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Yet another laptop buying question
March 22, 2014 3:47 PM   Subscribe

Should I get a 13" Macbook Air or a 14" Lenovo X1 Carbon?

I'm in the market for a new high-ish end laptop. I'm a STEM graduate student, so I'll be carrying it around every day and using it for reading papers, programming, etc. I've narrowed things down to the Macbook Air and the Lenovo X1 Carbon. The memory, storage, and cpu specs are the same on both. After factoring in comparable warranties for both, the Lenovo is $90 more. The differences seem to be that:

-The lenovo has a slightly larger screen
-OSX vs. Windows 8. I'm currently a Windows user, and while I don't use any Windows-specific programs, I'm a bit apprehensive about switching and having to relearn all the little tricks that go along with using an OS. But maybe I'm overstating the learning curve?
-The mac seems to have better battery life than the lenovo. Reviews claim that the lenovo gets 5.7 hours (running windows 8) while the macbook gets 11+ hours. Can anybody with a lenovo or an air comment?
-On a related note, while the laptop weights are the same, I've heard that lenovo has much heavier chargers. Can anyone comment?
-The macbook is prettier.

I've seen this previous question, but that poster was looking for a secondary machine, while this will be my primary computer. I'm particularly interested in hearing more about the respective batteries and switching OSes. I know many people with a MacBook Air, but no one with a Lenovo X1 Carbon.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld to Computers & Internet (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Choose based on OS. I'm a programmer and I'd rather use an old shitty slightly broken laptop off my preferred OS with all my familiar tools than the latest and greatest machine and a foreign environment.

This question, to me, reads like asking, "should I buy a dump truck or a motorcycle?". They both move but they're really not comparable at all. Do you have dirty to haul our are you looking for a summertime fun machine?
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 4:04 PM on March 22 [2 favorites]

To clarify: Most of my programming is data analysis using things like RStudio and Matlab, which are basically the same regardless of OS. I have occasionally used Python, but not enough to develop any sort of preference. Sorry, maybe programming was an unclear choice of words there.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 4:20 PM on March 22

Over time, Macs tend to hold their value, if that matters. Both companies report accurate battery life...the Air will definitely get 11+ hours of battery life.

The other thing to consider is possible maintenance. Do you have an Apple store close? If so, that will make any problems more easily solved.
posted by griffey at 4:28 PM on March 22

Are you considering the touch-screen X1? Or without?
posted by kickingtheground at 4:30 PM on March 22

One thing to consider is support structures. If something breaks on the MacBook during the warranty period, there are lots of retail outlets where you can take it for repair. Lenovo doesn't have that option (although you can probably buy a warranty where a tech will come to your house and fix stuff if you feel like spending some $$$)

I personally have a Macbook Air and am fond of it. I have never tested the battery life with a stopwatch or anything but I have found it to be very good.

I went from a PC to a Mac with this laptop. The learning curve isn't too steep. And if you're going from Win XP or 7 to Windows 8, you'll find a bit of a learning curve there too. Not quite as steep though.

The only frustrations I have is that the laptop doesn't have home and end keys. It also lacks page up and page down keys, but I haven't missed those as much because the two-finger scrolling works so well.
posted by JDHarper at 4:32 PM on March 22

Command key plus arrow keys does home (left), end (right), pg up, pg down.

I would think that something with a Unix core (so natively-supported terminal) would be easier for all of those things, but I've never used a PC for them.
posted by supercres at 4:42 PM on March 22

I'd vote for the Mac purely because the X1 has the worst trackpad of all time, and that's saying a lot.
posted by Oktober at 5:07 PM on March 22

Two-year onsite (Lenovo will come fix your computer at your house) + accidental damage protection from Lenovo for the X1 Carbon is $229, 3-year is $299.

3 years of Apple Care is a comparable $249; however, if there's anything really wrong w/ your computer, they may end up having to ship it to China.

i don't have any real experience with either, but I know which one sounds like less of a pain to me.
posted by nosila at 5:14 PM on March 22

I just broke down and bought an air and the battery life is really pretty amazing.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 5:14 PM on March 22

If you're using a trackpad on a Lenovo you're doing it wrong. That's what the trackpoint is for. Last I checked, Lenovo laptops still got the benefit of the IBM service depots, so there are actually places you can take the laptop in a lot of places where Apple Stores will likely never be. Also, they give you the option of shipping the laptop to them (overnight, at their expense) for repair or they will overnight you parts if you are willing to fix it yourself.

