Mac vs Dell for Software Development with Cost Breakdown 2020

My 2015 Mac Book Pro is getting a little old and tired. I recently joined a project that uses a docker-compose configuration that spins up 8 separate containers. It barely works on my Mac. It takes a long time to start and performance is terrible system wide while it is running. So it was time for me to bite the bullet and either get a new Mac, or look into a Windows or Linux laptop.

2015 Mac Book Pro 13

TLDR;

  • Get the Mac Book Pro if you have the money (or it is your employer’s money, hehe).
  • Get the Dell if you want maximum power for the price and care about replaceable parts.
  • Reformatting the Dell to Linux is a sweet spot for computing power and ease of development if your use case supports it.
  • If you go with the Dell don’t kid yourself that you are saving money. Your time is very valuable as a software developer. Windows will waste it here and there (windows update churning in the background, command line quirks, hard to find certain packages, etc). That isn’t to say that macOS is free of these annoyances, they are there, but to a lesser degree.

You know, I really hate this trend of bigger and bigger virtual images to run what amounts to a web server and a database.  For a large team on a project with dozens of dependencies it does make sense. However, when I’m developing solo I get by just fine with local packages.

I’ve been holding off on a new Mac because in 2016 Apple went a few steps backwards. The controversial touch bar and the redesigned keyboard have gotten horrible reviews. At the same time their prices keep going up but performance lags. I will really miss the magnetic charging port. It’s pure genius, why remove it? It has saved my laptop from hitting the floor a few times. Did you know a replacement charger for a 2015 Mac Book Pro is about $75!?

In bargaining with myself, yes I could live without a physical escape key and a crappy keyboard because most of the time I hook up to an external monitor and use the Apple Magic Keyboard and Magic Trackpad 2. These are 2-3x the price of Windows peripherals, but they are really awesome. Every Windows touchpad I’ve tried jumps around like crazy and has a rough texture. The Magic Trackpad 2 is as accurate as a mouse and is smooth like glass.

apple magic keyboard and trackpad

Faced with the prospect of buying all new dongles and having to fight through the bugs involved with macOS Catalina (which I’m currently holding off on), I took a look at my old friend the Dell Outlet.

The Dell Outlet sells machines that have been returned for whatever reason. Dell is just trying to get rid of them. They are discounted way below retail. The outlet runs specials on a regular basis and offers free shipping. I used to work at a company where everyone ran Dell Outlet hardware. We purchased from them over 50 times. Most of the stock is labeled as “scratch and dent”, but I never saw one that I could tell had any problems.

When looking at Dell the first thing I did was rule out the Inspiron class completely, which is the cheapest level. I looked closely at XPS and Precision, but the prices really jump up. I ended up going with a middle of the road business line, the Vostro. It comes in a 14” model which is about perfect. Mine came with a regular Intel graphics chip but if you dig around on the outlet you can find ones with Nvidia or Radeon graphics on board which is a nice bonus if you do the occasional gaming session.

In terms of OS, you can generally reformat a Dell to run Linux which I recommend. Sometimes you’ll run into a boot issue or device driver error. If you are buying on the outlet that model has probably already been out for long enough that you can get help by googling.

When it comes to Windows the Pro version is the way to go. With the Pro version BitLocker is included, which offers full drive encryption. As a developer you’ll want to activate that if you have anything beyond cat pictures on your machine. Most of the Dell business machines come with Windows Pro by default.

Here is the breakdown between my new Vostro and a middle of the road 2019 Mac Book Pro:

Dell Vostro 14” – 5481 2019 Mac Book Pro 13” 
CPU Intel i7-8565U 1.8 – 4.6 GHz Quad Core i5-8279U 2.4 – 4.1 GHz Quad Core
RAM 16GB 2666MHz DDR4 8GB 2133MHz LPDDR3
Storage 512GB SSD 512GB SSD
Screen 14 inch FHD (1920 x 1080) Anti-Glare LED-Backlit Non Touch Display Retina Display
Ports Ports galore (USB, HDMI, SD Card, Headphones,, RJ-45) Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports
Replaceable / Upgradable Parts Yes No
Realistic Battery Life While Doing Software Development 3-4 hours 7-10 hours
Price $646.00 $1,999.00

Here is the score card:

Winner Notes
CPU Mac The Mac’s i5 is actually a bit faster than the Dell’s i7 according to this breakdown.
RAM Dell The Dell has twice as much memory which is super important for running virtual machines.
Storage Dell The Dell’s HDD is replaceable while Mac’s is soldered to the board.
Screen Mac Retina displays are awesome, but if you dock and leave the lid closed it is moot.
Ports Dell Dell has the old school USB / HDMI ports, the Mac requires dongles which you have to purchase on your own.
Replaceable / Upgradable Parts Dell The Dell is designed to have the hard drive, battery, and even RAM upgraded. The Mac is a sealed product.
Battery Mac The Mac battery is way better. This is moot when you dock. Still I do get “range anxiety” when I’m on battery.
Price Dell You could buy a new Dell every year, compared to a new Mac every 3-4 years.
Development Experience Mac I have to admit the Mac experience is a lot smoother.

