Opinion: Updating the MacBook Pro-Dell comparison

Another day, another MacBook Pro-vs.-comparable-PC comparison.

As some readers may know, I wrote up a comparison Monday between the Intel-based MacBook Pro and a similarly-configured Dell laptop. I was inspired to make such a comparison after reading an article claiming that the MacBook Pro was $1,000 more than a comparable Dell Inspiron. As it turned out, that “comparable” laptop wasn’t really comparable, so I set out to try to find one that was and see how it fared in terms of price.

The point of my original article wasn’t that Macs are cheaper than Dells—Dell provides you with many more customization options, including the ability to remove features you don’t need in order to lower the price, so it’s definitely possible to configure a Dell less expensively. The purpose of the article was simply to find the Dell that could be configured most similarly to the MacBook Pro so that a price comparison would at least be comparing apples to apples, so to speak.

Wouldn’t you know it? Less than a day after that article was posted, Apple announced that the MacBook Pro is shipping —and with better specs for the same money, to boot. So much of my comparison became obsolete a little more than 12 hours after it went live.

As of today, the $1,999 MacBook Pro runs at 1.83GHz, with the $2,499 model giving you 2.0GHz; both can be upgraded to a 2.16GHz Intel Core Duo processor. That means that to make a MacBook Pro comparable to the 1.83GHz Dell Inspiron 9400 used in my previous article, I can actually choose the $1,999 MacBook Pro and simply upgrade the RAM to 1GB and the hard drive to 100GB. Those options add $200 to the price, bringing it to $2,199, as compared to $2,499 figure I originally used. (One difference: The $1,999 model has 128MB of video RAM versus 256MB for the $2,499 model.)

Here’s the updated comparison table:

MacBook Pro vs. Dell Inspiron

Apple MacBook Pro Dell Inspiron 9400
Processor 1.83GHz Intel Core Duo 1.83GHz Intel Core Duo*
Display 15.4-inch display 17-inch UltraSharp Wide Screen*
RAM 1GB DDR2 SDRAM* 1GB DDR2 SDRAM
Hard drive 100GB 5400RPM SATA* 100GB 5400RPM SATA
Video ATI Mobility Radeon X1600
(128MB, dual-link DVI)
NVIDA GeForce Go 7800*
(256MB)
Optical drive Slot-loading 4x SuperDrive
(DVD±RW/CD-RW)
Tray-loading 8x dual-layer*
(DVD+/-RW)
Ethernet 10/100/1000BASE-T (Gigabit) 10/100BASE-T
Wireless AirPort Extreme
(802.11b/g)
Bluetooth
(2.0+EDR)
Intel PRO/Wireless 3945*
(802.11a/g)
Dell 350 Bluetooth*
(2.0+EDR)
Modem No Yes
Camera Built-in iSight None
Microphone Yes No
Audio-in Optical/analog line-in jack Analog microphone jack
Audio-out Optical/analog headphone jack Analog headphone jack
FireWire 1 FireWire 400 port 1 FireWire 400 port
USB 2 USB 2.0 ports 6 USB 2.0 ports
Expansion slot ExpressCard/34 ExpressCard/54
Speakers Stereo speakers Stereo speakers
Illuminated keyboard Yes No
Ambient light sensor Yes No
Remote Apple Remote No
S-Video Out Optional Yes
Miscellaneous MagSafe power adapter 5-in-1 media card reader
Battery 60 WHr Lithium Ion 80 WHr Lithium Ion*
Size 14.1 x 9.6 x 1.0 inches
5.6 pounds
15.5 x 11.3 x 1.6 inches
8 pounds
Software Mac OS X v10.4.4 Tiger
iTunes
iPhoto
iMovie HD
iDVD
iWeb
GarageBand
QuickBooks
Comic Life
Omni Outliner
Photo Booth
Front Row
Windows XP Professional
PC Restore by Symantec
Starter Entertainment Pack
Adobe® Acrobat® Reader 6.0
Price $2,199 $2,681
Discounted price** $2,049 $2,031

* custom option; ** After coupon or rebate (see body of article)

Notes: A “standard” screen is available for the Dell for $149 less, but the UltraSharp is of comparable quality (color accuracy and brightness) to the screen of the MacBook Pro. The same Inspiron 9400 configured through Dell’s Medium & Large Business store was $2,944 on the day of my comparison, $263 more, but included a 90-day antivirus subscription and Word Perfect.

The gist is that you can now get practically the same specs as the originally-announced $2,499 MacBook Pro for $300 less, making the MacBook Pro even less less expensive, at least at “before coupon” prices, than the Dell laptop—$482 cheaper overall, to be exact.

Coupons for everyone!

As I noted in the original article, Dell frequently offers coupons; a savvy Internet shopper will be able to get the above Dell model for less than list price. The largest such discount I’ve ever seen is a rare $650 coupon touted in the article that spurred this comparison in the first place. (A coupon which, incidentally, is no longer valid—good luck finding a similar one.) So for the sake of argument, let’s apply that coupon, which brings the Dell laptop’s price down to $2,031.

But if we’re going to be fair, Amazon currently offers a $150 rebate on the MacBook Pro, bringing its effective price down to $2,049.

Updated results

With the shipping MacBook Pro configurations, and the best-case discounts available for both laptops, our comparison now results in a price difference of only $18 in favor of the Dell. And that doesn’t include the fact that the MacBook Pro comes with a bunch of great software; the Dell, not so much. To make the Dell actually usable , you need to purchase (or, if you’re the techie type, find, download, and install) quite a bit of software, as well as virus protection.

In other words, if “The Mac Duo is almost $1,000 more!” claim was questionable before, it’s positively laughable now.

Of course, it’s not possible to make the two laptops exactly comparable. The MacBook Pro includes a built-in video camera and microphone, faster networking, dual-link video output, optical audio in/out, an illuminated keyboard, ambient light sensor, the MagSafe power connector, and Apple’s Remote control.The Dell offers a larger screen, more USB ports, more video RAM, a media card reader, faster (and dual-layer) DVD burning, S-Video output, and a modem. But right now, this is as closely as a Dell laptop can be configured to the MacBook Pro, and Apple’s new “pro” laptop is obviously price-competitive. In fact, my conclusion from yesterday is that much more true today:

There are surely numbers in this comparison to which an ardent Dell fan—or a Mac fan—might object. But even with a quibble here or there, the general point holds true: When you actually configure offerings from Apple and brand-name Windows PC vendors comparably , you’ll often find the two to be surprisingly price-competitive—even when the Mac isn’t cheaper, the two are often close enough in price that you can make your purchasing decision based on what you want to buy rather than what you think your budget allows. True, Dell does allow you to remove features you don’t want in order to save some money, and there are still people for whom a Windows PC is a legitimately better option. But those in the market for a computer should do their own comparisons—of comparable systems—to see which system will provide them with the best value.

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