Earlier this week Apple announced updates to its entire notebook lineup, bringing it up to date with Ivy Bridge processors and a few other goodies. Like them, many other computer manufacturers have been showcasing new and updated laptops over the past few days and weeks at trade events like Computex as key partners including Intel, AMD and Nvidia roll out their latest and greatest products.
Ultrabooks in particular received quite a bit of attention, and we’re not surprised. Intel is putting a lot of weight behind the concept and expects it to be the main driver of PC market growth in the short term. Apple has already experienced some of this with the MacBook Air, which has rapidly become one of the best sellers in the Mac lineup. Arguably it's the laptop to beat if you are looking into buying an ultrabook-styled portable.
With all that in mind, we’re taking a couple of Wintel alternatives to check how well they stack up next to the new 13-inch MacBook Air and perhaps settle the old debate about the so-called “Apple Tax” — at least in this category, since there's no way a single comparison can be representative of the entire Apple Tax argument.
If raw hardware specs are all you care about it shouldn’t be a tough decision; your dollar will go a bit further with Ultrabook alternatives from the likes of Asus and Samsung. For instance, a $1,000 Samsung Series 5 will get you the same amount of memory and storage, along a slightly inferior processor than the MacBook Air for $200 less, or pretty much the same specs as the Zenbook Prime (minus the 1600 x 900 res) for $100 less. If you can settle for an Ultrabook with HDD storage instead of SSD the Series 5 is a good deal at $800.
Port selection varies but not enough to sway you one way or another in our opinion. Then if you want 256GB of flash storage the MacBook Air and Zenbook Prime are priced equally, but Asus throws in an upgraded 1920 x 1080 resolution display and a faster Core i7 3517U chip for an overall better deal.
Of course, there are a few other considerations to keep in mind when you look at the whole picture.
Keyboard and touchpad: These are both areas where Apple excels, and while Asus has improved the typing experience over its previous model with a built-in backlight, touchpad gestures work inconsistently — probably a Windows thing. The glass touchpad on the MacBook Air is simply second to none.
Display quality: All three alternatives compared here are more or less the same when it comes to display quality on the base model, but the $1,499 Zenbook Prime really is on another league. Its screen is significantly brighter and has a pixel density of 165 PPI versus 125 PPI on the Air.
SSD performance: We’ve yet to see comparisons between the 2012 MacBook Air and the latest generation of Ultrabooks. That said, considering the 2011 model was faster than the Zenbook Prime UX31A in file transfer tests, we expect Apple to maintain or increase that lead.
Battery life: Apple quoted the same battery life spec for its 2012 MacBook Air as it did for the previous model. Going by that the Zenbook Prime should now be more or less on par with Apple’s machine, as the latest UX31A model lasts 6 hours and 28 minutes with a Core i7 processor in Laptopmag’s tests.
So, is the “Apple Tax” real or not? When it comes to its base models Apple is relatively in line with the competition — or, rather, the competition has caught up with some real alternatives to the MacBook Air. Apple wins in some respects and loses in others, but there isn’t much of a price difference that can’t be justified by the quality of the components used. However, as soon as you start cranking up the specs you see that upgrades from Apple tend to carry a bigger premium than most of the competition.
I didn’t touch on software because that’s more of a personal choice that will vary on a case-by-case basis. Apple fans swear by OS X and many of them wouldn’t consider switching to something else any more than Windows users would be willing to give up their platform, even if that meant paying a bit more.