Point being, unless they've worsened considerably in the last couple of years, warranty service is actually a point in favor of Lenovo compared to basically every other computer maker out there.
posted by wierdo at 5:15 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]

I've been told anecdotally that Matlab often runs noticeably slower on macs. YMMV (this was several years ago), but I would try running some of my code on a Mac before I switched.
posted by jpdoane at 5:17 PM on March 22

Oh, and I should have mentioned that you should check to see if you can find a used Lenovo that meets your needs. As long as it's still in warranty, you can extend it for no charge above what you would have paid buying new, and they'll fix all the stuff that's wrong with it.

My boss refuses to buy Thinkpads new because he's cheap, yet somehow always has a really nice fairly recent X series.
posted by wierdo at 5:18 PM on March 22

FWIW, I was almost exclusively a Windows user up until 2008, and I had no problem switching. Many of the shortcuts are similar, and the ones that aren't are quite intuitive (CMND+Q for quit, for example). I use a Mac at home and a PC at work and have no problem switching between the two. I also love getting a free consult any time I need it at the Genius Bar (you can go there even if your computer is out of warrantee).
posted by radioamy at 5:22 PM on March 22

nosila: "3 years of Apple Care is a comparable $249"

Just so others know, you can get AppleCare for cheaper. Example: $176. You don't have to buy the laptop from them for it, too. Just apply it to your serial number on

If you don't like the OS but like Apple hardware, you could dual boot Windows 8 with Boot Camp. Some business people do that.
posted by bluecore at 5:31 PM on March 22

Instead of dual boot, I would suggest using Parallels which creates a more seamless experience. The drawback is that you will need a very decent amount of RAM. Choose the OS that you are truly comfortable with and not just the pretty. I actually run Office on the PC side because the mac version of office is freaking awful.
posted by jadepearl at 6:03 PM on March 22

I've had the last 3 versions of the Air (the 11" each time). In my opinion, they're getting worse. Without knowing anything about the Lenovo, I recommend it over the Air.
posted by dobbs at 6:06 PM on March 22

Are you currently using Windows 8, or an older Windows? Switching to Windows 8 from Windows 7 has quite a big learning curve, if you're not already using it. Maybe as big as Windows vs. OS X, depending on your prior experience.

I've been using a Thinkpad X1 Carbon for 1.5 years now. I also have occasion to use a MacBook (Pro and Air) on a regular basis. Apart from the operating system, the main differences I see are in terms of hardware.

- Battery life is much better on the MacBooks. (My Thinkpad, which is the older model without a touchscreen, started at 6 hours of battery life and is now consistently at 3.5 hours. I see MacBooks routinely getting 8+ or even 10+ hours.)
- Keyboard is much better on the Thinkpad. (The keys have more travel and feel sturdier. I can type for longer without feeling tired.)
- Trackpad is better on the MacBooks. (In reality, the Thinkpad trackpad is excellent, and I enjoy using it. But when other people try to use my computer who are used to MacBook trackpads, they find it frustrating.)
- Screen is glossy on the MacBooks, matte on the Thinkpad. (I happen to like matte better because it doesn't reflect lights in the room, but YMMV.)
posted by danceswithlight at 6:07 PM on March 22

I have a MacBookAir for work and a host of other computers. I thought I wouldn't use the Air for any programming, because of the portability/power trade-off. I find that R/R Studio and Python were plenty fast for my needs in academic settings.
posted by Mad_Carew at 6:25 PM on March 22

3 years of Apple Care is a comparable $249; however, if there's anything really wrong w/ your computer, they may end up having to ship it to China.

Apple does not ship computers to China for repair. Regardless of which computer is “better”, my experience with Apple service has been better than any other vendor.
posted by D.C. at 6:26 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]

The Macbook Air is a truly amazing piece of engineering. The battery life is for real, but obviously will be lowered if you run the CPU hard or leave the screen at full brightness at all times. The real question for you is the OS, and I would not recommend buying a Macbook Air just to put Windows on it. R, Matlab, and Python are all Unix products and will feel quite at home on a Mac.
posted by Nelson at 6:35 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]

I own a Macbook Air and just bought a new Lenovo (T440s though, not X1) and I use RStudio on both. I'd say get the Mac. They each have their pros and cons but the Lenovo trackpad is awful (as others have mentioned) and generally if I wasn't using other software that's terrible on a Mac (i.e. Excel) or without a native Mac version (various work stuff) then I'd only use the Mac.

