Apple’s MacBook and Lenovo’s ThinkPad T-Series are two of the strongest dynasties in the computing space. Both have been built continually for at least seven years, both come in several different varieties, and both have repeatedly received high marks.
Each line offers its own take on the small, ultra-portable notebook form factor. Apple’s entry is the MacBook Pro 13 with Retina, while Lenovo’s alternative is the 14-inch ThinkPad T440s. These systems are roughly the same size, have similar hardware, and are almost identically priced when equipped with identical specs. Either will serve a traveling professional well – but which is the best?
Design & Features
The MacBook Pro, though it grows thinner with each incarnation, looks more or less the same today as it did five years ago. Still, when put up against the Lenovo, it’s clear that Apple wins on curb appeal. Though thinner than any preceding T-series, the T440s is thicker, heavier and less attractive than its rival. The carbon fiber and magnesium body boasted by the ThinkPad may be durable, but its feels and looks a bit cheap, a problem most buyers will notice at first touch.
You might expect the ThinkPad to make up for its aesthetic issues with improved functionality, but you’d be wrong. The MacBook matches the Lenovo’s two USB 3.0 ports and then ups the ante with two ThunderBolt ports. And though both have excellent keyboards, the Pro’s touchpad is still the best in the business, while the T440s is saddled with one of the worst touchpads we’ve used in 2013. Both have a 720p webcam and both support the full range of 802.11 Wi-Fi standards including the latest; 802.11ac.
While a 4th-gen Core processor is standard in each of these rivals, the MacBook has the ThinkPad at a bit of a disadvantage. Base models of the T440s come with the Core i5-4200U and the best processor available is the Core i7-4600U, while the Pro with Retina comes standard with a Core i5-4258, which has a higher base clock but a lower maximum clock than the Core i7-4600U. Overall, the MacBook will outrun the base T440s, while an upgraded T440s will be about on par.
Of course, this comparison isn’t exactly apples-to-apples (hah!) because these systems don’t run the same operating system. All you really need to know is that both can handle day-to-day tasks and demanding software without a hitch.
One area where the Mac has an undeniable edge, however, is 3D performance. This is because the MacBook Pro with Retina 13-inch has Intel Iris graphics, which is superior to the Intel HD 4400 graphics chip used by the T440s. While fewer games are available for the Mac, those that are available should be playable at slightly higher detail settings and/or a higher resolution.
There’s not much room for argument here; the MacBook Pro 13 with Retina wins, end of story. The Mac’s 2560 x 1600 display offers more pixels, brilliant color and excellent contrast. While the T440s also has a quality screen, it simply can’t match the MacBook.
The ThinkPad isn’t more usable in bright environments either, because it has a semi-gloss display instead of the matte panel found on older models. Reflections are a bit less prominent on the T440s, but this advantage is negated by the Mac’s brighter display backlight.
The basic T440s comes with a 500 GB mechanical hard drive. This gives it a big boost in storage capacity compared to the Macbook, but it also results in a less responsive unit. No mechanical drive can keep pace with flash memory, period.
ThinkPad buyers can upgrade to either a 1TB hard drive for more capacity, or choose between a 128GB or 240GB solid state drive. Going the SSD route adds $170 or $370, respectively, to the price.
The MacBook, which comes standard with a 128GB SSD, doesn’t allow buyers to choose a bigger drive as a stand-alone option. Buyers must instead pay for an upgraded model. The first step-up model is $200 more than the base and includes a 256GB SSD along with eight gigabytes of RAM (up from the default four). The second step-up model is $500 more than the base and includes a 512GB SSD, eight gigabytes of RAM and a faster processor.
So far, the MacBook has an edge over the ThinkPad, but the T440s does have a trick up its sleeve. Instead of using a single internal battery, it has two batteries, one internal and one external. The standard external battery is a small unit that brings combined power to 47 watt-hours, but a larger six-cell pack can be swapped in to bring total capacity to an awesome 93.5 watt-hours. Apple’s MacBook Pro 13 with Retina, by comparison, has a 71.8 watt-hour battery.
In terms of battery life, each laptop performs as the number suggest they would. With its smaller battery, the ThinkPad doesn’t last as long as the MacBook, but with the larger pack swapped in, the T440s provides record-setting endurance. The ThinkPad’s internal battery also makes it possible to hot swap; you can keep the laptop running as long as you have fresh batteries available.
The MacBook Pro 13 with Retina is hardly an unwilling travel companion, as its endurance is also near the top of its class. Apple’s laptop is also lighter and smaller in every dimension, though not by much. The ThinkPad’s extra bulk becomes a larger issue with the six-cell battery factored in, which juts out from the bottom of the laptop and adds a few ounces of weight.
Price & Conclusion
An entry-level T440s sells for $950, which is $350 less than the MacBook Pro 13 with Retina. The base model lacks a 1080p display or a solid state drive, however, and has a slower processor. Upgrading the ThinkPad to parity with the Mac increases its price to over $1,400; a $100 premium over the entry level MacBook Pro 13 with Retina.
And that’s really the final nail in the ThinkPad’s coffin. Though it’s certainly not a bad laptop, it clearly falls short of the MacBook in design, display quality and overall performance. Lenovo can only claim victory in portability with the optional six-cell battery, an upgrade which costs just five bucks, but also adds bulk to the T440s.
Apple’s current MacBook Pro lineup is surprising because there no longer seems to be an “Apple tax” applied to the price. Instead, the company is offering laptops that are not only well built, but also less expensive than the alternatives. Even the best PC laptops struggle to keep up with this latest Pro, and the merely good ThinkPad T440s can’t hope to compete.