The Dirty Little Secret About Cheap PC Boxes

June 1st, 2006

Despite all the back and forth discussion about whether Macs are more expensive than equivalent Windows PC’s, it’s not always easy to argue against just buying something real when the budget is tight. So people run into the local discount store, and take home a $399 computer, complete with monitor, keyboard and mouse.

Let’s forget for the moment what the specs might reveal. I suppose if you just want to go online and maybe do some word processing, this may all you need, although I can argue the point in some respects. In fact, I won’t even remind you that the cheap Windows PC is just as vulnerable to malware and system anomalies as the more expensive models.

Instead, I’m going to examine why these products are so cheap, and it’s not because of cheap Asian labor. Remember, some of those same factories are also building Macs. Now on the surface, I suppose you could argue that the cheapest way to build a PC is actually for you to assemble the box yourself. You go to your local PC emporium, buy the logic board, the processor, the power supply, case, drives, and all the rest, take it home and start your do-it-yourself project. In fact, I’m sure some of our readers are quite good at this, but if you actually considered how much time you really have to spend on the project, you might find you are being underpaid as far as labor goes.

So how do they do it? Well, when you price a copy of Windows XP, it doesn’t seem to make sense either. How could some pay $200 for a full installation copy of the Home edition and make a profit on a $399 computer? Well, of course they are buying an OEM version, which is much, much cheaper, and the price depends on the quantity they purchase. The same holds true for the rest of the parts they use in their products, and you can rest assured they pay as little as possible to assemble those cheap boxes.

But there is one other factor that isn’t getting much play among the technology pundits, but it forms the focus of a fascinating article over at CNET’s It’s all the battle to buy the desktop of your PC. You see, when you set up your new Windows computer, you’ll find your desktop cluttered with sign-up applications for such services as AOL, EarthLink and MSN. There will be demo software too of one sort or another putting up popups that exhort you to you buy the full version when the trial period expires, and do you think Google made that deal with Dell to put its stuff on their computers without paying something for the privilege?

Yes, the Windows desktop is for sale, just like ad space on a billboard. The companies who vie for product placement hope that you’ll order their service or software, and are willing to write checks to the PC box makers to get their piece of the pie.

Of course, as that article points out, this can cause complications, because removing software from a Windows PC isn’t just a matter of dragging an application or folder to the trash, or, rather, “recycle” container. It will likely have other resources that remain active and grab a piece of that precious CPU horsepower and memory allotment. Even using the Add/Remote control panel to get rid of the stuff may still leave remnants in the infamous Windows Registry.

You could, of course, erase the drive and be done with this stuff, but it’s quite possible your recovery CD will simply put it back on your computer. Want about a straight CD copy of Windows XP to restore your PC to pristine condition? Check with the manufacturer. It may cost extra.

Some PC service companies, such as Best Buy’s “Geek Squad,” the crew that travels around town in those VW Beetles with the silly paint jobs, will happily charge you a fee to help uninstall this junk. Everybody is making money but you.

Sure, Apple provides some demo stuff on a new Mac. There’s a 30-day “test drive” for Microsoft Office, and a trial version of iWork ’06. But they don’t tie up system resources, and, if you prefer, you can just trash them and get on with your life. The fully-enabled bundled software, such as iLife ’06, is fully functional, but doesn’t do silly things or send you pop-up reminders if you choose not to run it either.

So next time you are tempted to take that cheap PC box home, think, for a moment, what you might really be getting into. It’s not always as easy as it seems to save money, or, as they often say, you do indeed get what you pay for.

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16 Responses to “The Dirty Little Secret About Cheap PC Boxes”

  1. Graham says:

    As someone who has QuickTime Pro and .Mac can I just point out that Apple does pop up reminders about upgrading when using those products. The reminder every time you export from iWeb is rather annoying if you don’t have a .Mac account.

  2. setomi says:

    I know the feeling. That’s why I eventually got a Mac.

    I assembled my own PC myself so there’s nothing on the desktop. I only buy quality components, but still, it can be a challenge to match everything up, organize cables, fine tune it, etc. It used to be worth the trouble because at least you had generic replacable parts (unlike expensive OEM parts). But now, since prices have dropped AND PC manufacturers are using standard parts, it’s better to just buy an assembled (and tested) system.

    On the other hand, my Sony Vaio was filled with all kinds of stuff. I just uninstalled each item that I didn’t want. But you’re right, not everything gets uninstalled. And while uninstalling, often you get that message saying that a particular file is shared and if you remove it, other apps might not work anymore. So most of the time you just leave the stuff there because who knows what .dll is used for. And of course there’s the registry. Who invented this thing? I was lucky and never had a problem with it. Also note the stickers that are plastered over everything (Intel Inside, ATI Video, computer specs, etc). I peeled them all off. As for the desktop, the Sony wallpaper actually looks good. But that’s not always the case with other manufacturers. OEM machines also have OEM customizations including wallpapers dont don’t fully go away (For HP, need to delete registry setting). HP keyboards have OEM driver for the extra keyboard buttons (email, browser, chat, news, help, etc).

    Many OEMs put the extra software on a separate CD. So a clean install is possible.

    You’ll be surprised to find so many compaining about the cluttered PC desktop when you could (and I seen people have) do the same on a Mac. After all, a Mac can do everything a PC can do right? They blame Microsoft and PC manufactuerers, but often, over time, it’s the user that’s saving files on the desktop.