The main piece of hard-earned wisdom i have for you, though: if you go with the X1, get Windows 7 not 8. Wish someone had told me that. Windows 7 is a pretty solid OS, and Windows 8 is a nightmare without end.
posted by neat graffitist at 7:16 PM on March 22

I use Macs for my work (so a majority of the time), and as a general rule: If you're particularly price conscious, go with a PC. But if both machines are the same price, I can't highly enough recommend the build quality of Apple hardware. Go with the Air.
posted by shinynewnick at 7:53 PM on March 22

It might be good for your general technical development to get the Mac so you can start getting more familiar with the Apple world. The transition is not difficult.
posted by Dansaman at 10:11 PM on March 22

A student, you say?

I got my 13" MacBook Air two months ago. It's a 2012 model from the Apple Refurbished Store, and with my student discount applied, it was only $850, not including AppleCare. (I also got AppleCare, of course.)

I carry it around with me every day in my rolling backpack, and it's so light that I barely feel it - and that's with a hard case on it. I highly recommend the Air, through the refurbished site.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:37 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]

I use Python (with the Enthought Canopy IDE) and RStudio at school. This is anecdotal, of course, but when everyone in my year had to install these things, it was unilaterally faster and simpler for Mac users than Windows. There are also fewer random 'well the only thing you can do is restart' issues for Mac users in class. That's with a sample of students with varying levels of tech-iness, obviously. Basically, the OSX Unix base plays really, really well with all this stuff.

For what it's worth, the battery life is really 11+ hours. I treat my laptop more like a phone now, with respect to charging. If you're decently IT-savvy, the learning curve should be manageable; if you take the time to explore your system preferences, multitouch settings and customise your experience (eg. app launchers, keyboard shortcuts), the learning curve will be even more worth it.
posted by undue influence at 1:00 AM on March 23

I'd also say that a huge majority of the young faculty (i.e. they were grad students not too long ago) here use MacBook Airs, regardless of discipline. It's even the cheaper option! That's nuts. Go for it.
posted by undue influence at 1:02 AM on March 23

I have a MacBook Air for my job right now and I seriously hate it. I have actually had three jobs that required me to use Macs and they've always annoyed me. For me, it's a pain that the buttons are in different places and all the software is different. (Why is Microsoft Word different on a Mac? I will never understand, but it seriously messes up my work flow.) I really get tired of having to re-learn things I've known how to do for years already. But yes, you can get used to some of that stuff (not all). No, the thing I hate most about Macs that endures is how you can't customize them. At all. Some functionalities simply don't exist for Macs. Everytime I google a thread with my question about how to make my Mac do something, all the replies are bratty people telling the OP to embrace the Mac for what it is and stop trying to change it. Usually there is a bunch of arguing and OP repeats the question about four times before someone just tells OP that what they want cannot be done on a Mac. Ew. (For the record, my Air has never gotten 11 hours on battery. I've never timed it, but it's definitely much less than that. I'd be interested to hear how Apple came up with that calculation.)

That being said, Windows 8 is awful. I was helping my computer-illiterate friend set up her computer and Windows 8 is so ridiculous as a computer OS. There is no need for making everything hidden and harder to get at and optimized for touchscreens. It's just cumbersome and confusing. Computers are still computers, which Microsoft apparently forgot.

My advice? Get the Windows machine and then use the money you saved on skipping the overpriced Mac to get a copy of Windows 7. Windows 7 is still the very best operating system out there.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:06 AM on March 23

I will add, the trackpad on Macs are better than any Windows trackpads I've personally used. So I am a fan of the track pad, but to me it's not enough to make up for everything else that I find difficult to deal with. Plus, if I am sitting at my desk, I often use a mouse, which negates that anyway. If you can go to a store and test these computers out, that might help.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:13 AM on March 23

If you can, try both out before you buy. A great thing about the Apple store is that you can go in there all you want and try stuff out and ask questions, and it's no hassle. I did that quite a bit before I got my first iPhone and then before I got my Macbook Air (mid 2012).

I echo the comments above that you should skip Win8 if you can. It's pretty annoying. The learning curve for Win8 is much higher than OSX.

I had been a Windows user since 1993 and decided to get a Macbook Air last year. It's the best computer that I've ever owned and I'm really happy with it. It's super fast, super light, and I've really grown to prefer OSX in the past year or so. I would definitely get the 13", as the 11" suffers in power and battery life, as well as obviously in screen size.

Also, the latest generation of the Air, combined with the latest version of OSX really delivers the best battery life of any comparably sized laptop and many that are much larger.

Now, Apple's 11 hour battery life claims may seem optimistic, but you can see here that at least in some actual testing, it can even surpass that. It all depends on your usage patterns though.

