• Some Myth Busting for the Weekend

    April 28th, 2006

    The closer Apple moves to having what many regard as industry-standard hardware, the easier it is for some to say that Macs are still a little too expensive compared to the competition. After all, if the internal components are essentially the same, where does Apple get off charging more for its products, even if the cases are, well, prettier?

    Well, I would have thought this myth would have been dispelled long ago, and certainly it’s not for want of trying. But, on the surface at least, there is good reason why this perception simply will not go away, and I suspect some of you wonder about it whenever you walk into an electronics store and see those $399 PC boxes, apparently ready to roll and complete with display, keyboard, mouse. How can Apple possibly compete with that?

    For an answer, you have to look at the auto industry. Some companies, in order to advertise bottom-line prices, strip some vehicles of as many options as possible. You want side air bags, or electronic stability control, you must pay extra. Ditto for the fancy radio and other components that you might regard as essential. When you check the boxes on the list of extras and add up the price, suddenly that cheap car doesn’t seem so cheap.

    Now I’m not implying one of those stripped models won’t make it out of the showroom, but you can see that something is being sacrificed. Now a stripped down personal computer may not affect your safety, although not having side air bags on a car could make you more vulnerable to injury in the event of a crash. In fact, if your needs are modest, and you only want to surf the Internet, send email and maybe do a little word processing, I can see where the entry-level computer might have some value. In a business environment, the number-crunchers in the accounting department might even consider that these boxes are only going to run a single application, and don’t mind if a few “luxuries” are missing. That, however, ignores the known security shortcomings of the Windows platform. I would assume that a malware protection package would be part of your purchase, even if it does add at least $50 to the bill. And there’s that increased cost of ownership, which keeps IT people busy and well-paid.

    But now consider what you get in the cheapest Mac mini. Sure, Apple bumped the price $100 when it went to Intel, and I can see where it got a few brickbats as the result. But remember that Apple doesn’t ditch features to keep the price down. Well, let’s remove the built-in modem from that equation. If you have broadband and don’t plan to fax with your Mac, you might appreciate not having something you aren’t going to use. Otherwise, you have another appendage to deal with.

    In any case, Macs are designed to run seamlessly out of the box, without, for the most part, forcing you to buy extra hardware to get the functionality you want. Except for the Power Macs (and that might change with the Intel-based version), all include built-in wireless networking. Except for the iBook, and I suspect its MacIntel replacement will alter that, you get gigabit Ethernet on every single model. There’s built-in FireWire for your camcorder and other peripherals, and a great package of bundled software, most of it coming from Apple. Sure, the PC box makers can bundle software, but a lot of it is cobbled together from different companies, with no guarantee everything will work properly together.

    When you begin to add on the features so the typical PC matches up with any Mac in the lineup, suddenly the price doesn’t seem so expensive. The so-called “Apple premium” vanishes. But don’t take my word for it. Charles Gaba’s System Shootouts regularly configures a PC to match the Mac in terms of pricing. The features are brought into parity as much as possible, and that can take time with some of computer makers, because you have to check a lot of boxes on a “Customize” page to make it happen. You can examine the features side-by-side and come to your own conclusions.

    To be perfectly fair, one of the computers will have something the other lacks, and the Mac isn’t always ahead in every single respect. You can see where, for example, Apple might consider adding certain features to future models that some of you may find useful. Consider media slots, so you can connect your digital camera’s flash cards directly, and not be restricted to the module that’s in the camera. With the arrival of its Intel-based models, Apple no longer bundles a copy of AppleWorks, and all you get is a demo version of iWork ’06. If you want a word processor, and TextEdit doesn’t do it for you, you could, of course, look online for free alternatives, such as OpenOffice, but shouldn’t an application so fundamental to the personal computing experience be included as standard issue?

    All right, I know that iWork ’06 is apparently gaining traction in the marketplace, so maybe Apple doesn’t feel compelled to offer it free. But what about iLife ’06, which is included on every new Mac you buy? Do you see a disconnect here?

    This is not a serious issue in the scheme of things. But what is serious is one inescapable fact: Outfit a PC to match the Mac as closely as possible, and the price differences become insignificant. Apple doesn’t sell stripped-down computers, and that’s something you should appreciate. You want it to just work, and that can’t happen if you turn the thing on and find that you have to buy something extra to get the functionality you want.

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