The Case For Buying A New MacBook Is Very, Very Difficult

The XPS 13 9370 makes a strong case for the crown in the $1999-2499 mark.

For almost a full decade, Apple's MacBook and MacBook Air were the head of the pack. They certainly weren't the most cost-affordable, but with a killer touchpad, trackpad, plenty of battery life and a lightweight chassis that made it perfectly portable for university, conferences, and commutes, they were popular for a reason.

But the years passed by. Apple neglected a product that was beloved by many — the official product page is still talking about CPUs that are three generations behind the competition. And with the new generation of thin and light laptops that just arrived in Australia, and the ones to come, it's an uphill battle for Apple.

Computex is always a great place to see the next generation of laptops, since it's the same place where CPU manufacturers (Intel, AMD, ARM, Qualcomm) announce new products of their own. Some of them are funky prototypes, like ASUS's two-in-one Project Precog with a virtual keyboard. Others are the kind of straightforward advancements that everyone wants: gaming laptops approaching the size of notebooks, and notebooks with bezels so small and components so light that it's impossible to shrink them down any further without minimising the keyboard (or screen).

One way to shrink the standard laptop/convertible device down - don't use a normal keyboard at all. Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku)

It's the latter that most interests me right now, since I've hit a wall with a device of my own. That's the Surface Laptop, a device that I've owned for just over a year (specifically the variant with the i5 and 8GB of RAM, which cost me around $2000). As much as I love it, and as much as the Alcantara fabric has held up despite the threat of spills and stains over twelve months, the hardware hasn't gone the distance.

A Week With The Surface Laptop

The Surface Pro 5 launched recently and, as expected, it's the best iteration of Microsoft's 2-in-1 devices yet. But it's not the only new tech from Microsoft. They also launched the Surface Laptop, a Pro-looking device aimed at the crowd who would traditionally buy a Macbook Air.

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While I've got desktop PCs at work and home for heavy duty usage, I always make sure I have a backup laptop for a few things. The obvious reason is that you can't cart a tower to a convention or a plane somewhere, and there's always an instance in this job where you'll have to drop everything because something in the world has broken.

Because of that, a lightweight laptop is also pretty important. I won't always be carrying a full backpack, but events like PAX / CES / Gamescom / Computex mean I'll often be carrying a bunch of cables, a hefty power pack, a camera that's at least 1kg or more, a charger for the laptop, and then the laptop itself. It's also handy sometimes to just prop myself up in bed, pop open the laptop, and work through some drafts and emails.

Plenty of people are in the same situation, and it's partly why the Surface Pro has gained so much traction. It's a good amount of power in an incredibly small device, although for some (like myself) the premium, coupled with the lack of a proper keyboard, is one trade-off too much to bear. On top of that, it's taken years for other manufacturers to match the excellence of Apple's keyboard and touchpad, the latter especially.

But those days are well and truly over.

If the Surface line had already damaged Apple's position in the $1500-2500 space, then the rest of this year is going to be brutal. I've been mucking around with the baseline version of the XPS 13 9370, which is Dell's offering to students and those who want a light laptop minus the 2-in-1 factor.

The 9370 hit the market about a month ago, although it was starting from a good place: the XPS 13 line has always been a strong performer, pairing good battery life with a quality screen, keyboard and touchpad for a decent offering.

Specs-wise, this year's model has gone all-in adoption on USB-C: the 9370 comes with three USB-C ports (two of which are Thunderbolt 3), as well as a micro-SD slot, 3.5mm headphone jack and mini-DisplayPort. You only get the one USB-C to USB-A adaptor in the box, although given how almost every device has switched over to USB-C these days, you might as well start stocking dongles now.

But the big bonus: it's bloody light. You're looking at 1.21kg for either the baseline 1080p model or the higher specced versions with the 4K touchscreen. You are trading off a bit of battery for the privilege though: running a 4K screen means you'll only get about eight hours runtime on the i7 variant of the 9370. You'll get more battery life out of the 1080p model, but you can't get a 9370 model with 16GB RAM, the 1080p screen, and a 512GB SSD.

That's OK, though. Because there's plenty of options.

The Lenovo Yoga 920 doubles quite well as a reading device, and the Yoga 730 is priced pretty well in Australia too. Image: Gizmodo

Say, for instance, you want the versatility of a 2-in-1. The Lenovo Yoga 730 gets you a 2-in-1 with an i5-8250U and 16GB RAM, as well as a 1080p IPS touchscreen. If you want a straightforward laptop, the Razer Blade Stealth ships with an i7-8550U and 16GB RAM as standard.

