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MacBook vs. HackBook: You Get What You Pay For

- 2010.03.09 - Tip Jar

With the iPad launch rapidly approaching, there have been a flurry of articles on Low End Mac about netbooks and used iBooks and PowerBooks as alternatives. The argument is always the same: Do you want your $300 to $500 OS X portable as small and light as possible, or do you want it to "just work" with OS X as only a real Apple machine does?

These are good questions and good points, one and all, but the common theme is the $300 to $500 part. I believe the common answer is that no matter what, you get what you pay for. Want a new machine at that low price? Well, it will be cheaply made, have poor ergonomics, and, of course, require Hackintoshing and will be quirky once OS X is installed.

The used alternative will be bigger (not much bigger with the 12" PowerBook), heavier - as in much heavier - and unless you want to add another $100 or so for a new battery, will have horrible battery life.

Outright processing muscle is remarkably close between a new Atom-powered netbook and the very best of the 12" PowerBooks, but neither is adequate for anything beyond the typical "netbook uses" of email, word processing, web browsing, and such.

More than 'Simply Adequate'

So what is the answer? Add money, size, or weight, of course. Remember, you get what you pay for, and if you want more power, more battery life, or more portability without going back to 2004 level performance, it will cost you.

The Hackintosh Route

How much? Now that depends. There are some great Hackintoshable PC laptops that are newer than G4 PowerBooks - even some brand new models - that are more powerful than a netbook while being just as small and light. Lenovo's two-year-old ThinkPad X61s weighs the same 3 lb. as most netbooks, has a keyboard that is far better than anything on any netbook, a display that OS X won't be strange with, and a fast Core 2 Duo with 9 hour battery options. If you get it with the "ThinkPad" wireless card instead of the Intel card, the WiFi will work with OS X out of the box, showing up as an AirPort Extreme card in the menu bar. Used, a nice one will fetch about $500. I would take an X61s over any netbook or used PowerBook if I needed a cheap OS X machine and was willing to Hackintosh a PC.

The Macintosh Route

I took the other route and added money. You get what you pay for, and what I wanted - a thin, light, fast OS X machine with no quirks - costs a lot. Still, you can save a bundle by shopping around. I bought my MacBook Air in June 2009, right when they got the last speed bump. Mine is the 1.86 GHz model with Nvidia 9400M graphics and the 128 GB SSD. It is 240 MHz (about 7.5%) slower than the model that replaced it, but otherwise identical. The day before I bought it, Apple sold them for $2,499, but I bought it end-of-life for $1,499, the same price as the current hard drive model.

$1,499 will buy you the new hard drive model or a refurbished 2.16 GHz SSD model. Yes, it's a lot more money than any netbook or Hackintosh, but it is a real Mac, and like any other real Mac, it just works and is fully supported by Apple on each and every OS X upgrade. I bought mine with OS X 1.05 Leopard, and OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard was an easy install with no hacking or mucking about required. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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