MacBook Pro vs. the PC competition

Mac or PC? The war rages on. We've thrown the most recent 13-inch MacBook Pro and the closest PC to a Mac we've seen, the Dell Studio XPS 13, into the ring for an all-out brawl.

For years, the Mac vs. PC debate has been fuelled mostly by subjective ranting; the platforms and the components were so different that it was impossible to compare fundamental characteristics such as performance.

Macs have been on Intel processors for some time now though, making analysing Mac versus PC hardware a bit more like comparing (ahem) apples to apples. Not to mention more and more PC vendors are copying Apple's style and features in order to stay competitive. Things are more alike than they've ever been.

To that end, we're pitting the MacBook Pro 13-inch against the closest PC competitor we've seen to date — the Dell Studio XPS 13. Although the MacBooks are due for a Core i5/i7 refresh any moment now, we just couldn't pass up hardware this close. Both models feature a Core 2 Duo P8700 at 2.53GHz, 4GB RAM, a GeForce 9400M, 1280x800 resolution screens, backlit keyboards and multi-touch touchpads. They both feature 802.11n and Bluetooth, and cram in a DVD writer. Batteries are close too, with the Dell being rated at 56-Watt hours and the MacBook at 58.

There are differences though — the MacBook is lighter, coming in at a featherweight 2.04kg compared to the Studio XPS' welterweight 2.20kg, and the Dell comes with a 500GB hard drive compared to the MacBook's 250GB.

We've compared them not only on performance and battery life but on characteristics such as design, features and price. All to answer one fundamental question: if you have a PC and a Mac with near identical components, which laptop reigns supreme?

Round one: design

Good looks aren't everything.

Proudly declaring "Designed by Apple in California" on all of its packaging, Apple has helped fetishise clean product design — and the MacBook Pro is no exception. With a sleek aluminium case and minimalist, unibody design, the MacBook Pro inspires a desire to cradle it protectively. That said, the Dell Studio XPS 13 is no slouch in the aesthetics department; although its plastic construction makes it look cheaper than the MacBook, the stylish grey accents, military lines, leather and white LEDs should be pleasing to most eyes. Unlike the Mac you also have a choice of colours — white, red or black.

But as any designer will tell you, good looks will get you only so far. In the case of laptops, a great design is one that's functional as well as aesthetically pleasing. Apple's dedication to simplicity and minimalism has resulted in some truly elegant innovations. The multi-touch touchpad here is a prime example: it lets you scroll through documents and web pages by dragging two fingers across it, right-click by tapping two fingers, access Exposé by swiping four fingers vertically or switch applications by doing the same horizontally. You can also navigate through images by swiping three fingers, and pinch your fingers to zoom, or rotate them to, yep, rotate the image. It's an elegant system that you soon find you can't live without.

It also has a backlit keyboard that automatically adjusts to changes in ambient light levels (so long as it's dark enough first) and the MagSafe power connector, which gracefully detaches from the laptop if you accidentally trip over the cord. The screen even closes softly with a satisfyingly soft "whump".

(Credit: Apple)

PCs have caught up on the Mac in recent years, with the Dell featuring a multi-touch touchpad as well. Sadly it's tiny and nowhere near as advanced as the touchpad in the Asus U80V let alone the Macbook, with only two-finger scrolling enabled.

It also has a backlit keyboard that, unlike the Mac, allows the user to turn it on and set the brightness in the daylight — on the Mac, you'll need a third party tool to achieve this. On the flip side, the Dell features no ambient sensor at all, meaning that if you forget to turn off the backlight, you're potentially wasting battery.

Both feature chiclet-style keyboards, buttons that illuminates LEDs to tell you how much battery is left and glossy screens; the first two being good, the latter annoying in high light situations or if a light-source is near.

(Credit: Dell)

While the powdered grey plastic, leather and white LEDs of the Studio XPS go some way to adding to the style, the Dell fails to reach the same simple elegance of the MacBook Pro, and while the Dell cuts a smaller figure than the Apple in width, depth and height, it loses out on weight, at 2.20kg compared to the MacBook's 2.04kg.

A warning about heat: the MacBook can get uncomfortable after prolonged use, but the Dell gets searingly hot when running intensive tasks such as games. We frequently had to move it off our laps, reminding us of why companies like to call these "notebooks" instead of "laptops" these days.

