For the fourth year in a row Apple takes top prize in our Best & Worst Brands. Why? Apple placed first in five of eight categories, including reviews, design, keyboards and touchpads, display and audio, and software. Apple also grabbed second place in our tech support category. The only area where Apple falls flat is value because the brand doesn’t play in the low-cost laptop space. Overall, though, Apple continues to epitomize the best of the best.
A perfect 20 out of 20 is a key reason why Apple keeps its top honors again this year. Although we only reviewed three notebooks from Apple, all notched a score of four stars or higher, and all received an Editors’ Choice. The top laptop from 2012 was the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, which had a groundbreaking screen, superb performance, long battery life and a slim design.
Just call it the design that launched 1,000 notebooks. Ever since the MacBook Pro’s debut in 2006 and the Air’s subsequent launch in 2008, the industry has been flooded with laptops trying to copy those clean lines and futuristic minimalist designs that are patently Apple. Once again, Apple has shaved the fat, making both the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros with Retina display remarkably thin and light while cramming the chassis full of high-end components. However, we’d love for Apple to add some color back into the mix, à la the iPod nano.
Apple simply offers the best keyboard and trackpad experience around, even beating out our perennial favorite of Lenovo this year. The 13-inch MacBook Air’s keyboard has a similar feel to its predecessor, which is a good thing, as “it’s hard to improve on perfection.”Similarly, the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display was cited for its “springy feedback, plenty of travel and evenly backlit keys,” which is exactly what we look for in a great keyboard. Apple’s trackpads also received high praise for their large size and smooth operation. Words such as “effortless” and “flawless” were just some of the accolades we laid out for the MacBooks’ trackpads.
We appreciated Apple’s Express Lane Web service, which proposes help articles, and the accurate phone staff who answered our queries in a reasonable amount of time. Plus, Genius Bars continue to be an invaluable source of in-person support. Those factors, however, were only enough for a second-place tie with Samsung. Apple missed the top spot in this category because of its lack of live chat and help via social networking channels.
Apple managed to outdo itself this past year, putting Retina displays in two of its notebooks. The 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros both feature the highest resolution displays in a notebook, with 226 and 217 PPI, respectively. All of Apple’s laptops feature bright displays and great viewing angles, including the non-Retina MacBook Air. MacBooks tend to pump out better audio than most systems in their size and weight category. Apple scored a point higher this year compared to last because of its Retina displays.
Although Apple’s selection is still limited to two main lines, the company has added two new MacBook Pros with Retina display, expanding its total catalog to six systems. Apple’s cheapest clamshell starts at a premium $999 (the 11-inch Air) and the most affordable Retina display model starts at $1,499. Apple machines are available everywhere, though, from Apple stores and Best Buy to NewEgg.com. Spec upgrades are available through Apple.com when you configure to order, but are often more costly than similar upgrades from Lenovo and Toshiba. We think Apple could use a notebook under $800 at a time when the average laptop price is around $500 and even cheaper Chromebooks are taking off.
On the MacBook Air front, Apple did little to move the innovation needle during the past year. Shoppers pretty much got spec bumps. However, the MacBook Pro with Retina display proved the company could up the resolution ante on screens in a big way. And unlike Windows machines that have full HD resolutions, Apple didn’t make icons on the desktop so small that you need a magnifying glass to discern them. For what it’s worth, Apple is the only notebook maker that has Thunderbolt ports on all of its laptops, but there’s still a dearth of high-speed peripherals that can take advantage of these ports.
With Mountain Lion, Apple improved on the operating system front by adding such features as Notification Center, Mission Control and iMessage, which lets you communicate with any iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. Sharing via Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and Vimeo is built into select apps. Gatekeeper keeps you safe from malware and other security threats. The iLife multimedia suite also makes a return and gives amateur artists a pretty big canvas with which to perfect their next movie, photo or tune.
Best and Worst Notebook Brands 2013