Patrick says Macs are now out of his price range so he’s looking for a Windows laptop to replace his old machine
Now that Apple Macs have gone up rather steeply in price, they are finally out of my price range. I would like to replace my MacBook Pro with a PC that matches it as closely as possible: well-built, robust, reliable, fast, and with a good, sharp screen. I use my Mac for all the usual surfing, watching videos, listening to music and so on. I also use Adobe Photoshop pretty heavily and video-editing software more lightly. I’m open to either a laptop or a desktop. Patrick
As the old saying has it: “Good, cheap, fast – pick any two.” This is particularly true for Windows laptops, where dozens of companies are competing mainly on price.
Things are different for Apple. As the only supplier of MacBooks it can do what it likes. This includes doing things its users don’t like, such as soldering SSD and memory chips to motherboards and dropping MagSafe, SD slots and standard USB 3 ports from its latest MacBook Pros. This would be suicidal in the Windows market, where buyers can switch suppliers in seconds.
Of course, different users want different things, so the big suppliers – Lenovo, Dell, HP, Asus, Acer etc – have different ranges for different market segments. Dell, for example, makes three ranges for consumers (Inspiron, XPS, Alienware), three ranges for business users (Latitude, OptiPlex, Precision), and the Vostro range for the soho (small office/home office) market. It therefore caters to budget/price-sensitive buyers (Inspiron and Latitude), prestige/quality conscious buyers (XPS, OptiPlex), and performance-oriented/pro buyers (Alienware games machines, Precision workstations).
MacBooks don’t fit this kind of scheme. They’re over-engineered consumer laptops with enough performance for most professional purposes. Not many Windows laptop manufacturers can charge pro prices for consumer designs, though Microsoft is having a go.
As a result, you will have to compromise. However, you can find Windows laptops that are comparable to MacBooks in many respects, but cheaper. Just look for the various “prestige” consumer ranges such as Dell’s XPS, HP’s Spectre and Asus’s ZenBook.
Apple has just released new MacBook Pro laptops. There are three versions of the 13in MacBook Pro with Intel Core i5 processors and 8GB of memory at £1,449, £1,749 and £1,949. There are also new 15in MacBook Pros with Core i7 processors and 16GB of memory for £2,349 and £2,699. All prices include VAT but not port adaptors or AppleCare support.
You haven’t given me a budget, but halving Apple’s cheapest new MacBook Pro prices would suggest a range of £725 to £1,200. This is in the same ballpark as the survivors from the old ranges – 13in MacBook Airs at £949 and £1,249, plus the MacBook at £1,249 – which I assume you will also consider.
The Dell XPS 13 and 15 are the most obvious alternatives to MacBooks. Unfortunately, they are at the top of this price range. You can still get an old-model XPS 13 (9350) for £899, but that has a Core i5-6200U with only 4GB of memory. The latest 9360 version has a 2.5GHz Core i5-7200U, 8GB of memory and a 128GB SSD for £999. If you go for a 512GB SSD at £1,099, you’re only saving £400 on a new 2.0GHz MacBook Pro.
The Dell XPS 15 is better value. You get a Core i7-6700HQ, 8GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M graphics with 2GB of video memory, and a 256GB SSD for £1,249. It has a Thunderbolt 3 port, two USB 3.0 ports, HDMI and an SD card slot. It’s also small and light for a machine with a 15in screen. It measures 357 x 235mm (roughly 14 x 9in) and weighs 1.78kg (3.9lbs). This compares with 349 x 241mm and 1.83kg (4.02lbs) for the new “thinner and lighter” MacBook Pro 15, which costs £1,100 more.
HP’s Spectre x360 range offers similar features to Dell’s XPS range, except that all the x360 laptops have touch screens that you can rotate to enable “tent” (eg for movie viewing) or tablet operation.
The cheapest model is the HP Spectre x360 13-4126na. This has a 13in screen, a Core i5-6200U processor, 8GB of memory and a 256GB SSD for £999. You can upgrade to an HP Spectre x360 13-4129na with better screen resolution – 2560 x 1440 instead of 1920 x 1080 – plus a 2.5GHz Core i7-6500U and 512GB SSD for £1,199. Again, this is not much cheaper than a 2.0GHz MacBook Pro 13.
Yet again, the 15in HP Spectre x360 15-ap007na is better value. For only £100 more, you get a 4K (3840 x 2160) screen, a Core i7-6560U with Intel Iris Graphics 540, 16GB of memory, and a 512GB SSD in a 1.82kg machine. Even at £1,299, it’s still £1,050 cheaper than the new MacBook Pro 15.
Cheaper and cheaper
You could also look at the Lenovo ThinkPad T560, which is a robust, professional 15.6in laptop that starts at £751.19. The main attraction is that you can customise it from a menu with a huge range of options. You could get one with a Core i5-6200U, 8GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce 940MX with 2GB, a 256GB SSD and Windows 10 Home for £901.19 – and that includes three years of on-site service. Upgrading the second battery from 47WHr to 72WHr would add another £12. Upgrading the RAM to 16GB would add £52.80. Upgrading the CPU to a Core i7-6600U would add £260.
The Asus ZenBooks may also appeal because of their Apple-style aluminium unibody construction, though they’re really aimed at MacBook and MacBook Air users. The ZenBook UX330UA-FB025T with a 3200 x 1800 screen, Core i5-6200U, 8GB of memory and 256GB SSD is good value at £749.99. PC World has the similar UX310UA for £649.99, and you can find many other models if you shop around.
Possibly the cheapest just-about-viable option is the 14in Lenovo IdeaPad 510S, which is a step down from the ZenBooks. All the various models have 1920 x 1080-pixel screens and 8GB of memory. The cheapest on Lenovo’s website has a 2.4GHz Core i3-7100U and a 128GB SSD for £509.99, while the most expensive has a 2.9GHz Core i5-6267U and a 256GB SSD for £599.99. However, John Lewis has a silver one with a Core i7-6567U for £599.99, so that might be worth a look.
Of course, there are hundreds of cheaper Windows laptops, starting at less than £150. It just depends how far you are willing to drop your standards. Chips cost money, so below a certain point, price reductions may be coming from compromises on the quality of the case, keyboard, trackpad and screen. If they break, you just buy another.
Why not a desktop?
You mention that you’re “open to either a laptop or a desktop”. If so, you could get more power and better ergonomics by buying a desktop. I covered this last week in Which desktop PC should I buy for working from home? If you went for a Lenovo ThinkCenter M800, you would have many of the same options as when configuring a ThinkPad T560 laptop. You would also be able to add your own upgrades immediately or after another five years or whatever.
If you don’t need to replace your laptop in a hurry, you could wait to see whether Apple brings out a new version of the Mac Mini next year. The current model was launched in 2010 and hasn’t been updated for more than two years. It’s not really expandable – the memory is soldered in – and not very good value (£479 to £949), but it’s small and it runs MacOS. A 21.5in iMac (£1,049 to £1,449) could be an option too.
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