Mac versus PC – choosing a new high-performance laptop

Posted on December 1, 2010

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My current MacBook pro is close to 3 years old and starts to hamper me. So it is time for replacement.

In spite of the hype – and even due to the hype – I am not impressed by Apple. I admire their approach to create a complete experience, from the machine to the software to the packaging and design, but to say that I am impressed after 3 years of use: no.

Apple MacBook Pro - over-priced and under-performing?

Use

I program. I have an average of 10 to 20 applications open simultaniously during the day. I compile code on a regular and daily basis. This work and my way of working puts a high demand on the system. So the faster and more powerful my machine is, the better I can work.

To compare: if my work would exist of working with Word and Excel, my demands would be lower. A 800 euro (including VAT) laptop with an Intel i3- or Duo Core processor and 4 GB of RAM would fulfill my needs more than completely.

Systems I looked at

With my needs as a starting point I started doing research on different aspects and systems, moving from the common brands like HP and Toshiba to Dell. I looked at the HP Envy, which seemed to be a nice high end system looking good enough to please the eye and the mind. I discarded Dell at first as their new line of Latitudes are plain ugly. The XPS systems are a bit better, but come with limited configuration options.

The big turndown and most frustrating is that when buying a laptop, the current target audience seems to be “people who watch video”. The screens are either 720p (1366 x 768) or Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels). In some cases systems are offered with a screen resolution of 1600 x 900 pixels. But those are an exception, or taken from the market – like the HP Envy 14 with that resolution.

A similar story

Apparently I was not the only one taking this issue from this angle. Here you find a bit by bit comparison between the HP envy and the MacBook Pro 15. The price difference runs up to a comparable 900 euro / 1.200 USD in the HP envys benefit.

Specs

What I focused on was this wish list:

  • Screen resolution: 1600 x 900 – 1300 x 768 is too little and 1920 x 1080 is unworkable for me
  • Processor: Intel i7 Quad Core – as fast as possible, for a reasonable price
  • Memory: 8GB – to be able to run virtual machines without eating all work memory
  • Hard drive: at least 500 GB – the 160 GB my MacBook pro came with in 2008 proved to be a complete joke
  • Below 2.5 kilos – As I carry it with me every day

The MacBook Pro – 2,779 euro, i7-640 M – an expensive rip-off?

MacBook Pro specifications

This is the price for a MacBook Pro, 15 inch, with a 2.8 GHz i7 Intel processor, 500GB HD and 8 GB of Ram.

The 2.8 GHz seems impressive compared to other i7 processors offering 1.6 GHz. Until I started looking at the specs and started making some comparisons.

HP Envy 14 "Beats" edition - not powerful enough and no longer with 1600 x 900 screen

Comparing processors

Looking at this table in the Intel Mobile processor family we find the following list:

Intel i7 Processor family - including the 2.80 MHz processor as probably used in the MacBook Pro

Looking at the specs of the MacBook Pro (4MB Cache, 2.80 GHz) this seems to be the processor listed as the second one from the bottom: The i7-640 M.

When we choose to compare the processors, we find the following list:

Intel i7 comparison table – click on the image to enlarge

The clock speed of the i7-640 is 2.8 GHz and overclocking we get to 3.46 GHz. It seems to blow all other processors in the list out of the water. Until you look at the number of cores.

Up and to the i7-600 series the Intel i7 processors only have 2 cores. From the i7-700 series on, the i7 processors run 4 cores.

At that point the i7-640 – as assumedly used in the fastest and most expensive configuration with a 15 inch MacBook Pro becomes below my standard.

All processors in the table above – with exception to the i7-640 M (2 Cores, 4 threads, 4 MB Cache) – have:

  1. 4 Cores – to run applications and very handy when running multiple applications and virtual machines
  2. 8 threads– to process machine language instructions / run your shit

Dell XPS Studio 15 - not enough configuration-options and only with 1920 x 1080 screen

Benchmarking: the i7 620 and 640 dual cores are not so bad

Later on in this article you will find that the i7 840 with 4 cores scores about the same benchmark as the i7 620.

The “Overdrive” never kicked in and might never do.

