The Real Mac Versus Windows Cost Comparison

September 12th, 2006

You’ve probably read a few of these articles by now, offering what is supposed to be an actual cost comparison between buying Mac OS X and buying Windows over a period of several yeras. But regardless of the conclusions, and some are more accurate than others, most of the tech writers and bloggers actually ignore some fundamental facts that are also ignored when a Mac itself is priced against a “competing” PC.

The first problem is choosing the proper version of Windows XP. With Mac OS X, it’s a choice between the client and server editions, which is a pretty simple choice. But when it comes to Windows, Microsoft does everything it can to confuse you in its quest to provide a selection.

For example, among the differences between the Home and Professional versions is “Scalable processor support — up to two-way multi-processor support.” I could go on, but I don’t think it’s fair to either side of the equation to use a version of Windows that omits any serious functionality, and I was tempted to consider the Media Center Edition. However, I think Pro is a good compromise.

So we have, in this corner, Mac OS X for $129 and at the other end of the seesaw, Windows XP for $299. In each case, we starting from scratch, not upgrading. In addition, I’m not going to include rebates or special offers, since they are not dependable or consistent.

So imagine taking a Mac and doing a fresh upgrade from 10.0 to 10.5. Here, Apple hasn’t officially announced final pricing for Leopard, so I’ll leave it at $129, although I grant it might be somewhat higher, as I’ve a feeling you might even see iLife become part of the standard system installation. Mind you, that’s just a feeling.

An upgrade from Windows XP Pro to Windows Vista Business is $199. So far, Apple expects you to pay the full list price for their operating system upgrades, unless you buy a new Mac around the time the system ships, but it comes with the previous version.

The upgrade from 10.0 to 10.1 was essentially free, and upgrade kits were offered by dealers. Apple charged you $19.95 to send the package directly to you.

So, based on these figures (and omitting shipping and handling fees and state sales tax), you will have paid $645, list price, to acquire Mac OS X upgrades without actually buying a new Mac on which it’s preloaded.

The Windows upgrades will total $398.

So for $247 extra, Apple is delivering six major operating system upgrades, or will when Leopard ships. Microsoft will offer just two in roughly the same time period.

But it’s not as simple as that. You see, Microsoft has a powerful activation system, where you can only run it legally on one computer at a time. On a new installation, you get 30 days to make it happen before it’s officially disabled. Now I grant there are tricks of the trade to avoid this happenstance, but I’m doing it strictly by the book.

You can buy extra seats for Windows, but the discounts only begin to make sense when you the quantities get large. In contrast, there is no official activation system in place for Mac OS X, at least not yet, but if you’re going to follow the rules, you can buy a Family Pack, with five genuine user licenses, for $199.

You don’t think this applies to you? How many of you own both a desktop and a note-book computer? I’m just asking.

But the issues become more complicated, because, as commentator Daniel Eran recently explained, the upkeep of a Windows computer requires protection against malware. This isn’t something you can avoid, unless you keep your PC in total isolation, and never go online.

You can download free or shareware malware protection applications for Windows, but buying one of the commercial packages will guarantee frequent updates, so you have at least a fighting chance of staying ahead of the predators.

One highly-rated solution is Trend Micro’s PC-cillin Internet Security. You can acquire a 36-month license, which means the initial version and three years of upgrades, for $89.95, or $179.90 for the six years that cover the operating system upgrade period I’m speculating about. Other options, such as those from Symantec, cost more.

Suddenly, the price difference becomes less significant.

Just as important, if not more so, is the assumption that you will never need outside help to clean your PC, or Mac. Not everyone is a power user. Here the waters get muddied a little bit, since no system is perfect. But it has been shown over the years that the PC needs more help to keep it purring, and the cost of maintenance is the real source of differences over the life of the system.

What’s more, the circa 2001 Mac has at least a fighting chance of running next year’s Leopard upgrade with good performance. The circa 2001 PC? You’re lucky if last year’s model will meet Vista’s onerous system requirements. You might just end up having to simply retire that old box and buy a new one, and then the cost comparisons really get out of hand.

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9 Responses to “The Real Mac Versus Windows Cost Comparison”

  1. Tim Harness says:

    Mac vs. windows You mentioned the possibility of professional system cleaning, I’ve talked to a few folks who had that done on a windows machine, and lost important drivers. Some of these folks had no original disk to replace drivers. Ordinary people are better off with a Mac. 3 uses for windows machines, 1.When there’s no Mac alternative. 2. Cutting edge gaming. 3. Trebouchet ammunition.

  2. mondo says:

    The need for online malware and antivirus protection is overblown. A few nimrods actually need it. The rest of the educated world is generally OK.

    Must admit that different versions of windows is really confusing. But I suppose it’s better than having one version that costs $400.

    Everything get’s out of date eventually. Even so, you can still use older computers with Vista. Just can’t turn up the features. Same thing applies with old Macs.

    If you’re into gaming, you lose. No surround sound support and lack of games and lack of speed. Yes, even when using bootcamp, you lose (so soundblaster Audigy support).

  3. Angela says:

    At this point, most people will likely buy new machines with Vista already on it.
    If you’re already on a Mac then the cost can be less. If you’re switching to a Mac then the cost can be higher. You need to buy Windows anyway for using bootcamp and/or any PC emulation. You end up getting the Mac version Office. You end up discovering that certain web applications won’t run correctly or not at all with Safari. Then you realize that a Mac is really more expensive (at least in this case).

