My search for a MacBook Pro alternative
The MacBook Pro has been a standard developer laptop for many years now. In any programming conference, you simply have to look around during sprints and workshops to appreciate its ubiquity. As of 2016, it still remains a good albeit overpriced choice for developers.
Yet, I have been thinking about getting a MacBook alternative for a while. My reasoning is simple. With every passing year, the latest and the greatest in software is becoming more CPU hungry and memory intensive. Therefore, it is important to have at least 16 GB memory and the latest processor in my machine. I can configure my MacBook Pro to have a maximum of 16 GB memory, a dual core 6th generation i7 processor and 512 GB SSD, but this already brings the price to a hefty $2000. If I choose the version with the Touch Bar and Touch Id, then the price is even higher. Other brands are supposedly offering better specs with the same build quality as the Macbook Pro at a much lower cost. It makes sense to check them out.
So I have started looking at laptops from other established brands, hoping to find a MacBook Pro alternative. In this post, I summarize what I have found so far.
The non Apple ecosystem is huge and chaotic, so finding an alternative is easier said than done. To cut out some of the noise, I started by fixing a minimum criteria to narrow down my choices. I chose the following set of conditions, which I thought was conservative and reasonable (what do you think?).
- must have good build quality comparable to Apple products.
- must have powerful and upgradeable hardware (at least up to 16 GB RAM, 6th or 7th gen processor and 512 GB SSD).
- must have a good form factor, be light and portable.
- must be Linux compatible out of the box.
- must be cheaper than/as costly as the MacBook Pro with similar configuration.
With these requirements in mind, I started laptop hunting.
My initial strategy was to identify the flagship line of laptops for each reputed brand (to select for best build quality) and then choose a model with reasonable specifications. This would have been the quickest way to get the job done, but I soon realized that this will not work!
In the non Apple world, it is quite common to find models in the same line of laptops that differ substantially in terms of quality. To give an example from the Lenovo flagship line, the ThinkPad T460p has much worse build quality than the ThinkPad T460s, even though they belong to the same line of laptops and have almost the same serial numbers. In the words of a Lenovo user:
Lenovo’s model policy is somewhere between “annoying” and “fucking insane”, every laptop is seemingly made by a different team and none ever talks to each other.
In online discussions, I also saw contradictory and confusing reviews about the Dell XPS series. Initially, this made little sense and I wondered why there is no consensus among the users. Later, I realized that the reviewers were talking about the same line but different models. The amount of difference this causes is astounding. It is almost like comparing apples and oranges.
After realizing this, I started to compare laptops at the level of models (as opposed to lines) and things slowly started making more sense. I spent a couple of days analyzing forum discussions (this and this for example) and blogs to inform myself about the landscape and public opinion. I read user reviews that expressed pride, joy and satisfaction at being owners of a particular model. I also read reviews where users complained about the laptops they had.
Based on more than 100 user reviews, I could create a shortlist of 8 laptops that seemed to be solid alternatives. Based on my four requirements (Linux compatibility was a decisive factor), this list got narrowed down even further. Only three laptops survived!
These 3 Linux ready models seem to have comparable workmanship and build quality as the MacBook Pro. They come with latest gen and upgradeable hardware and most of their users swear by them.
Here is the list, in no particular order, with some information on each model that I gathered during my survey. I have added pictures whenever I wanted to comment on a particular visual feature of the machine.
In a nutshell: The ThinkPad X1 Carbon 4th Generation is a lightweight ultrabook, almost as thin as the MBP. It adorns a well finished classic design (see the picture below). Users love the keyboard on this machine. On the hardware front, you have a choice between the 6th gen i5 or i7 dual core processors. The RAM is soldered onto the motherboard like the MBP, but the SSD is upgradeable. You can get 16GB memory and 512 GB SSD at a much lower cost compared to the MBP. It supports Linux out of the box and you can expect Ubuntu to run flawlessly.
On the downside, it does not have any Thunderbolt ports. The trackpad is also not as good as the MacBook’s.
A bit about Lenovo: This is a Lenovo laptop, so here’s a tidbit about Lenovo laptops in general, which I think is interesting.
Lenovo has a long tradition of making laptops that last for many years. Their ThinkPad flagship line of laptops is targeted at developers and business users and has a cult following among this user base. This line of laptops are also well known for supporting Linux out of the box.
Their consumer line is known as IdeaPad and have inferior quality. The IdeaPad laptops have also shipped with malware in the past (check out Superfish gate), so this line is a big no-no if you care about security. The ThinkPad line was unaffected by the malware as far as I know (though this is disputed).
Within the ThinkPad line, the T series and the X series laptops stand out in terms of quality and performance (though you can still expect a lot of variation within these lines). The Laptop we talked about right now belongs to the ThinkPad X series.