It's not available locally - not yet, at least. If portability is a key factor, but you still want a proper keyboard, ASUS's ZenBook S UX391 starts at 1kg. You're still getting a choice between the same i5 and i7 CPUs available in other laptops (the i5-8250U or i7-8550U, that is), and a mix between 1080p/4K screens, 8GB/16GB RAM, and a minimum of 256GB storage.

You'll play more if you want HP's alternative to all this, but their adherence to standard USB ports and optional discrete NVIDIA GPUs might be just what you need. The HP Envy 13 and Spectre have cracking designs as well, although you pay extra there for the nicer styling. And not mentioned amongst all of this is Huawei's impressive Matebook X Pro, which is the closest you can get to a MacBook Pro with Windows (without actually installing Windows on a MacBook Pro).

The Huawei Matebook X Pro's 3000 x 2000 touchscreen display really is lovely.

Windows laptops, though, have always been better value for money than the Apple range as far as hardware has concerned. The user experience just wasn't up to scratch, especially if your budget was $2000 or less.

But that concern has vanished. Touchpads and keyboards have improved substantially across the board. There's plenty of quality displays, whether you're looking for something suitable for Adobe work or not.

Apple's ceded that ground, to the point where you'd have to willingly want to be in the Apple ecosystem to justify the price. It's not even an argument as far as the MacBook Air is concerned, but that's what happens when you don't update your hardware for three generations.

Buying a MacBook today means you have to willingly want, if not need, to be within the Apple ecosystem. The advantage in build quality, battery life and styling has just about vanished, and what manufacturer you go with depends on what parts you need the most. If anything, it's Microsoft who gets to charge the premium - and by the time Apple get around to actually refreshing the MacBook line, it might be too late.

What $2000 can buy, one year on. Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku)

Comments

    Disappointing to hear the Surface Laptop doesn't go the distance after just a year - I've had my Surface Pro 4 since release nearly three years ago and it's been fantastic that whole time - just in the last couple months has the battery started to lose its charge quicker than it used to (more noticeably when I'm not using it than when I am), and the Laptop variant seemed like the natural progression for those of us that don't have a need for removing the keyboard (I use it tablet style for comic reading, in portrait mode)

      I've had my Pro3 since launch and I'm only just getting to the point where I'm looking to update. Even then, it might be a year or more before I'll actually get around to it. It has had its hiccups, but generally speaking, the performance for the size and weight is amazing.

        Yeah, I still have an SP3 also. Great machine. It's no longer my primary device, but I still use it from time to time.
        I have a Surface Book 2 now, and that's amazing. The era of Apple dominance in premium laptops is over. The Surface line is better in almost every way... And there are actual real options when choosing a device.

        In my opinion, the MacBook Pro line is ultimately boring and uninspiring. It's funny, because only 5 years ago I would have said the exact opposite.

        It sounds almost cliche to say, but it's true - Apple's success was seemingly dependent on one man...

    It is tricky. I'm still on my quad core 2011 Macbook Pro, as the current models don't offer what I want at a price point I can swallow.

    I use windows laptops at work, and still prefer my aging MBP, I'm hopeful the new Intel chips with AMD on-board will make a showing in the Mac range. I'm really looking to next year for an upgrade to something with Thunderbolt3 for running external GPUs, hopefully Apple's renewed focus on the professional end of the market will pay off in the next 12 months, and we will se some pro-level machines return to the fold.

      Same. I have a mid 2012 mbp and. I'm not at all interest in getting a new one. I'll just put some more ram and an ssd in it soon and give it a few more years.

      Last edited 20/06/18 11:48 am

      Ditto on the 2011 Macbook Pro. It's a shame, it's still a good machine apart from the aging AMD GPU that isn't up to much these days. But I need a new machine for travel, want a discrete GPU and so I'll be looking at something thin and light with a 1050 at least. It won't be a Mac.

    And then there's the last problem - Apple seemingly is disinterested in supporting OSX going forward.

    Outdated hardware and a dying OS are great reasons to jump ship IMO.

      To be honest, it looks like MacOS support is stronger than it has been in years from Apple, them creating an internal team to work with video and film professionals on helping design next years machines and OS is a big step forwards. The hardware is due for a massive refresh next year, I'm waiting till then. I have to use Windows on a daily basis, and it still drives me mad, as does MS treating me like they are my parole officer.