  4. Andrew says:

    I don’t think anyone except hobbyists (those who build their own) ever buy the full retail version of Windows XP. Every Wintel computer sold at retail over the last decade-and-a-half came preinstalled with one version of Windows or another, and if its old enough to lack a qualifying upgradable version (98 or better), then its too old to run XP or Vista anyway.

    The different versions of Windows can’t be ignored down to Professional either. Unless your computer has multiple processors or is used on a domain, which is uncommon except for high-end workstations or corporate settings where Apple really doesn’t compete, the Home version is fine, doing everything important that the Pro version does.

    The upgrade price for XP Home is $99, and that is more than sufficient for any PC that didn’t come with XP (nothing newer than 2001), has only one processor (almost everything) and won’t be used on a domain (almost every home machine out there).

    Virus and other malware protection is also deceiving, at least in cost. This is one area where the major brands are the most expensive, but definitely not the best option. AVAST, AVG and plenty of other freeware applications actually offer better protection and exact a much smaller performance penalty on your PC than the biggies like Norton do. I used to use Norton and found too many viruses slipping past on Sunday before Symantec issued their updates on Monday. AVG updates every day, sometimes twice if there is something important out there.

    As for Vista, just like when Tiger came out for the Mac, the high hardware requirements are only for the eye-candy. I’ve got Vista RC-1 running beautifully on a 4-year-old laptop (IBM ThinkPad X22) that wasn’t considered fast when it was new (low voltage CPU). My 1-year-old Mac Mini is similarly compromised under Tiger, as it will not run CoreImage despite its 64MB video card.

  5. keyword says:

    “The need for online malware and antivirus protection is overblown. A few nimrods actually need it. The rest of the educated world is generally OK.” – Mondo

    What color is the sky on your planet, Mondo? Have you ever looked at a firewall log? I’ve never seen a Windows machine that didn’t get all crufted within a couple of years (or sooner) and need to be wiped. There’s really no such thing as “cleaning.” Microsoft itself recommends reformatting for afflicted systems. There are quite a few XP features I’d like to see in OS X, but vunerability isn’t one of them. The only comparable problems I’ve seen on an OS X machine were the result of a failing hard drive. (I don’t buy the Macs are invulnerable hype either. I think you need to run something like the Intego anti virus/firewall to maintain proper vigilance).

    I have seen first-hand the many hours of staff-time needed to combat the malware, trojans, worms, backdoors, rootkits, and viruses of the Windows world.

    An additional hidden cost of the Windows world is the toadyism of the PC press. If a program has major gotchas you will never read about it in reviews or commentary in the PC press, in print or online. You simply cannot depend on Windows software to actually perform as advertised, nor can you trust the PC press to blow the whistle on programs that fall short. On the Mac side most stuff really does “Just work”. Maybe it’s because Mac users can be pretty brutal to vendors who misstep (look at the savage reception first accorded to Apple’s own Aperture),

    The other drawback is a kind of “opportunity cost” issue. It takes so long to get a Windows environment stable and productive that no one wants to disturb it by introducing new stuff to the mix. Not lightly at least. System restore is a terrific feature, but it’s not infallible.

  6. Robert Pritchett says:

    Full circle? From Mac to PC and back again. If you are serious about the Windows environment, the XP Pro is the way to go, not XP Home. Think connectivity, faxing, etc.

    Oh, and if you don’t register with MS within 30 days online, the OS will shut down, so you cannot NOT be online, but you had darned well better be behind a firewall before you plug in, because you will be “owned’ within 5 minutes (some say 20) if you don’t.

    Derek reinstalls XP Pro on his machines every 3 months and he claims he has never ever had any malware on his machines. His wife’s machine is another matter. Last I checked, it takes a while (take a day) to reinstall everything including the security updates. How valuable is your time?

    The other costs associated with non-Mac systems is the hourly rate by techies who have to come and restore machines and peripherals so the darned units work. My mom knows her MS tech by name, he’s been over so often and she has paid a high price for his services. She felt so bad once because I drove all the way up to her place (2 hours away, 2 hours back) to discover she had lost the cable off the back of a printer (parallel port) and she paid me. The guy had her conditioned.

    Windows “users” (MSCE-speak derisively calls them “LUsers”) EXPECT to pay a premium to techs to keep their systems operational. For the most part, MS techs do not love clients. They really, really don’t. It’s a pride thing. Part of the job seems to require a “look down your nose” attitude. And have you seen some of the going rates for those guys that drive around in pirate-colored VWs? They think they can afford to be rude “computer-drugged” and conditioned “users”.

    No wonder first-time folks who come to a Mac meeting are shocked and awed at the willingness to help – without financial remuneration. Go to a PC users meeting and some techie-type will volunteer services for a fee – after the meeting. Guaranteed. Every time.

  7. Dana Sutton says:

    What makes these cost-comparisons between OSX and Windows XP particularly unconvincing is that it’s very easy to buy XP at a deeply discounted price at places such as Amazon.

  8. Andrew says:

    Or for free with any computer from the last five years.

  9. Stephen says:

    Costco sells Windows type machine and at great prices.
    Why would I want to spend more for a Mac when all I plan on doing us ripping off mp3’s playing solitaire and downloading porn anyway?

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