Apple or Dell?
June 18, 2004 8:23 PM   Subscribe

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that you're in the market for a new office computer. The complicating factor is that you are constrained to buy only either an Apple or a Dell. (This is nonnegotiable, apparently.) You're thinking you'll go for a laptop since you travel a fair bit, and possibly a nice monitor on your office desk. The range of options and customizations on both sides is a bit baffling to you: what do you go for?

OS preference is not really an issue; I (yes, it's me, not you) used Macs in college and Windows and Linux since then. This is really more about capabilities and features. Also, price is not really a big deal: this is employer-funded, with a generous allowance.
posted by gleuschk to Computers & Internet (21 answers total)
Problem is, even if OS preference is not an issue to YOU, it will be to everyone answering....

The question that should be asked is: what do you plan to DO with said computer?

(That out of the way, the Powerbook G4 is phenomenal.)
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 8:27 PM on June 18, 2004

Money no limit? Get a Powerbook 12" specced to the full -- it'll be great for travelling -- then stick a 20" cinema display on your desk. Wish I had your job.
posted by bonaldi at 8:32 PM on June 18, 2004

As the sole network admin for my mixed-platform household, I can say that getting the Mac online and playing nice with other machines is tons easier than the Windows machine -- and that goes double when we're traveling.

My wife has a Sony, not a Dell, so I can't really speak to the hardware issues. Dells always seem hideously clunky to me, but then I own a PowerBook.
posted by jjg at 8:37 PM on June 18, 2004

Go with the Apple.

The 12" G4 iBook is amazing. The powerbooks are even better. Get as much RAM as you can, but avoid paying the Apple Memory Penalty (buy 3rd party).

Dells are heavy, ugly, and run windows. Their only redeeming factor is that you can get 3 year warranties with them. Which you need.

Even if you love Windows and OS X equally (I'll just immagine that there exists someone who actually likes windows), your back will thank you for buying the smaller and lighter Apple. Only the 17" powerbook comes close to the weight of a dell.

Also, if the last mac you used was an OS 9 machine, it bears mention that OS X is very much Linux Done Right. It works out of the box, doesn't require any tweaking, and has a real BSD unix under the hood. "Sleeping" even works correctly. For the true geek, OS X's API is a direct descendant of NeXTSTEP. You even get the NetInfo database.

A vote for Apple is a vote for All Things Good and Wonderful in the World!
posted by Kwantsar at 8:43 PM on June 18, 2004

Response by poster: what do you plan to DO with said computer?
Wish I had your job.

I'm a mathematician.

Still wish it?

What I'm really trying to learn here is, supposing that I want to follow bonaldi's programme (and something like it is definitely what I have in mind), what should be the big factor that separates a specced-to-the-full 12" Powerbook from a specced-to-the-full Dell Latitiude D800? (Or whatever -- replace specific models as suits you.)
posted by gleuschk at 8:43 PM on June 18, 2004

Dell makes fugly laptops, get the Mac.

And if money truly is no object, tell them you'll need around 17,000 of them...
posted by contessa at 8:52 PM on June 18, 2004

Response by poster: And thanks for thoughts so far (I turned around and there they were!). The clunky issue and the playing-well-with-others issue are just the sort of things I was hoping for.

(I think the last Mac I used was running OS7 -- it was an SE/30, circa 1995.)
posted by gleuschk at 8:56 PM on June 18, 2004

I'm a mathematician.

FWIW, I have to do all my business school homework (like the decision models problems I'm currently avoiding to surf AskMeFi) on my Dell laptop. Professor distributes a plug-in in a .exe, one has no choice. OS is inherently an issue if you're getting it for purposes other than playing at home.

I have an Inspiron and a PowerBook. The PB is infinitely more elegant and creatively inspiring. The Dell's mouse pad has been buggy since I bought it. The PB is surprisingly slow in booting, finding my wifi network and loading Web pages relative to the Dell. I'm an avowed Mac fan but more often than not my Win XP machine has been more gratifying. I may be biased against my PB because I haven't fully transitioned away from OS 9 on the Mac side; then again, I've been a Mac user for so long that I retain an inherent distrust for the Windows OS, with its mysterious dlls, unavoidable spyware and adware, and its need to push bug fixes on you far more frequently than you'd expect. Still, plenty of inelegant 12" Dells are as light as the PB, making it an easy buy. Yet I love my iTunes and my iDVD and my happy pretty tiny PowerBook. And on it goes. I'm my own flame war.

See? You may not prefer an OS but it taints everything you do.
posted by werty at 9:02 PM on June 18, 2004

Depending on the kind of math you do, the killer Apple feature may be that it is really a unix box on the inside. I've developed a number of "applications*" on the powerbook which port trivially to more powerful unix servers. Porting from Win9x to WinNT is far more painful than OS X -> other unix.

