My old ThinkPad T43 is dead and I have been shopping for a new laptop. I value three things above all: portability, durability, and performance. I take my laptops everywhere, so they need to be thin and light. That means they also take a lot of abuse. And I like to keep my laptops for three to five years, so I prefer high performance components that will not slow me down over that time.

I have narrowed the field to three: the Apple Macbook, Lenovo ThinkPad, and Dell Precision. The laptop with Lenovo.com and Dell notebook are both business-class Windows PCs. The other is a Mac. I am having trouble deciding, so I decided to put together a detailed comparison. This is going to be a long post. Tune in, true believers, for a head-to-head comparison on the features I consider most important.

(Spoiler: I got the ThinkPad.)

Overview

So why these three? The Lenovo ThinkPad was an automatic contender. My old ThinkPad T43 was an awesome laptop. Not attractive, but thin, light, and tough as nails. I have always kind of wanted a Macbook, and the new aluminum ones add some serious durability to an already-nice package. The Dell Precision is more of a dark horse. The Precision line got some good press when it released, and it has some impressive features that make it a real contender.

Although I have not used any of these laptops, I have some experience with each brand, and I have been poring over their specs for a few days now. With that in mind, I wanted to compare them head-to-head.

Form factor

The Apple Macbook is clearly the best-looking of the three, and the aluminum shell bodes well for its long-term durability. The Precision is not bad-looking for a business-class laptop, but the Lenovo ThinkPad is an ugly brick. When it comes to size and weight, however, all three are pretty comparable. As measured by the manufacturers, the Apple Macbook is the thinnest (.95″) and lightest (4.5 lbs.). The Precision (1″ and 4.77 lbs.) and the Lenovo ThinkPad (1.1″ and 4.7 lbs.) are just a bit chunkier with their bigger screens.

Advantage: Apple Macbook.

macbookScreen

Mac does not offer a 14″ screen, so the Apple Macbook is smaller right off the bat. The extra size of the Dell Precision and Lenovo ThinkPad is nice for working with documents, though, especially since the widescreen format robs the user of vertical space for editing documents as it is. An LED screen is important to me, both because they are more environmentally-friendly and because they use less power to create a brighter picture.

The Lenovo falls behind here. While it does have LED screens, they are available only in the lower-resolution WXGA. The Precision has a WXGA+ LED screen, and while it is not as bright and impressive as the Macbook, it is also available in a matte finish, which means less glare.

Advantage: Dell Precision and Apple Macbook.

Keyboard & trackpad

I hate the Apple Macbook keyboard. Typing on a Macbook is like running with my shoelaces tied together. Even basic commands like copy and paste require awkward finger contortions, and the absence of the Delete, Home, and End keys makes me feel like I am typing with only nine fingers. The Macbook trackpad, on the other hand, is big and very useful, although the button (even on the button-less aluminum Macbook) is too hard to press, and the travel is too short.

ThinkPads are famous for their amazing keyboards, and amazing they are. The key travel is perfect, and they are so good, I would rather type on a ThinkPad than on any other keyboard. The trackpad is okay, if a bit small. The buttons work well, but in my last ThinkPad, they wore down over time and I replaced that piece once (it would have needed to be replaced again if I had kept it).

I have never used the Precision, so I have to rely on anecdotal evidence. The keyboard on my Dell Inspiron was perfectly good, just not as good as the ThinkPad’s. According to NotebookReview, however, the Precision’s trackpad is ridiculously small. I believe it, but it does not look much smaller than the ThinkPad’s.

Advantage: Lenovo ThinkPad.

Battery

Battery life is important for portability, whether I want to work in the backyard or in a coffee shop with too few power outlets. While the Precision and ThinkPad are available with larger batteries, I am not interested in adding weight. 5 lbs. is enough.

Lenovo claims 4.3 hours from the 4-cell battery in the ThinkPad T400. Even allowing for some manufacturer inflation, that is impressive. Dell does not have any numbers on its website that I can find, and it seems to have sent out test units with only the larger, 9-cell battery, so I am guessing at the battery life. Let’s assume it is close to the ThinkPad, since it does have a larger battery.

Neither of the Windows PCs compares to the Macbook, however. Apple claims up to five hours, and Notebook Review found that was about right, getting 4.75 hours with average use.

FYI, the Lenovo figures on battery life are ridiculously inflated. My T400 shipped with the bigger, 6-cell battery, and I get less than 4 hours with regular usage. That’s an extra pound or two, and closer to half the battery life of the Macbook.

Advantage: Apple Macbook.
thinkpad_t400

Operating system

OS X is pretty nice. It has its quirks (the Dock is pretty useless, for example), but it blows Vista out of the water.

Vista is pretty awful and annoying, but since I will want to run Ubuntu Linux on my laptop, and Lenovo and Dell have an advantage. I would expect some real frustrations getting the Macbook running smoothly.

The upcoming Windows 7 is pretty sweet, too. While OS X gives the Macbook the advantage over Vista at the moment, Windows 7 will erase that advantage in the near future.

Advantage: Dell Precision and Lenovo ThinkPad.

Price

Here’s the biggie, right? Configured as closely as I can get them, here are the prices of each laptop:

  • Apple Macbook: $1,599
  • Dell Precision M2400: $1,547
  • Lenovo ThinkPad T400: $1,482

Lenovo is having a big sale at the moment (they always are), so that price is probably a bit lower than usual. Of course, the Dell Precision and the ThinkPad have a few higher-end options not available on the Macbook, like faster processors and up to 8 GB of RAM on the ThinkPad.

More importantly, if I bought the Macbook, I would have to buy a new scanner ($446) for use at home. Plus, since using GIMP on a Mac is incredibly painful, I would need to buy Photoshop, a $700 piece of software (or $300 with my teacher’s discount). And I am sure there are a couple of other things I am missing.

Advantage: Dell Precision and Lenovo ThinkPad.

Conclusion

So the final, unweighted score is:

  • Apple Macbook: 3
  • Dell Precision M2400: 3
  • Lenovo ThinkPad T400: 3

Not very helpful. Which leaves me where I started: unsure about which laptop I should buy. But in the end, I bought the Lenovo ThinkPad for a few reasons.

Mainly, it came down to price. When I added up the real cost of switching, the Apple Macbook was way too much. With necessary hardware and software purchases, it would have been nearly $1,000 more.

While the Dell Precision is not much more expensive than the ThinkPad, I was able to get an IBM Friends and Family discount on the ThinkPad, which allowed me to load it up with options, including a faster processor, bigger hard drive, and a four-year service plan, and still come in under $1,600 before taxes.

And I feel good about my decision when I consider the keyboard. Writing is what I do, so I need a keyboard I can write with. The Dell Precision’s keyboard would have been fine, I am sure, but the Apple Macbook’s keyboard is simply inadequate for me.

So those factors pushed the ThinkPad into the lead, and I am eagerly awaiting my ship date. The last few days of mooching computer time from my wife in the evenings have been awful!