MacBook Pro vs. Dell Precision M70

I have been using a Dell Precision M70 laptop for about a year now, and bought a MacBook Pro for evaluation purposes – to see if it can serve as my next machine, and to find out if this could be a standard laptop for our development department, which has M70 now. Maybe it is not exactly fair to compare a machine that is about a year old to a brand new system, but the M70 happens to be the machine I have right now, and you can still buy it from Dell. 

My Computer Usage Pattern I am a heavy user, using my laptop up to 16 hours on most days for both business and private purposes, doing 3D software development, a lot of web browsing and .pdf reading, mail exchange, writing reports and documentation, calendering, project planning, video and music consumption, gaming and a bit of 3D-modelling, image processing and web authoring. Regarding my software development, C++ is the weapon of my choice, and I have chosen Windows and Linux as equitable platforms for our software development department three years ago. An OS X port of our 500.000+ LoC multimedia framework was on the way when Apple announced the Intel switch, which in fact stalled our porting activities because we were not sure if it is worth to solve all the PowerPC issues we have when the platform will be obsolete soon. Anyway, running on the Mac is still an important goal for us because a high percentage of our target users prefers a Mac for their daily work, and personally I regard Apple still as the most innovative desktop software development company on the planet. I also think that the OS you use as a developer has a strong influence on your style and your thinking, and Apple’s style and thinking is definitely more worthwhile than Microsofts. I am also convinced that multi-platform software is of higher quality in terms of defects and architecture and will last longer. My Computer Usage HistoryI have been using Macs from 1984 to 1999 (together with Suns and SGIs), but finally switched to the Wintel platform in 1999 after Apple failed to deliver a new OS for many years, and PCs started to have cheap 3D acceleration. The switch was a great experience, everything ran much faster, I had a vast pool of hard- and software to choose from, and especially the gaming and web experience was unlike anything I had on my Mac; everything seemed to be at least ten times faster. Only the ugly and partially clumsy user interface shadowed the overall great experience, and there are some things with windows I will never get used to, for example the stupid drive letters. However, for the last five years I have been using usually the latest high-end Dell Laptops, Inspiron 9000, 9200, M50, M60, M70. I did not like these machines very much, but Dell was usually the first company where you could get the latest processors, high-res displays, the latest chipsets and a fast GPU for a fair price, together with next day on-site service. With other manufactures like IBM or HP you had to wait up to 6 months to get something technologically equivalent, pay more and often you did not get good 3D-Performance. I did also usually at least dual-boot Windows and Linux, and for the Dell laptops Linux driver support was acceptable five years ago, and is really good today. (Btw, the lack of Linux driver support kept me away from ever considering Sony.) My Dell Precision M70 Pentium M 770 2,14 Ghz 533 Mhz FSB 1GB 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM Memory 15,4" WUXGA LCD 1920 x 1200 pixel Nvidia Quadro FX Go 1400 256 MB Graphics Card 8 x DVD +/- RW Drive Intel PROWireless 2915 802.11a/b/g Dell Wireless 350 BlueTooth™ Internal Card 56.6k V.92 Capable Internal Modem & Adapter Builtin Chip Card Reader Precision Mobile Warranty – 4 Year Next Business Day On-Site List Price: 2.675 € My MacBook Pro 15,4" TFT 1440 x 900 pixel 2,16 GHz Intel Core Duo 667MHz Frontside-Bus 1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 100GB Serial ATA-Drive 5400 U/Min. SuperDrive (DVD±RW/CD-RW) ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 with 256MB GDDR3 RAM Airport Extreme Bluetooth 2.0 Apple Remote Control Builtin camera Keyboard Lighting 3 years AppleCare Protection Plan List Price: 3.337 € Both machines were upgraded to 2GB using third party memory, which costs about €100 for the M70 and €150 for the Mac. The First ImpressionAt first glance, the MacBook and the M70 have the same footprint, but the Mac is just about half as thick as the M70, and an exact comparision reveals the MacBook is 2 cm less deep. The Mac looks and feels just great, while the M70 looks just bearable, if not ugly. On my M70, the paint on the palm rest and on one button is worn off by heavy use, exposing the plastic surface underneath. I don’t know how the Mac will look after a year, or even if it will survive one year beeing used by me – I will see. The lower screen resolution on the Mac is clearly visible, and especially under WindowsXP text looks definitely worse on the Mac; under MacOS the antialiasing does a good job, but can not completely make up for the lower resolution. Brightness and angle dependency are better on the Mac, but the M70 is also ok, only large black areas seem to shine a bit through on the M70, and large white areas also look better on the Mac. PerformanceDespite Apple’s Wunderwaffen-rhetorics about superior PowerPC architecture, Altivec, 64bit and microkernels, Apple’s Powerbooks in fact have been constantly more than two years behind Intel in terms of performance, usually delivering just between 25 to 50% of my Dell laptops in raw processing power, but now I expect Apple at least to catch up. Especially interesting now is to compare OSX performance vs. windows performance on the same machine, and comparing windows performance on the Mac with windows performance on other platforms. With Windows, the Mac seems to be slighly snappier than the M70, but appearance and disappearance of the task bar