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  • The Mac Hardware Report: Stop Saying Macs Cost More!

    August 29th, 2006

    It’s pretty much agreed now that, for the time being at least, the Mac Pro is cheaper than a comparably-equipped Dell Precision Workstation 690. That won’t stop some from saying otherwise, but that’s not important in the scheme of things.

    However, what annoys me is the fact that far too many tech writers and bloggers still insist that this is something brand new, that the Mac was previously more expensive, that this represents a new tact on the part of Apple. That’s not quite true, to put it mildly.

    You see, once someone gets a reputation, particularly an unfavorable one, it’s not easy to overcome. Back in the bad old days when John Sculley was CEO of Apple, it was perfectly true that Macs cost a lot more. There’s no dispute of that. Through the years even after Sculley departed, you had to pay a premium to go Mac, even if the cost of upkeep was less. Apple made some bad decisions in those days, and, eventually, those decisions killed the company.

    Even the iPod was once thought to be a more expensive product, until Apple secured those killer deals when it cornered the Flash memory market, that is. Then things became a lot more competitive. But a price difference of perhaps $50 isn’t so significant if you’re spending $300 or more on a consumer electronics product. If you factor that increase onto a product costing five or ten times as much, however, pretty soon you have real money.

    When Apple moved to Intel processors, again the online chatter had it that prices would go down, forgetting that the prices for parts from either IBM or Intel weren’t all that different. In fact, some suggested that Apple paid a higher price to switch, and might have to eat the difference or pass it on to you and me.

    Regardless, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it now: In recent years, a Mac has been extremely competitive with name-brand PC boxes with similar configurations. Now that Intel is inside both, the comparisons might be easier, but the end results still show that a Mac is not more expensive, and hasn’t been for awhile.

    For the moment, let’s put the top-of-the-line aside, and look at the Mac mini. Yes, I know there are rumors that a new model may be in our midst soon enough, but, based on Apple’s current strategy, I don’t expect prices to change much. It may be faster, of course, and perhaps have more multimedia features, but that’s not the point.

    Now we all know that getting consistent pricing on Dell is a needle-in-a-haystack quest, but since they are the number one PC maker, I’ll continue to compare them with Apple, even if it requires reading a few tea leaves.

    The basic Mac mini, at $599, has a 1.5GHz Intel Core Solo processor, 512MB RAM, a 60GB hard drive, an integrated Intel GMA950 graphics processor with 64MB of shared memory, a Combo drive, gigabit Ethernet, built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and a remote control.

    The least expensive Dell equivalent I could locate was a Dimension E310 P4 Vista Capable, which has a 3.06GHz Pentium 4, which you cannot compare directly to the Core Solo or Core Duo, an 80GB hard drive, an older Intel GMA900 graphics processor, a remote control and FireWire. I couldn’t locate a gigabit network interface, though in fairness to Dell, it does have a modem, which the mini lacks, so let’s call it almost a wash in terms of hardware. Dell’s price is $565, reduced from $678.

    A basic set of multimedia software and an optical mouse, to match what Apple provides, boosts the price to $622. This may, of course, change by the time you get to check it, but I expect the basic trend will be similar enough for the sake of this highly informal window shopping session.

    Yes, there are cheaper boxes from Dell, but you have fewer options to customize, so you can’t really do an honest comparison. Just as important, the Dell I configured, though it is supposedly capable of running Windows Vista, contains older Intel chips, and performance is apt to be inferior, even though the processor has a higher clock speed rating.

    But even if performance could be regarded as equivalent or close enough not to be significant one way or the other, you can’t make the argument that a Mac mini is more expensive. You can do similar comparisons down the line and prices will also be highly similar, until you get to the Mac Pro, where Apple has a huge advantage.

    So why are the pundits saying otherwise? As I said, it’s hard to erase the memory of a bad reputation, even when it is disproved over and over again.

    However, I’m more interested in the truth, even though that’s something a few out there still can’t handle. No, the Mac is not more expensive! This myth has to end here and now, and if someone tells you otherwise, insist they check their facts first.



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    27 Responses to “The Mac Hardware Report: Stop Saying Macs Cost More!”

    1. -hh says:

      The key here is that digital photography is more demanding than word processing. How many office workers preparing legal pleadings or online database forms need to edit images from a high-end DSLR as part of their secretarial work?

      The concept of a PC being exclusively reserved to the domain of secretarial work went out with the 8″ floppy. As such, your arguement is 30 years out of date.

