What’s the PC equivalent of a MacBook Air?
January 31, 2020 7:28 AM   Subscribe

When I start my medical residency training this summer, I’m going to need to get a new, lightweight laptop. MacBook Airs seem to be the most popular among the residents I know because of the form factor, but it seems silly to get a Mac when A) I’ll primarily be using it for Word, PowerPoint, and Excel, and B) all the presentation systems I’ve seen in hospitals are set up to work with PCs by default. What are the PC laptops that compete with the Air? Bonus points for options with an HDMI port.
posted by ocherdraco to Computers & Internet (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
(Although I suspect HDMI ports might not exist on lightweight laptops. I’m mostly hoping to be easily able to interface with projectors and conference room TVs. And have a life free of dongles.)
posted by ocherdraco at 7:34 AM on January 31

The Microsoft Surface machines are probably the obvious answer to this.
posted by pipeski at 7:37 AM on January 31 [6 favorites]

One of the 14" variants of the Lenovo Thinkpad X1? Not quite as skinny and light but pretty skinny and light. The company I work for has standardized on the X1 Yoga (the convertible/"screen flips over to become a tablet" version), and I used one for several months before they got me a different machine that I required for my specific needs. They do have HDMI ports.
posted by Alterscape at 7:37 AM on January 31 [6 favorites]

The Dell XPS 13 seems to be another obvious counterpart to the Macbook Air. They are very nice machines. You will need dongles.
posted by musicinmybrain at 7:42 AM on January 31 [7 favorites]

I think the Surface is supposed to be the competitor to the Air, but I also agree a Yoga would be a decent option. I have wonky wrists and elbows and can still comfortably carry it around from room to room in one hand. My older model doesn't have hdmi, though, I have to use a dongle converter (which at least now is easy to find, it wasn't when I first got it).
posted by Lyn Never at 8:00 AM on January 31

My Dell XPS 13 has served me well for the past seven years — and the latest version gets excellent reviews.
posted by matthewr at 8:06 AM on January 31 [3 favorites]

HP Spectre. I bought one five years ago. The touch screen stopped working last year (had to disable it in Device Manager otherwise I was getting continuous phantom touches) but everything else still works great on it. I'll probably buy another one soon.
posted by kindall at 8:11 AM on January 31

Yup. Surface or Dell XPS. Although I’ve heard bad things about the repairability of the Surface - they’re essentially glued together like the Air is. You can take the XPS apart and replace the battery or ssd I believe (although not the RAM, so make sure to get enough for whatever you need: do /not/ get a 4Gb version).

But regardless of what machine you pick (and this includes the Air) you’re going to need USB-C Thunderbolt -> HDMI / Displayport / VGA adapters.
posted by pharm at 8:47 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]

Also (if this matters to you) the XPS has nigh-perfect Linux support: Dell explicitly supports & sells an SKU with Ubuntu installed & everything just works, but you can just buy the Windows version off the shelf & install Linux on it if you want. The latter approach gets you a Windows licence in the hardware should you want to dual boot or go back to Windows at some point.
posted by pharm at 8:49 AM on January 31 [3 favorites]

One thing about the Surface...You have to tote around the keyboard with it (as opposed to the self-contained nature of laptops) Not sure if that matters, but it's something to consider.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:51 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]

I've liked my ASUS Zenbook; for your needs, you certainly don't need a top-of-the-line machine.
posted by sagc at 9:03 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]

Lenovo X1 Carbon and Dell XPS13.

The X1 has a convenient HDMI port a couple of USB and a couple of USB-C.

The XPS is a little shinier but I've found the X1 to be a lot more reliable especially after getting rid of as much of the Lenovo bloatware as possible.
posted by porpoise at 9:46 AM on January 31 [3 favorites]

I love my little Dell Latitude 7390 2-in-1 that I use for work. It's small, light and quick. The XPS13 is a good choice, too.

I deal with supporting Lenovo X! Carbons at a client, and the hardware is often iffy. I would not buy one.
posted by briank at 9:50 AM on January 31

I say a used 2013 Macbook Pro with SSD and Retina screen. Has HDMI built in and runs Microsoft Office for Mac. You can snag a great one for maybe $700-$800.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:59 AM on January 31

There are Surface laptops with regular keyboards too. Basically Surface is a line of devices and not a specific machine.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:01 AM on January 31 [3 favorites]

Before jettisoning the idea of a Mac, I would suggest asking some of those residents if there are reasons beyond the form factor that they're using them. You don't want to find out that there's some software or hardware that requires a lot of fuss to make compatible with your machine.
posted by praemunire at 10:48 AM on January 31 [8 favorites]

As everyone points out above - the Dell XPS 13 and the Lenovo X1 Carbon are the two you probably want to look at most.
I went through the same debate as you (and worked at a hospital), and ended up looking at those two. I ended up actually ended up owning both - first the XPS, which the form factor was great, but the keyboard was too small for me and I hated the tactile feel, and then the X1, which is a little bit bigger, but a far better keyboard in my opinion.
posted by niteHawk at 11:53 AM on January 31 [3 favorites]

