Mac Musings

How Does the MacBook Compare to Sony, HP, Toshiba, and Lenovo Offerings?

Daniel Knight - 2007.09.18

Is Apple's MacBook competitive with comparably priced Windows notebooks?

That's the question that came to mind when I saw a link to The Ars Back-To-School Laptop Shootout this morning. I was especially pleased to see that Ars Technica wasn't looking at those cheap notebooks designed to entice people into the store, but instead was looking in the US$1,200-1,400 price range.

Models examined are the Sony VAIO VGN-FZ180, HP Pavilion dv6500t, Toshiba Satellite A205-S4617, and Lenovo ThinkPad T61. Dell declined to send Ars a review unit, and there's no mention at all why Apple wasn't considered.

The Players

All four of the reviewed notebooks have Intel Core 2 Duo CPUs running at 1.66-2.0 GHz, include 2 GB of RAM, 15.4" screens, and hard drives ranging from 100 GB to 250 GB. They all support 802.11n WiFi and weigh between 5.36 and 6.29 lb. Two have integrated video, like the MacBook, and two have Nvidia GeForce 8400M GS graphics. Three have 1280 x 800 displays, and the Lenovo reaches 1440 x 900. The Sony has a Blu-ray drive, the Toshiba and HP have equivalents of Apple's SuperDrive, and the Lenovo has what Apple calls a Combo drive.

Three of four notebooks have glossy screens, memory card readers, and built-in webcams. All have a built-in mic, three have gigabit ethernet, only two include Bluetooth, and just one comes with a remote control.

Dimensions are similar, ranging from 13.2" to 14.3" wide, 9.3" to 10.5" deep, and 1.1" to 1.7" thick.

Lenovo ThinkPad T61

Lenovo's notebook is the smallest and lightest of the bunch. Selling for US$1,269, the ThinkPad T61 has a 2.0 GHz Core 2 CPU, a 100 GB 7200 rpm hard drive (the only one in the bunch), and a 1440 x 900 display, making it closer to the US$2,000 2.2 GHz 15" MacBook Pro than Apple's consumer 13" MacBook with its 1280 x 800 screen. The drawback: Integrated graphics like the MacBook.

Ars notes that the Lenovo "doesn't have a ton of bonus features", but it has a good core set. There are three USB ports, gigabit ethernet, one PC Card slot, and one ExpressCard 34/54 slot. Bluetooth is standard.

Of the four notebooks reviewed, this is the only one that can't burn DVDs, and the reviewer notes that the ThinkPad's built-in speakers are "lousy". Battery life, however, is excellent, and ThinkPads have generally been known for very good keyboards. This one is no exception. For those who don't care for trackpads, the famous red keyboard pointer is in the usual spot.

The ThinkPad T61 wins high points for ruggedness and handily outperforms the competition in battery life - 139 minutes of DVD viewing or 236 minutes (nearly four hours!) of simulated typical usage.

HP Pavilion dv6500t

The US$1,158 Pavilion dv6500t has a 1.8 GHz Core 2 processor, 2 GB of RAM, and a 160 GB 5400 rpm hard drive. The Pavilion has a real graphics processor, the Nvidia GeForce 8400M GS, which makes it a far better gaming machine. It's the second heaviest at 6.14 lb. and is the second largest as well.

The dv6500t's SuperDrive supports LightScribe, which allows it to burn a label when you master a CD or DVD, and Ars found the speakers good by laptop standards. The notebook's remote stores in the computer's ExpressCard slot. The HP has HDMI and S-video output along with a memory card reader for all the popular formats, something no Apple notebook has ever offered - and something most Windows PCs seem to have nowadays.

The reviewer was very disappointed with the trackpad on this Pavilion, saying: "It feels like sweaty plastic and is a pain to use unless the track pad's sensitivity settings are on high." One neat feature is that you can lock the trackpad.

HP took second in the battery sweepstakes with 120 minutes of DVD watching power or 153 minutes of typical use.


Sony sent a bit more than Ars asked for with the US$1,899 VAIO VGN-FZ180. It's the only one of the four that sells for over $1,400 - way over - in no small part due to Sony's inclusion of a cutting-edge Blu-ray drive. This VAIO has a 2.0 GHz Core 2 CPU, 2 GB of RAM, and a 160 GB 5400 rpm hard drive. It uses the same Nvidia graphics processor as the HP, and it's the second smallest, second lightest in this roundup.

Ars found the Sony had the brightest display among these four notebooks, and it includes HDMI and S-video output. It also has an ExpressCard slot and a card reader for SD cards and Sony's own MemoryStick cards. Sound was crisp but "lacked bass entirely".

Probably due to the brighter display, the VAIO VGM-FZ180 has the shortest battery life of the bunch. If your DVD is over 83 minutes, the computer will run out of power before you're done viewing it, and typical notebook use was only a bit longer at 106 minutes.

Toshiba Satellite A205-S4617

The $1,349 Satellite A205-S4617 (Why do they dream up these cryptic, unmemorable designations? Three cheers for Apple's simple naming convention!) is the biggest, heaviest notebook in this review. It has a 1.66 GHz Core 2 CPU (the slowest Ars looks at), 2 GB of RAM, and a 250 GB 4200 rpm hard drive.