      If you want to do image editing, then buy a machine suited for that purpose. The Mac Pro or Power Mac G5 are a great value when it comes to high-end image processing. Secretarial work has much lower hardware requirements, requirements that haven’t changed much since 1996, and won’t likely change much in 2016.

      Actually it is changing: in many organizations, pure “Secretarial” work has been on a decline, and may disappear by 2016: they’re being replaced by ‘Admin Assitants’ (and similar titles) whose duties are more than a traditional ‘Secretary’, usually including the purchasing of office supplies on the web, as well as the more graphically-intensive tasks commonly associated with putting together a Powerpoint presentation, usually complete with “…twenty seven 8×10 colour glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph … explaining what each one was” (apologies to Arlo Guthrie).

      The reality is that as the hardware/software is typically capable of doing more at affordable price-points, we generaly grow our expectations to encompass what we can do.

      For example, an automobile today is expected to have airbags and ABS.

      Within the realm of personal (non-business) applications, digital photos and videos are currently undergoing tremendous growth … just look at all of the free web-based hosting sites … and is becoming increasingly mainstream – – – and thus, image manipulation becomes yet another “Expected level of Capability” for virtually anyone’s PC hardware/software.

      So even if the “secretary” doesn’t need digital photography as part of her job right now, she’s going to want to have photos of her kids as her desktop image, screensaver, etc, all of which consumes RAM, clockcycles and drive space to accomodate even as a workplace ‘quality of life’ feature…and this will invariably morph into the expectation that everyone knows the basics of how to retouch and crop photos, so this will become an expected duty when she’s putting together the boss’s Powerpoint presentation.

      -hh

    2. Andrew says:

      Desktop photos hardly require a high-end computer. I’ve had my daughter’s picture as my desktop wallpaper all the way back to my PowerBook 5300c in 1996. It worked fine back then on a 100MHz chip with 32MB of RAM, and little more is needed for it today.

    3. -hh says:

      Desktop photos hardly require a high-end computer. I’ve had my daughter’s picture as my desktop wallpaper all the way back to my PowerBook 5300c in 1996.

      Earth to Andrew:

      Digital imaging has changed … just ever so slightly … in the past decade.

      Circa 1996, a standard digital camera (such as the Apple Quicktake 100) was typically a 640 x 480 image – – in today’s parlance, that’s a 0.3 (ZERO-POINT-THREE) Megapixel camera.

      By comparison, the cheapest digital camera that B&H sells today is the $89 Kodak EasyShare C310, which at 4.0 Megapixels, is more than a full order of magnitude more data. Its also $15 short of being a full order of magnitude cheaper than the Quicktake 100…hence, significantly greater marketplace adoption rates by Joe Consumer.

      Plus, you apparently missed the part where I said: “…my home PC was fine until I got a dSLR.”.

      The context here is that each shutter invocation eats up around 12MB of storage, as I’m shooting in JPEG+RAW mode. On digital scans I’ve done of some of my film, the largest file I’ve had is rougly 1.1GB … which is roughly 16x bigger than the maximum RAM than your Powerbook 5300c can support, and 10% bigger than the largest hard drive the 5300c was ever sold with.

      As I’ve already said, some people will try to disregard my application under some sort of an “I’m not ‘most people’ arguement”. However, the reality is that Canon, Nikon and others certainly believe that there’s a big market worth the capital investments to compete for: the digital camera market projections for 2006 is the retail sale of 28 million units (that’s 1 for every 2.5 PC’s sold), which to put it into context for this topic, is roughly 5 digital cameras for every 1 Macintosh sold.

      When it comes to how much digital images “stress” a system, I don’t disagree with the idea that in most general terms, one image isn’t all that much of a load (usually).

      However, the fallacy is that no raindrop believes that it is responsible for the flood … but with many raindrops lakes, oceans, and rivers have been created.

      With digital cameras, its easy to shoot a lot of images and go “make a lake”. Personally, I’ve already shot over 4000 images this calendar year…that’s a lot of raindrops, and on my current hardware, Adobe Bridge’s “bulk rename” function takes an hour to run on just a batch of 1000 (I can shoot that many in a week).

      -hh

    4. Andrew says:

      For a “home” computer belonging to a photo enthusiast you are absolutely right. For a home computer belonging to a “point and shoot” type, any semi-modern computer with a large hard drive should do. Back to looking at basic computers, a DSLR enthusiast will do better with something like my cheap0 Compaq than with a pricier Mac Mini. That $300 Compaq is likely faster than the Mini, has a larger and faster hard drive, and unlike the Mini, is easy and cheap to upgrade to an even bigger and faster hard drive, a faster CPU and a more capable video card should the demands of those high resolution digital images require it.