is smoother on the M70, the Mac seems to stutter slightly here. Unfortunately I have not been able to run 3DMark 2005 on the Mac because I am sitting in the middle of nowwhere right now with just a 30kbit connection, but 3DMark 2003 gives me about 4900 points, compared to 6300 the M70 achieves. In general it is fair to say that both machines are almost equally fast where the second core does not matter, and the M70 has slightly faster graphics. I would really prefer to have a NVidia chip, their notebook chips not only tend to be faster than ATIs, Nvidia has better drivers, especially under Linux. The Quadro 1400 in the M70 is a previous generation chip, and I think the current Nvidia notebook chips like the Quadro 2500M with 512MB RAM leave ATI’s X1600 dead in the water. However, except the 3D-Graphics the MacBook is the fastet windows laptop I ever had, and it seems to be even powerful enough to run OSX. Honestly, since 1984 Apple’s operating system and user interface always required slightly more processing power than the current platform was able to deliver. At Apple’s side there was never a lack of new ideas how to spend eventually superfluous processing cycles, but now for the first time Apple seems to have a machine that is fast enough to even run their operating system at decent speed. NoiseThe M70 is a noisy companion; my wife sometimes complains when I use it in the living room when she watches TV, so in comparison the Mac is practically noise free. I heard some people complained about LCD converter noise and noise from the left fan which is always running, but I have to put my ear directly on the fan to hear it. The M70 is still louder from five meters away than the Mac directly on my lap. HeatWith heavy load the Mac gets quite hot on the bottom side, so hot than I can not keep it on my lap without putting a pillow inbetween. With normal work like typing and browsing it stays quite cool. The M70 also gets hot under load, but the fans seem to keep the bottom side temperature at a level where I can just stand it; however, the fan noise gets even more annoying then. DVD DriveThe Mac has fixed slot-in superdrive, a MATSHITA UJ-857, the M70 has a removeable NEC ND6500A drive that needs to be manually closed. Both drives are equally noisy, the superdrive beeing even slighly more noticeable. However, the the NEC drive is not very good at reading DVD written by other drives. I did not stress the superdrive very much yet, but in general the Mac drives seem to be very good at reading DVDs that cause trouble everywhere else; on one occasion, a Powerbook superdrive was the only drive out of four different dri
ves we tried that would play a particular pressed DVD – even a dedicted DVD player was not up to the job the Mac mastered without problem. Battery Battery life on the Mac seems to be slightly better than on the M70, although the Mac has just a 60Wh battery. On the M70 you can swap the DVD drive for a second battery, which is different from the 80Wh main battery and has a lower capacity (48 Wh). However, the Mac beeing only half as high as the M70, I could lug about two or three MacBook batteries with me and still use less space than the M70. Wireless Connectivity The wireless LAN is good with both machines, no differences detected here so far. The troughput in ad-hoc mode between both machines was surprisingly fast, I could transfer files with about 1.5 Megabytes/second. Bluetooth is different story here – on the M70, in fact I was not able to do something useful with it. I once tried a file transfer between two M70, which failed without error. Everything worked fine, except the file never arrived. And my phone, a Sony-Ericsson T630 seemed to work somehow, but was unable to do something useful with it because the bundled software was almost featureless, and the Ericsson software did not like the adapter. What a difference on the Mac: Under OS X, I was able to tranfer my phone’s addressbook to the Mac on the first try, and I could even dial and send and receive SMS, all features I did not even know my phone was capable to do via bluetooth, and something I was never able to do with windows even on my M60, where I had a PCMCIA bluettooth card that at least allowed me to sync my phone. Wired ConnectivityThe M70 comes with four USB ports, a serial port, gigabit ethernet, a VGA output, a TV output, audio output, audio input and a builtin modem connector, one PCMCIA slot and a chipcard reader. No firewire, so I bought a PCMCIA firewire card to be able grab video from my camcorder. The Mac comes with two USB ports, a powered firewire 400 port, gigabit ethernet, a DVI output, audio output, audio input, one ExpressCard 34 slot. Thats it. Two USB ports easily become too few, especially without an internal modem. The ExpressCard 34 slot is also a bit weird, and I can throw away my PCMCIA DVB-T Receiver, my FlashCard adapter and other stuff. And I have not seen anything yet I can buy to stuff into this slot yet, so it is completely useless for me at this time. Was it really impossible to put a full slot into the machine? The firewire is fine, but why not a firewire 800? DVI is good, but I have always to carry this adapter around because 99% of the time I connect to a VGA video beamer when I need external video. So on the wired connectivity issues, the Mac does not excel – here the M70 is definitely better. Other Hardware IssuesThe MagSafe power connector is ok, but I never tripped over my power wire in the last five years, so I would not really need it. However, I heard of many power connector problems on Macs in the past, so maybe Apple wanted to get rid of these problems once for all. I was afraid that the Magsafe connector would disconnect too easy and too often when the machine is on my lap, and indeed it does, but it is not as bad as I thought. Another thing that happened to me when doing the RAM upgrade, that after disconnecting, removing the battery and