Also, if you have an iPhone or iPad, there are some nice synergies to being in the same ecosystem. With the latest versions of iOS, you don't ever really have to sync with a computer / iTunes if you don't want to. I think the only reasons are if you need to make a local backup for some reason, to load on new ringtones, copy off photos, or sync music. I've signed up for iTunes Match, so I rarely (like 2x a year) sync w/ iTunes. Things like iCloud, iCloud Keychain, iCloud browser sync, free iWork apps, etc, are all really nice bonuses that help make things work together more smoothly.

And if people are really pushing the benefits of the Lenovo track point, you really should go try that. I could never get used to it on a prior Dell that I had. The way that it behaves more like a joystick rather than a mouse or trackpad really screwed with my brain.

To respond to AppleTurnover, the differences in Office between platforms are all Microsoft's fault, not Apple's. Also, I'd really be surprised if there was something you wanted to do that was not possible on OSX. Now, there might not be an easy, GUI way to do it, but OSX really isn't locked down at all.
posted by reddot at 5:46 AM on March 23

With respect to software: if I am programming anything, I want to do it on a Mac. Not just because of the hardware and Unix support, but because pretty much any language you need is already baked in, and the editors are above and beyond. I have never found a GUI code editor on Windows that I like as much as TextWrangler. And Office? There are no issues moving files back and forth between recent versions of Mac and Windows Office, with the exception of some changes in Windows approach to form automation in Word that the Mac version cannot handle yet. The team behind Mac Office has been rolled into the normal Office unit. Microsoft is promising a new version of Mac Office by end of 2014. I expect that the differences between the Windows and Mac versions will be addressed pretty quickly. They're already working on Mac OneNote.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:55 AM on March 23

I don't get 5.7 hours on my X1 Carbon, but I'm super happy with it. And I got it on eBay as an open box, so I paid a chunk less and can live w/out the battery (I get about 4 hours) The Thinkpad is my primary machine. I don't carry it to work with me because we have perfectly good desktops, but I only go into the office 2-3 days per week.

I run Ubuntu Linux, something I started doing about 10 years ago both for political reasons and because I'd been working in a Mac shop for years and was getting ready to go freelance and didn't want to get caught up in the OSX upgrade game. I honestly haven't regretted it. I do wind up asking a lot of questions on Ask Ubuntu but I find that I get good answers.

If you're thinking about switching operating systems already why not switch to Linux? Especially if a lot of what you do is programming and word processing. You'll be super frustrated for a few weeks because nothing is where you remember it, but you'll have the same frustration if you switch to a Mac.

I don't have a Windows partition, but on my last laptop I did need Windows for something (a super proprietary video conferencing system that my colleagues insisted on, I think ?) so I set it up on Virtual Box. If you're worried about not having access to Windows, you can leave a partition or install it on Virtual Box.

Our campus is a Mac campus, and I don't have any trouble moving between the Macs at school and my Linux laptop. I run RStudio and LibreOffice and QGIS and Thunderbird and I have no trouble going back and forth.
posted by amandabee at 9:58 AM on March 23

Thanks for the answers! I'm leaning towards going for the Mac, but haven't quite pulled the trigger yet.

AppleTurnover, I'd be curious to know a bit more about what things you've had trouble doing on a mac. I can also be a bit picky about fiddly things on my computer, so that aspect does give me pause.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 12:22 PM on March 23

RStudio is great on a Mac. Matlab is terrible. I installed it on a 2012 Macbook Pro, and it froze constantly; forget about plotting anything. You could, however, use Octave which is an open source almost clone of Matlab. It's really easy to install on a Mac using Homebrew. This is what I use. But, if you really need to use actual Matlab, go for the Lenovo.
posted by bluefly at 2:42 PM on March 23

I could probably write a lot if I thought about it, but here's what I can think of off-hand. Macs just feel very chaotic to me while PCs are very uniform and conservative.

In fullscreen mode on Mac, all the top menu controls are hidden so you need to hover your mouse at the top of the screen and wait for the menu to slide down, which drives me nuts. Apparently it cannot be changed -- I've searched far and wide. You cannot stop the auto-hide in fullscreen for OSX. The solution, I am told, is to not use fullscreen.

It's a small thing, but in Windows you can just drag a window to the left and a window to the right and they will snap to the screen so you can look at both. In Mac, you need to manually resize. I like to work off two documents often.

I've personally had a problem where when I connect my MacBook Air to a monitor and then disconnect the monitor, whatever was on the secondary monitor disappears. It's open, but I can't get to it. I have a work around to find it, but it's annoying. Never had that problem with a PC computer.

