'Book Value

Where's the Best MacBook Value: Top, Bottom, or Middle?

Charles Moore - 2008.05.06 - Tip Jar

Which is the best dollar value in a Mac notebook - a low-end price leader, a top-of-the-line machine, or something in between?

As with most things, it depends.

I have long been an advocate for the value of going low-end when you're buying new because in terms of performance for dollar spent, you almost always do better with an entry level machine than the top dog.

Back when I bought my first Apple laptop, a base-model PowerBook 5300 end-of-life leftover in October, 1996, I paid Can$1,799, which at then-current exchange rates would have worked out to less than US$1,500. However, that bargain-basement 5300, which had listed at US$2,200, had only four differences from the top-of-the-line PowerBook - the $6,500 PowerBook 5300ce (about $8,500 in Canada, and the most expensive laptop and arguably the worst value in a laptop Apple ever built):

  • A 16-bit 800 x 600 10.4" active matrix display vs. the 5300's 4-bit 640 x 480 9.5" grayscale passive matrix screen
  • 32 MB of RAM vs. 8 MB
  • a 1.1 gigabyte hard drive as opposed to a 500 MB unit
  • a 117 MHz 603e processor instead of a 100 MHz unit

However, the 5300ce sold for an amazing $4,300 (Can$6,700 dollars at the time) more than the base 5300; even considering the much superior display and the higher price of RAM in 1995 (16 MB RAM modules for the 5300 were then selling for Can$999), that seems like an outrageously poor return on dollar spent, and the depreciation on the 5300ce was gut wrenching.

The 5300ce was more than a bit of a rip-off or the entry-level machine was a stupendous bargain relatively speaking - take your pick. Today, either a 5300 or a 5300ce in good working order would sell for less than $100.

Stops Along the Way

When I replaced the 5300 with a PowerBook G3 WallStreet, I again went with the entry-level model - a 233 MHz G3 with 512 MB of Level 2 cache and a 12.1" active matrix display. The price gap wasn't quite as dramatic between that model and the top-dog 300 MHz PDQ/WallStreet, but it was still pretty substantial, and two or three years on, the difference in performance between 233 MHz and 300 MHz seemed a lot less significant, although I would've preferred a 14.1" display.

On the other hand, my next 'Book, a used (but pristine) Pismo PowerBook was the top-of-the-line 500 MHz model that I got at a very attractive price (a hardware swap deal equivalent to about $1,500 in value) for a year-old machine with Zip and SuperDisk expansion bay drive modules included, and it represented a much better value than a used 400 MHz low-end Pismo would have at the time.

My next laptop, purchased just before New Years 2003, would be another new one, and I dithered for a while over whether to go with the base 700 MHz G3 "Opaque White" iBook for Can$1,549, or to get the midrange "Crystal" 800 MHz model. The bottom line price difference, in Canadian dollars, including taxes and delivery, came to $575, or 32% more for the 800 MHz iBook. I didn't think that was outrageous for the extra stuff you got in the more expensive model: a Combo drive instead of a plain-Jane CD-ROM unit; a 50% larger (30 MB) hard drive; a 14.3% faster clock speed processor, and 100% more (32 MB) video RAM, as well as the snazzier, "Crystal" case instead of the "Opaque White" case of the base unit. The value was arguably there.

In the end, I went low-end again, although I second-guessed myself as the little 20 GB hard drive filled up and again when OS X 10.4 Tiger was released on DVD only. Still, I got more than three years of excellent service from that little iBook as my number one production machine, another with it as my "road" laptop, and my wife is still using it as her workhorse Mac.

I went Apple Certified Refurbished for the iBook's replacement and back to an erstwhile top-end model with a 1.33 GHz 17" PowerBook, which I got for about the price of a middle model iBook or MacBook (although the MacBook hadn't yet been introduced at the time). I haven't regretted the purchase for a moment, and it's certainly nice to have all those high-end bells and whistles the Big AlBook came with.

The rule of thumb here - and certainly the pattern I've ended up following myself - is that if you're buying new, you get your best value for dollar spent by going with a low-end (or at least not the top-of-the-line) model, but if buying used or refurbished, a high-end machine will likely not cost a whole lot more than its lower-end contemporaries due to the deeper depreciation bite on more expensive models.

Current MacBooks

Take the current 15" MacBook Pros for example. The top-end 2.5 GHz model sells for $2,499 - 25% more than the base 2.4 GHz model at $1,999, but for your extra 500 bucks all you get is 100 MHz more processor speed (4% faster), a 50 GB larger hard drive (25% bigger), and double the video RAM (512 MB vs. 256 MB). It's not quite the PowerBook 5300ce all over again, but unless you really need the extra video muscle, I simply don't see the value return for the increase in up front cost.

With MacBooks, it's not quite as clear-cut. The base 2.1 GHz model sells for just $200 less than the "middle-model" MacBook, but it has a 300 MHz (12.5%) slower processor, half the RAM, 40 GB (25%) less hard drive capacity, and a Combo optical drive instead of a DVD-burning SuperDrive, so it's pretty hard to argue that the $1,299 model isn't a better value than the $1,099 price leader considering what you get for just a 16.7% greater price.

However, the top-of-the-line MacBook at $1,499 is a questionable value with just a black case and 90 GB more hard drive room for your extra $200 over the middle-model.

The folks at Primate Labs have come up with a simple formula for objectively calculating relative value based on performance punch per purchase price dollar by dividing the cost of the computer by its Geekbench score, coming up with a "Cost Per Point" metric. When applied to the new Penryn iMacs released last week, the base price-leader iMac comes out on top even when brought up to the RAM configuration of the next-higher model (and using Apple's inflated RAM prices at that). Conclusion: if you're looking for the best value in terms of raw processing power, the best unit to get is the base model, but as Primate Labs notes, this analysis only takes processor and memory performance into account, and ignores features you get with higher-end models like larger capacity hard drives and more powerful video cards.

With new machines, buying the high-end can rarely be justified in terms of value for the money.

Other elements of the value-equation are how long you keep your computers between upgrades (I average about 2.5 to 3 years), the degree of satisfaction and enjoyment you get from the extra power and features of a high-end unit, and whether you're buying new or refurbished/used. With new machines, buying the high-end can rarely be justified in terms of value for the money. Depreciation will, as we've noted, be worse (sometimes dramatically worse), and you're melting percentage from a higher starting figure, while in two years (or less) your expensive bleeding-edge machine will be just another old computer, likely eclipsed in performance by the lowest of low-end current units (think early 2006 1.83 GHz Core Duo MacBook Pro vs. early 2008 2.1 GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook). The high-end machine will still have some nice deluxe features, of course - it isn't all about raw performance figures.

The Quandary

You can buy a middle-model MacBook, replace it with a brand-new one in a year-and-a-half or two years for just about the same money as one high-end 15" MacBook Pro, without factoring in the resale value of the first MacBook, which brings me back to my own ongoing upgrade deliberations. My machine of choice would be a base $1,999 ($2,099 in Canada) 2.4 GHz 15" MacBook Pro (well, I would really like to have a 17" MacBook Pro, but I'm trying to keep it real), but for my actual needs it's hard for me to justify buying anything higher-end than a MacBook, which leaves me in virtually the same dithering mode as I was back in late 2002 with the iBooks. Base MacBook or middle model?

In Canadian prices, the difference is $1,149 vs. $1,349, but hey, what's this? I see the Apple Store Canada has Certified Refurbished examples of these new Penryn models posted for Can$999 and Can $1,149 respectively.

Hmmmm.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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