Mac vs. PC Cost Analysis – Round 2

There’s no question about it. Last month’s Mac vs. PC Cost Analysis article struck a chord. I was praised and lambasted around the Internet for it. It was also republished by Computerworld, where it pulled in a lot of traffic. If you didn’t catch it, I recommend the Computerworld version of the story, which was lightly updated because of Apple’s release of its new MacBook Pro model line on June 5.

It seemed to me that people who criticized this story missed the key points I was trying to get across:

1. This was a pure, hardware-based, speeds-and-feeds kind of comparison. I was comparing the hardware goods only, including CPU, chipset, RAM, video, display, hard-drive capacity and specs, ports and upgradeability, dimensions and weight, and so on. In other words, I was attempting to make an objective comparison that did not inject any evaluation about the hardware, anything at all about the software, or my personal experience with the operating systems and hardware involved. It was an on-paper comparison.

I did that purposely to lay the groundwork for further analysis about the value of Macs vs. Windows PCs. I started with the objective measures.

2. The main point I was trying to make is that when you compare Macs with comparably equipped Windows PCs, it may surprise you that, overall, Macs sometimes beat Windows PCs in the price/performance comparison. Sometimes Windows PCs do. Overall, there’s relative parity.

There is a time component to this kind of analysis. The Windows PC makers lagged behind Apple for a while on the CPU front, but with the release of the Santa Rosa platform (Intel’s marketing name is Centrino Pro), many are catching up again. The value meter may be tipping a bit toward Windows PCs now as a result. But this ebb and flow is a natural part of computer valuations. It never rests. Pricing is always in flux.

It’s definitely true that Apple Mac pricing has not always approached parity. I’ve made this comparison before. Macs have clearly been more expensive than Windows PCs in the distant past. But if you’re talking about name-brand Windows PCs from reputable manufacturers like Dell, HP, Toshiba, Acer, Gateway, Lenovo, and others, the out-the-door pricing is more or less on par.

There’s an important point of comparison you need to recognize to fully understand the logic of my position. For a direct comparison to be made, there has to be a Mac SKU that directly equates to the exact set of features *you* want. And that’s where we enter into the completely subjective realm and get away from intrinsic value. Just because you don’t want this or that small feature that the Mac has, doesn’t mean that everyone else doesn’t want it. And vice versa. So if your desire is a specific set of features that fits in between a specific Mac SKU and the way it can be configured, then some Windows PC somewhere may, in fact, be a better value — for you.

This point isn’t unique to computer sales. Buy a Honda automobile, for example, and you’ll find there are three or four models for any car type, and the only options are dealer installable. Like Honda, Apple has smartly positioned its specific models.

There’s also a corresponding point to be made: The Macintosh lineup consists of five model lines and 12 basic SKUs (or specific models), each of which offers additional configuration. There are three desktop model lines and two notebook model lines. When you look closely at these model lines, there are economy, middle-of-the-road, and high-end models. Macs are no longer just premium computers. Apple changed its stance on that markedly over the past 10 years. If you’re not that familiar with Macs, you have to open your mind, take a look at the different Mac models, and closely compare the specs to understand.

Dean Abanila, technology specialist at the Rhode Island School of Design, said it well:

“I work with more than a few students and faculty looking for computer buying advice. Many are making PC-to-Mac transitions. Your analysis is dead on. At least twice per week I spec out both Macs and PCs for folks. More often than not, the Mac is cheaper, and this has been the case for some time now. Before I start to sound like a Mac fan boy, let me say that I often recommend PCs, and will continue to do so. I support both platforms here at RISD. As I am sure you are aware, recommendations depend on the user’s goals.”

One last hardware point: I agree with those of you who wrote to say you’re with me on the comparison, but as purchasers of corporate microcomputing hardware they feel Apple doesn’t have a product that meets their needs. I’ve written about this in the past and am contemplating a Computerworld column on the point again. Apple has a huge opportunity right now with the pushback on Vista and the upswing in Mac sales to release a Mac designed for business.

At my company, where there are many new Mac users, the MacBook Pro 15 has become the standard. But that’s a pretty expensive computer for some companies to justify. I think the MacBook might be a solid alternative for some companies, and its pricing is more in line, or even advantageously priced, when compared with small-screen Windows notebooks from Lenovo and others. But there’s room for a MacBook business machine that has a better keyboard, a better-looking case, and probably some other minor tweaks. I also don’t think the iMac is a great desktop computer for business. I don’t like the integrated monitor from a support perspective.