The Mac's dock (which is sort of a like a taskbar in Windows) is very limited as to what you can put there. It's not a default feature, but I managed to add folders I use a lot to my taskbar in Windows 7. I can also pin my Dropbox folder there. In my Mac, I can't seem to figure that out.

On my Windows 7 taskbar, I have it set up so I can see every window that is open along the taskbar. Even windows within the same program don't stack -- i.e. every Word document is shown in the taskbar. My Mac stacks everything in the dock, and it stacks them as little generic program icons, so I can never actually tell what files/windows I have open or not. But even worse, it only stacks them in the taskbar if I minimize them -- if they are simply open behind other windows, I can't see them at all. So it feels very chaotic trying to find anything or get a sense of all the stuff I am working on. Very annoying if you multitask.

Then if you use a Windows computer for other reasons, like another computer at home or for work, it just messes up your instincts going back and forth. The "apple key" and the option key are just super annoying. I'm constantly trying to press ctrl for things. And programs like Microsoft Word and Excel have totally different menus between Macs and PCs. Some commands that are very easy to do in Windows because they appear in the menu ribbon require going into special menus on my Mac, which I hate.

I agree that the build quality of MacBooks is very good, but I don't think they are the only laptop manufacturer that builds solid machines. The MacBook also has an awesome touch trackpad that is very easy to use, but I imagine there must be some PCs with good trackpads.

You could also try to install Windows 7 on a MacBook Air. I guess you would just ignore the Apple key the same way I ignore my PCs Windows key.

I mean, I've been a Windows user for probably 18+ years. I'm very comfortable with how it works and though Macs do some things well, I see no real reason to switch. Generally, with Macs you pay more for everything -- you can get the same power and specs for less in a PC.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:51 PM on March 23

Not to be rude, but an awful lot of the problems you describe have little to do with the OS and a lot to do with unfamiliarity of the options.

Fullscreen does hide the menu bar. But this is largely because 90% of the commonly-used commands have quick shortcut keys, and for someone familiar with the software the menu is not needed all that often. Shortcuts are helpfully shown next to each item in the menus themselves, if you forget what they are. And fullscreen is not the same as maximized, which will not hide the menu bar.

Snap to window is indeed not an option on the Mac. I don't miss it much.

Issue with the Air and 2nd monitor - I use a 2nd monitor regularly with my MacBook Pro and don't see this behavior. You can always switch to the program using Cmd-Tab then hit Cmd-L to maximize it to the current screen; even if it was displayed off-screen it should be re-rendered in the current monitor.

Folders in the Dock have been a supported feature for multiple OS releases now; you have to place them just to the left of the Trash, where the default Stacks usually are dropped. Just drag the folder there.

Window management... Option-click or right-click on the Dock icon of an open program, and the pop-up menu will show you a list of the currently open program windows. You can also use Mission Control to show all open windows, or only all windows open for that specific program, to reduce visual clutter. If you've never used it check it out. I usually assign these functions to hot corners but the newer laptops use function keys or multi-touch gestures for these options.

Mac Office Ribbon is similar to the Windows version but not entirely, and Mac still has the menu bar options. Which actually makes a lot of things simpler on the Mac, but it does miss out on the more extensive context menus that Windows Office has - except I find that these menus often get in my way on a Windows system, because I am not used to using them. But as I said above, these differences are likely going to be reduced going forward.

The back and forth between systems is not that bad for me. I honestly find that the Ctrl key is obnoxious on Windows, as it's used for nearly everything and is positioned such that I have to use a pinkie finger to hit it, which is frustrating - that's not a strong finger. It's also farther from the other keys you end to punch to make most of the common commands, which I find is a weird stretch after 8 years of using a Mac.

All of which is a long, roundabout way of saying YMMV, but I don't find the Mac to be chaotic at all. Windows programs have far, far more variability in which options are or are not present, how the UI is presented, and so on - Apple has some very strict guidelines to ensure things are consistent across the OS and most programs follow these guidelines pretty closely. But really, in 95% of cases, you mentally substitute Cmd for Ctrl when going to Mac, and lament the lack of option key modifiers on Windows for inserting special characters when you go back...
posted by caution live frogs at 5:24 AM on March 27

Thanks for the answers. I ended up getting the Mac Air and one month in I'm very happy with it. Most programs are essentially the same between OS's, so that part has been easy. The machine itself feels nice and new and the battery life is for real. Super pleased overall.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 2:21 PM on April 23

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