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30 October 2016

Realistic alternatives to Apple computers

I'm disappointed with the new MacBook Pros and I wrote my thoughts about them here. Since the announcement, I've been researching all of my options and weighing the pros and cons. What follows comes from my own assessment of 16 laptops, their features, and reviews I've read about them. I'll highlight the ones which I think are the top five alternatives to Apple's computers. At the end there is a grid of all the options and links to more info. The machines I'm evaluating are either for sale right now or will be shipping by the end of the year. I'm not holding out for any rumored products.

These are the attributes that I think are important when choosing a new laptop:

Must have:

  • 13" form-factor
  • Thunderbolt 3 ports
  • Headphone jack
  • Works decently with Linux

Prefer:

  • HiDPI display (more than 200 pixels per inch)
  • 7th generation Core i7 CPU
  • 16 GB of RAM
  • USB-C ports

Ambivalent:

  • Flip form-factor (aka "2-in-1")
  • USB 3.0 old-style A connectors
  • More than 6 hours of battery life

Avoid:

  • Proprietary power plug (USB-C charging is better)
  • HDMI ports
  • SD card reader
  • Display port

It's worth emphasizing how valuable Thunderbolt 3 is. With its 40Gbps transfer rate, "external GPU" enclosures have become a real thing and the options are increasing. In 2017, you should expect to dock your laptop into a gnarly GPU and use it for some intensive computation (VR, 3D design, neural network back propagation). Thunderbolt 3 also makes it easy to connect into one or more 4K+ external displays when you're not on the go. Not having Thunderbolt 3 significantly limits your future options.

The other details to look for are Skylake (6th generation) vs. Kaby Lake (7th generation) processors, and Core i5/i7 vs. Core M processors. The differences are subtle but meaningful. All of the new MacBook Pros and the MacBook 12" have 6th generation CPUs. The MacBook Pros have i5/i7 chips. The 12" MacBooks have m3/m5/m7 chips. It's a bit odd that the latest and greatest from Apple includes chips that were released over a year ago.


Here's my list of options, ordered by which ones I'm most seriously considering:


1. HP Spectre x360

Official product page and someone else's review that I found helpful.

It doesn't have a HiDPI display, but everything else looks sleek and great. The previous year's model was also available in a 4K version, but that doesn't have any Thunderbolt 3 ports. If they do release a variation of the new one in 4K, that model would be the winner for me by every measure.



Price$1,299
ProsTwo Thunderbolt 3 ports. Charge via USB-C. 2-in-1 laptop.
ConsHD Display.
Thickness13.71mm
Weight2.86lbs
Battery57Wh
Display1920 x 1080 (Touch)
CPUIntel 7th Generation Core i7-7500U dual core
RAM16GB
Storage512GB Flash
GraphicsIntel HD Graphics 620
Power plugUSB-C
Thunderbolt 3 ports2
USB-C (non-Thunderbolt) ports0
USB 3.0 A ports1
SD slotsNone
Video portsNone
Audio portsHeadphone/mic jack


2. Razer Blade Stealth 4K

Official product page and someone else's review that I found helpful.

With extra ports and a thick bezel it's not as svelte as I'd like. But the build quality seems high and I bet the 4K display looks awesome. Razer's Core external GPU is the easiest setup of its kind right now. There's also a cheaper option for $1,249 with less storage and a 2560 x 1440 screen (which is HiDPI like a MacBook but not close to 4K).



Price$1,599
Pros4K display. One Thunderbolt 3 port. Charge via USB-C.
ConsNo USB-C ports besides the single Thunderbolt 3 one. Unnecessary video out. Big bezel around a small physical screen.
Thickness13.1mm
Weight2.84lbs
Battery53.6Wh
Display3840 x 2160 (Touch)
CPUIntel 7th Generation Core i7-7500U dual core
RAM16GB
Storage512GB Flash
GraphicsIntel HD Graphics 620
Power plugUSB-C
Thunderbolt 3 ports1
USB-C (non-Thunderbolt) ports0
USB 3.0 A ports2
SD slotsNone
Video portsHDMI
Audio portsHeadphone/mic jack


3. Dell XPS 13

Official product page and someone else's review that I found helpful.

