The Mac Value Equation Revisited

2010 – I had some interesting discussions last week with a new Mac user. He raised some interesting issues regarding value that got me to rethink things.

The Simple Value Equation

I’ve been writing “value equation” columns for years now (links below). I have traditionally taken a pretty simplistic approach to this:

  1. Calculate: Divide processing power (clock speed if models use the same CPU) by price to determine which provides the most bang for the buck. End-of-life and refurbished prices on close-out Macs sometimes provide a better value.
  2. Look at the value of the feature difference: If one model has 4 GB of RAM while the other has 2 GB, factor in the lowest known cost to bring them to parity. If one has a significantly larger hard drive, factor in the difference between the cost of the two drives using non-Apple sources. This is a bit less simplistic and a bit more realistic.
  3. Discuss the intangibles: What, if any, is the value difference with different bus speeds, newer versions of AirPort, absence of FireWire, different graphics processors, etc.

In the end, I come up with reasonable advice as to whether it makes more sense to buy the new model or the discontinued one – and sometimes that varies at different performance levels (for instance, Apple often has four different iMac models and three 15″ notebooks – not including build-to-order options).

The Productivity Equation

For the typical home computer user, productivity isn’t a key factor. A faster computer lets you do things faster, which is its own reward. But in the business world, increased productivity is a key factor. The question isn’t simply which model provides the most processing power per dollar spent, but whether that additional $300 can cost justify itself in terms of productivity and/or billable hours.

There is no simple answer here. If you are using your Mac at full capacity and always have a backlog of processor intensive work, such as processing video, it’s a simple equation: 10% more processing power means nearly 10% more work done, making you almost 10% more productive.

If you’re earning $10.00 per hour overseeing a dedicated video production box, your employer is getting 10% more work done in the same amount of time. Multiply that times 40 hours and 50 weeks, and your employer is potentially saving $2,000 by buying a 10% more powerful Mac instead of hiring someone else at $10/hr. to come in for four hours a week.

If you’re billing $30 an hour and able to increase your productivity by 10%, even if you only spend half of your working hours (20/week) doing billable production work, that’s another $3,000 in potential income for the business.

From a production vs. wages or billable hours standpoint, choosing the more powerful model may make more sense, even though the simple value equation may say otherwise.

You have to weigh the benefits, though, and most of us won’t become 10% more productive with a 10% more powerful machine. We won’t type any faster. We won’t read emails or Web pages or PDFs any faster. We probably won’t print any faster. Most of the work we do in Photoshop won’t go any faster (unless we work with really high resolution images). Data won’t move to and from the hard drive any faster.

On the plus side, iTunes will probably rip your CDs a bit faster, Flash and online video content will probably run more smoothly, and video processing, which can be a long, slow, processor intensive task, will be faster. In the end, you might only see a 5% overall increase in productivity from a 10% boost in computing power.

The Server Equation

It’s a whole different story when you’re looking at servers. The more active users, the greater the benefit of an upgrade – within limits.

The first of those limits is networking: If your server has a single ethernet port and your network has 10/100 ethernet switches and 802.11n wireless, that will be your bottleneck. Adding a second ethernet port can help, but for maximum network throughput, you want gigabit ethernet.

If your server is primarily serving files – email, static HTML pages, stored documents, etc. – we’re going to assume you’ve moved to a fast hard drive. First of all, you want a fast network. Next, you want plenty of RAM so the server can store directory information and cache as much data from the hard drive as possible. Lots of CPU cores and high GHz speed are not huge factors here.

If you’re serving dynamic HTML pages, running MySQL, using FileMaker Pro Server, etc., you’ve reached the point where the number of cores and their speed matter. The greater the load, the greater the benefit of four or eight (or more) cores and high GHz ratings.

This isn’t meant to deprecate low-end servers. It’s all a matter of load. An old G4 with 10/100 ethernet can be a great Web server, because most Internet connections are under 10 Mbps, but if you’re hosting several dynamic websites, more cores and more speed become more important.

The Green Equation

I’ve long maintained that Low End Mac is a green website because we advocate keeping Macs in service and out of landfills. Use it as long as you can, upgrade it as necessary, and when you do replace it, either get it to another user or keep it as a backup.

But things aren’t really that simple, as this new Mac user reminded me. He’s coming from the PC side of things, where overclocking is every hardware geek’s wet dream and heat is a major source of problems. So this gentleman wants to run his Macs cool, reasoning that since heat reduces the lifespan of electronics, less heat will improve their lifespan.

And then there’s the whole issue of energy efficiency. On the one hand, you have the Mac mini, the greenest desktop Mac ever made – one of the greenest desktops ever made – from a power consumption standpoint. On the other, you have behemoth G4 and G5 Power Macs, not to mention older Mac Pros.

Mirror Drive Door Power Mac G4I have three G4 Power Macs in my 10′ x 12′ office: one server and two production machines, one running OS X 10.4 Tiger and the other running 10.5 Leopard. The server is up and running 24/7. I try to remember to sleep the production Macs when I’m out of the office, as the room can get quite warm. (I keep the door shut so I’m less tempted to spend unnecessary time at my Macs.) Energy Saver also helps.

I don’t know the power draw of these computers, nor can I find any helpful information online (if you know of such a resource, please email me). With the extra RAM, the faster hard drives, CPU upgrades, and add-in USB 2.0 cards, I’m sure they’re each drawing considerably more power than any modern iMac would, let alone the power sipping Mac mini.

On the one hand, I save a lot of money by using these older Macs instead of buying newer ones. On the other, each may be using an additional $30 to $40 of electricity per year, not to mention the environmental impact (CO2 generated) due to power production. Then again, I don’t need a space heater in my office during the winter.

You Decide

In the end, value is a personal balancing act. What’s important to you: low initial cost, expansion options, access to Classic Mode, lots of power for video production or gaming, longevity, noise level, and/or energy consumption? How much power is enough for your need? How do you weight the energy sipping 2009 Mac mini against a dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4 that lets you run Classic Mac OS apps?

There are no easy answers. Only you know your own priorities.

In my case, I still find my G4 Power Macs perfectly adequate for what I do. They’re big, not very quiet, and draw a lot of electricity, but they’re long since paid for. Sure, I’d love to have a new Mac mini to replace my OS X 10.5 production machine, but that’s more due to technolust than any need for more power, less energy draw, or just having a cool now toy.

Value comes from being able to do what you need to do. If your Mac does that without becoming a bottleneck, stick with it. If an upgrade or two can eliminate the bottleneck, consider that instead of a newer Mac. And if a couple upgrades won’t make your current Mac satisfactory, look at the greener solutions of the latest Macs as well as migrating to a newer Mac that someone else has outgrown.

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