Round 1: 13" MacBook vs. 13" Windows 7 Ultraportables
|13" Apple MacBook - $999
13" Toshiba Portege R700 - $999
13" Acer Aspire Timeline X AS3820T-5246 - $699
The Mini-DisplayPort output on the MacBook is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, Apple sells adapters to channel nearly anything out of that port, but on the other, you'll need to buy another adapter. The Acer machine has VGA and HDMI outputs, both of which are widely adopted. Advantage Acer, here. The MacBook is nearly a pound heavier, but we're chalking that up to the inclusion of an optical drive and more rigid construction of the Macbook.
Something perhaps a bit more significant is with respect to the GPU. The Acer unit relies on integrated Intel GMA HD graphics, which are suitable for full 1080p HD video playback but only very light-duty gaming. The MacBook, on the other hand has an NVIDIA GeForce 320M GPU. NVIDIA's GeForce 320M is also fully capable of playing back 720p/1080p video and it's capable of a bit more gaming performance as well. It should be noted, however, that the Acer laptop has a superior screen resolution and includes a multi-format card reader, whereas no card reader at all is included on the MacBook. Also, the Core i3-350M in the Acer will outperform the Core 2 Duo in the Apple unit everyday of the week.
13" Acer Aspire Timeline X
A more closely linked comparison is between the $999 MacBook and the $999 Portege R700. These units are on level ground when it comes to pricing and size. Both units have an 8x SuperDrive, but the CPU in the MacBook is weaker than the one in the Toshiba. Conversely, the MacBook's GPU is far nicer than the IGP in Toshiba's unit. It's a tradeoff -- do you want more CPU horsepower or more GPU horsepower? Of course, you also get a few more pixels on the Toshiba display, and you'll also get double the HDD space, double the RAM and a built-in memory card reader. Looking at these two, the Toshiba seems like the better deal if graphics aren't very important to you. If you were to upgrade to a machine with a discrete GPU with a similar form factor, features, and specs, you can figure on paying at least another $100. But even then, you'd retain twice the RAM, twice the HDD space and a faster CPU.
13" Toshiba Portege R700
Then there's the issue of OS X versus Windows 7. Both operating systems get the job done for the average consumer, but some might say that it's worth paying a premium for OS X in order to avoid some of the issues associated with Windows. Viruses and security issues come to mind -- there's a certain peace of mind that comes with owning an OS X machine, as they simply get attacked less. There are numbers to prove it too. Again, that's something that's difficult to put a price on.
Additional Stiff Competition - Enter Asus
Finally, it has become fairly obvious that the intense competition in the notebook sector makes the Apple Tax loom even larger in this particular category. Asus' 13.3" U35, for example, has a 2.4GHz Core i3, 4GB of DDR3 memory, a 500GB hard drive, NVIDIA's Optimus technology (GeForce 310M + Intel GMA HD) and Wi-Fi for $879.99. It's also one of the better designed PC laptops, offering a nicer suite of hardware (but a software suite that lacks iLife, obviously) for over $100 less than Apple's 13" MacBook.
13" Asus U35JC with NVIDIA Optimus
In this example, it's clear that there's an Apple tax of some sort, which varies from machine to machine. If Apple would include 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, a longer warranty and a media reader, you'd have no room to argue. But even now, you have to place value on the GeForce 320M GPU on the MacBook that's not on the Toshiba model. At most, however, we're looking at a $100 "Apple tax" compared to a comparable Windows 7 notebook, and if you place a high value on the iLife '11 software, the discrete GPU or OS X in general, that price may be worth it to you.
We can't leave this section without pointing out a few other notables though. That $100 premium becomes ever smaller when looking at Apple's unique design innovations in the notebook sector, including the breakaway MagSafe power connector, a rigid "unibody" frame (whereas most PCs at this price point are made of flexible plastics) and arguably one of, if not the best, touchpads in the industry, with excellent multi-touch gesture support.