The MacBook is the world’s most famous notebook for a reason. While not updated as frequently as some competitors, the Mac’s excellent design and build quality makes every system feel timeless. It’s common to call a new computer an “investment,” and with a MacBook, that feels true.
But Apple isn’t a charity, and it charges a lot for the privilege of owning a notebook with its logo. Many who’d like to own a Mac simply can’t afford it. Fortunately, there are PC alternatives that are nearly as well built, and they sell for hundreds less.
MacBook Air 11 alternative
Yes, the Acer Chromebook C720P is a Chromebook. That’ll put some users off instantly, since it means greater dependence on web apps for full functionality. Here’s why I recommend it: 11-inch Windows notebooks are terrible. It’s a race-to-the-bottom market that targets people who have very little cash and don’t know much about hardware.
This Acer, unlike many other Chromebooks and most Windows alternatives, is a solid and well balanced system. It has a nice keyboard, big touchpad, and feels durable. The Celeron 2955U processor, a derivative of the Core line, is snappy, and the system performs especially well if you opt for the model with 4GB of memory. If it has any major flaw, it’s the 1,366 x 768 display – but that’s the same resolution as the MacBook Air 11. The Acer’s screen is even touch-sensitive.
Oh, and the price is right. The C720P with 4GB of memory is $350, and that’s MSRP. It’s not hard to find it for less. That’s less than half the MacBook Air 11, so you’ll have plenty left to make rent.
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MacBook Air 13 & MacBook alternative
This one is a two-fer. It’s not because the MacBook Air 13 and MacBook are all that similar, but instead because the Asus UX305CA is both a great notebook and available with versatile configuration options.
The least expensive Asus Zenbook UX305 with current hardware, the UX305CA, is $700. That buys you a 13-inch, 1080p display, an Intel Core M processor, eight gigabytes of RAM and a 256GB hard drive. Impressive. Not only is the system $300 less than a 13-inch Air, but it also packs more base memory and a bigger base hard drive. The processor itself is slower, but the Air isn’t a powerhouse, either.
Spending more will snag a version with a QHD+ (3,200 x 1,800) display that can go toe-to-toe with the new MacBook, and actually exceeds its resolution. The tricked-out Zenbook also has a quicker processor and a 512GB solid state drive, yet retails for just $1,100. That’s $200 less than the MacBook.
Unlike many Windows notebooks, this Zenbook’s hardware value isn’t enabled by cringe-worthy design. The system is sleek at just half and inch thick, feels as solid as any MacBook Air, and is passively cooled. A particular highlight is the keyboard, which is one of the best you’ll find on any 12 or 13-inch notebook. The Zenbook is so awesome I’d recommend it over the Air 13 or MacBook even if you didn’t need to save money.
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MacBook Pro 13 alternative
I have to get something off my chest. I don’t think you should buy a MacBook of any stripe unless you can buy the Pro. The Air models have ancient displays that Apple should be ashamed of selling in 2015, and Air is too slow for the price it commands.
Finding an alternative for the Pro is difficult. It’s a great notebook, even a great value. But there is one system that can compete. Dell’s XPS 13.
The least expensive version of the XPS 13 might actually be considered an Air alternative. It’s only $800 and boasts a Core i3 processor paired with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB hard drive. If you were thinking about the Pro, though, I recommend the $1,000 model, which has a Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM. The 128GB hard drive remains the same.
Compared to the Pro, the XPS 13 is a bit slower and has a mere 1080p display, but it’s otherwise entirely a match for its Cupertino competition. It’s also lighter, and more portable, thanks to its “Infinity Edge” thin-bezel display. I love the Pro, but it’s starting to look a bit chunky for a 13-inch laptop.
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MacBook Pro 15 alternative
Yes, that’s right. Another Dell. The negative buzz from its unfortunate “Dude, you’re getting a Dell!” era still lingers, and that’s a shame, because the company builds the best PC notebooks available today.
The XPS 15, just updated, is essentially an XPS 13 on steroids. It has the same “Infinity Edge” display, but in a larger size, and with more powerful hardware. While a $1,000 configuration is available with a Core i3 processor, I recommend at least the $1,200 model. That nets a Core i5 quad-core processor, 8GB of memory, a 1080p display, a hybrid hard drive with 1TB of storage, and GTX 960M graphics. Aside from display resolution, this version of the XPS 15 makes few concessions to Apple’s 15-inch Pro. You an even upgrade it to a 4K display, though doing so will set you back $500 bucks.
There’s also a top-shelf, $1,700 model that’s worth attention. It boosts the hardware to a Core i7 with 16G of RAM and a 512GB solid state drive, and it also ups battery capacity to 84 watt-hours. Dell says that model can hit 17 hours of battery life in optimal conditions. Even this version is $300 less than Apple’s most affordable MacBook Pro 15, which doesn’t have a discrete graphics chip.
All models of the XPS 15, like its little brother, are notable because of their size. While it has a 15-inch display, it weighs as little as 3.9 pounds, a half-pound less than the MacBook Pro 15. That means Dell’s system is actually more portable than Apple’s more expensive alternative.
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