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Thursday, September 28, 2023

Switching to Windows? These Are the Best Mac Alternatives

Apple's MacBooks and Macs are unquestionably nice hardware, but they're also closely tied to macOS, an operating system that isn't for everyone. What if you want to play Fortnite or run computer-aided design programs? And now that Apple is transitioning to its own M1 chips, if you want to run Linux your only option is PC hardware.

With that in mind, we've put together a list of excellent Windows and Linux-based alternatives to the most popular Mac models. From the low end to beastly, 32-core prosumer rigs. Switching to PCs means you'll be able to grab the latest and greatest computers at a wide array of prices from any number of manufacturers, without having to light prayer candles at a shrine dedicated to Steve Wozniak.

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MacBook Air AlternativesBest Choice: Dell XPS 13 ($999)

Specs to look for: Intel Core i5, 8 GB RAM, 256 GB SSD

Apple's most portable notebook is one of our favorites. The new MacBook Air (9/10, WIRED Recommends) features Apple's M1 chip, and it is speedy, with stellar battery life. The Air ($999+) is defined by its form factor; it sacrifices power and ports to remain thin and light.

Fortunately for PC lovers, there are plenty of Air competitors. The top of the list is undoubtedly Dell's XPS 13 (9/10, WIRED Recommends). It shares the Air's light, thin design, solid construction, and all-metal shell. The extremely thin bezels on the XPS 13 mean the screen is larger than what you get in the Air, and if you opt for the 4K screen, it's considerably sharper as well.

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  • Microsoft Surface 3 Laptop (13-Inch) for $1,400: The Surface Laptop 3 (7/10, WIRED Recommends) makes a solid substitute for the MacBook Air. You get an eye-catching design, a great screen, and the only trackpad that's on par with what the Air offers. The downside is the price. For similar specs, you're paying a premium for Surface hardware. But then, maybe that makes it even more Mac-like.
  • Acer Swift 5 (14-Inch) for $1,300: The Swift 5 is incredibly thin and light, and it manages to have more ports than the Air, so you won't have to tote around a bunch of dongles and hubs just to download some photos from your SD card. It fares well in performance for the money, and it edges ahead of the Air in battery life.

13-Inch MacBook Pro AlternativesBest Choice: Lenovo Yoga 9i ($1,290)

Specs to look for: Intel Core i7, 16 GB RAM, 512 GB SSD

The 13-inch MacBook Pro ($1,499+) is a teeny bit thicker and correspondingly more powerful than the Air. The PC market has an overwhelming number of options in this space, making your decision daunting, but the standout from the dozens of laptops I've tried this year is Lenovo's 14-inch Yoga 9i. With an 11th-generation Intel Core i7 chip, 16 gigabytes of RAM, and a 512-gigabyte drive, it's still a bit less than a similarly configured 13-inch MacBook Pro.

While this isn't going to be a gaming powerhouse, it'll be enough for the casual gamer. Intel's Iris Xe integrated graphics card is capable of sustained 60-frames-per-second playback at 1080p resolution, which should be perfectly fine for low-intensive games like Fortnite or League of Legends. That extra power is also useful for editing video, though if that's your primary use, have a look at our following section.

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  • HP X360 Spectra for $1,370: The 2019 13-inch Spectre x360 (9/10, WIRED Recommends) was one of our favorites. The latest model brings a 4K OLED screen option, updated 10-generation Intel chips, and an option for 16 gigabytes of RAM. That you can get all this in a 13-inch, sub-three pound package for under $1,500 makes it a great deal. The battery life is also great.
  • Asus ZenBook Pro 14 for $1,500: The Zenbook Pro 14 has an older 8th-generation Intel i7 chip, but it partly makes up for that by adding a dedicated graphics card, the Nvidia MX250. (If you can still find the model UX480, you can get the more powerful GTX 1050 Max-Q.) The trackpad screen is gimmicky, but the speakers are top-notch, and performance is excellent.

16-Inch MacBook Pro AlternativesBest Choice: Asus ProArt StudioBook Pro 17 ($2,600)

Specs to look for: Intel Core i7, 32 GB RAM, 1 TB SSD

The 16-inch MacBook Pro ($2,399+) is a beast of a laptop aimed at creative pros for editing videos, color matching, 3D-rendering, and all those other processor intensive tasks that come with making content. It has a huge price tag, and sadly, so do the PC equivalents. If you want video editing power, you have to pay for it.

One of the best PC answers to Apple's 16-inch is the Asus StudioBook Pro. The higher-end model offers a six-core Intel Xeon processor, Nvidia Quadro RTX graphics card, 32 gigabytes of RAM, and a 2-terabyte drive. That's enough to handle the most demanding tasks.

Editing video? Check. Rendering 3D models? Check. 4K display? Alas, no. The screen's resolution is close through (3,840 x 2,160), and, more importantly for this use case, it offers impressive color calibration (for a laptop). The Pantone-validated screen covers 97 percent of the DCI-P3 wide color gamut, which is about as good a coverage as you'll get in this form factor. As an added bonus, the StudioBook Pro 17 somehow weighs just 5.3 pounds (a pound more than the 16-inch MacBook Pro).