This laptop has a modern edge-to-edge screen, but it's not quite 4K. I wouldn't look forward to lugging around the Dell-specific power cable (and being screwed when I lose it). Update: Blaine Cook corrected me in the comments: It turns out that it can charge via USB-C in addition to the proprietary power plug. Hooray! — Its ports, slots, and camera are a bit quirky. But, strongly in favor, it's also the laptop that Linus uses! There's a cheaper version with less storage and a slower i5 CPU for $1,399.



Price$1,849
ProsOne Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C port. Nearly 4K display.
ConsExpensive. Unnecessary SD card slot. Proprietary power plug. Webcam is in a weird location.
Thickness9-15mm
Weight2.9lbs
Battery60Wh
Display3200 x 1800 (Touch)
CPUIntel 7th Generation Core i7-7500U dual core
RAM16GB
Storage512GB Flash
GraphicsIntel HD Graphics (unspecified version)
Power plugProprietary
Thunderbolt 3 ports1
USB-C (non-Thunderbolt) ports0
USB 3.0 A ports2
SD slotsSD slot
Video portsNone
Audio portsHeadphone/mic jack


4. HP EliteBook Folio G1

Official product page and someone else's review that I found helpful.

This machine is tiny, fanless, and looks like a MacBook Air at first glance. It has Thunderbolt 3 and none of the old ports weighting it down. And 4K! The biggest drawback is that the CPU is a 6th generation Core M processor instead of an i5 or i7. If the 12" MacBook is more your speed than the MacBook Pro, then this could be the right machine for you.



Price$1,799
ProsCharge via USB-C. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports. 4K display.
ConsExpensive. Underpowered 6th-generation M CPU. Max 8GB of RAM.
Thickness11.93mm
Weight2.14lbs
Battery38Wh
Display3840 x 2160
CPUIntel 6th Generation m7-6Y75 dual core
RAM8GB
Storage256GB Flash
GraphicsIntel HD Graphics 515
Power plugUSB-C
Thunderbolt 3 ports2
USB-C (non-Thunderbolt) ports0
USB 3.0 A ports0
SD slotsNone
Video portsNone
Audio portsHeadphone/mic jack


5. Lenovo Yoga 910

Official product page and someone else's review that I found helpful.

If this had a Thunderbolt 3 port, I think it would be the laptop to get. It has a 4K screen and the styling looks great. Unfortunately, instead of Thunderbolt 3, Lenovo included a USB-C port that only speaks USB 2.0 protocol (not a typo, it's version two) and is used for charging. There's a cheaper option with less storage and RAM for $1,429.



Price$1,799
ProsTwo USB-C ports. Charge via USB-C. 4K display. 2-in-1 laptop.
ConsNo Thunderbolt 3 ports. Small battery. Expensive. One of the USB-C ports is a USB 2.0 port.
Thickness14.3mm
Weight3.04lbs
Battery48Wh
Display3840 x 2160 (Touch)
CPUIntel 7th Generation i7-7500U dual core
RAM16GB
Storage1TB Flash
GraphicsIntel HD Graphics 620
Power plugUSB-C
Thunderbolt 3 ports0
USB-C (non-Thunderbolt) portsone 3.0 port, one 2.0 port
USB 3.0 A ports1
SD slotsNone
Video portsNone
Audio portsHeadphone/Microphone combined jack


Conclusion

I'm still not sure which computer I'm going to get. I'm now looking through Linux distributions like Ubuntu and elementary OS to see what compatibility and usability are like. I doubt that 2017 will be the "year of the Linux laptop", but for the first time I'm willing to give it an honest try.

Make no mistake: I think that Apple computers are still gorgeous and a great choice for people who have the budget. I plan to continue recommending MacBooks to family members, friends, acquaintances, and all of the other non-technical people in my life. I think "it just works" is still true for the low-end, and that's ideal for consumers. But consumers have very different needs than professionals.

For a long time, Apple has been a lofty brand, the "insanely great" hardware that people bought because they aspired to "think different". It's looking like that era may be over. Apple may have completed their transition into a mass-market company that makes relatively high quality hardware for normal people. There's nothing wrong with that. But it's probably not for me.