The Toshiba's screen is crisp and bright, although not as bright as Sony's, and the Harman/Kardon speakers "were among some of the best I've ever heard built into a laptop and actually offered bass." It has moderate expansion options: S-video out but no HDMI, and one ExpressCard. Webcam quality is so poor that the reviewer suggests looking at USB webcams.

Ars notes that the keyboard felt cheap and gritty, which made it annoying to use. And, despite being the largest notebook in the roundup, which would lead to believe there was room for a bigger battery, the Toshiba's battery life bests only the Sony at 99 minutes of DVD viewing or 141 minutes of typical computer use.


With the fastest CPU, an 800 MHz system bus, and dedicated graphics, the Sony is the powerhouse here taking top honors in the PCMark 05 CPU, memory, and graphics benchmarks - and second in hard drive performance. The Lenovo handily wins that test as it has the only 7200 rpm hard drive among reviewed units. Just imagine how rip roaring fast the Sony would be with a fast hard drive....

With the slowest CPU and the only 4200 rpm hard drive reviewed, the Toshiba trails the pack, losing three of four benchmarks (it does surprisingly well in the memory test, and Ars speculates it may be using a better grade of memory), and the Lenovo takes third place among tested units.

Apple MacBook

How does Apple's MacBook stack up?

The 2.16 GHz white Core 2 MacBook is right in the ballpark. It retails for US$1,299 with 1 GB of RAM and a 5400 rpm 120 GB hard drive. It has a SuperDrive, a very good built-in webcam, and uses integrated graphics. The 13.3" display has 1280 x 800 resolution, and it's smaller and lighter than any of the Windows notebooks reviewed - in no small part due to squeezing the same resolution as their 15.4" screens into a 13.3" LCD.

The MacBook includes 802.11n WiFi and Bluetooth 2.0, but it has no ExpressCard slot and no reader for flash memory cards. It has gigabit ethernet, two USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire 400 port, and an IR port. A remote control is included. Upgrading to 2 GB of RAM is $150 through Apple, but as little as $74 elsewhere. Although Apple doesn't offer any 7200 rpm hard drive options, swapping out the SATA drive is easy.

The MacBook's keyboard is generally considered excellent, and thanks to Boot Camp, it can run Windows XP or Vista as well as Mac OS X. When Ars tested the original MacBook a year ago, they found the battery provided 193 minutes of DVD viewing and 245 to 340 minutes of computer use (depending on tasks and energy saver settings). That's 66% more DVD viewing time than the Sony VAIO and at least a few minutes more run time for typical computer tasks.

One area we haven't touched on is security: Three of the notebooks (all but the Sony) have a built-in fingerprint scanner that can be linked to your keychain. That could keep others who have access to your notebook from using your credit card while allowing you to safely store it in your keychain. This is an area Apple hasn't touched on yet.

So how does the MacBook stack up? It's in the same price ballpark as three of the four reviewed units, has a faster CPU than any of them, uses integrated graphics, has fantastic battery life, lacks a memory card reader and ExpressCard port, includes FireWire and a remote control, has a great webcam, and is smaller and lighter than the four notebooks Ars reviews. I'd say it holds its own with any of these, and you have the added benefit of Mac OS X (virus free since 2001), Apple's free iApps, and access to Apple's iLife 08 and iWork 08 software suites - and you can run Windows if you want to or have to.

If you want to make your own comparison, here are two tables adapted from Ars that cover differences among the four notebooks they reviewed and Apple's MacBook.

Apple MacBook Toshiba Satellite A205-S4617 HP Pavilion dv6500t Lenovo ThinkPad T61 Sony VAIO VGN-FZ180
Price $1,299 $1,349 $1,158 $1,269 $1,899
Clock speed 2.16 GHz 1.66 GHz 1.80 GHz 2.0 GHz 2.0 GHz
Memory 1 GB 2 GB 2 GB 2 GB 2 GB
Chipset Intel 945? Intel 945GM Express Intel 965 Intel 965 Intel 965
FSB 667 MHz 667 MHz 800 MHz 800 MHz 800 MHz
Video Integrated Integrated NVIDIA GeForce 8400M GS Integrated NVIDIA GeForce 8400M GS
Display 13.3"
1280 x 800
1280 x 800
1280 x 800
1440 x 900
1280 x 800
Weight 5.2 lb. 6.29 lb. 6.14 lb. 5.36 lb. 5.70 lb.
Dimensions 12.78" x 8.92" x 1.08" 14.3" x 10.5" x 1.55" 14.05" x 10.12" x 1.69" 13.2" x 9.3" x 1.09" 14" x 10" x 1.13"
Battery life 6 hours Not advertised Not advertised 6.5 hours 2-4 hours
Hard drive 120 GB
5400 rpm
250 GB
4200 rpm
160 GB
5400 rpm
100 GB
7200 rpm
160 GB
5400 rpm
Fingerprint reader no yes Yes Yes No
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Accessory Apple MacBook Sony VAIO VGN-FZ180 Toshiba Satellite A205-S4617 HP Pavilion dv6500t Lenovo T61
Memory card reader          
Glossy screen          
Built-in microphone          
Remote control          
Bonus security          
Gigabit Ethernet