    Pop ups DO occur on a Mac!!! When iLife 06 came out, the iLife 05 users started to get messages indicating a new version was available. It only happens when launching an iLife 05 app. Of course, if you’re already on iLife 06, you’ll never get the message. I recall quicktime does a similar thing (to upgrade to QT pro).

  3. setomi says:

    The Dirty Little Secrets of using a Mac….

    Suppose you need certain PC applications (not available on Mac)? You buy a Mac (intel), upgrade hard drive for much need space for 2 operating systems, buy another copy of WinXP, use beta version of boot camp, install XP and applications. Isn’t this an extra expense in time and money too?

    Suppose you have a G4/G5? Then you spend additional money on Virtual PC.

    Are you switching to a Mac? Well then great. But what about the software you already have? Buy Office, Photoshop, etc. again. Then, when the universal version comes out, shell out more cash because you know they arent giving that out for free.

    What about all those WMA songs you purchased online? Will they play on your mac and sync with your iPod? Oh nooooo! You must buy them again. More expense.

    The moral of this story: it’s not a free ride on the Mac either. But the earlier you switch to the Mac (Intel), the better off you’ll be.

  4. siva says:

    Since iTunes has 80% market share, I bet most PC users have protected AAC files in their PCs rather than protected WMA files. These Protected AAC files will play fine on a mac. In fact FairPlay DRM currently allows 5 machines (pc and/or macs) to play the songs you have purchased.

    Switching from one platform to another always costs extra. It is upto each user to figure out if they will come out ahead in the long term. What I do see is a lot of people that use their PC just for email, browsing, pictures, music, etc. and they are miserable. I personally know at least two friends that use their Dell PCs and have a hard time connecting cameras, camcorders, etc. I told them about my Mac and how easy it is to manage my digital Life. They still have reservations because of the Mac’s upfront cost. The funny thing is one of my friends is a doctor and can easily afford a mac, but he is frugal as heck!

  5. shrimp says:

    Not to mention that when Apple likes a program enough, they just simply include it. Comic Life comes on most Intel Macs, I believe. When Apple bundles, they usually don’t do cheap trials and crappy adware (not that there is adware for the Mac in the first place.)

  6. jbelkin says:

    The problem with non-Mac users is the cannot believe what we are saying because it’s so far from their experience:

    No drivers to load,
    No popup windows (or anti-popups to install)
    No virii, spyware, etc (nor 3-6 pieces of software required to delete it)
    No complicated manuevers to uninstall apps

    All new apps require password to load

    Etc, etc …

    They just don’t believe us because the MS ads promise you a beautiful chalk outline world – it must be their fault it’s not working correctly.

  7. Big Al says:

    So, the Mac delivers what Microsoft promises.

    I like it.

  8. setomi says:

    No drivers to load on a Mac? Usually true. Install some pro audio or video peripherals cards on a PowerMac and watch what happens.

    New apps require password to load? Not sure what you’re talking about. You do need admin privaledges to install apps of course (on both Mac and PC).

  9. setomi says:

    Camera issues on Dell?

    Lets be fair. Often, the PC users who are having issues are still using Win95 or Win ME or NT or outdated PC hardware or outdated camera. They might have installed Linux for all we know. Pull out an old mac on OS8 and try to connect a camera.

    A friend with a “Dell” computer doesnt say much about what hardware / software is actually being used. If problems were this bad, nobody would be buying PCs.

  10. Bill Carver says:

    Funny thing about chalk outlines. Aren’t they to represent where things died?

  11. setomi says:

    For a Mac, you must also consider Safari compatibility when using online banking or using certain web sites such as Sooner or later you’ll end up installing multiple browsers on your Mac.

  12. setomi says:

    Adware on cheap PCs

    Keep in mind that “Add space” and “Adware” are two different things.

    Shortcuts on your PC desktop is not adware and I’m pretty sure PC manufacturers don’t preinstall adware. End users are the ones who unknowingly download and install them.

  13. Will Parker says:

    When I switched from Windows tech support to Mac tech support and beyond (back around ’92), I realized that the main reason for the popularity of Windows among IT personnel is largely due to the fact that it creates the need for more IT personnel. See the Apple ‘Tech Support’ ad at

  14. You also have to consider how long the computer lasts too. Macs can easily survive 6 years of very hard use. My Compaq only survived 2 years and that was before they had such low qulaity components. And most important is your data. If your data isn’t worth more than the cost of the computer than that computer isn’t worth it and vice versa. If you value your data you will run something other than Windows. There are a number of great choics you can get preinstalled – Mac OS X, Linux (in this category alone you have many big names to choose from), Solaris, etc.

  15. setomi says:

    If your hard drive fails, don’t blame Windows. Yank out the drive in your Mac. You’ll see its the same brand name used in many PCs. There are many quality PCs out there too. And now, Macs use the same processor (Intel). If they were all junk, the whole world would be on Macs by now. Personally I have PCs that have lasted 10 years. But it doesnt mean that ALL PCs will last that long.

    Did you notice .Mac includes backup software? Why back up data if the hardware never fails? The truth is that your hard drive will eventually fail regardless of what OS you use.

  16. Pipotron says:

    Want to go cheap and working without troubles, virus, adwares… ?

    No Apple : big money, as usual
    No Windows : less money, but more troubles

    Just buy a cheap Linux box or an empty box and you just use a Linux live CD

    You go cheap, got all the softs you want for free directly from the web and all the support from a big community

    Ubuntu or Suze, Mandriva (Free)…

    Nothing to uninstall, you try the Live CD before installing anything to know witch ditribution you like 😉

    No Mac, no Windows

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