I loooooove my Lenovo X1 Carbon and I was a Mac user before. It's lighter than the Air, about the same size but the screens are bigger, is user serviceable (!), and has USB C / USB A / HDMI ports on it. And mine has a 4G LTE card in it too which isn't even an option on any Mac models, still.
posted by bradbane at 12:49 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]

The Asus Zenbook is basically a PC knockoff of the Air for a few hundred bucks cheaper. I've bought two (one at work, one for myself), and they have held up just fine to daily carry -- the first one I bought has been going for about 2.5 years and it is still in great shape. It also has a built-in HDMI port, which is very helpful for plugging into projectors.

Is it the fastest machine ever? It is not. Is it totally fine for web apps, Office / G Suite, photoshop, and even non-graphics-heavy gaming? It is. For your purposes, it sounds just about perfect.
posted by ourobouros at 2:04 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]

Lenovo X1 Carbon and Dell XPS13.

I recently deliberated over this exact choice, and ended up with the X1 Carbon. I like its keyboard better, I like that it has more than just USB-C ports, and (disclaimer) I was replacing an older X1 Carbon so I already knew I would like it. That said, you'll get higher specs for less money with the Dell. Specifically, the Dell comes with a high-DPI screen, which costs like $1000 extra(!!) on the Lenovo. Costco has mid-range models of both and sometimes has discounts.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 3:06 PM on January 31

Are you only applying to programs that require you to supply your own? The program at the hospital where I work provides the residents with laptops.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 9:54 PM on January 31

I'm pretty sure none of the programs I'm applying to supply them, but I definitely won't be making the purchase until I know where I'm going and what things I need it to be compatible with.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:30 AM on February 1

I own an XPS 13 and it's indeed quite shiny.
posted by jscalzi at 10:31 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]

My wife’s residency program doesn’t supply them with laptops either but allowed her to reimburse for it from her educational funds. I would wait till you actually start.
posted by Lucubrator at 3:59 PM on February 1

Not sure where you'll be needing to use your laptop or how intensive you'll be using it, but...

I absolutely adore my Logitech MX Master 2Ss (multiple - and all the MX series mice I've had before it) - I'd definitely see if you can carry around a MX Master 3 in your gown pocket or laptop bag. Easy to turn it off, it's bluetooth and recognizes within a couple of seconds of turning on.

Having a superior wireless mouse that will work on pretty much any surface other than standing water reliably is so much more boss than relying on the trackpad (on either the X1 or the XPS). Presentations where you (might) need to exit powerpoint and open up and show data or supplementals - so worth it.

I've been in clinical settings and academic settings and sometimes podiums/ ad-hoc presentation fora just has the wrong angle and makes using the touchpad really awkward. Owning the input/ manipulation of your laptop is (possibly "cheap") method of making your argument more persuasive and your presentation better received.

Since you're asking this question instead of getting a Thinkpad with nipple - I highly suggest a MX mouse (it's a little big, but not overly so) or some decent small bluetooth mouse to go with the laptop.

If you're a pro with the nipple - the mouse is a small quality of life thing when doing heavy/ precise/ fast work. For presentations, the nipple lets you really differentiate yourself from everyone else who's fumbling around.

For data crunching or group collaboration or presentation creation, a good mouse is king.


XPSs come cheaper with better default screens - but super high resolution screens can be a pain in the ass especially when you're tired. I've had coworkers turn their screen resolutions down and it looks not-great because native resolution/ scaling.

The X1's screens are more expensive, but the best (IPS vs TA vs or whatever - personal/ use preferential) 1080p is just fine. Not as shiny, but most usable. It's also a little less hard on the graphics chip.

If you have to do presentations on 4k screens (even though you're just displaying 1080p powerpoints) - do spend extra for higher end grapics and graphics RAM. A lot of times 4k screens make no sense, but I see them too much at new academic and hospital environments.

The XPS I had a couple of years back was particularly bad about driving 1440 on the laptop and 4k on the external via an adapter. It's probably the adaptor but... geez, it was bad. My 1080p X1 (cheapest graphics - I didn't spec it, corporate purchasing did) driving an external 4k is not good, but I compensate with a good mouse and understanding the limitations.

The extra lag from trying to power 4k screens makes using less-than-stellar trackpads an exercise in futility and undermines your performance when presenting. It's forking annoying seeing someone with an otherwise ok argument struggle with their equipment and look like utter fools.
posted by porpoise at 7:43 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]

I've got a 4th gen Lenovo X1 Carbon which is super light and has a HDMI port and is generally very nice to use. The only thing I miss from mac-land is magsafe but even new macbooks don't have those.
posted by beerbajay at 6:44 PM on February 2

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