• The Apple Price Myth: Will They Ever Learn?

    April 30th, 2005

    The short answer is no, but I should explain myself. I have written several articles on this topic. Each time I believe someone is listening and that maybe, just maybe, I’ll see a smaller number of stories that indulge in myth-making about how expensive Macs really are.

    Then I open a copy of, say, Consumer Reports, to cite a notorious example, and it’s “deja vu all over again,” to quote a famous athlete with a penchant for offbeat conversation. Take the May 2005 issue, which includes a short article entitled “Mini and Shuffle: Apple Goes Budget.”

    The title is all right, so far as it goes, until the uninformed testing people at CR drop the ball again, claiming that if you had to add a USB keyboard, mouse and monitor, “those essentials and upgrades such as added RAM can hike the Mini’s price past $1,000.”

    Well, if I suppose you get a real expensive display. But let’s look at the facts, and I believe CR is really looking for facts, even if it has trouble finding them. The mini is $499, as most of you know. Official Apple keyboards and mice are $29 each, but you can go to the bargain counter at your favorite computer store and get workable alternatives for less than $10 apiece. As to monitors, a Dell 15-inch LCD display, the E175FP, is listed at $194.65. But you can get a 15-inch CRT alternative for just over $100. Memory upgrades? Apple wants $75, and some dealers will include the installation as part of the package. But if you’re handy with a putty knife, and want to save some money, you can get a 512MB Mac mini memory chip for less than $50. But even if you opted for the genuine Apple variety, and went budget LCD, the fully outfitted Mac mini is less than $800.

    Understand that the mini’s primary market is to folks who already have most of this stuff and simply want to redeploy them. Folks who are disgusted with their Dell boxes are prime candidates, as the mini works just fine with your existing monitors and input devices. But even if you take the $800 price as a given, it’s still not expensive compared to the PC-based competition. No doubt you’ve seen those ever-irritating TV ads about those cheap Dell PCs, but remember that the company is infamous for bait and switch and constantly changing prices. The system I customize today will probably carry a different price tomorrow.

    But let’s use that same Dell LCD as the core of a desktop system designed to, more or less, match a a fully outfitted Mac mini with 512MB of RAM. I started out with that alleged $399 Dell Dimension, and went to work adding the options required to bring it up to the level of the Mac mini, or at least as closely as possible.

    First off, I upgraded the system to Windows XP Professional, since the “Home Edition” is somewhat crippled in terms of features. Increasing memory from 256MB to 512MB adds $70 to the price, not so far distant from Apple’s price for a similar upgrade. I added the flat panel display mentioned above. Graphics presented a problem. Like most entry-level PC’s, the Dell comes with integrated graphics, which share the system’s memory and provide perfectly awful performance. The ATI Radeon 9200 chip in the mini isn’t exactly high-end, but it’s a whole lot better than what Dell is offering, and no graphic card upgrade option is listed. You could, of course, buy a separate graphics card, but I’ll set that possibility aside for now.

    Now we come to software, and there’s not much to choose from. The basic package includes Corel WordPerfect, an also-ran among Windows word processors, but still pretty close to Word in many respects. I upgraded to WordPerfect Office, which seems to be a closer fit to AppleWorks, thus adding $79 to the purchase price. Finally, I selected a 15-month subscription to the McAfee SecurityCenter, which adds virus and firewall protection and spyware removal capabilities. On a Windows box, where malware is the norm, there’s no choice, and Dell is cheating its customers not to offer package of this sort as standard issue.

    You can guess the outcome, but I’ll spell it out. The list price is $1,045, but Dell is offering it to you at the bargain price of $945. That’s a bit much for a $399 PC, but that’s the way it is. And, oh yes, I didn’t attempt to add any digital life software, which might add another $100 to the price, nor did I consider a decent graphics card. And did I mention that even the warranty is extra? I really wonder how many people actually buy one of those things option-free.

    Dell must have learned its marketing technique from the auto industry. A neighborhood car store advertises an incredible price on a new vehicle, but when you rush down to grab one, it’s either out of stock, or is bereft of the features you really want. A car salesperson at one of those dealers has the bait and switch routine down pat, and it’s very easy to upsell to a loaded model at a much higher price. I truly believe that, in another life, Michael Dell would have had a car dealership.

    It’s too bad that Consumer Reports, a publication that’s supposedly devoted to protecting ordinary people from being ripped off, a publication that takes no advertising and buys every product it tests, has fallen for the myth of the expensive Mac.

    I could, of course, do comparisons with other models in the Dell product line. But the site is a mess, and today’s price will vanish tomorrow or an hour from now. I find it almost amazing that we’re talking of the number one PC maker on the planet here. How do people fall for this stuff?

    No, I won’t answer that. I’ll let you readers decide for yourselves.

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