Mac Musings

Mac mini vs. Cheap Dell, Gateway, HP, and Compaq PCs

Daniel Knight - 2005.01.21, updated 2005.01.25

The Mac mini is how Apple does a low-cost computer without making a cheap one.

It has some stunning advantages compared with low-end Windows PCs: incredibly small, very attractive, the Mac mystique, bulletproof OS X, no known malware, and it's almost ready to use right from the box. (Bring your own keyboard, mouse, and monitor - or buy them with the mini.)

It has some big disadvantages compared with low-end Windows PCs: no expansion slots or expansion bays, no built-in flash card reader, no place for a floppy (yes, it does still matter to some people), the Mac mystique, and the fact that OS X just isn't Windows. Learning a new OS can be challenging, as longtime Mac users will remember from their transition to OS X. (And many still haven't made the switch and may never do so.)

Most of all, Apple is pushing the Mac mini as an affordable alternative to low-end Windows PCs. Let's see how it compares.

Dell Dimension 3000

Dell's everyday price on the Dimension 3000 is $559, although they sometimes run specials and mail-in rebates to sweeten the deal. For that price you get a 2.8 GHz Pentium 4, Window XP Home Edition, 256 MB RAM, a 40 GB 7200 rpm hard drive, a CD burner, and a 17" display. Oh, it also includes a mouse and keyboard.

No monitor, subtract $45. Wow, must be a pretty horrid monitor! Add a DVD-ROM drive for $35 (a Combo drive adds $53). Add $26 for Microsoft Works. No option to leave out the mouse and keyboard. We're at $572 - and that doesn't include sound.

Note that Dell has it all over Apple for additional memory and larger hard drives: $153 to reach 1 GB of RAM (vs. $425 from Apple) and just $18 more for an 80 GB hard drive ($50 more from Apple). [Update: Apple dropped the price of the 1 GB RAM upgrade to $325 on 2005.01.25.]

Of course, you have to pay shipping, and Dell charges a whopping $99 to deliver this computer to your door. The Apple Store ships for free.

Compare this to the Mac mini with Apple's $58 keyboard and mouse kit. The Mac package, which has a single internal speaker, sells for $557 shipped from Apple. The Dell Dimension 3000, similarly equipped but with no speakers, $671 shipped. Even with their current 10% off pricing, the Dell costs you $614.

Gateway 3200SE

Gateway's entry-level model is the $499.99 3200SE. It has a 2.5 GHz Celeron D, Windows XP Home Edition, 256 MB RAM, an 80 GB hard drive, a CD-ROM drive, MS Works, stereo speakers, and a 17" monitor. Like the Dell - heck, like everything except the Mac mini - it comes with a mouse and keyboard.

Let's try to match spec with Apple. Adding CD-RW and DVD-ROM drives adds $35. (Gateway's Combo drive is $45.) Deleting the monitor trims $80 from the package - they must be using a better display than Dell. And no free shipping here. Apple ships for free, but Gateway charges a minimum of $69, bringing our system to $584 shipped - less a $100 mail-in rebate if you fill out all the paperwork properly and are willing to wait for the check to arrive.

Advantage Macintosh, unless you don't mind paying more up front and waiting for a rebate check. (Really, what is the point of a mail-in rebate from a mail-order company?)

Compaq SR1000V

Compaq advertises the SR1000V as a $359.99 computer. Oh, that's after a $100 mail-in rebate, so it's a $459.99 computer when you buy it.

The SR1000V has an AMD Sempron 3000+ CPU running at 2.0 GHz. Knowing AMD's penchant for efficiency, it's probably as fast as the Dell 3000. Base RAM is 512 MB, but we can cut that to 256 MB and reduce the price by $40. It includes a 160 GB 7200 rpm hard drive - wow! - but we can slash another $60 from the computer's price by choosing a 40 GB drive like the others use.

The computer normally ships with a CD-RW drive and a DVD-ROM drive. Kudos to Compaq. Flash card ports are standard, as is a 3.5" floppy drive. And this price include an optical mouse, keyboard, and stereo speakers.

The Compaq usually ships with Windows XP Professional, but we'll drop back to the Home Edition to make it comparable to the other Windows PCs. That cuts $75 from the price. Works is included.

Put the whole thing together, and we've got a $499.99 computer to compete with the Mac mini - but this one includes a mouse and keyboard. As with the Apple Store, shipping is free.

But there's no $100 rebate when you configure the system this way.

HP a700y

From HP's unprofitable personal computer division, we have the a700y at $399.99 shipped after rebate. Let's configure it.

We're looking at another 2.8 GHz Pentium 4, although we could trim up to $50 if we wanted a 2.67 GHz Celeron D. Windows XP Home Edition. Going with 256 MB of RAM saves us $50. Dropping to a 40 GB hard drive cuts another $40. This model includes a DVD writer and flash card slots. Skipping the floppy cuts another $20.

The HP includes a pair of speakers ($20 off is we don't want them - but we do) and no monitor. The system includes an optical mouse and keyboard, and choosing MS Works 7.0 over the Works Suite 2005 saves us another $15.

With everything we're subtracting, the computer should be almost free by now! Oh, that's right, rebates. We're at $639.99 less rebates - a $100 instant rebate and a $50 mail-in one.

Free shipping puts the HP a700y at $539.99 before the mail-in rebate, a bit less than you'd pay for a Mac mini with Apple's mouse and keyboard.

Price and Value

Macs haven't always been overpriced in comparison to IBM compatibles, something we're looking at in our series on "The Overpriced Mac." Macs have been a bit more expensive than name brand PCs at times, but they've never shipped with a stripped down version of the Mac OS. (Add $50 or more to upgrade the above Windows PCs to XP Professional Edition.)

Mac miniMacs have generally contained higher quality components than low-end Windows PCs. When compared to comparably equipped PCs, prices tend to be pretty close.

Macs usually include features not built into Windows PCs. It was the iMac that led to widespread use of USB, and every Mac made in recent years includes FireWire - still an option on most PCs. Macs have had ethernet ports for years, and every current model also has slots for Bluetooth and AirPort Extreme wireless networking.

Yes, the Mac mini has less ports and drive bays than the Dell, Gateway, HP, and Compaq PCs we're looking at, but it has everything most users will ever need - and none of those pesky viruses, worms, or other forms of malware.

Finally, not one of these PCs looks nearly as good as the Mac mini. Nobody holds a candle to Apple in that department.