There’s room for Apple do something here, but the real problem for Apple is that it doesn’t have a corporate sales channel to speak of. It’s a retail-oriented B2C company, not a B2B company. Some enterprises are ignoring those downsides, though. Computerworld’s cover story this week is about Tacoma, Wash.-based Auto Warehousing Co.’s decision to dump a major part of its IT infrastructure and PCs in favor of Apple servers and Macs. It does happen.

So much for the recap from last month. A lot of people have asked me to dive into the software comparison between Macs and PCs. Software needs, however, are far more variable than hardware needs. For example, some people are required to use Microsoft Word, Excel, and/or PowerPoint. They would be forced to either buy or get their companies to buy Microsoft Office 2004 for the Mac, which sells for $399 list.

I know that some of you believe that alternative office products negate the need for anyone to use Microsoft Office for the Mac. That simply isn’t true. There are interoperability issues with even the best alternative office apps. Trust me on this, some of us are required by our companies to use the Microsoft product.

On the other hand, some people don’t have those constraints. They might be very happy, indeed, with a product such as NeoOffice, the free, open-source Mac office suite based on the office suite.

So how do we figure this out? Do we tote up $400 or no? It’s much harder to generalize about software. It’s not easy to draw fair comparisons about software on a level playing field. I believe each person has to make his or her own assessment on the software front. Here’s are some factors I think you should weigh in considering the software side of analyzing Mac vs. PC costs:

1. There is plenty of software available from the Mac, both from established software houses and from individuals. Surprisingly, there are more products in some product categories than there are for Windows. For example, every time I turn around, I stumble across another project management tool for the Mac. There are more browsers for the Mac than there are for Windows. I don’t think Windows users realize just how many software product categories Microsoft has come to own. It’s true, though, that in some categories, there are only two or three Mac offerings. All in all, though, there is a very solid, rich spread of software makers creating Mac applications. As a long-time software reviewer, I’ve been surprised by the quality of these applications, too.

2. The $80 Parallels Desktop for Mac virtualization application lets you run Windows and Linux very seamlessly on your Intel Mac and switch between Mac and Windows, for example, with a simple keyboard command. It’s even possible to run Windows applications as if they’re running in the Mac interface, and to associate data files on the Mac with Windows applications. This extremely powerful tool literally gives you access to all your Windows applications on your Mac. Parallels is one of the best software utilities I’ve tested in years. It adds a huge chunk of software value to any Macintosh purchase. Apple’s free Boot Camp beta software is less convenient, but it offers the same ability to run Windows on your Mac. VMware’s forthcoming Fusion virtualization tool for the Mac will compete with Parallels.

3. You don’t need security software. OK, so I’m not one of those Mac users who chortles up his sleeve about security. I take it seriously. And I don’t think the Mac is inherently immune from security threats. But the real-world truth right now is that most security threats are aimed at criminal financial gain, and the Mac’s market share is just too small to be a cost-effective target. I mean, really, which would you pirate? The giant cargo ship with the gangplank resting on the dock, or the buttoned-up tugboat moored 100 yards offshore? Other than software to block spam, Mac users don’t need any of the security products that Windows users absolutely require — antivirus, anti-malware/spyware, identity-theft protection, anti-bot, and so on. (The Mac comes with built-in firewall software.) There’s definitely a cost savings because of this. And I suppose we could work up some numbers based on annual subscription fees and the need to upgrade to new versions of security products every year or two. This does add up over time, but it’s not really a big chunk of change.

To me, the far more important cost is the system overhead, user distraction, system instability, and the need for user troubleshooting that Windows security software entails.

Kenneth Burton, a technical director for a school system, emailed me with the same thought:

“What about the issue of spyware and antivirus software? One of the reasons I switched to a Mac at home two years ago was because of the hassle of cleaning up the computer after my 16-year-old son.”

Another reader, Rudy Wolf, agrees:

“Having just made the switch myself (we now own four Macs), I have to take exception to your [first article in this series]. You didn’t go far enough! Where is the discussion about the hours I used to spend messing with Symantec’s Norton utilities and Windows utilities to keep my Windows PCs running and optimized? I have personally gained one to two hours per week because I no longer have to maintain four Windows PCs. My MacPro is now almost two years old. In that time, I have not run one utility to defragment its disk, optimize the system, or upgrade software. The worst I’ve had to do is press the Enter key a few times when the computer upgraded itself (flawlessly each time). I don’t know about others, but getting back 50-100 hours a year is a savings that has to be factored into the equation.”