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  • Dell XPS 17 for $1,400: The XPS 17 is an XPS 13 that's been gulping down the spinach to undergo a Popeye-like transition into a huge and powerful machine. It's not light, it's not small, but this top-end model has a 10th-generation Intel Core i7 chip, an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 graphics card, 32 gigabytes of RAM, and a 1-terabyte hard drive, which should be plenty, whether you're playing games or editing video.
  • Razer Blade Pro 17 for $2,600: If you want a top-end gaming experience on a laptop, this is your friend. The Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Max-Q can drive a 300-Hz refresh rate 1080p screen, and the Intel Core i7, along with 16 gigabytes of RAM and a 512-gigabyte SSD, should give you plenty of memory and storage space to play all your favorite titles.

Mac Mini AlternativesBest Choice: HP Z2 Mini G4 Workstation ($856)

Specs to look for: Intel Core i5, 8 GB RAM, 512 GB SSD

The brand-new Mac Mini (9/10 WIRED Recommends) features Apple's M1 chip and breathed a little life in what might be Apple's most overlooked PC. The Mini ($699+) is a great little machine, and it has inspired some excellent Windows-based competitors, like HP's Z2 Mini.

As with Apple's offering, the base model Z2 Mini is appealingly cheap but not very powerful (it starts with an Intel i3 chip, which you can upgrade). From there, you can choose from a staggering array of options to create everything from a cheap Plex-powered entertainment system to a $5,000 i7-powered monster complete with 64 gigabytes of RAM and a multi-terabyte SSD. Throw in a nice ultrawide monitor and you'd arguably have a decent alternative to the Mac Pro as well as the Mac Mini.

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  • Lenovo ThinkCentre M710Q Tiny for $419: Want a ThinkPad but in a box? The solid reliability of Lenovo's ThinkPads is also available in tiny desktop form. The midrange model with an Intel i5, 8 gigabytes of RAM, and a 256-gigabyte SSD makes for a great Plex server.
  • Intel Nuc 7 Mini PC for $450: If you find the Mac Mini's low power requirements appealing, have a look at the Intel Nuc. It's not quite as power-sipping as a Raspberry Pi, but it has a much more powerful chip than the Pi and can handle a wider range of tasks (although the new mode Pis are also potential Mac Mini replacements depending on your use case).

iMac AlternativesBest Choice: HP Envy Curved All-in-One ($2,180)

Specs to look for: Intel Core i5, 8 GB RAM, 512 GB SSD

We take the iMac design for granted these days, but I still struggle to see the appeal. Is it so awful to have a separate PC and monitor connected by—the horror—a cable? That $10 cable means you can upgrade your monitor without touching your PC, or upgrade your PC and leave your sweet 4K ultrawide as is. Whereas if you had an iMac ($1,099+), you have to spring for a whole new iMac every time you want to upgrade something.

If you really must have an all-in-one, the machine I'd recommend checking out is HP's Envy Curved All-in-One. With a wide, 34-inch curved display, you get the real estate of two separate monitors in one contiguous LCD panel.

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Assuming you don't have a problem with a PC and monitor that are separate pieces, there is no shortage of options that are far cheaper than the HP or the iMac. Dell's XPS desktop line ($700+) is excellent, as are HP's Pavilion Desktops.

Mac Pro AlternativesBest Choice: A DIY System

Specs to look for: Intel Core i9, 32 GB RAM, 2+ TB storage

The Mac Pro starts at $5,999 for the 8-core model with 32 GB of RAM and a 256-GB solid-state drive. That can be configured up to a 28-core model with 1.5 terabytes of RAM. A Pro Display XDR monitor—a new Apple product as well—to go along with your workstation will set you back another $4,999 for the base model, bringing the cost of a full setup to $11,000. And that's just the entry-level configuration.

To get that kind of power in a PC you're probably best off buying the components and building it yourself. This is what, for example, film studios do to create powerful editing workstations, but it's complicated and time-consuming. This is why Mac Pro's are so popular among those who need this kind of computing power, but don't want the hassle of building their own system. If you want to wade into this world, read our guide to building your own PC.

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  • Dell Precision 7820 for $1,829: The closest ready-made Windows option is the Dell Precision 7820 with a six-core Xeon-powered workstation and works its way up to the dual Xeon Platinum 8268 machine.
  • System 76 Thelio Massive for $3,000: Another option is to move to a Linux-based machine, like System76's Thelio desktop. The Thelio is made in the US and features a lovely wooden, sci-fi-inspired tower that wraps around AMD chips. The base model matches up decently against the Mac Pro, but a Thelio Massive, specced to match the top-of-the-line Mac Pro, will set you back $18,801. While the Thelio is a powerful machine that can hold its own against the Mac Pro, the gotcha for creative professionals is that Adobe's photo- and video-editing software does not support Linux, the operating system that ships with it.

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