Here's the full list of the computers I considered, in the order I ranked them:

ModelProsConsPrice
HP Spectre x360Two Thunderbolt 3 ports. Charge via USB-C. 2-in-1 laptop.HD Display.$1,299
Razer Blade Stealth 4K4K display. One Thunderbolt 3 port. Charge via USB-C.No USB-C ports besides the one Thunderbolt 3 one. Unnecessary video out. Big bezel.$1,599
Razer Blade Stealth QHDHiDPI display. One Thunderbolt 3 port. Charge via USB-C.No USB-C ports besides the one Thunderbolt 3 one. Unnecessary video out. Big bezel.$1,249
Apple MacBook Pro 13" with upgradesTwo Thunderbolt 3 ports. Charge via USB-C. HiDPI display. Good video card.6th generation CPU. Expensive.$1,999
Apple MacBook Pro 13"Two Thunderbolt 3 ports. Charge via USB-C. HiDPI display. Good video card.Underpowered i5 CPU. 6th generation CPU. Expensive.$1,499
Dell XPS 13 with upgradesOne Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C port. Nearly 4K display.Expensive. Unnecessary SD card slot. No USB-C ports. Proprietary power plug.$1,849
Dell XPS 13One Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C port. Nearly 4K display.Underpowered i5 CPU. Unnecessary SD card slot. No USB-C ports. Proprietary power plug.$1,399
HP EliteBook Folio G1 Notebook PCCharge via USB-C. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports. 4K display.Expensive. Underpowered 6th-generation M CPU. Max 8GB of RAM.$1,799
Lenovo Yoga 910 with upgradesTwo USB-C ports. Charge via USB-C. 4K display. 2-in-1 laptop.No Thunderbolt 3 ports. Small battery. Expensive. One of the USB-C ports is a USB 2.0 port.$1,799
Lenovo Yoga 910Two USB-C ports. Charge via USB-C. 4K display. 2-in-1 laptop.No Thunderbolt 3 ports. Small battery. One of the USB-C ports is a USB 2.0 port. Only 8GB of RAM.$1,429
Apple 12" MacBookCharge via USB-C. HiDPI display.6th generation CPU. Poor webcam. Only one USB-C port. No Thunderbolt 3 ports. Expensive. Only 8GB of RAM.$1,749
Asus ZenBook UX306 13"USB-C port. Nearly 4K display.Only one USB-C port. No Thunderbolt 3 ports. Proprietary power plug. Unnecessary video out ports. 6th generation CPU.Goes on sale any day now
Acer Swift 7Charge via USB-C. Two USB-C ports.No Thunderbolt 3 ports. HD display. Underpowered i5 CPU. Small battery.$1,099
HP Spectre 13Two Thunderbolt 3 ports. Charge via USB-C.HD Display. Only 8GB of RAM available. Small battery.$1,249
Asus ZenBook 3 UX390UACharging via USB-C. Very small.HD display. Only one USB-C port. No Thunderbolt 3 ports. Expensive. Small battery.$1,599
Asus ZenBook Flip UX360CAOne USB-C port. 2-in-1 laptop.Underpowered m3 CPU. 6th generation CPU. HD Display. No Thunderbolt 3 ports. Proprietary power plug. Unnecessary SD slot. Unnecessary video out port.$749
Microsoft Surface BookNearly 4K display. Surface pen included. 2-in-1 laptop.No USB-C ports. No Thunderbolt 3 ports. Unnecessary video ports. Unnecessary SD slot. Expensive. Underpowered i5 CPU. 6th generation CPU.$1,499
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 4th Generation 14"HiDPI display.No USB-C ports. No Thunderbolt 3 ports. Too many video out ports. Unnecessary SD slot. 6th generation CPU.$1,548
Samsung Notebook 9 spinNearly 4K display. 2-in-1 laptop.Unnecessary SD slot. Unnecessary video out port. No USB-C ports. No Thunderbolt 3 ports. Small battery. 6th generation CPU. 8GB maximum RAM.$1,199
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