      Apple made it very clear at WWDC this year that macOS isn't going anywhere anytime soon. It's nowhere near a 'dying OS'.

        Apple's actions around the OS is vastly different to its rhetoric.

          Oh? How so?

            Aenemic support around Final Cut, the poor support around compressor farm deployment, dropping of OpenGL support, high core count performance scheduling issues, the complete lack of updates for its hardware (that lets be honest, is intrinsically tied to the OS), and thats only touching the surface.

            There's a reason why Final Cuts marketshare went over a cliff, and most major studios are now using Avid or Resolve on Windows or Linux.

              These all seem like good reasons why people have started touching the surface.

    The stability and ease of use of the OS is still a big plus for alot of people. The big issue is software for work.

    At universities, research software is often PC only. At both universities and corporations, there's been significant uptake of enterprise OneDrive and Office365, making surface pros and other Windows laptop more appealing...

      OneDrive and Office365 are both available on the Mac (and on iPhone and Android, if that's your thing).

      And, of course, you can always virtualise/dual boot Windows on a Mac if you really need it. It's not an ideal solution for a poor uni student, I admit, but it exists.

        Office products on osx are feature weak in comparison to their windows counterparts... Particularly excel.

      Yeah, my problem is I can't stand Windows (and the hassle that comes with maintaining a PC in good working order), but I'm very much aware that without Steve Jobs, Apple has become a ship without a rudder, coasting on the momentum it generated long ago and with no clear destination in sight.

      Windows is not an option for me, and Apple products are increasingly losing the edge they had. I really wish there was a third option, a third player that had the closed system of Apple's software / hardware synergy, but without the draconian limitations around price and power.

    Good article. I've always said apple innovation died with Steve Jobs. I have no idea why people would pay overs for any of their products these days. There are cheaper better alternatives for almost all their products (almost). Plus you don't have to put up with the apple BS

      They still have the best hardware in their phones, and their commitment to privacy and security is a major plus.

    I see huge losses in Apples future in the laptop sector, their arrogance has hit an all time high while their competition has closed the gap in quality...i was a 20 year supporter of apple, my next machine won't be one of theirs.

      I think you are wrong about this. In the next two years I expect Apple's Mac lineup to go on a "tear." They will introduce more macs (laptops, desktops, and even tablets) with better features and lower prices. If you look at the work they are putting into Mojave, you can see they are getting the software ready for a major Mac push. This has always been Apple's MO ... just when everyone declares the Mac's best days are behind .. IT SURGES FORWARD. By this time next year, Apple's Mac business will be setting records... once again.

    I feel like apple peaked with the previous Macbook pro before the touch-bar, the keyboard on the new models feels like crap compared to the previous ones. I don't feel it was worth gaining another millimetre of thin-ness for such an awful experience.

    Also having to carry a bag of dongles around to connect to anything is rubbish, the last version had a HDMI port on it which was super convenient.

      Unfortunately most of them require the extra dongles now so they can make them thinner, even the HP Spectre. The earlier model had 2 USB A ports and full size HDMI which was great. Now you only get 1 USB A and 2 USB C with a HDMI adaptor which is a pain and staff are always leaving the adaptors behind at clients after meetings. I don't think the Surface ever had a HDMI port.

    Don't forget the more premium Chromebooks can also be thrown into this mix - yes they can't do everything a MacOS or Windows laptop can, but for many users out there - they don't need to and suit their use cases perfectly. If you do the majority of your work online, and don't need power-user applications like Photoshop, they'd definitely be in the mix, particularly now that the new ones have Android app support.

    I was seriously considering a Windows laptop earlier this year, and then I got gifted a 2017 Macbook Pro and I'm pretty glad I did. Because it was a gift, cost ended up not being a factor, of course, and I would likely have felt differently if it was.

    I think the big problem for me is that Windows still doesn't quite feel right on laptops. It still has abysmal support for trackpad gestures (scrolling is backwards for some reason, assuming it works at all; there's no gestures to slide between desktops; no back/forward gestures or many other useful gestures) and most laptops still insist on left-side/right-side clicks rather than two-finger clicks for context menus.

    Then there's the issue that I've never met a Windows laptop that sleeps reliably when the lid is closed. Last thing I want is a laptop that randomly wakes up in my bag and overheats itself.