*applications: typicaly perl+MySQL, but often involving C or Java. All the GNU tools work under OS X. Fink exists for OS X.

Another issue: The powerbooks have DVI video output. This allows you to hook up directly to a high-res flat panel. All the PC laptops have VGA only. This limits you to 1280x1024 on the panel. The iBooks mirror your display (there may be a hack to enable dual displays, depending on the model). Powerbooks support dual displays natively. Powerbooks also have S-Video.

The wide aspect ratio of the 15" and 17" display better fills your field of vision making it easier to see all your data at once.

The G4 chip has a high performance vector unit that is user programmable, much like the i860 DSP chip the NeXTStations carried. This may help if your math involves hardcore number crunching.

Don't compare MHz speeds of Dells and Apples. Intel has already abandoned MHz speed for their newer CPUs. The 1 GHz powerbook is certainly competitive with the Centrino 1.4 GHz mobile pentium. Possibly faster.

BSD is more robust and has a better scheduler than WinXP, so you can end up running more apps in the background.

Microsoft Office is arguably better on OS X than the Windows version. Simple things like the Auto Sort function having a Sort Ascending / Descending option in OS X but not WinXP make life easier.

Apple supports bluetooth very well. With a bluetooth enabled cell phone, you can get on to the internet anyplace you have a GSM signal.
posted by Kwantsar at 9:10 PM on June 18, 2004

I own (an am currently typing on) a dell inspiron notebook. I'm reasonably happy with it and it has served its purpose well (mostly Java programming). The build is a little cheap (especially compared to the mac), but it's held up well in the ~10 months that I've had it. One minor annoyance is that the power cord that comes with it is way too short (probably around 6').

With windows XP professional, I don't see the Blue Screen anymore and have only felt the need to wipe and reinstall once (back in the 9X days, I'd reinstall everything every 2 months).

My girlfriend has a 15" G4 powerbook that I helped her pick out (she previously had a 12" dell laptop). She loves it and doesn't regret making the switch.

Unless you really need portability or if you're going to have an external monitor, I'd suggest getting a 15 or 17 inch powerbook. The 12" is nice, but just a little too cramped IMO.

When they release the G5 powerbooks, I'll probably be getting one, but for now I do too much compiling while concurrently running app servers and databases and the G4 notebooks don't seem to quite have the horsepower I'd like.

If you're going to need to crunch a ton of numbers directly on your laptop, you might want to consider the dell, otherwise, I'd get the mac.
posted by freshgroundpepper at 10:01 PM on June 18, 2004

Yeah, what everyone else says. If money isn't the issue, get the apple. My experience with Dell laptops is that they break when handled roughly. Which really really sucks.

And yes, I want your job (I'm a pseudo-mathemimatician strongly considering dropping out of university).
posted by fvw at 10:07 PM on June 18, 2004

We have both Dell and Apple laptops available in our office, as well as a few Thinkpads. The Dells fall apart rather easily, and according to our systems folks, we aren't going to buy any more.
posted by whatnot at 10:53 PM on June 18, 2004

I have an Inspiron (the shit Inspiron, the 1100) and I know what you're looking at is higher up on the Dell food chain than that, but I have to agree with the other opinions expressed here. Problems I have with my Inspiron (and I'm talking OS-independent hardware issues) are not unlike those I see others having with better Dell laptops--fan failure, overheating, et cetera.

I've never gotten the BSOD with mine. I'm a big 'don't reinstall, just clean and fix' person, so I've never had to deal with that unpleasantness. XP is the bee's knees compared to most other Winders prior.

HOWEVER, even at its best, Winders is no osX, man! I have very little Mac experience, but boy do I have the wanderlust. For all of us who can't afford a Mac, get the Mac!

Also: Dell tech support sucks donkey schlongs even if you know exactly what you're doing and buy hundreds of computers from them per year and supposedly get better support and only have to call them once a season or so. Even purchasing a Dell sucks. I am forever getting hussled back and forth between small- and medium-sized company divisions, having orders refused, being quizzed about my intentions for every machine like a 14-year-old wanting to get up Dell's daughter's skirt. I started saying I didn't know how many employees we had and that every machine was going to be used for playing Spider Solitaire. Then, when a power supply went out on a user's machine and it indeed tested bad, a senior tech claimed that since he was unfamiliar with power supply testers (!) he wasn't going to buy my "theory" that the power supply was dead. He swore it was the motherboard and backed up this hypothesis with the fact that the motherboard did not work when connected to the power supply! Took forever to talk him into replacing both--could not talk him out of replacing the motherboard, and he only replaced the power supply to make me shut up. YMMV and all that, but I hate them.