    5. -hh says:

      For a “home” computer belonging to a photo enthusiast you are absolutely right. For a home computer belonging to a “point and shoot” type, any semi-modern computer with a large hard drive should do.

      The general home PC with a P&S camera was doing okay until P&S’s started to exceed 4 megapixels around two years ago. At that point, people started to rediscover photography and it became increasingly common for their digital libraries to “raindrop” into a couple of thousand images. And because disk consumption is invisible, they don’t bother to throw anything away. You can quickly research online the extensiveness of the complaints that Apple got when iPhoto (IIRC v4) started to choke when it was asked to manage more than 5,000 images, which shows that its not just 1% or even 5% of their customer base that encountered this ‘barrier’ so quickly; you will notice that iPhoto ’06 now advertises that it can support 250,000 photo’s, which suggests that a significant number of photo libraries are more than 10% of that … ie, 25,000 images or larger.

      Back to looking at basic computers, a DSLR enthusiast will do better with something like my cheap0 Compaq than with a pricier Mac Mini.

      I’ll solve my performance shortcomings by taking 2-3 steps DOWN in performance? I don’t think so.

      I’m already using around 2x-3x more horsepower than that, and I’m contemplating doubling it again by moving up to a ‘Quad’ (dual CPU, dual core) Xeon system with enough drives to set up a RAID for faster disk I/O. I’ll be happy if I can spend less than $3K.

      That $300 Compaq is…easy and cheap to upgrade to an even bigger and faster hard drive, a faster CPU and a more capable video card should the demands of those high resolution digital images require it.

      Even if it were to be totally maxxed out, it still wouldn’t even be the equal of what I have now…which I’ve already said has been found wanting.

      And while I don’t dispute the ‘better’ expandability arguement versus the mini, its been my personal experience from multiple family members that for those individuals that don’t have particularly challenging computing performance needs that an inexpensive box (and/or mini) are suited, they are generally terrified (to put it mildly) of doing anything to their box, especially opening the box up to do an upgrade.

      Which means that the arguement, while true, is often irrelevant.

      For example, I know of one PC where the modem got fried, and rather than to put in a new modem (via USB), its owner chose to upgrade from dial-up to broadband, even though their budget can’t really afford it.

      Bottom line is that internal upgrades are the domain of the hardware hobbiest, not a general application consumer. If you don’t want to believe me, go ask your parents, aunts and uncles if they’re going to install a Vista upgrade to their current PC, or if they’re going to just replace the whole thing. Of those that you find that are game to do the upgrade, I’ll bet that more than half of them have a Technical College Degree.

      -hh

    6. Walter says:

      While I am a huge fan and proponent of Apple computers and other products, I do think it is disingenuous to claim that Apples are priced competitively with PCs. Apple intentionally configures their systems with unusual and unorthodox combinations of features to make direct price comparisons difficult if not impossible.

      Sure, they’re competitive with “similarly configured” machines, but this is meaningless since there are so few similarly configured PCs.

      Bottom line is that for someone on a very limited budget who has some basic functionality to meet, a crappy Dell PC will give him the raw speed, memory, storage space, and graphics necessary to accomplish one’s goals at a considerably lower price point than a Mac with equal or better core specs I mentioned. Naturally the Mac will be better constructed, more secure, more reliable, easier to use and maintain, more attractive, and will possess numerous unique (yet non-essential) features to justify the added expense. But these are still insufficient justification for someone who wants to get the job done at a minimal cost.

      Case in point, I bought my first Mac (Powerbook G4) a year ago and I have no intention of ever buying a Windows machine again. But if someone with very limited funds asked me how best to spend around $500 on a basic computer I would certainly not recommend buying a Mac mini, because it’s clear that person could get a lot more basic functionality for their money with a mainstream PC.

      Apple cannot, and should not, compete with the lowest common denominators. They produce premium quality integrated systems (hardware/software) and are priced competitively at the mid and high end of the market. The mini is a waste of money except as a low end introductory system for someone who plans to keep existing peripherals and would like a cheap taste of the Mac platform just to try it out.

    7. Sure, they’re competitive with “similarly configured” machines, but this is meaningless since there are so few similarly configured PCs.

      Since it has been shown that you can configure systems from both platforms with mostly similar options, what you are saying just isn’t so. Sorry.

      Peace,
      Gene

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