adding the RAM, I found the power connected itself while I was handling the machine on the table, so beware to put the connector far away if you dissassemble the machine. The MacBook’s trackpad is really king size, and the button is ok. A real plus is the builtin camera and the remote control. Especially using the remote with front row is cool, but I had some glitches when other software than front row wants to play the DVD I just inserted, or Itunes wants to handle the CD inserted. Then the system did not behave as wanted, it seemed to hang, but after some timeouts I regained control. This is something that definitely needs to be fixed. The Keyboard on the Mac is also ok, I am even getting used to the quite small return key. The M70 has nine keys more than the Mac, but I have not used most of these keys ever, however some keys like the DEL key, the separate PageUP/DOWN keys and the print keys for making screenshots are used frequently under windows, so there may be some issues with this under Windows. A major annoyance is the lack of a second mouse button. I am aware that this is a religious issue, but for using Windows I had to connect a mouse because I use the second button almost as often as button 1, and even in MacOS a second button for bringing up context menus is beneficial, not even considering using 3D-modelling software. My suggestion to Apple: Why not make a button that can also operate in two button mode, controlled by software? The existing button even seems to have two switches, so who knows… Another thing I miss is a hard drive indicator and a power indicator. A hard drive indicator is quite useful if a systems seems to be frozen. Without a powerindicator, I am sometimes confused for a moment when closing or opening the lid whether the machine is on, off or in sleep mode and if the mode has already changed, or is stiil going to change. On the MacBook, I like the color changing LEDs in the Magsafe connector and the green LED in the CapsLock key, but two more LEDs would have made me really happy. On the M70 you have them, but Dell screwed up, and they are barely visible from the normal viewing position. Operating Systems: OSXAt first glance I like OSX, and I will definitely give it a serious try. I seems to be less snappy than WindowsXP on the MacBook, but the overall performance is much smoother, and the high degree of application integration has the potential for productivity increases in the order of a magnitude. As a first time user of OSX it was a more pleasant experience than anticipated. Although I am not familiar with menu item positions, I often managed to find the right menu faster than in Windows because they seem to be in the right places where I expect them. I plan to blog more about OSX from a newuser perspective as soon as I have used it for more real tasks. Operating Systems: Windows I installed WindowsXP using boot camp, but I had to try twice. Repartioning went fine, no damage to the OSX partition, and the installation of WindowsXP itself went smooth. But after I performed the Apple-supplied driver installation, Windows failed to boot, indicating some missing pci driver file, forcing me to reinstall windows using the windows repair reinstall option in the windows installer. The second time the Apple driver installation worked fine, although I did not do anything different. I then installed MS Office 2003 and Visual Studio 2005 without any special occurence, and WindowsXP runs without any serious glitches so far, except the screen saver does not activate after the preset time. I had no crash at all on the MacBook, not with Windows, and not with OSX, while my M70 started to act up during the last days. It crashed once with a parity error, and 3DMark 2003 crashed just before it should display the results. I am curious how our own software will run on the MacBook, but this will take a few days after I return home. Operating Systems: LinuxI would definitely want to run also Linux on the MacBook because it is also an equal development platform for us. It guess it already runs on MacBooks, even if some drivers are not ready yet, but I have no hard information here. However, I expect full Linux driver support for MacBooks to be available sooner or later; RedHat has announced a distro for the MacBooks, and I heard about successful Ubuntu installs, but no first hand experience yet. One interesting piece of information is that the latest firmware update that you need for boot camp contains a complete BIOS, so there are several ways now how Linux can run on MacBooks: Using EFI, using the EFI Bios emulation mechanism, or using the Apple Firmware BIOS. Update: I just found a wiki entry about how to triple-boot via BootCamp. Conclusion I like the MacBook Pro, and I have not found a show stopper yet that would keep me using it as my main system for work and private use. Apple has done an excellent job, and this machine really draws much more attention from all kind of people than my Dell Precision M70, which did not draw any attention at all. However, Apple could have done better: A higher screen resolution, more graphics power, more USB ports and a full size card slot are top on my wishlist. I will continue to write about OSX in general, and the use of Windows and Linux on a MacBook as soon as I have gathered more experience that is worth to be shared. But all this will take at least a month, looking at my work schedule for the next weeks. Please feel free to leave comments and pointers to other sites that deal with running other OSes on MacBooks and good comparisons to non-Apple hardware – however, if you put more than two links into your comment, you will end up in my moderation queue, thanks to these lowly life forms who try to leave about 200+ spam comments per week here. Btw., I am a strict opponent of the death penalty, but for blog spammers I am tempted to make an exception.

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