The winner? Despite the closing gap in the style stakes, it's still the MacBook Pro for its innovative usability features and stunning good looks. Does that make us shallow?

  Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7 Round 8
Apple                
Dell                

Round two: display

Which would you rather stare at for hours a day?

At 13 inches, both have LED-backlit, flush displays and standard 1280x800 native resolutions, although Apple uses edge-to-edge glass to cover its screen while Dell uses plastic. The effect is that the Dell often ends up looking a little smeared after time, whereas the Apple tends to reflect more in high light situations.

Brightness

A brighter laptop display gives you greater flexibility for working in a variety of lighting conditions. Both are LED backlit, but the Apple is visibly brighter when placed next to the Dell. Advantage: Apple.

Text

We examined a text document (WordPad on the PC, TextEdit on the Mac) that included samples of various text styles and sizes, searching for letters that bled together or looked blurry. Text on the Dell's screen was crisper and easier to read than on the MacBook Pro's, and we found that most letters on the MacBook Pro looked blurry and its anti-aliasing too strong, especially at lower font sizes. Advantage: Dell.

Colour and viewing angles

Playing back Adaptation, we analysed the sharpness, detail and colour quality of DVD playback and looking for instances of ghosting or blurring. The MacBook Pro displayed amazing colours with sharp contrast and no bleeding or streaking. Gradation of colours was also impressive for a laptop screen. The Dell, by contrast, exhibited average colours, lacking the punch of its competition. Advantage: Apple.

Winner: the bright, beautiful MacBook Pro display takes this round, though its text rendering is not a knockout.

  Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7 Round 8
Apple                
Dell                

Round three: features

Connections are key.

If you believe the marketing hype, everything on a laptop is a feature, from the lid latch to the dock connector. But for comparison's sake, we've broken features down into three subcategories: audio/video, storage and slots, and networking. Things have improved massively for Apple here recently, offering nearly the same options as the PC competitors.

Audio/video

Apple prides itself on its products' audiovisual capabilities — but the MacBook Pro includes the bare minimum of A/V features: a microphone and some average but loud speakers, one FireWire 800 port and only two USB 2.0 ports for connecting to external peripherals, such as a camera or a mouse. It also has mini-DisplayPort video out, although its usefulness will be limited, as you'll need to buy an adapter to hook it up to anything other than Apple's own monitors. Apple also doesn't support HDMI, so you'll need to get a third-party adapter and send sound over another wire if you wish to hook up to your TV.

You'll need a third-party adapter to get HDMI out of a MacBook. (Credit: Monoprice)

The Dell has all of this except the FireWire 800 and mini-DisplayPort, but trumps with the full-sized DisplayPort, VGA and HDMI. One of its USB ports also doubles as an eSATA port, and it also has FireWire 400.

Both have line in and out 3.5mm jacks, although the Dell uniquely has dual-headphone jacks while the Apple alone supports optical audio. Both have webcams, although the MacBook Pro's video quality is significantly better. The Dell's speakers are also quieter and tinnier than the Apple's.

We're going to call this one a draw: while the PC offers more video connectivity, the Apple offers a better audio/visual experience. Advantage: nil.

Storage and slots

If you have lots of MP3s or digital video, storage capacity matters, and the Dell Studio XPS 13 provides an extra 250GB of storage space compared to our MacBook Pro test configuration, which will set you back another AU$220 to upgrade to match. While both laptops are equipped with dual-layer DVD burners and SD card readers, the Mac's card reader can only read SD, SDHC and MMC, whereas the Dell adds MS and xD reading into the fold, and throws in an ExpressCard Slot to boot. Advantage: Dell.

Networking

The MacBook Pro and the Dell Studio XPS 13 both include gigabit Ethernet, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR (Enhanced Data Rate), and 802.11a/g/n Wi-Fi connectivity. Advantage: nil.

Winner: the Dell Studio XPS 13 takes this round, but by the barest of margins.

  Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7 Round 8
Apple                
Dell                

Round five: performance

Who will win the multimedia drag race?

Any late-model laptop will do for basic tasks such as checking email and browsing the web, just like most any car will get you from point A to point B. But with dual-core processors, discrete graphics and plenty of RAM, these souped-up hot rods are made for more than checking out LOLcats. We tested their speed on a variety of multimedia tasks to determine just how fine-tuned they are in OS X 10.6 64-bit kernel mode, Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit, and running Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit under Boot Camp on the Mac.