4. Software is cheap. Unless you’re talking AutoCAD, Photoshop, or Microsoft Office, software isn’t all that expensive, folks. Just two hours of my time spent working on a Windows PC problem is worth far more than the average cost of most software programs. Even if you’re retired, you have to factor in the time wasted wrestling with problems. The point I’m trying to make is that, OK, so you may have to back your Mac purchase with an investment in software, but you had to do the same thing with your Windows purchase at some point. It’s a cost of doing business. But more important, you can amortize the cost of the software against the time you’ll save not wrestling with stupid PC problems. There is a very real savings there that’s difficult to measure or quantify. That benefit is at once supremely valuable and difficult to quantify. The problems you face with Windows are very definitely a cost to using that operating system and hardware.

Remember the Yugo, a car introduced to the U.S. in 1984 whose main claim to fame was that it was incredibly cheap, woefully underpowered, and highly trouble prone? Yugos spent a lot of time in the shop. In considering the savings on the purchase price, Yugo buyers probably didn’t factor in lost personal time, aggravation, repair charges, and what they were paying for transportation when their cars were being repaired. This is the very definition of penny wise and pound foolish. I’m not saying that Windows is a Yugo, believe me. But reverse the picture: The Mac represents the most reliable vehicle you can buy (perhaps a Toyota?). There’s a hidden value to having far fewer problems than average. And a big segment of the computer-using market place doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that.

No Lie: Impressive Reliability
The single most frustrating thing about being a Mac user is the disdain with which some Windows users view Macs. Apparently you’re not a real man or woman unless you’re suffering with everyone else.

The thing is, I don’t think Windows users (I know, I was one myself for many years) give much credence to the notion that Macs are far more trouble-free. Because it’s difficult to quantify it must therefore be false. It’s a subjective data point. As a long-time Windows author, reviewer, and expert, I know that I felt that I could solve any Windows problem (and probably could), and as a result, the Mac’s advantages held less benefit for me.

But I was wrong about that. The unexpected advantage I gained is that using my computer is more enjoyable. My concentration isn’t broken periodically by problems, updates, security pop-ups, and the like. I’m not thinking that I’m using a Mac. I’m thinking about what I’m using the computer to do — what I’m reading, writing, figuring, buying, watching, etc. The Mac becomes just so much chrome wrapping the data I’m interacting with. You’re not conscious of your television set while you’re watching it. That’s the way it is with a Mac. I found that much harder to achieve on Windows PCs, which are constantly drawing attention to themselves.

Another reader, James Sugrue, put it this way:

“I’ve been saying this for a while now. If you compare Apples to Apples (pardon the pun) then Macs are more often than not cheaper or at least price competitive. The thing your article didn’t touch on was the value you can’t quantify with Macs: Not having to worry about malware, not having to rebuild your machine every six months because the registry has gotten corrupted, or not having to deal with some dodgy driver that takes the system down. Your article didn’t describe the [overall pleasant] Mac experience.

“A recent switcher to the ‘Cult of the Mac,’ I’ve often wondered why I waited so long. I am a professional software developer, using Windows and Visual Studio, so I have a lot of Windows pain most days. I wish I could do all my dev work on the Mac. I see that being a major barrier to switching for most of my peers, even though there are great apps like Parallels and Boot Camp that could help. There’s a lot of ignorance about Apple for some reason among us technical types. A programmer at work said yesterday that he hated Apple. I asked whether he’d ever used a Mac. Nope.”

James, he’d probably hate chocolate if he hadn’t tried it, too.

Apple’s Mac mini is a Trojan horse (not the malware kind) whose entire purpose is to be low-cost enough to entice Mac-curious Windows users to give the Mac a try. The Mac mini is neither powerful nor portable. But it works just fine and will definitely give you the Mac experience. Or consider this: You can rent Macs. They’re not cheap, but it’s a lot less than buying even a new Mac mini.

You’re not going to believe it until you try it yourself. I didn’t.

I expect to write another installment on this subject. I hope to address Macintosh total cost of ownership (TCO), the average length of time people keep their Macs, and Mac resale values, among other things.

I welcome your input on this subject. What I value especially are fact-based arguments on either side of the question.

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