Yeah, I'm all over some Apple stuff. Seriously, it isn't even a choice. It's like deciding between a sloppy blow job from a funny, endearing, cool, intelligent soul mate and a box of cinnamon toothpicks under the fingernails. With a different disease on every one of their sharp little ends.
posted by littlegreenlights at 11:19 PM on June 18, 2004

Like you, gleuschk, I'm an OS agnostic. I've also owned three laptops in the past five years, and done a lot of laptop shopping. Nothing comes close to the Powerbook. It's a beautiful machine. In my opinion, the major decision factor for laptops is how well the machine is put together. You'll put your laptop under a lot of mechanical stress, even if you take pains to be quite gentle with it. It takes some serious engineering to make a machine that can do everything a computer has to do and handle that stress and last for longer than a year. Apple has managed that engineering. So has IBM, I think, but that's apparently not an option for you.

I think your real choice is 12-inch or 15-inch (since you'll have an external monitor for your desk, the 17-inch really isn't worth the extra size and weight). The 15-inch comes a bit faster (1.5 vs. 1.33 GHz, I think) and with some extra ports (S-video out, if I remember correctly, and maybe PCMCIA), but the 12-inch is super-portable.

Dells are heavy, ugly, and run windows. Their only redeeming factor is that you can get 3 year warranties with them. Which you need.

You can get a 3 year warranty from Apple.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:23 AM on June 19, 2004

wow, OS7! 10 is drastically different and better, maybe you could go to an apple store and play around on a few, it's a pretty good place to take a test drive.

I vote apple also, I like mac OS much better, but Dell is no good, if you are going windows laptop IBM is good, but since that's not an option. I am not a mathematician or anything but I would think all the unix apps would be a nice feature.
posted by rhyax at 1:59 AM on June 19, 2004

Never, ever buy a Dell laptop. Those things seem to have some sort of timer built in that causes their hardware to self destruct after a few months of use.

Apple laptops also have major hardware defects, though, so you should see if you can convince the purchasing department to hook you up with something from IBM or Toshiba.

and I say this from the standpoint of a sysadmin who's seen laptops from both manufacturers being used on a daily basis. and, seriously, neither are advisable.
posted by cmonkey at 2:50 AM on June 19, 2004

We have a lot of different platforms in our house and I'll chime in on the Mac side as well. They play nice with others, they have an easy command line interface, it's simple to get on wireless networks in strange locations, and your Linux chops will work. My only suggestions -- if work is paying -- is to get the longest warranty you can [3 years of apple care] because there have been some design flaws in the iBook and Powerbook lines [we had a logic board replaced on the Powerbook, the DVD-combo drive replaced, my iBook has a flakey touchpad, etc] and Apple is nice as hell about fixing all this as long as your warranty is good, and their techs run smart. However, once your Powerbook is out of warranty, if you plunk it down hard on a hard surface and break the hinge and the backlight, you've got an expensive paperweight because repairs will cost 75% as much as a new laptop. Please don't ask me how I know this.
posted by jessamyn at 5:16 AM on June 19, 2004

ok I've put on my deflective shields and am ready to post. We have two Dell Latitude c610s. They are a couple of years old and we have had ZERO problems with either of them. No self-destructing calls to tech strange exploding defective touch pad mice. When our employer issued us these we left the mac world and came to the dark side, so to speak.
posted by busboy789 at 6:33 AM on June 19, 2004

you say your a mathematician which doesn't help much understanding what you want to do with the computer, but if it involves numerical simulations then memory may be an issue - at least the 12" apple laptop my partner has can't take a lot (eg 1Gb) of memory.

in general apples are better built than dells, in my experience (but that's dell desktops). i had to make a similar choice a while back and went with an ibm laptop, but if i was restricted to dell i'd move from windows to mac (and i prefer windows + linux to osx just because they're what i'm used to).
posted by andrew cooke at 9:58 AM on June 19, 2004

Why not OS X + PPC (Yellow Dog or Gentoo) Linux? New platforms are fun to play with.
posted by Eamon at 10:43 AM on June 19, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks, all. Here's where I stand (in the interest of bringing closure): getting a Mac at this point just involves too much retraining of muscle memory and other habits, and as far as I can tell, not enough added value to make the needed difference. As soon as I can actually get my hands on a Dell and verify that they're reasonably un-clunky, that's where I'm headed. I appreciate all the answers.

And yes, I'll probably install some flavor of Linux on it, not that it matters.
posted by gleuschk at 4:53 PM on June 25, 2004

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