Image editing

We timed how long it took for Adobe Photoshop CS3 to execute our custom Action file on a collection of seven raw images, around 12MB in size. The Action file applies a number of Photoshop's built-in filters, converts to greyscale and exports the resulting images as moderately compressed JPEG files.

Adobe Photoshop CS3
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple MacBook Pro 13
1min 54sec
Apple MacBook Pro 13 (Windows 7)
2min 10sec
Dell Studio XPS 13
2min 15sec

While the Mac takes the lead, it's only very slight. Last time we ran Vista on Leopard's Boot Camp its Photoshop score was almost double that of OS X. Windows 7 and Snow Leopard's Boot Camp obviously work better together, but it's still the native OS X that takes the crown here.

3D rendering

The Cinebench benchmark measures processor and graphics performance for rendering shaded images, taking advantage of a multithreaded, multi-core processor, such as Intel's Core 2 Duo. It should be noted that for Windows the 64-bit binary was used, whereas OS X only has a 32-bit binary provided.

Cinebench R10
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Apple MacBook Pro 13
1 CPU: 2877
x CPU: 5368
OpenGL: 4622
Apple MacBook Pro 13 (Windows 7)
1 CPU: 3057
x CPU: 5733
OpenGL: 3199
Dell Studio XPS 13
1 CPU: 3051
x CPU: 5393
OpenGL: 3066

Quite the mixed result. It looks like Windows has the CPU advantage (particularly the multi-core under Boot Camp), although the OpenGL implementation in OS X is markedly speedier.

iTunes encoding

Using iTunes, we timed how long it took to convert 19 MP3 files to iTunes Plus quality AAC files. The 64-bit binary was used on Windows, while OS X's iTunes is still 32-bit only.

Apple iTunes 8.2.1 convert to AAC
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple MacBook Pro 13
2min 33sec
Apple MacBook Pro 13 (Windows 7)
2min 47sec
Dell Studio XPS 13
2min 43sec

The MacBook streaks ahead with iTunes encoding.

Video encoding

Using our own custom 1GB raw .avi file, we timed how long it took the VLC player to convert it to a 3072Kbps H.264 file without sound.

VLC 1.0.1 convert to H.264 (3072Kbps)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple MacBook Pro 13
1min 43sec
Apple MacBook Pro 13 (Windows 7)
2min 04sec
Dell Studio XPS 13
2min 05sec

OS X takes the performance crown, leaving Windows to choke in its dust.

Gaming graphics performance

Sadly due to the small amount of titles on the Mac, comparative gaming tests are quite difficult. The newest OpenGL title on both platforms with a built-in benchmarking tool is the ageing Enemy Territory: Quake Wars ; it's not the most taxing of titles. Indeed, we might be waiting until iD's Rage comes out in order to get some comparable modern gaming tests.

In the mean time, we've settled on Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (CoD4), thankfully available for OS X and Windows. A few things colour this test: CoD4 runs in OpenGL on Mac and Direct3D on Windows — while we noticed no obvious visual degradation during testing between the two, the OS X scores here should be considered as data for interest only, whereas the Windows 7 scores both through Boot Camp and on the PC should be the ones compared.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Wet Works map)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Apple MacBook Pro 13
Min: 29fps
Avg: 49fps
Max: 87fps
Apple MacBook Pro 13 (Windows 7)
 
Min: 5fps

Avg: 29fps
Max: 69fps
Dell Studio XPS 13
 
Min: 1fps

Avg: 27fps
Max: 71fps

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Strike map)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Apple MacBook Pro 13
Min: 31fps
Avg: 45fps
Max: 84fps
Apple MacBook Pro 13 (Windows 7)
 
Min: 6fps

Avg: 29fps
Max: 73fps
Dell Studio XPS 13
 
Min: 1fps

Avg: 27fps
Max: 75fps

Settings: 1024x768, 2x AA; Sync every frame: no; Shadows: no; Specular map: yes; Depth of field: yes; Glow: yes; Number of dynamic lights: normal; Soften smoke edges: no; Ragdoll: yes; Bullet impacts: yes; Model detail: normal; Water detail: normal; Texture filtering: trilinear; Anisotropic filtering: minimum; Texture, normal map and specular map resolution: normal.


