedly overpriced MacBook Pro in the pole position. While that’s likely to piss off many PC diehards, perhaps it’s time those folks finally admit the MacBook Pro to the power-PC family.

Next: OSX: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

Professional Notebook Benchmarks

Apple MacBook Pro Dell XPS M1530
Premiere Pro CS3 (min:sec)
30:12
65:00
Photoshop CS3 (min:sec)
3:44
4:08
ProShow (min:sec)
34:21
32:28
MainConcept (min:sec) 56:17
57:09
Fear (fps)
45
49
Quake 4 (fps)
83.5 103.3
Battery Rundown (hrs:min) 3:15
2:45
Best scores are bolded.


OS X: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

The biggest difference between an Apple notebook and its PC counterparts is the operating system. Sure, Apple’s adoption of the x86 architecture makes it quite possible to run Windows on an Apple machine, but here’s a crash course in the unique features Apple’s home-grown OS offers and the pitfalls of running Windows on a Mac.

OS X is a Lot Like Windows

Switching OSes is always tough, but Apple does a good job of making Windows users feel right at home. Many Windows-specific keyboard shortcuts function similarly in OS X and basic file browsing is the same.

OS X is Completely Different from Windows

In other ways, OS X is a very different beast. For example, instead of storing all the bits and pieces of your installed apps in a folder on your hard drive, everything the app needs to run is stored in a container file. To start the app, you double-click the container. It’s deceptively simple, and we like it.

Windows on a Mac is a Little Weird

Installing Windows on a MacBook is easier than installing it on many enthusiast PCs. You start the installer from inside OS X; when the Windows install completes, you run a single app that installs all necessary drivers. Unfortunately, some commonly used notebook functions, such as tap to click on the touchpad, don’t work.

OS X is Really, Really Slick

Using an operating system that’s designed for power users and newbies alike is truly glorious.

You'll Need to Rebuy All Your Applications

Replacing apps could cost you nothing—or thousands of dollars.

You'll Need Cooler Pants

When people see you toting a MacBook around, they’ll expect that you’re a little more Justin Long than John Hodgman, and your circa 1987 Lee’s don’t send that message, chief.

Performance in OS X is Pretty Darn Good

We last compared OS X and Windows performance right after Apple switched to Intel x86, and the results for OS X were ugly, thanks possibly to the emulation layer that most Mac software used. Now two and a half years later, we can say things are looking far better for OS X. Photoshop, which was a total joke in 2006 on the Intel Macs, is definitely improved. Though still slower than on Windows Vista, at least you won’t be firing cruise missiles at John Warnock and Steve Jobs.

In other applications, OS X performance is quite peppy. We used Bibble Pro to convert 233 Canon EOS 5D RAW files to JPEG. OS X outsprinted Vista. Using HandBrake to convert an episode of The Rockford Files also saw OS X in front. Not every application has been optimized for the “Mactel” machines, but it looks like the worst storm clouds are over for Apple in performance.

Back to the First Page

Benchmarks

OSX Leopard Windows Vista Home Premium
Photoshop CS3 (min:sec) 3:56 3:44
Bibble Pro (min:sec) 14:18 24:46
Handbrake VOB to iPod (min:sec)
4:26 5:41
Best scores are bolded. All tests were run on the MacBook Pro.

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