Apple Tax or Not Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks vs. 13 MacBook Air

Earlier this week Apple announced updates to its entire notebook lineup, bringing it up to date with an Ivy Bridge processor and a few other goodies. Like them, many other computer makers have been showcasing new and updated laptops over the past few days and weeks at trade events like Computex, with major partners including Intel, AMD and Nvidia rolling out their latest and greatest products.

Ultrabooks in particular garnered a lot of attention, and we weren’t surprised. Intel is putting a lot of weight behind the concept and expects it to be the main driver of PC market growth in the short term. Apple has already experienced some of this with the MacBook Air, which has quickly become one of the best-sellers in the Mac lineup. If you’re looking to buy an ultrabook-style portable, this is definitely the laptop to beat.

With all of this in mind, we’re taking some of Wintel’s alternatives to test how well they stack up next to the new 13-inch MacBook Air and perhaps the so-called “Apple Tax” regarding the old one. Let’s settle the debate – at least in this category, since there’s no way a single comparison is representative of the entire Apple tax argument.

If raw hardware specs are all you care about then it shouldn’t be a difficult decision; Your dollar will go a little further with ultrabook options like Asus and Samsung. For example, a $1,000 Samsung Series 5 will get you the same amount of memory and storage, plus $200 less with a slightly smaller processor than the MacBook Air, or the same specs as the ZenBook Prime (minus 1600 x 900 res) $100 less For. If you can settle for an Ultrabook with HDD storage instead of an SSD, the Series 5 is a good deal at $800.

Port selection varies but in our opinion not enough to impress you one way or another. Then again if you want 256GB of flash storage then the MacBook Air and ZenBook Prime are priced similarly, but Asus throws in a better 1920 x 1080 resolution display and an even bigger Core i7 3517U chip for an overall better deal.

Of course, there are a few other things to keep in mind when you look at the full picture.

Keyboard and touchpad: These are both areas where Apple excels, and while Asus has improved the typing experience in its previous models with a built-in backlight, touchpad gestures work inconsistently — probably a Windows thing. The glass touchpad on the MacBook Air is second to none.

Display quality: All three options compared here are more or less the same when it comes to display quality on the base model, but the $1,499 ZenBook Prime is really in another league. Its screen is quite bright and its pixel density is 165 ppi vs 125 ppi on the air.

SSD performance: We have yet to see a comparison between the 2012 MacBook Air and the latest generation of Ultrabooks. That said, assuming the 2011 model is faster than the ZenBook Prime UX 31A in file transfer tests, we expect Apple to maintain or increase that lead.

Battery life: Apple quotes the same battery life spec for the 2012 MacBook Air as it did for the previous model. According to this, the ZenBook Prime should now be more or less on par with Apple’s machine, as the latest UX31A model lasted 6 hours and 28 minutes with a Core i7 processor in Laptopmag’s tests.

final thoughts

So, is the “Apple Tax” real or not? Apple is relatively in line with the competition when it comes to its base model — or, rather, the competition has caught up with some genuine alternatives to the MacBook Air. Apple wins in some respects and loses in others, but there isn’t much difference in price that can’t be justified by the quality of the components used. However, as soon as you start cranking up the specs, you notice that Apple’s upgrade carries a bigger premium than most of the competition.

I didn’t look into software as it’s a personal preference which will vary on a case-by-case basis. Apple fans swear by OS X and many of them won’t consider switching to anything else than Windows users, even if it means paying a little more.

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