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


Alienware options

If you're in the mood for something that's a bit less of a direct assault on Apple's design aesthetic as well as their market share, there's Alienware. They try a slightly different tack, allowing purchasers a lot of options. The basic model Alienware 13 at £1249, is the same price as the basic MacBook but offers a hugely improved spec. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 graphics hardware in the Alienware is something like three times the speed of the MacBook's Iris Pro HD 6100 GPU. RAM (8GB) is the same, but Alienware's is slightly faster. Alienware supplies 180GB of SSD storage by default, which is smaller than the MacBook's 256, but the Alienware CPU is quad-core to the Apple's dual-core chip, doubling CPU performance.

This is great, although it's at the higher, less cost-conscious end that Alienware really shines. We can take the £1249 Alienware, add a 16GB RAM option and upgrade to a 512GB SSD and end up at almost exactly the same price as the second-cheapest MacBook, but with a hugely better machine. However, there's no option to upgrade the cheapest Alienware's poky 1366x768 display and with the RAM and SSD upgrade, we're already at £1467. If we start with the £1499 Alienware 13, we get the improved GeForce GTX 1050Ti graphics with 4GB of graphics memory, a much more powerful quad-core i7-7700HQ processor, and a 1920x1080 display. Upgrade the RAM to 16GB (with a small speed increase thrown into the bargain) and a 512GB SSD and the price is £1728 for a machine which gigantically outperforms the £1949 MacBook Pro.

Alienware offers one option that'll be particularly interesting to video people – an OLED display. At 2560 by 1440, it's practically identical in pixel count to the 2560 by 1600 MacBook display and enjoys the all the benefits of OLED. The upgrade costs £200, with the result that our Alienware 13 laptop is still (microscopically) cheaper than the high-end MacBook Pro. It's possible to apply upgrades to MacBooks as well, of course, but even maxing out an Alienware, with 2TB of flash storage, 32GB of RAM and an even more powerful GTX 1060 with 6GB of graphics memory, only pushes the price up to £2600. It's impossible to comprehensively compare all the upgrades, but for the sake of comparison, Apple charges £270 for an upgrade to the Core i7 processor alone. That's more than the difference between the cheapest Alienware and a version with both the Core i7 processor and more benefits besides.

There are downsides, of course. All this potential requires power and headline rates for battery life are nine hours for MacBooks and perhaps three and a half for Alienware, although this will depend heavily on the exact specification in question and how it's being used. Alienware's machines are also slightly larger, being 330 by 269 by 22mm compared to Apple's 304 by 212 by 15. That's perhaps not such a big deal, although the weight of an Alienware 13 is about 5.8 pounds — almost double the MacBook's 3 pounds. Part of that is down to the sheer power on offer and the heatsinks required, but part of it is also due to configuration options — you can plug memory modules and other things into the Alienware, which makes for upgradeability at commodity hardware prices. However, that will always be bulkier than just soldering chips to a board.

If these things matter, buy the Lenovo; depending on circumstances, either offers a very compelling deal. Next time, we'll have a look at workstations and see how Apple stacks up there.

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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