updated 05:35 pm EDT, Thu October 16, 2008
Apple's new MacBook may be the first to take the system upscale, but the system is ultimately entering an increasingly crowded marketplace of high-end, 13.3-inch notebooks that all carry features normally left out of small systems for the sake of a low price. With that in mind, Electronista looks at the MacBook and three of its most obvious rivals in the marketplace -- Dell's XPS M1330, HP's dv3500t and Sony's VAIO SR -- to see whether any one notebook has a clear advantage and whether stereotypes of Macs as more expensive hold true.
What may surprise many is that Apple, despite its stated "no compromise" approach to notebooks, isn't necessarily the performance champion. Of the four, the VAIO SR has the fastest processor, the longest (official) battery life and the only option for a Blu-ray drive of the group. Unusually, Sony manages to equal Apple's reputation for carrying a useful software bundle: GarageBand is effectively replaced with a basic QuickBooks app while either can edit a movie or photos start-to-finish without downloading or paying for more.
However, Sony is also the most miserly with its default options and virtually requires an upgrade. Using the company's official options to roughly equal a MacBook's features push the price to $1,349 and negates much of the apparent cost benefit.
Visual performance goes to the GeForce 9400M both for its modernity and its design. The Mobility Radeon HD 3450 is the only completely dedicated visual processor of the lot and has most of the features, but it also comes from an older generation than the 9400M and is a wash on speed; Apple's platform is not only current and fast but also much smaller. By comparison, the GeForce 9300M GS in the dv3500t is a tangibly slower and discrete chip.
Of the collection, the only clearly outclassed system is the XPS M1330, which stems in no small part from its age. It's the most affordable but also requires the most work to get its features up to an acceptable level: the GMA X3100 is simply inadequate among this group. Battery life isn't even mentioned but is unlikely to be strong without an upgrade. Even when done boosting features, it still uses an older processor and an outdated graphics chipset (NVIDIA's GeForce 8400M GS).
We've deliberately left out the choice of operating system as a factor. While many Mac users will swear by Mac OS X and there are objective reasons (security, instant wake, Time Machine) to pick it over Vista, there are also many who either need or want Windows for business apps and games. Some also simply prefer certain behaviors in Microsoft's user interface.
As such, Apple's system only truly struggles in terms of expansion, which owes much of its absence to the company's emphasis on minimalism, and in base price -- but not feature-equal price. None of these systems completely line up in performance, but those less expensive systems often either lack certain features or have made conspicuous trade-offs for the advantages they have.
There are arguments to be made for the other systems, which have more expansion and can be stripped down to save money; Apple rarely lets buyers scale back features they don't need. However, it's also the only system to have a generally high-end mix of components out of the box without obvious shortcuts, and so may well be one of the best systems to buy for those who want an overall high-end system without having to perform their own upgrades.
And lastly, multi-touch can be considered a wildcard of its own. It's unlikely to sway veterans, but is enough to differentiate the MacBook from a crowd of otherwise very typical notebooks. Those interested in trying a new, advanced control scheme simply have no choice but to consider Apple, which could tilt the balance in favor of Apple for a small but possibly influential set of buyers.
The breakdown; green is significantly better in features versus the average, red is significantly worse