Benchmarking: the i7 – 2011 edition really seems to kick ass

Unfortunately I only learned about the new Intel processors after I purchased the Dell. Look at these benchmarks for Mac. The “MacBook Pro (15-inch Early 2011)” scores about 10.300. Which is almost twice the speed of my Dell (about 5400) and the MackBook Pro 2010 edition (about 5600 for the Intel i7 620 version and 5900 for the Intel i7 640 version).

Even though that outdates this post, read on. You will learn that I saved over 1.400 euro to buy close to the same kind of configuration as the best configured MacBook Pro you could buy at that time. Had I chosen the i7 640 (dual core) instead of the i7 840 (quad core, but lower clock speed and lower performance) I might have ended with a draw.

Configuring my computer

Comparing the (MacBook Pro?) i7-640 M and the selected i7-840 M

Comparing the (MacBook Pro?) i7-640 M and the selected i7-840 M

The higher clockspeed for the i7-640 M is misleading. Distributed over only two cores, the performance is slightly lower than the i7-840 has to offer. As the i7-840 M has double the amount of cores, the number of instructions that can be handled also increases.

To find a “ready to go” machine with what I am looking for – and deliberately not choosing Apple – seemed quite a challenge.

As Dell is one of the few vendors allowing you to “build your own” computer I resorted to their site and – with a little bit more of background information – I started looking at the configuation possibilities.

After considering the Precision M4500 and the Studio XPS 15 and briefly considering the ultra-portable but dissappointingly slow Latitude Z and giving up on machines lighter than 2,5 kilos, I chose the Latitude E6510.

The configuration options for processor and screen are (bold reflects my configuration):

Processor:

  • Intel® Core™ i7-840QM (1,88 GHz, 8 MB cache) – on request via telephone
  • Intel® Core™ i7-820QM (1,73 GHz, 8 MB cache)
  • Intel® Core™ i7-720QM (1,6 GHz, 6 MB cache)
  • Intel® Core™ i7-620QM (2,66 GHz, 4 MB cache)
  • Intel® Core™ i5-540M (2,53 GHz, 3 MB cache)

Screen (15,6 inch with antireflection coating):

  • Full HD led-breedbeeldscherm met antireflectiecoating (1.920 x 1.080)
  • HD+ led-breedbeeldscherm (1.600 x 900) – for the best and most relaxed working experience
  • HD led-beeldscherm  (1.366 x 768)

Weight and dimensions:

2.5 kilos, 37.5 x 25.3 x 3.4 centimeters – which is slightly lighter than my current MacBook Pro and 2 centimeters wider.

Dell Latitude E6510

The end-result – 2.200 euro Dell Latitude E6510, cutted down to 1.400 euro

My chosen Intel i7-840 processor is on paper more powerful, than the MacBook Pro. The machine is 500 euro lower in cost (when I do not scrap the stuff I do not need) than the fastest 15 inch MacBook Pro when you buy it with Office and some other software you might want to skip. As I intended to go Ubuntu, I dediced to cut all extra software from the list and only go for the bare minimals, keeping Windows 7 Professional just in case.

Scrapping Office 2010 and McAfee lowered the price to a whopping 1.400 euro, increasing the gap between the Dell and the MacBook Pro with the Intel i7, 640 (2.700 euro) to a 1.300 euro price difference. Enough savings to buy a new MacBook Air!

Bottom line: I spend 1.300 euro less on a machine that has about the same performance when not running in overdrive and can be about 1.8 times faster than the top of the line 15 inch MacBook Pro .

Remains this question: Why did Apple not insert the Quad core i7-840 instead of the Dual Core i7-640 M? The price difference is a few hundred dollars. Not that much in comparison to what you trade in (less cores, less performance on the Mac).

Running Geekbench

Geekbench reveals the differences.

My machine scores about 5400, comparable with a MacBook Pro 15 inch i7 620 that reaches a Benchmark of about 5570. The difference is in the processor floating point performance. The macBook pro scores over 8300 points on that where the Dell with the i7 840 scores only about 6500. Not really what I expected. I expected the i7 840 in my Dell to beat the shit out of the 2010 MacBooks.

