Apple makes some of the most specialised mainstream devices around, but the gear is never very cheap and, let's face it, it stinks for any one company to own your wallet. So here are the best alternatives for each iProduct:
Apple iPhone 3GS ($US199) -> Motorola Droid ($US199) When the iPhone was released, it was a generation, at least, beyond the entire smartphone market. Now, many manufacturers have worked hard to catch up. And while the iPhone is still my personal favourite, I understand wanting a phone on the Verizon network rather than AT&T. Besides, the Droid hardware is fantastic, and its software, Android 2.0, feels far more like a full-featured OS than the original. Just as we said in our full review, "It's this simple: If you don't buy an iPhone, buy a Droid." (AU: Until the Droid launches in Australia, I'd suggest the HTC Hero (on anyone but Optus, who block paid apps on the Android Marketplace)
What you gain: • Physical keyboard • Fewer dropped calls • Memory slot expansion
What you lose: • iTunes integration • Decent built-in media player
iPod Touch ($US199, 8GB) -> Zune HD ($US219, 16GB) I know, I know. Why buy a Zune? If you're heavily invested in iTunes albums, the answer is, no reason. But for those who are willing to break from the Apple music infrastructure, the Zune HD is actually an awesome PMP. The aluminium case is very sharp, with an OLED screen that's richer than any iPod (though slightly worse in the sun). The Zune software, coupled with optional unlimited download subscription packages, is every bit as hip and convenient as Cover Flow and iTunes, provided you run Windows. Oh, also, you don't need to drop $US300 to get a decent amount of storage and you get HD TV-Out and a not-so-bad TV interface to boot. So when you're sick of the little screen, you can go as big as you'd like. (AU: With no Zune in Australia, there aren't any standout non-Apple PMPs. Grey import time?)
What you gain: • 8GB more storage (base model) • HD Radio • Unlimited music subscription with free MP3s • HD TV-Out and an on-screen TV interface
What you lose: • iTunes integration • About a billion apps
iPod Nano ($US180, 16GB) -> Flip Ultra HD ($US150) The obvious contender to the iPod Nano used to be the Zune 16. But now? You can't even get that model of Zune. And with a built-in camcorder, be it a bit on the crappy side, the Nano truly is a unique contender in its space. However, I ask you this: Don't you already have an MP3 player? Seriously, it's not possible that you don't. OK then, just buy the Flip Ultra HD, the best bang for your buck pocket camcorder on the market. And use your old iPod because it probably still works fine.
What you gain: • HD video
What you lose: • I mean, it's not an iPod, or any kind of media player, obviously
iPod Shuffle ($US100, 4GB) -> Sansa Clip+ ($US70, 8GB) The new Shuffle is basically nonexistent, a device that, while remarkable in terms of minimalist design, may be a tad difficult to wield when you just want to play that one song you want to hear. Enter the Sansa Clip+, an chunky but still tiny MP3 player lauded by audiophiles (if such a thing is possible) that supports up to 16GB of MicroSD expansion. Save even more money by buying the 2GB version (just $US40) and sticking in a spare MicroSD. And as we said in our review, the Clip+ is "the best low-end mp3 player on the market, without question."
What you gain: • Sound quality • MicroSD expansion • An actual screen • Voice recorder • The freedom to choose any headphones
What you lose: • iTunes • Trash-talking Voice Over function
Apple TV ($US229, 160GB) -> Asus O!Play ($US99) No matter what direction you go, you're pretty much always better off not buying an Apple TV. It's basically a closed box that hates supporting not only external codecs but external drives, too, and you can forget about navigating to files on your own network—even ones stored on your precious Time Capsule. The $US99 Asus O!Play is our favourite budget way to play media in any codec under the sun, from files on a Mac or PC formatted drive or streamed from pretty much any NAS drive. As for watching movies on demand, chances are, your cable box already does that. Need more options? The LG BD390 is an excellent Wi-Fi-equipped Blu-ray player with Netflix and Vudu video, and DivX support. And heck, I'd even recommend the $US199 Xbox 360 as a Netflix/DivX machine with Windows Media centre Extender capabilities. Basically, you can't go wrong here. Everything is better than Apple TV, unless you have a library full of purchased iTunes music and movies, and if you do, you probably have Apple TV already, so go enjoy it.
What you gain: • Mega codec support • Ability to stream your video files from computers and NAS drives • Cash in your pocket
What you lose: • The iTunes video ball and chain
MacBook ($US999) -> Dell Studio 14z ($US750) As Mark Spoonauer said in our best Windows laptop roundup, "Think of it as the poor man's MacBook-with better specs." No, the Dell Studio 14z doesn't run OS X, but the Core 2 Duo laptop weighs 130 grams lighter than a MacBook while offering 1GB more RAM (base), 70GB more storage, a backlit keyboard and nicer built-in speakers.