Dell with Linux comes close for some use cases.

Good for developing on complex containerized projects Dell I doubt 8GB of RAM is enough.

So which is better, Mac or Dell?

The Mac wins, begrudgingly, but it depends. Honestly they both work and a good developer should be able to get their job done on Mac, Linux, or Windows without a problem.

However, I’m not so sure the 13” MPB above with only 8 GB of RAM would handle the huge dockerized development environment I mentioned at the beginning of this post. You have to jump up to the 15” MBP model to get 16GB of RAM, and those start at $2,399. Personally I don’t want to lug around a $2400 machine, nor a 15” sized laptop.

Is the Mac really worth an extra $1353?

Yes. If the Mac “experience” saves you 1 minute a day it will pay for itself. Here’s the math:

  • A software developer’s fully loaded cost is $100/hr – benefits, payroll taxes, retirement plan, paid time off, training, hourly wage, etc.
  • In terms of developer time, it would take a savings of 13.5 hours over the life of the laptop to make up for the extra price of the Mac. (1999 – 646) / 100 = 13.5
  • The laptop lasts 3 years.
  • There are 261 working days in a year.
  • [ 13.5 hours / (261 (work day / year) * 3 years) ] * 60 minutes / hour = 1.035 minutes / work day
  • Windows updates alone will rob you of at least 1 minute per day.

They why did I buy a Dell?

For one thing, I already have a Mac I really like. I needed something cheap and powerful for this one particular project. That is where the Dell comes in. For $646 I’m able to allocate 2 cores and 8GB to the docker-composer instance which makes it just as fast as regular local development (even though the fans do come on frequently).

This situation is causing me to jump between keyboard layouts, but I just can’t let go of my Mac on my other projects! Turns out as a contractor I need both Windows and Mac in my toolbag.

In my review of Windows development I am glad to say it is getting a lot better for Python / PHP projects. Microsoft is building an open source terminal app. Then there is Windows Subsystem Linux, which is like having a tightly integrated Linux VM running all the time under the hood. Visual Studio gets a lot of great reviews. I’m still using IntelliJ (WebStorm / PyCharm, etc) but I look forward to trying it out soon.

What I’ve learned is: Apple has everyone where they want them, even a pragmatist like myself.

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6 Responses to Mac vs Dell for Software Development with Cost Breakdown 2020

  1. Scott G says:

    I’m running a late 2012 MBP 13″ Retina — yep, it’s showing it’s age and I don’t run VMs, containers or even Xcode right now, but I will eventually. But — I will not upgrade until Apple fixes their keyboards. That’s what’s holding me back right now. Will wait for the scissors based keyboards, and probably a few months after release for them to shake out any issues.

    One thing that I think is erroneous in your article: the 13″ MBP can be configured with 16 GB of memory, you aren’t stuck with 8GB, as it seems you imply.

    • Laurence says:

      Correct, in the Apple store after selecting a 13″ model you can boost it to 16GB of RAM for an extra $200.

    • Cole says:

      Great writeup, Laurence! I will say that I did recently breakdown and buy a 2017 touchbar MPB 13″. It’s been a handy little machine and seems to pull its weight for my meager front-end stack (just a local node server) Webpack builds and test suites run quite snappily.

      One thing wanted to mention is the port situation. While it’s true you need a converter/adapter for basically everything, one way around this is to buy a dock. Pluggable has a great one for $99. Its tiny (think Amazon fire TV, the set top box), mounts right on the back of my monitor, and handles all my peripherals. Then I just run 1 usb-c cord to my MPB and it just works: video, power, and data. Very slick IMO!

  2. Parker says:

    First thoughts:
    1) Keep in mind that intel gen 6+ (SkyBridge?) architecture allows >16gb ram.
    I replaced most of my home infra to 32gb+ for docker & pipeline build/deploy variations. No regrets.
    – My HP gen 5 Envy i7 is 6yo+ and still rocks – upgraded to dual SSD and max RAM, UbuntuOS.
    – Lenovo’s Thinkpad p8400 series is a great desk anchor and (very) occasional travel buddy.
    Something to consider…
    2) I *crush* on linux but… linux is *terrible* for power conservation on the road – somehow the kernel masters have never figured out how to calibrate the fan to power-consumption. The fan is always on and really churning during project compilations.
    3) grudgingly impressed by macos stability in spite of my 100’s of chrome windows and callous regard for system resources
    4) How do folks keep the key-combos for mac & pc in their heads. I am contantly rearranging windows and triggering system panels across my hardware

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