Is the MacBook Air overpriced?

A look at competitive offerings from Dell and Toshiba reveal that the MacBook Air may not be so expensive by comparison.

Is the MacBook Air overpriced? Competitive offerings from Dell and Toshiba reveal that the MacBook Air may not be so extortionately expensive.

A MacBook Air rival, Dell's Latitude E4200 starts at 2.2 pounds for about the same price.
A MacBook Air rival, Dell's Latitude E4200 starts at 2.2 pounds for about the same price. Dell

Of course, it all depends on your perspective: $2,499 for a laptop is a lot of money. But put the Air into the context of its product category--ultraportable laptop--and you see that, by comparison, it's not necessarily overpriced.

(Note: Here we're talking about the just-announced update to the MacBook Air.)

Let's start with Dell's recently announced ultraportable laptop (or 'subnotebook," choose your nomenclature). The 12.1-inch Latitude E4200 is priced at $2,495 configured with a 128GB solid state drive, 2GB of memory, an Intel Core 2 Duo ULV SU9400 processor running at 1.4GHz, the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 4500MHD, and a 6-cell battery.

(Note: I am not going to draw a comparison with the Dell Latitude E4300 as it does not fall into the category of an ultrathin--less than 0.8 inch thick--laptop the way the E4200 and Air do.)

How do the Air's features fare by comparison? Pretty well. The $2,499 Air also includes a 128GB solid state drive and 2GB of memory. That's where the apples-to-apples comparison ends (pun not intended). It bests the Dell in two significant areas. Despite being less than 0.8 inch thick like the E4200, it uses a more-powerful 1.86GHz Intel processor and Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics. This is a crucial difference for some users who want the portability but need more horsepower.

That said, let me state the obvious: heat will always be an issue when a relatively high-speed processor is squeezed into a very small space. That's why, presumably, Dell, Toshiba (below) and Lenovo (X301 ThinkPad) have all opted for more power-frugal ULV (ultra-low-voltage) Intel processors. The Air does not use a ULV processor.

Form factors: The Air uses a larger 13.3-inch display and is slightly wider than the Dell overall, as this video shows. The bigger screen and wider keyboard can be an advantage or disadvantage. Apple may strike a better balance of weight and keyboard/screen size, but you get more portability (based on specified weight) with the Dell.

Apple does not bundle, as standard, an external media drive with the Air, however. Dell does. That weighs in Dell's favor.

The E4200 also beats the Air on ports. Packing in 1394, VGA, RJ-45, USB, and eSATA/USB Combo ports. And a docking connector. (No docking station for the Air.)

Toshiba's new ultraportable, the Portege R600, is also a close rival (based on a feature comparison only) to both the Air and the E4200. Like the Dell, this comes with a 12-inch screen, the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 4500MHD, and a 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo ULV SU9400 processor (lower performance than the Air's).

Like the E4200 and Air, it can be configured with a 128GB solid state drive.

Unlike the E4200 and the Air, it squeezes in an optical drive into a form factor less than 0.8 inch thick--in its favor. And offers 3GB of memory as standard, more than the E4200 and the Air.

The R600 also beats the Air on ports. With VGA, 3 USB ports, and an eSATA/USB combo port, in addition to a docking connector.

And the price: $2,999 for the version of the Portege R600 with a 128GB SSD. That's about $500 more than the Air and E4200, so you pay for the extra functionality in that ultraslim form factor. (Correction: the price spread is $500--not $600 as originally stated.)

(For those readers who may want to compare the Sony Vaio ultraportable to the Air go here to see the Vaio TT series. And here's a CNET review of the ThinkPad X301 .)

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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