Why Mac vs. PC Price Comparisons Are Never Fair
- 2007.01.09 - Tip Jar
You've seen the articles before: A PC-focused magazine or website reviews a Mac and complains that it's too expensive. Or perhaps you've read a Mac-oriented article where the reviewer added FireWire cards and a copy of Nanosaur to an el-cheapo PC to get a "meaningful" price comparison with a Mac.
One constant is that whichever platform - or specific machine, for that matter - the reviewer prefers can be made to win with a few judicious tweaks.
This is something of a pet-peeve of mine, which I've debated in many replies to both types of articles.
My favorite articles of this type are the ones that try to suggest that an entry-level Mac is no more expensive than an entry-level PC - and there's a rush on beach front property in Arizona.
The simple fact is that a new PC can be had for $250 and a new Mac for $600. $250 is cheaper than $600, and those are the entry-level prices. End of story.
Where things go wrong is when the reviewer tries to make the two machines "even". There's no such thing as even unless you are comparing the same model at two stores.
Mac mini vs. a Cheap PC
Let's look at the cheapest Mac, the Mac mini. I like the Mac mini; it packs a full-function Intel-powered Mac into a device about the size of a few CDs in their cases. There's nothing entry-level about the presentation of the Mac mini.
Go to a PC store, and you won't find anything that small and stylish at any price - and believe me, smaller is more expensive when it comes to Windows computers.
Look at the specs on the mini, and you'll see a mixture of unimpressive specifications and components - but you're missing the real story. The mini is as small as it is because Apple uses laptop components, and laptop components have the twin distinctions of being more expensive than desktop components and of offering comparatively mediocre performance.
If you're looking to make an entry-level, bang-for-the-buck computer, laptop components make no sense....
If you're looking to make an entry-level, bang-for-the-buck computer, laptop components make no sense, as they are expensive and slow. If you're making an image machine - a computer designed to sell on style and panache - things like frame rates in Doom 3 don't matter as much as that stylish, tiny enclosure.
So why do people insist on comparing the Mac mini to an entry-level PC? Because the mini is the least expensive Mac that you can buy.
It's not the typical car analogy that Mac fans use of Chevy vs. BMW; it's actually more like comparing a digital and a mechanical watch. A digital watch is cheaper and keeps more accurate time, while a mechanical watch is, well, more stylish and has more panache.
I wouldn't be caught dead wearing a digital watch - and haven't since 1977 (forgive me, I was 10 years old at the time).
So let's do a real comparison. In this corner, the Mac mini Core Duo at $600. In the opposite corner, a bargain basement Compaq at $300. The mini looks oh so cool, takes almost no space, and - paired up with the keyboard, mouse and lovely 19" LCD - set you back a total of $1,000 after adding sales tax.
Not bad. It could use more RAM, but not bad.
Here we have the $300 PC. It's big, it's ugly, and it's fast. With a 19" LCD (the keyboard and mouse came with it), it will set you back $600 after adding sales tax, and like the Mac mini, it could use more RAM.
Take one or the other one home and hook it up, which is equally easy - same number of cords that go to the same USB and video ports (you may need a $20 DVI-VGA adapter for the mini) - and turn them on. You'll get what you expect to get.
The Mac has lots of cool software installed, but you'll be surprised that the PC isn't stripped either. The $300 Compaq I bought last year had a version of Microsoft Works that included a full version of Microsoft Word 2003. Apple gives you a trial version of iWork and a trial version of Office; you have to pay if you want a full version of Word (to be compatible with the world), and if you don't, you've got freeware options, which you also have for the PC.
The Real Market
This is where the Mac-biased reviewer extols the virtues of iLife and the PC-biased reviewer extols the virtues of PCI slots and upgradeable processors and graphics cards.
The only group of PC users who usually upgrade components are hobbyists, just as the only Mac users who use most of iLife's abilities are hobbyists. That the mini can't be upgraded to a faster processor or better video card means about as little to its intended buyer as the fact that you have to use Picassa (or the upcoming iPhoto rip-off in Vista) instead of iPhoto means to the average PC user.
The Mac mini's hardware specs were clearly compromised to get that gorgeous form factor, while the PC's software bundle was clearly compromised to get that low price. Neither really matters much to the intended buyer.
So Which Is Better?
Where does that leave the price comparison? Clearly, if you're buying based on specifications, the mini is a very poor value. And if you're buying based on style and panache, the PC isn't even in the running.
Which is the better value for the money? The PC, easy.
Which is cooler computer? The mini, without a doubt.
Which is the better choice? It depends on what you want.
One thing is certain, when comparing a Mac against a PC, it helps to know the bias of the reviewer.
Gene Steinberg is a writer who's blog I read and enjoy daily. He backs his opinions with wisdom, experience, and common sense. He is also Mac-biased.
When he did a price comparison, he added the retail cost of a FireWire card, antivirus software, Bluetooth and wireless modules, and a DVD writer to the $300 cheapo PC he compared with the Mac mini, bringing both machines to within about $50 of each other - so the Mini won the value comparison for him.
The point is, the buyer of a $300 PC doesn't want a DVD writer, a FireWire or Bluetooth card, or a copy of Norton Antivirus. The $300 PC buyer wants the cheapest computer he or she can get - probably to replace a cheap computer from 4-5 years ago. This buyer may already have an antivirus package or is getting one free when he or she buys tax software, or is using one of the many free antivirus packages that are even better than the big names (I use AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition).
This buyer probably isn't buying such a computer to edit high definition video, will use either the cheap keyboard and mouse that it comes with, their old ones, or buy a very nice replacement, and very likely isn't looking at cheap desktops to connect to the Internet wirelessly through their Bluetooth cell phone. Wireless PC cards, if the computer is located away from their Internet connection, cost about $20 for PCs.
My favorite price comparison article was about two years ago where the reviewer (and I forget who it was) was comparing an eMac to a PC. He added $39 to the cost of the PC for a copy of the Nanosaur game that comes bundled with the Mac and $69 for a copy of AppleWorks, which also came bundled with the Mac.
Now I like AppleWorks a great deal and have it installed on both my Mac and my PC, but were I comparison shopping the eMac against a Windows PC, I would not add the price of a game and a Works suite when plunking down my plastic. Believe me, if I had the option to delete Nanosaur and Marbleblast from the iMac I bought last year for a savings of even half their retail value, I'd delete them and enjoy the savings.
It's Your Call
In the end, the only real comparison is the one you make based on your own needs, wants, and budget. Were I buying a new computer for my home, I would balance style, performance, and features against my budget and get the computer that I would enjoy using the most.
For the last 13 years that has been a Mac for my home desktop. I like that I can set it up once and then ignore it, not having to bother with maintenance chores very often and trusting that it will just work with a minimum of fuss.
Where I buying a computer for a secretary to type letters and reports on, I'd take my $300 to whichever first tier brand had a sale that week and stay away from the options and upgrades - or better yet, I'd go to eBay and take advantage of other people's perceived need for speed. You see, for typing letters, email, and web browsing, anything over 600 MHz with high quality components and enough RAM will do the job just fine.
Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.
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