Mac vs. PC Cost Analysis – Round 1

The debate about whether — or not — Macs are more expensive than PCs has been raging on the Internet for more than a decade. There are some hard realities about the discussion, and there are also some myths. As a longtime Windows guy who has recently migrated to the Mac, I think I’m in a good position to put this discussion into honest context.

For all those people who have ever bought Packard Bell or eMachines PCs — and who continue to believe that great value in a Windows computer is any model that sells for $600 or less — I agree: Apple doesn’t have an answer for you. In fact, I suggest you skip this article entirely. You’re not going to find anything of interest.

It’s the Hardware
For those of you who are left, what my research shows is that neither the Macintosh nor the field of Windows PCs has a lock on good value. If you view this discussion from Apple’s side, what you’ll be doing is starting with Apple’s relatively short list of SKUs (three or four model variations for each of its lines, such as MacBook Pro, MacBook, and iMac) and then looking for Windows machines that are comparable. Apple bests the competition in some spots, though not always. But the pricing is surprisingly on par.

The reality is that there are Windows machines that fit in between Mac SKUs. And in those niches, they represent very good values. But when they Windows and Mac models meet square on, the answer is not so clear cut. That in itself may be a surprise to many Windows people. Only a few years ago, it was a no-brainer that Windows hardware was much cheaper. But if you’re talking name-brand hardware, that’s no longer the case.

As an exercise, I spent an hour working on Dell’s site, trying to find the cheapest notebook that offered everything Apple’s top of the line, $2,799 MacBook Pro 17 provides. That includes a glossy 17-inch screen, 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB RAM, 256MB video RAM, 160GB 5400-rpm SATA hard drive, 8x slot-loading SuperDrive (DVD+R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW), Gigabit Ethernet port, 54Mbps WiFi (upgradeable to 802.11n), Bluetooth 2.0+EDR, ExpressCard/34 card slot, three USB ports, one FireWire 800 port, one FireWire 400 port, DVI port, built-in iSight video camera, and a one-year warranty (upgradeable to three years). See Apple’s full MacBook Pro tech specs (since revised, of course).

Important Note: Apple upgraded its MacBook Pro line fairly significantly on Tuesday, June 5. The research for this part of the newsletter was conducted a couple days earlier. Apple didn’t raise its prices. The changes amount to one thing: The value proposition grew a good notch or two stronger for the MacBook Pros with the addition of the Intel Santa Rosa platform (or “Centrino Pro,” as Intel has dubbed it), better NVidia video, and other improvements. I did not have time to revise this story to reflect the changes to the MacBook Pro. But Apple did have time to revise its spec sheet.

I was a little surprised to find that Dell’s Inspiron line doesn’t currently offer processing power equaling that of the MacBook Pro. To get the 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo processor, you have to change up to Dell’s more expensive XPS M1710 model with Vista Home Premium.

The Dell has some extra ports and things (six USB ports instead of three, for example), but it also weighs nearly two pounds more than the MacBook Pro and is much chunkier (1.69-inch thick as opposed to the MacBook Pro’s 1-inch thickness).

But here’s the truly surprising number: The Dell M1710 tricked out with only those extras it had to have to compete with the MacBook Pro costs a whopping $3,459, some $650 more than the MacBook Pro.

One important caveat that has an effect on value is screen resolution. Apple’s 17-inch screen has a maximum resolution of 1,600 by 1,050 pixels. Dell’s same-size screen has a maximum resolution of 1,920 by 1,200 pixels. The native resolution of the Dell screen may give some people eye strain, but higher-resolution LCD screens are more expensive. I can’t determine the added value of Dell’s higher screen resolution, but it doesn’t cancel out the significant difference in price between the MacBook Pro and the Inspiron.

I visited Circuit City last weekend to take a look at high-end 17-inch notebook PCs. Like Dell, Sony has a very expensive 17-inch LCD notebook with every conceivable bell and whistle, selling for more than $3,000. But there are models in the $2,000 range from HP and Toshiba that approximate the MacBook Pro’s equipment. The HP Pavilion DV9260US comes with the Intel Core 2 Duo 2GHz processor, a 240GB 5400-rpm drive, Windows Vista Ultimate, and a 17-inch screen whose maximum resolution is only 1,440 by 900 pixels (a major drawback). Circuit City’s price is $2,000.

At the very top of the line for 17-inch computers at Circuit City is the Sony Vaio VGN-AR390E. It sells for $3,150. Like all the other Windows models available at Circuit City, the Vaio’s processor is a 2GHz Core 2 Duo, not as fast as that of the MacBook Pro. The Vaio comes through with a 1,920 by 1,200-pixel screen resolution, a 5,400-rpm 240GB hard drive, and a whopping 527MB of video memory. But like the Dell, at 8.4 pounds, the Vaio also makes the 6.8-pound MacBook Pro feel like a lightweight.

Takeaways: Assuming you want a high-end notebook designed for work, play, and to be everyday machine with extras, the MacBook Pro is a surprisingly good value. The models that I compared it with, the Sony and the Dell, had some extras here and there, but they were more expensive, not less expensive. The key to the perception that Macs are pricey is that people often compare the wrong Windows machines to Macs. It’s easy to make that mistake because Apple offers fewer models.

It’s Similar in the Midrange
In the midrange, where lower-cost 13-inch LCD MacBook models occupy a price range of $1,100 to $1,500, you may be equally surprised. Apple’s recently updated MacBooks more than hold their own on price/performance comparisons with other 12-inch and 13-inch LCD computers from Sony, Toshiba, and HP.