Comparingf tha

Toshiba Sattellite Pro - looks great - just not it - default with 1366 x 738 and Intel Core Duo processor

Toning the Dell down to the MacBook Pro specs – 1,969 euro inc VAT

Just for fun I decided today to see what the price of the Dell is, using the i7-640 M and having 8GB of RAM, a 500GB HD and a screen with a resolution of 1600×900 pixels.

A Dell with the i7-640 M processor - 1655 euro ex VAT and about 2,000 euro including VAT

This machine is a counterpart for the MacBook Pro, and includes the 64 Bit version installation of Windows 7 Professional.

As the Latitude E6510 is quite ugly in comparison, a good high-end alternative could have been the Studio XPS 16. The problem with that machine is that it only comes with a screen of 1920 x 1080 and – as I verified with the Dell sales guy – this can not be changed as it is a consumer market machine.

The Studio XPS 16 goes for 1,499 euro ex VAT which is about 1,790 euro inc VAT. Close to 1000 euro less than the MacBook Pro as discussed in this article and with similar specifications (8 GB RAM, 500 GB HD and an high end processor i7 processor (in this case the i7-720 which is a Quad core)

The Dell Lattitude Z - super thin, very light weight and super lovely if I did not need the speed and performance

Graphics card

The Graphics card in the MacBook Pro

The graphics card in the Dell Studio XPS

As I use the machine for development purposes I did not look at the graphics card. For completeness sake I looked up the specifications for the three main machines I could have chosen from.

The MacBook Pro comes with the NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M (up to 520 MB video memory).

The Studio XPS 16 with a ATI Mobility RADEON HD 565v (1 GB)

The Latitude E6510 comes with a NVIDIA NVS 3100M 512 MB DDR3 which is less than mind-blowing according to this review.

Dell Precision M4500 - an ugly monster - with the best configurable high performance specifications

Conclusions

With off the shelf laptops like the HP and Toshiba notebooks I can not get what I want. Either the screen resolutions make no sense (1366 x 768 pixels or 1920 x 1080) or the processors are below my standard of i7-720 and higher (Quad core).

I had a brief look at the Lenovo machines, but more ugly than that is really hard to find.

The new Apple MacBook Pro loses on three accounts:

  1. Processor speed / performance (Dual Core i7-640 M instead of the Quad core i7-840)
  2. Graphics card (slightly slower NVIDEA)
  3. Price / performance (almost 2700 euro for a configuration you can buy at Dell for about 1800 euro)

As with the issues I have with my current MacBook Pro – one of the most annoying is when a lot of data is transferred through the data bus, iTunes starts to stutter and my machine starts to hang – I already moved away from the option of buying a new Mac. The rumors I heard – but could not verify – is that the mac I have (2008 build) uses the same data-bus for memory AND harddrive. Meaning that when you transfer a lot of data to and from the HD, traffic from your RAM comes to a grinding halt.

Lenovo Thinkpad T510 - high performance series - even uglier than the M4500

Is OSX really that better? – I rather choose Ubuntu

“OSX is better than Windows” is the popular belief. I have had a brief look at Windows 7 when configuring the machine I bought for my father. Regarding a structured and logical setup of all your configuration stuff (in my case, setting up a firewall and configuring WiFi) Windows 7 is hell.

As applications go, the Windows platform is very likely still the richest. For (hardware) hacking, Linux / Java seems to be the better platform. A lot of hacks, including the Microsoft Kinex hack are available in Linux. As Linux also offers Wine to run many Windows Applications (including Office 2007 and Enterprise Architect) native in Linux and several solutions to run a Virtual Machine, I can fall back on either OSX or Windows.

I also have worked some more with Android and Ubuntu (Linux). Android and the Android Market offer some nice nerd-stuff that show that setting up a FTP, Web or WebDAV server does not have to be the hell that it is with Windows. Run the app and it is working.

Mac iTunes and iPhoto are completely stupid for the way they store and “hide” my files and double (in the case of imported MP3s in iTunes) the amount of used disk space.

When I leave behind OSX, I will mostly miss Keynote. To be able to structure your presentation in groups is a total +10.

For the rest, I could not care less about OSX.

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