21 Mar 2017

How to get MacBook performance for less

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Exploding laptops: Alienware machines can reach Mac prices but offer much greater performance Exploding laptops: Alienware machines can reach Mac prices but offer much greater performance Alienware


If you are among the seemingly growing numbers of people looking beyond Cupertino for their next machine, Phil Rhodes looks at some Windows alternatives and how you can get that MacBook performance for less money.

Recently, we've seen people express a few reservations about Apple's current workstation offerings. In a sense, many of the things the company does are very nice indeed and few would fault their taste in aesthetics or their dedication to a consistent and friendly user experience. People like Apple as desktop computer manufacturer because of the software — both the operating system and the applications. They are not so much simple as well laid out and carefully discoverable. Microsoft, with their tendency to reshuffle and rename the contents of the Control Panel with almost every release of Windows, seem determined to make mistake after mistake in this area, and for no readily identifiable reason.

Nonetheless, the cylindrical Mac Pros have drawn a certain amount of scorn, not in the least from people who have seen a digital imaging technician turn up on a film set who immediately started wrestling with flimsy Thunderbolt cables. Thunderbolt is not a replacement for a PCIe card slot. It doesn't match the performance and it certainly doesn't have the physical robustness that allows plugging a circuit board into a socket, bolting it down and throwing the whole thing inside a sturdy flight case. Certainly, there are circumstances where travelling light and moving fast are important, and the ability to throw a G-Tech RAID and a MacBook into a backpack and sprint up a mountain is valuable, but even that is can be addressed at least as well with other approaches.

So, unless you absolutely need Silverstack it's not obvious why Apple products are essential, with Final Cut Pro’s user base no longer growing. It's hard to deny that they make nice, friendly and accessible machines with good software, but let's assume that Windows isn't the monster it once was, and engage in a bit of spec comparison to see what the options are. [NB prices are in sterling, but typically convert to dollars at 1:1 as of publication.]

Laptop alternatives

Anyone looking at a MacBook Pro might do well to consider Lenovo or Alienware's 13-inch laptops. Lenovo’s Ideapad 710S is clearly a direct assault on Apple's market and Alienware makes some very high-spec laptops, compromising on battery life and portability in the pursuit of sheer power. They are really intended for playing games, although that often requires the same sort of hardware as for film and TV work. If the industrial design of the Alienware brand doesn't attract, it's back to the suit-wearing, Excel-using world of Dell's conventional XPS series. While Dell PCs are famously indestructible, they tend to be fairly close to Apple’s pricing at the low-end, although they become more competitive when put next to a higher-end MacBook.

If we're looking for a lightweight laptop, the Lenovo Ideapad 710S (£800) exists in an extremely similar performance class to the 13” MacBook Pro 2016. The Lenovo is around a quarter kilo lighter and within mere millimetres of its size. The lowest-cost Lenovo 710S, which we'll concentrate on, suffers fractionally lower CPU performance than the cheapest Mac. It’s based around Intel's Core i5-6200U CPU at 2.3GHz with the Mac running at 2.7GHz, although going up one price level on the Mac reduces CPU speed to 2.0GHz for some reason. CPU core counts are the same, while both machines have the same 8GB RAM capacity. The Lenovo enjoys 256GB of SSD storage over the Mac's 128GB — all other MacBook Pros have 256 by default.

Most of the Lenovo Ideapad 710S models that currently exist have (in effect) GeForce 940MX graphics hardware. A slightly more recent model uses Intel's HD Graphics 620 but that's difficult to recommend. In most tests, the Nvidia GPU outperforms the Intel 620 by at least a third and certainly outperforms the cheapest Mac's Iris Pro HD 6100. Lenovo falls a bit short on display resolution, offering 1920x1080 as opposed to the Mac's 2880x1800, although that needs to be seen in the context of Apple's rather better UI scaling. It's great, but at that screen size, the extra resolution is more about making the text look sharper than it is about actually fitting more on the screen. Finally, the MacBook offers us two Thunderbolt 3 ports, whereas the Lenovo has two USB 3 and one micro-HDMI port, which may actually be a bit more usable.

In short, the configuration of the Lenovo Ideapad 710S we're considering has a lower-res screen and a slightly slower CPU, although the CPU is actually faster than the next Mac up. Lenovo offers more storage, a much faster GPU and just as much RAM. It's also lighter and at £800, really a lot cheaper. The 2016 MacBook Pro 13” line starts at £1250 for which we get only 128GB of storage and no touch bar. Going up to the next MacBook gets us 256GB of storage and another Thunderbolt port, but slower CPU performance and still no touch bar on a £1449 laptop. All this makes Lenovo look very affordable indeed, though anyone interested might be well advised to snap up a previous model Lenovo Ideapad 710S before stocks of the £800 Nvidia option run out.

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Phil Rhodes

Phil Rhodes is a Cinematographer, Technologist, Writer and above all Communicator. Never afraid to speak his mind, and always worth listening to, he's a frequent contributor to RedShark.

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