What you gain: • More storage • More RAM • Backlit keyboard • Less weight
What you lose: • OS X • Optical drive • Flash card reader
MacBook Pro ($US1200) -> HP Envy ($US1700) I'm not sure anyone should actually choose the 13-inch Envy (full review) over the 13-inch MacBook Pro (full review), but the Envy is the closest knock-off on the market. For the $US500 Envy premium, you do shed 360 grams off the MacBook Pro, coming in at just 1.6kg (which is crazy-light for a laptop of this size). And you'll score an extra GB of RAM along with a more powerful, discrete Radeon HD 4330 graphics. But we're still talking about $US500 extra for a computer that, ultimately, doesn't feel as solid as a unibody Mac. Plus, if you really want to run Win 7, that plays just fine on the MBP, too. As for the MBP 15, there's really no ideal alternative. And if you were considering the 15-inch Envy, think again.
What you gain: • More overall power • Less weight • Prettier screen
What you lose: • OS X • Optical drive • Frame rigidity
iMac ($US1200, 21.5-inch) -> HP TouchSmart 600 ($US1,050, 23-inch) The latest iMac (full review) is a beautiful machine, no doubt. But there are alternatives to this famed all-in-one. Our favourite is the HP TouchSmart 600 (full review), which is sort of the souped-up Civic to Apple's classic Porsche. Both will do a quarter mile in the same time—with Core 2 Duo processors—but the TouchSmart has the shiny detailing and LED underlighting of a street racer, while sprucing up the package with a decent touch display coupled with special Twitter, Facebook and even recipe box apps designed for the system. Especially as a kitchen computer, the HP TouchSmart is a valid alternative to the iMac.
What you gain: • Larger, touchscreen • Glitzy accents with customisable LED underlighting • Clever apps • HDMI input for home theatre fun
What you lose: • OS X • Understated design
MacBook Air ($US1500) -> Dell Adamo XPS ($US2000) There's only one laptop on the market that can confidently purge alongside the MacBook Air, and that's the Dell Adamo XPS. While the price premium seems absurd at first, keep in mind that the Adamo XPS, at about half the thickness of the Air, is loaded with a 128GB flash drive and 4GB of RAM stock (while the MacBook Air will run $US1800 in a similar SSD configuration and maxed at 2GB of RAM). If you're considering an Air, you want a computer that says "I'm good at spending money." And the Adamo XPS will most certainly fulfil that need.
What you gain: • 1 USB port • Ethernet jack • 2GB of RAM • A clasp that opens from the heat of your finger
What you lose: • OS X • About $US500
Mac Mini ($US600) -> Acer AspireRevo R6310 ($US330) If I had the choice between a Mac Mini (full review) and the AspireRevo R6310—spending someone else's money—I would still choose the Revo for its HTPC prowess. The Mac Mini has always been a promising system falling just short of its potential in terms of both price and performance. Meanwhile, the absurdly cheap Revo, equipped with Ion tech that's more than happy to handle 1080p video outputted to your TV through HDMI (as opposed to Apple's need for funky wiring and/or hard-to-find specialised adapters), is kind enough to include 2GB RAM, 160GB HDD, HDMI, eSATA, VGA, 6 USB ports, card reader, wireless-N and a wireless keyboard and mouse for roughly half the price of a Mini. The only thing the Revo isn't optimal for is browsing Flash pages, that is, until we finally see an update that makes Ions and Flash play well together.
What you gain: • HDMI out • 1 USB port • eSATA port • Wireless keyboard and mouse • Like $US300
What you lose: • OS X • FireWire
Time Capsule (1TB, $US299) -> D-Link DIR-685 (Expandable, $US215) The convenience of a Time Capsule, a combination wireless router and NAS, is tough to beat because it's so unique. But I wouldn't call the task impossible. The D-Link DIR-685 (full review) is a wireless-N router with a range that's competitive with Apple's own AirPort Extreme. You choose your storage capacity by sticking in your own 2.5-inch drive. Oh, plus it's a photo frame, BitTorrent downloader, iTunes server, FTP server, network file sharing with user management and even a UPnP streamer to video players. The only thing it isn't? Time Machine compliant. I know, I know. If you're willing to part with the built-in router, however, then another excellent choice is the Iomega Ix2-200 NAS (full review)—and that is Time Machine capable.
What you gain: • Swappable storage • Tons of advanced networking features • BitTorrent downloading • Media flexibility • Digital photo frame
What you lose: • Time Machine support (if this is a problem, check out Iomega's alternative)
Mac Pro ($US2,500) -> Hackintosh (far less $$$) There is one reason you want to buy a Mac Pro, and that's for OS X. So I'm not going to waste time by pretending there's any suitable alternative by someone like Dell or HP. Your best bet is to build a Hackintosh, a custom PC with a bootlegged OS X. Just keep in mind, you won't be able to build this system like any old Windows PC—you'll need to follow a guide with pretested hardware to construct something you can be sure will work. Luckily, such a guide is available, built by our friends from Lifehacker (see it here).
What you gain: • Literally, thousands of dollars • Gaudy case mods
What you lose: • Peace of mind (there's always the slight chance of Hackintosh deactivation) • Easy component upgrades