By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 11:42 pm
Last week, I tried to conduct an objective price comparison of 17-inch Apple’s MacBook Pro and similarly-equipped Windows laptops. After I did, my friend Steve Wildstrom of BusinessWeek pointed out one basic problem with such comparisons: They’re impossible. By which he meant that there’s no way to do one that’ll strike everybody as sensible and fair. No matter how hard you try, you can’t configure a Windows PC to precisely match a Mac’s hardware. No two people will ever agree on the relative worth of the multitude of features you examine. Hardware comparisons like the ones I do intentionally ignore the enormously important question of the relative quality of Windows and OS X. Some folks will even contend that any analysis of PCs-vs.-Macs is incomplete without discussion of resale value.
In last week’s story, I came to the conclusion that the MacBook Pro’s pricing wasn’t out of whack with its Windows-based rivals–if there was a “Mac Tax,” it was matched by some of the other machines I looked at. Judging from the almost 200 comments on my story to date, a lot of Windows users thought I was unfair to Windows, and a lot of Mac types thought I gave the Mac short shrift. I choose to take discontent from both camps as a sign that I did a decent job overall. But I wanted to come back and address one gripe that came up repeatedly–that I compared the MacBook Pro against high-end, workstation-class laptops.
I don’t think I made a mistake by doing that. The MacBook Pro is Apple’s highest-end notebook, with specs that were similar in most respects to the Windows systems I compared it to. (And when the Windows machines outclassed it–as some did with graphics, for instance–I noted so.) Several commenters contend that the MacBook Pro is a consumer notebook, but that’s not really right: It’s Apple’s only 17-inch notebook. If you’re a business customer and want a 17-inch Mac notebook, it’s the one you’ll buy.
But the fact remains that most other computer companies divide their product lines into business and consumer lines in a way that Apple doesn’t, and that the consumer systems tend to be cheaper than the top-of-the-line corporate models. So here I am comparing the 17-inch MacBook Pro again–this time against consumer-class models. This isn’t a replacement for my earlier comparison, but a complementary piece. I’m guessing I’ll fail to make everyone happy this time, too, but Lord knows I’m trying…
Let’s begin with my traditional mini-FAQ, repeating some items from last week’s story as appropriate:
Q. How did you choose the laptops?
A. I went back to the configure-to-order sites of three Windows-centric manufacturers in my earlier story–Dell, HP, and Lenovo–and picked big-screen laptops from their consumer lines, then configured them to get as close as possible to the base MacBook Pro’s specs. These still aren’t bargain 17-inchers like the HP Pavilion that Microsoft commercial ingenue Lauren bought, but they’re considerably cheaper than the ones from last week. (I skipped Sony this time around, since the model I liked at in the previous article was pretty consumery already.)
The laptops in this article include Dell’s Studio 17…
Not to mention Lenovo’s IdeaPad Y730…
…and, inevitably, Apple’s 17-inch MacBook Pro.
Q. Are you going to tell us which machine is the best value? Or the best one overall, regardless of price?
Nope–this isn’t a hands-on review. There’s tons of stuff I’m not attempting to assess, including most issues relating to industrial design. Nor am I accounting for the fact, for instance, that two screens that sound like they should be similar based on specs can look quite different when you lay your own eyeballs on them. I admit without hesitation that this is a superficial comparison, but it’s more than most people who talk about the “Mac Tax” or lack thereof are doing.
Q. Best Buy has some consumer machines that aren’t quite as well-equipped as the ones here, but they come close–and they’re much, much cheaper. This Dell, for instance. How come you didn’t include them?
A. Because I’m trying to configure Windows laptops to be as close to the MacBook Pro’s specs as possible, since that’s the best way to determine if there’s a Mac Tax hiding in Apple’s prices. But I may come back to look at some of those Best Buy systems in a future story.
Q. Are you saying that comparing one Mac to four Windows PCs can tell us whether Macs in general are more expensive than PCs in general? For instance, the Mac Mini looks underpowered and overpriced to me.
A. Nope–like I say, I’m trying to be as specific as possible. Draw no conclusions from this article about any other Mac models. Or, for that matter, any Windows laptops which I don’t mention here.
Q. Aren’t you aware that Windows laptops have Blu-Ray and eSATA and DVR capabilities and HDMI and embedded mobile broadband and a whole lot of other nifty features that you can’t get from Apple at any price?
A. Of course–some of the notebooks here have some of those features, in fact. It’s good fodder for a more general conversation on the relative virtues of PCs and Macs. Did I mention I’m doing some articles on that topic for PC World? For this story, however, I’m simply trying to figure out whether Apple is charging a lot more than its Windows-using rivals for the features it does offer on the 17-inch MacBook Pro.
Q. Isn’t it obvious that OS X makes Macs inherently superior to Windows computers? (Or, if you prefer, that Windows makes PCs inherently superior to Macs?)
A. I feel strongly that the biggest difference between a Windows PC and a Mac is the operating system, but I’m willfully ignoring that question in this comparison and focusing on the hardware question. You can’t compare OSes without immediately delving into opinions and subjectivity and personal preference.
Q. Do you really expect me to read this entire article?
A. Well, I’m an optimist, but I’m also a realist. So here’s an executive summary: The MacBook Pro fared the best in my comparison, but it also goes for a thousand bucks more than the costliest Windows consumer laptop I looked at. It’s still on my list of recommended possibilities for folks who can afford to shell out $2800 for a computer–for OS X’s virtues as much or more as for its impressive engineering. But I wish that Apple made a less luxe 17-inch MacBook Pro at a lower starting price that more people could afford.
If you’re still with me, click on to the next page, and we’ll begin an in-depth comparison of specs and features.