The desktop landscape may also be an eye-opener. Even though the likes of Dell, HP, Sony, and so on have machines with low-end processors and meager configurations priced from about $500 and up, those prices don’t include LCDs (in most cases), and they don’t start to get hardware competitive with the processors in Apple’s iMac line until they hit about $1,000. Because of the iMac’s built-in LCD, it’s actually less expensive, though some of the details (such as hard drive size and RAM amount) may be tilted in favor of some Windows desktops. If you know your way around PCs, and want some extras, the Apple could in some instances (depending on your needs) be the clear value leader in this category.

For comparison’s sake, Sony’s Vaio All-in-One Desktop PC VGC-LS25E attempts to out-Apple Apple. It comes with a 19-inch LCD, 2GB RAM, a 7,200-rpm 250GB hard drive, and Vista Home Premium, but has only a 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo processor. The Circuit City price tag is $1,800.

So how does that compare with Apple’s 20-inch LCD iMac, which sells for $1,500? That model iMac comes with a 2.16GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a 7200-rpm 250GB drive, and 1GB RAM. You would need to upgrade the video memory and system RAM to make the iMac comparable with the Sony in those areas. But the iMac has a bigger LCD and a better processor, no matter what. Even with the RAM and video upgrades, the iMac still costs less.

Besides, you shouldn’t pay Apple’s steep $175 1GB RAM upgrade. You can save money by upgrading to 2GB after your purchase. Kingston memory is less expensive, and it offers excellent quality and Mac compatibility. I’ve also had great luck on my Macs with the bargain-basement-priced memory from Data Memory Systems of New Hampshire. (I just wish DMS would take PayPal.)

Takeaways: When you configure Macs and PCs in the low-end notebook and desktop categories, you’ll find that, except at the very bottom of the heap, Windows machines are roughly comparable in price to Macs. There are fewer Mac models, so if your needs vary from what Apple decided on, you may find a Windows model that costs less for you. But Apple’s choices make a lot of sense for most people. When you do a point-by-point comparison, Apple is actually a better value for some needs.

Background Realities
The comparisons I’ve drawn above are by no means exhaustive. I didn’t address computers at the Mac Pro’s level, for example. I didn’t cover the Mac mini — a computer that I’m not all that fond of. I didn’t address the 15-inch MacBook Pro, and, full disclosure, I feel the MacBook Pro 15 is of dubious value. The only time I wish I was using one is when I’m flying coach. Since it’s only $300 less than the MacBook Pro 17, and yet has lower resolution, a lesser hard drive, a lesser SuperDrive, fewer ports, and so on, it’s nowhere near as good a value as the MacBook Pro 17.

Anyone who performs a similar comparison will quickly run into subjective assessment about what’s important and what’s not. I chose to focus on hardware levels, such as CPUs, RAM, video memory, and so forth. I also happen to believe that many of the small details about Macs have a value that’s hard to put a price tag on. How much is the very best trackpad in the business worth to you? To me, it’s worth a lot. But I know that some people couldn’t care less. So I’m sticking with the objective speeds and feeds as best I can.

Software is the question that many people bring up to me over and over again on the subject of Mac vs. PC value. Long-term, entrenched Windows users (like I was until last September) tend to think in terms of the investment they have in software, peripherals, and so on. I can’t account for your context. If you need Microsoft Office for the Mac, you need it. And that will set you back a few hundred bucks. But it seems to me that that’s an ancillary thing. You can amortize that cost over the lifetime of your computer use. You’re going to have to pay for your next Windows-based Office upgrade too, right? What’s the difference?

The more interesting question — the question that some Mac people are really tired of — is, What about all the software you’ve been using forever to solve problems? Will the Mac world have those solutions? You like to do things a certain way, and can you do that on the Mac? The feedback I got from Mac people on this point is that I should forget Windows and do things the Mac way. I reject that piece of advice, even though I have come to understand it. I don’t agree because there isn’t a “One True Mac Way” of doing things. There’s just the way that people using a computer are comfortable with doing things — and that’s a subjective determination made by each individual.

As Windows users consider what their costs might be in getting up to speed on the Mac, though, I would recommend this: Don’t sweat the smaller stuff. Just like Windows, there are solutions to esoteric Mac problems. There are resources out there that will help you. There’s a ton of free software. There’s a ton of very low-cost software. In fact, there’s plenty of Mac software out there — much of it of surprisingly good quality. The release of OS X transformed the Mac marketplace. It’s a vibrant, growing community. There’s an excitement around Mac products — software and hardware — that you just don’t feel in the Windows world any longer. I’d forgotten what that felt like.

Get Involved with the Cost Analysis
I’m interested in what both Windows and Mac people have to say about comparing the value of these two types of computers. There are a lot of ways to look at this.

I’m asking for your input, but I’d also like people who heavily disagree with me to do these two things: 1. Read what I’ve written carefully. 2. Do your own homework. Don’t make assumptions about pricing without doing a tech spec comparison of directly comparable Apple and PC equipment. With that said, please send along your comments, suggestions, and criticisms.

One Response to “Mac vs. PC Cost Analysis – Round 1”

  1. The Apple Tax, Bloated Pricing or Design and Engineering Premium « Says:

    […] formula will be calculated in our minds prior to every purchase, cost plus features equals value. When one considers the long list of features included in every Apple product, the price becomes a ve…. But are we really comparing Apples to Apples? If all of the hardware specifications are the same, […]

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