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  • 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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