1) If Apple is OK - do consider them. Quality wise not many other notebooks will come close.
2) I suggest looking at screen first and foremost. Vast majority of notebooks have rather bad 768p TN panels. If you will limit your choice to at least 1600x900 or above (assuming 15") choice will become easier since you will look only at few models. And it is still doable within your price range if you stay away from Sony.