    In the end though, the best thing about computing these days is that you can use what you like. There's enough around that whether you go Mac or Windows (or even Linux if that's your thing and you can deal with an OS that runs even less well on laptops than Windows does) you'll be able to get your stuff done how you want.

      I agree, there's more choice than ever, but what we really need is a third commercially viable (so Linux is out) option, that marries the strengths of both PC and Mac. We have Windows, we have Apple, where is the third player that keeps them on their toes?

        I kind of miss the 1980s era of computing when there were a huge number of different platforms all vying for market share.

        I often like to imagine a scenario where Commodore invested more into the Amiga and it stayed on as a viable third platform into the modern day.

        Well, there is a third player - Chromebooks, that are slowly gaining traction, but they fill a specific market and are not the best of both Windows and Mac.

          Do Chromebooks have a unique OS that isn't Windows, OSX or Linux? I don't know much about them.

          For me that's a key requirement, for me (and everyone's looking for different things, it's worth noting) one of the big strengths of Apple is that synergy of hardware and software, I want an operating system build around a suite of machines and a suite of machines built for an operating system.

            Yes and no. Chromebooks run ChromeOS, which is Google's own browser-based OS based off Linux. Just like Android though, it does not look or feel like Linux.

            The OS is designed to be very light and work primarily online, though you can do most tasks offline now as well. New Chromebooks also have touch screens and support Android apps, so you're essentially getting a laptop and Android tablet combined into one package.

            If the majority of the work you do is online, then they might be worth looking into as they are much cheaper than Windows or Mac laptops (with the exception of the Google Pixelbook, which is ludicrously expensive). As I said though they are limited in what they can do, compared to a full OS like Windows or OSX - they won't suit you if you are a power user that requires use of heavy applications like Photoshop or video editors or 3DS Max or Maya or CAD software.

            Also, I guess one of the big advantages of Chromebooks is how they integrate into the Google services you're probably already using. Switching between users is a snap of the finger basically, and because your data is stored in your Google account, all you need to do is log into another Chromebook with your Google account and you're up and running immediately.

            The platform definitely has drawbacks, as I said, and doesn't suit everyone's needs. But it also has its perks. There used to be a time when Chromebooks were nothing more than glorified web browsers but the platform has matured a lot in recent years and you can't say that anymore. You'll want to do some more research into them before taking the plunge though.

        There used to be a few players. OS2 was alright for it's time. It could run it's own apps or Windows apps.
        There were a few others but their names escape me.

    I can see a few reasons to buy a new macbook.

    1. https://support.apple.com/en-au/ht201624 < if this applies to you, your current macbook is dead and you have no options available for repair (or a rational price, like +$800 for a logic board). People sell their broken macbooks online for absurd prices, you can do the same and put that money towards a new macbook.

    2. If you're already trapped inside the Apple environment, i.e. you've spent more money in the App Store than you have in Steam / you use software found only in MacOS.

    3. You like how the macbooks are designed, and I'm not talking about oooh how it's soo light and sturdy and sleek/tech-fashionable or whatever. The fact that you can perform SMC and NVRAM resets to troubleshoot multiple issues without having to make a genius bar appointment, use internet recovery to either install the first OS that came with the macbook or even install the latest (currently High Sierra) right from the get-go. MacOS Utilities is great, is what I think I'm trying to say.

    Aside from that, it's very expensive and personally I'd need a damn good reason to even own a mac. Like if I was a content creator who's using it to make money.
    If I was gonna buy a mac to only web surf, check emails and never dab into iCloud features, iTunes and App Store, and didn't own any iOS or tvOS products to create the apple ecosystem, I'd feel like I made a really bad financial decision.

    When we started replacing our old HP bricks with modern alternatives we tried out the Dell XPS, HP Spectre, and Surface Laptop. They were shared around the team of 17 staff to get feedback. None of the staff were happy with the Dell XPS and a few didn't mind the Surface but overwhelmingly the Spectre came out on top so we have since standardised on it. This is interesting due to everyone hating the older HP bricks and originally being of the mindset we wouldn't buy HP again. It is a pain to lose the full size HDMI port from the earlier model though and have to always remember the adaptor as we go out to client sites a lot and have to connect to whatever they have available. Also only having the 1 USB A port on the new model is inconvenient as we usually use a mouse/keyboard dongle but sometimes have to use the clients clickshare or similar dongle at the same time (as a mouse). Still, very lightweight and flexible to use on planes. At times can get very hot when in use so best not to use on bare skin i.e. your lap if you are wearing shorts.

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