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Comparing Apples and Dells: Only You Can Make a Fair Comparison

- 2007.09.05 -Tip Jar

In addition to Low End Mac, there are a few other technology sitesthat I read on a regular basis, and one of my favorites is GeneSteinberg's Mac Night Owl.The site is a pretty standard blog, posted daily, and with a commentengine that invites and receives active discussion about most of theentries. Mr. Steinberg himself actively participates in the comments aswell, giving readers the rare opportunity to have a discussion with theauthor.

For the most part, Mr. Steinberg's articles are well-researched,well thought through, and well written. They are, of course,Mac-biased, but I would expect nothing less on a Mac website.

Last week Mr. Steinberg posted two entries: Lies and the Liars Who Tell Them discusses a recent CNET comparisonreview of the upgraded Mac mini. Mr.Steinberg goes on to compare the mini to a Dell PC, adding options tothe Dell to make it comparable to the mini and then showing that the PCis no longer cheaper than the Mac.

The second entry, Mac and PC Price Comparisons Revisited is a direct response to thecomments in the first article, specifically my argument that addingfeatures to give feature parity is not a valid comparison.

So how far do we go in determining which of two competing productsis the better value? Mr. Steinberg added a FireWire card ($40),upgraded from Windows Vista Home Basic to Vista Ultimate ($200), anddeleted the modem, speakers, keyboard, and mouse that come with theDell. The Dell was $100 more than the mini.

The question is, is that a fair comparison? Can there ever be a faircomparison?

Apples and Oranges

Let's take another apples to oranges comparison, literally. I want apiece of fruit and have a dollar in my pocket. At the grocer, I can geta large delicious apple for 60 cents or a nice juicy orange for 40cents, the same price ratio we start with between the entry level Macmini ($600) and the bottom configuration for the Dell ($400).

The apple is far more user friendly, because you can eat it rightaway without peeling it first. The orange requires user intervention inthe peeling process. The mini is also more user-friendly from the box,not requiring any additional software to protect itself and allowingthe user to get right to work, while the PC user should get goodantivirus and anti-spyware software. Since my favorite PC defensiveproducts (AVG) are free, I won't add to the price of my orange, justits inconvenience.

Next comes security. The apple contains all of its seeds in acentral core unit, and there has yet to be found any seeds in "thewild" of the apple's meat. You can eat an apple with complete peace ofmind that no stray seed (malware) will interfere. On an orange,however, seeds can be almost anywhere, and you never know which sliceswill have them and which will not. Even on supposedly seedless orangesyou can still get the occasional surprise. This is malware again - ifyou're careful, you'll have no trouble and spit all of the seeds out.If you're careless, you might get something stuck between yourteeth.

What the above apple to orange comparison doesn't go into, ofcourse, is flavor, which in computer terms can be the user's needs. Ifmy need is to provide a small snack, then either fruit will suffice. IfI prefer the taste of apple, I can still eat an orange, and vice versa.Of course, nobody who is in the mood for an orange will add up theextra expenses of peeling and seeds and decide that an apple representsa better value; they will just eat an orange.

Macs and Dells

This comparison was flawed before it everbegan.

Back to the Dell and the Mac mini. This comparison was flawed beforeit ever began. First of all, the Dell is a build-to-order machinethat's offered in many configurations and with many options. Comparethis to the mini, which is basically offered in two configurations andwith very few options. A better comparison would be with a retail PCthat comes with few choice and is preconfigured for a given price (likethe mini) such as you would find at Best Buy or CompUSA.

The mini is simply too different to shop againsta Dell.

My biggest issue was the add-ons and deletions. The mini is simplytoo different to shop against a Dell. Okay, it cost X amount of dollarsto upgrade the Dell from the AMD to the Intel Core 2 Duo processor, butdo we need to? What if the AMD processor was 90% as fast, and the userwanted this computer for Web browsing, email, and word processing -does 10% more processor speed, which is only one element of acomputer's performance, matter? Should the buyer looking at the twosystems add the price of the faster processor when he or she doesn'twant or need it?

Likewise, the mini has a laptop hard drive compared to a much largerand faster desktop hard drive in the Dell. The mini doesn't supportsuch a drive at all, so does that mean that we ignore the performancedifferences in drives, even though it will likely make a far biggerdifference in overall performance than the processor will? What aboutPCI slots, which the mini completely lacks - how much money should weadd to the cost of the mini to compensate for the Dell's PCI slots andbigger, faster hard drive?

Finally, a digital life software package (he didn't specify which)and an upgrade from Vista Home Basic to Vista Ultimate were added tothe price of the PC. Is this fair? Yes, OS X comes with theability to work on a domain and has Front Row included, but does thatmean that our hypothetical buyer will need to connect to a domain(which requires Vista Business or Ultimate)? Does that mean that ourhypothetical buyer needs or wants a media center application (whichrequires Vista Home Premium or Ultimate)? What about the digital lifeapplications? Google's Picassa is free and well-liked. Vista itself hasa pretty decent photo editor for people who need such a thing. Should Iadd a music-creation program to the PC's cost to compete withGarageBand, even if I have no interest in creating music?

Clearly there is no right answer.

No Single Answer

Is the Mac mini a better value than the Dell?

Is it a better computer?

Only the individual buyer can answer that question. My position isand remains that products can only be comparison shopped in relation tothe intended buyer, not on a strict price-for-feature basis. Importantfeatures must be added to a machine that lacks them, but the cost ofunneeded and unwanted features should not be added to the machine thatlacks them; rather their presence should be ignored on the machine thatincludes them. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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