Just like in Cinebench the Mac shows its strong OpenGL colours; but whether under Boot Camp or on the Dell, Windows 7 is pretty much identical as far as CoD4 is concerned.

Winner: Apple romps it in over Dell on the majority of our performance tests.

  Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7 Round 8
Apple                
Dell                

Round five: battery life

Will the laptop last until you land?

Anyone who's been on a cross-country flight knows the desperation that comes after your laptop battery dies: suddenly your activity choices consist of watching a tepid in-flight movie or flipping though the duty free catalogue.

We timed how long the MacBook Pro's and Dell Studio XPS's batteries lasted while playing an XviD movie with all power-saving features turned off, and screen brightness and volume set to maximum. All wireless radios were left on, to create a gruelling battery test in which the victor would clearly emerge.

Keep in mind this is a particularly stressful test: you'll get considerably longer battery life out of both machines by leaving the power-saving options on, and doing less arduous tasks like web browsing.

Battery life
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Apple MacBook Pro 13
3 hours 52min
Apple MacBook Pro 13 (Windows 7)
2 hours 57min
Dell Studio XPS 13
1 hour 53min

Winner: under our torturous battery test, the MacBook takes it by a huge margin.

  Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7 Round 8
Apple                
Dell                

Round six: bundled software

There's absolutely no argument that the PC has a much greater breadth of applications and games available for it — but when you can install Windows on a Mac so easily through Boot Camp, it no longer becomes such a huge concern. So what do you get right out of the box, for nada?

No matter what laptop you buy, you'll get a web browser, a media player and a few simple programs (calculator, text editor and the like) bundled with the operating system. But most manufacturers add in a few more apps — ranging from antivirus to disc burning to productivity suites — to their software bundle so that you can get to work (or play) right away.

Your average PC laptop, on top of the functionality offered with Windows 7, is usually chock-full of trial software, Internet Explorer toolbars and annoying things that have over time attained the name "crapware". The Dell Studio XPS manages to, for the most part, avoid this, offering instead a full version of Microsoft's Office Home and Student 2007, which includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint. To get the Mac equivalents you'd need to buy iWork, which contains Pages, Numbers and Keynote for AU$99. Other software included is Roxio's Easy CD and DVD Burning DE Home, Cyberlink's PowerDVD DX and a 15-month subscription to McAfee's Security Center 10.

Dell has also included a dock in an attempt to emulate Apple, but the functionality is limited, the icons on the desktop can easily be obscured by it, and with Windows 7's new taskbar it's completely redundant. We turned it off straight away.

Windows 7 laptops also feature a recovery partition, which means if everything goes pear shaped you can at least re-install your OS and start from scratch, all from the comfort of your own hard drive. This doesn't protect against hardware failure though, and some vendors choose not to include Windows install DVDs — in this case, you'll definitely want to run the vendor's included DVD backup utility to create these. Thankfully, Dell does include a recovery DVD with the Studio XPS 13, along with discs for drivers, utilities and the bundled software.

It's worth noting Microsoft's Live Essentials too. While it has been officially stripped out of Windows and usually requires the user to download it, Dell has bundled it here (as many other vendors have too). The combination of the new Movie Maker and Photo Gallery for Windows Vista and 7 is a clear attempt to battle Apple's iLife suite, while separating it out of the OS avoids annoying the EU.

Apple, on the other hand, includes its entertainment and productivity software with the laptop. At the time of writing, our MacBook Pro 13 came preloaded with the excellent Mac OS X 10.6 and iLife 09.

iLife 09 includes iPhoto (for organising and browsing your digital photos), iMovie (for basic video editing and film capture, which combined with iDVD allows you to create DVD movies), GarageBand (a multi-track music creation and podcasting tool) and iWeb (for website creation). It also features MobileMe Web Gallery, and if you have a MobileMe account, you can upload pictures and videos to it through the application.

While there's no recovery partition here, Apple includes a DVD of OS X for the purpose of getting your machine back on track should things go terribly wrong. It even boots OS X as a live environment, allowing you to recover data or perform tasks on your current installation where necessary, and for the power user, the Unix-based command line is pure win.

Winner: usually Apple's bundling of iLife sets it far ahead, but with Dell bundling Windows Live Essentials and Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, it means this time the PC wins out.

  Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7 Round 8
Apple                
Dell                

Round seven: warranty and support

Who's got your back?

It's all fun and games, until something breaks.

It's impossible for us to judge the quality of service when it comes to interaction with support staff, timeliness and responsiveness, indeed, this will change from customer to customer. But we can look at what support infrastructure surrounds each product.

Dell covers parts and labour for one year on-site (with a technician usually coming to you in one to two days), although this can be upgraded to two years for AU$89, or three years for AU$140.80. All warranties come with 24/7 phone and online support, and either free on-site help from Gizmo if you're in a service area, or three-year phone support from Dell. Manuals, drivers, FAQs and self-help knowledge bases are provided online.

By comparison, Apple also offers a one year warranty, but with only 90 days of phone support on 1300 321 456. It provides an excellent support database on its website, as well as manuals, software updates and downloads, an active community forum is present and helpful, and you can even check the progress of a repair. If you're near an Apple Store, you can make use of its "Geniuses", who can assist with any technical query or issue.

To upgrade to three years (including phone support) costs an offensive AU$419 for the MacBook Pro 13 — which is at least better than any other MacBook Pro that weighs in at AU$579 extra.

Winner: while both companies offer deep and helpful support mechanisms, the huge price to extend to a decent warranty term on the Apple cripples it. With on-site service, Dell walks this one in.

  Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7 Round 8
Apple                
Dell                

Round eight: price

The contenders hit where it hurts: your wallet.

Judging products strictly on price is a sticky proposition. Sure, the lowest price is a compelling selling point, but value (aka bang for the buck) is just as important. Due to the sheer volume of their market, PCs are nearly always less expensive than similarly configured Macs. While Apple's bundled iLife suite usually goes a long way to helping it in the value stakes, Dell's aggressive software bundle negates this advantage.

The Studio XPS 13 only just undercuts the price tag of our similarly configured MacBook Pro, at AU$1845.39 versus AU$1999 — although this goes up to AU$2219 if you upgrade the Apple's hard drive to 500GB to match. Warranty is where it hurts, with Apple charging AU$419 for three years, and Dell only AU$140.80.

Surprisingly, while Apple tends to overcharge on upgrades, here it provides price competitive options compared to Dell on extras such as RAM and solid state hard drives — at the time of writing, Dell charges AU$981.20 for 8GB RAM, AU$402.60 for a 128GB SSD and AU$1107.70 for a 256GB SSD, while Apple charges AU$840, AU$490 and AU$1120 respectively.

Winner: on price tag and extended warranty costs, the Dell Studio XPS 13 takes the crown — but Apple is making ground on offering reasonably priced upgrades.

  Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7 Round 8
Apple                
Dell                

The winner is...

Wait ... what? A draw?

In the past, this has been where the Mac has won, and more than once. It seems that this time around the combination of Windows 7, and the bundling of Windows Live Essentials and Office 2007 Home and Student has helped Dell fight back on more than the usual platform of price, support and connectability.

Of course, while each laptop has won four rounds apiece here, it's never that simple. More often than not, people fall into either the OS X or Windows camp, and the result for them will be predetermined no matter what the other camp says — precious few are platform agnostic.

The Dell has eSATA, extra video ports, ExpressCard, a card reader that handles more formats, a higher capacity hard drive, price and support in its favour; the Mac fights back by running nowhere near as hot, being better designed, having better battery life, a higher quality display and better performance. It's worth noting though that you could probably buy a more powerful PC for less than the MacBook and completely remove the performance deficit — but our basis for comparison here is machines with similar hardware.

If we had to choose one or the other, we'd still opt for the Mac on the basis of user experience and battery life. You're not held back from tapping the great expanse of Windows software available either, as running Boot Camp or a virtualisation suite will give you access to what you need. Running OS X on a PC is well, a little harder, and not considered entirely kosher by certain parties with big legal wallets.

If you must buy now, the MacBook Pro 13 is well worth a look. Otherwise wait just a little longer — new Core i5 and i7 MacBooks and PCs are surely only just around the corner, and with them, the next battle...

Tags:
Laptops
About the author

Craig was sucked into the endless vortex of tech at an early age, only to be spat back out babbling things like "phase-locked-loop crystal oscillators!". Mostly this receives a pat on the head from the listener, followed closely by a question about what laptop they should buy.

 

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