In a nutshell : The second laptop belongs to the ThinkPad T series. This laptop is one of those rare ones that are upgradeable to 20 GB memory. It features an excellent FHD high resolution screen. Made for professionals on the go, it is lightweight and portable. It supports Linux out of the box. Any potential driver issues with this laptop gets sorted quickly, because a lot of RedHat employees are using these 4x0 laptops. On the hardware front, you have a choice of 6th generation i5/i7 dual core processors and up to 512 GB SSD in addition to the expandable 16 GB RAM, of course, all at a lower price than the MBP.
On the downside, there’s no thunderbolt port and the trackpad isn’t great (coming from the MacBook, I think this is going to be an issue for every other alternative out there). The build quality of this laptop is comparable but not as great as the MacBook.
A small warning if you like this machine. There are three machines with nearly the same name T460, T460s and T460p. The build quality and the screen is not as high quality in the other models, and they are much bulkier. Therefore, you should be careful and get the right one, which is T460s.
In a nutshell: The third one is a Dell machine. The XPS Series of Dell is well known for its amazing form factor. They make one the tiniest laptops featuring a beautiful 13 inch screen.
The Developer edition is Dell lingo for Linux support out of the box, so you can expect Linux to run flawlessly. In fact, these laptops come with Ubuntu pre installed. It comes with 7th generation dual core i5/i7 processor, 8/16 GB RAM (soldered to motherboard, so not upgradeable) and 128–512 GB removable SSD. The screen and battery life of this laptop is also great. Users are divided over the keyboard, some love it and some don’t. The trackpad isn’t as good as the MBP (as I said earlier, there is no fix to this problem).
About Dell : Dell has a long history of making Linux friendly laptops, but don’t expect the best support from them. Their customer service is also not top notch.
That’s the end of the first list of the top three laptops! It seems that there aren’t too many laptops that satisfy the minimum requirements I laid out earlier. If I had to choose a MacBook alternative right now, I would choose one of these three machines.
For completeness, I will now mention 5 more laptops that didn’t make it to the main list because they are not Linux ready. They are otherwise fantastic, but you will need to do significant work before running Linux on them. But if Linux compatibility is not essential, you might want to take a serious look at these laptops too.
1. Asus Zenbook 3 UX390UA and Zenbook Pro UX501VW
In a nutshell : Asus Zenbooks pack better hardware than the MacBooks at a cheaper price range. Users claim that they have better CPUs, GPUs, larger SSD, better screen and keyboard compared to the MacBook. The Zenbook 3 is also lighter than the MBP. Ubuntu 14.04 works out of the box on these machines, but they have trouble with Ubuntu 16.04, which is why they didn’t make it to the first list.
The brand: ASUS has terrible support according to a lot of users and it has experienced Quality Control issues in the past.
In a nutshell : This laptop boasts excellent build quality, latest gen processor, thunderbolt ports, an awesome 4K screen, upto 16 GB RAM and 1 TB SSD at a reasonable price. If you are looking for something out of the ordinary and trendy, this laptop might be for you. It has quite funky keyboard back lighting. It does not support Ubuntu out of the box.
The brand : Razer Blade is known for making expensive laptops for gamers. They have an unique style. Many developers considered these laptops to be overpriced gimmicks in the past, but many are slowly coming around to appreciate the quality of this brand.
I mentioned the XPS 13 developer edition earlier. The XPS 15 is like the larger brother of the XPS 13. It is a 15.6 inch laptop with an enviably small form factor. It also features a touchscreen retina style display, a quad core latest gen processor and a NVIDIA GTX 960M GPU, which can be useful for developing CUDA programs or prototyping Deep Learning on your laptop.
The Dell Precision 15 5000 (5510) is a more configurable version of the Dell XPS 15. You can literally spec it to bits. You can get, for example, an Intel Xeon processor and 32 GB RAM if you need that kind of power for your work. The Dell Precision can be ordered to ship with Ubuntu 14.04, but not with Ubuntu 16.04.
I have heard that getting Linux to work with the hardware of these laptops is not too much of a pain.
This is another laptop/convertible that seems to have many loyal users. It features an excellent 4K screen, looks beautiful and trendy.
The tablet mode works well in both windows and Linux. It features the latest 7th generation Intel processor and has excellent battery life. You can also get upto 16 GB RAM and 512 GB SSD with this model.
The 1st generation of these laptops had trouble running Linux. The second generation looks more promising, with some users reporting little or zero hassle in getting it running on Ubuntu.
To summarize, MacBook Pro users have come to expect consistently good build quality, stunning graphics, portable form factor, reliable hardware and excellent keyboard and trackpad. Outside the Apple ecosystem, only a few laptops pack that kind of punch, but the ones that do have a loyal user base and you ought to check them out. If you are looking for Linux compatibility out of the box, your choices are even more restricted. If you are willing to spend some time on getting Linux to work on the machines, then you have about 8 laptops to consider.
A last word of advice : Don’t fall into the trap of expecting the same quality within the same product line in the non Apple ecosystem. You might get disappointed. Rather, look out for great models that users swear by and get exactly those models. This seems to be the best way of buying laptops outside the Apple ecosystem.
Thanks for reading so far. If you think I missed out on some worthy laptop models, please let me know in the comments.
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