Make it Elegant or Make it Cheap!

September 1st, 2010

You know you can buy a netbook running Windows for less than $300, but the very cheapest Mac, the mini, is now $699. You also know that you can get a smartphone with the Google Android OS on it for next to nothing, but the cheapest iPhone is last year’s 3GS, at $99 with a two-year contract.

Now it’s also true that the very cheapest smartphone will probably handle the basics reasonably well. You’ll be able to make and receive phone calls on them, and be limited by your carrier’s network in your neighborhood. There will be email, Web browsing and other features you expect from such a device. Input will be done via touchscreen, tiny keyboard, or both in the more powerful models.

Certainly any plain PC will also be able to handle basic chores without a whole lot of pain, such as Internet access, email, and running some basic productivity apps. And, despite the claims to the contrary in Consumer Reports, you need a fairly powerful PC with a good graphics card for gaming. But CR lives in another universe when the real world is concerned.

So if your goal is basic functionality without the elegance and frills, you can see why so many people choose tech gear on the basis of price rather than quality. Certainly you can get a perfectly serviceable cell phone for free with a contract, so why bother with an iPhone?

It all comes down to this: What need should such a gadget — or even a personal computer for that matter — fill? Are you the sort of person who doesn’t mind getting your hands dirty fiddling around with rough interfaces and complicated and convoluted steps to alter settings or just access a basic function? If so, you might not care about the fineries of a great operating system, sexy hardware and predictable performance.

Yes, I realize some argue that Apple overprices their products, whether for greed or other reasons, and that you can supposedly get equal or better hardware for a lot less money. The fact that Apple also regularly reports high profits cements that impression.

Now when it comes to Macs, I have done fairly regular price comparisons in recent years. Of course, the comparisons have to be fair, which means both the Mac and the PC must have equivalent hardware and equivalent software, including the extras that include iLife on the former. That means that you can’t have a crippled version of Windows. You need the professional version with all features unlocked, and each and every element, from graphics card, to processor type and clock speed, must be as close as possible.

When you do this sort of comparison, you may be surprised to find that prices aren’t so different. Sometimes the Mac is actually cheaper. If not, you only pay slightly more. As you move up the ladder to higher-end gear, you’ll find that Macs have an even greater advantage. A Mac Pro, equipped with the latest and greatest Intel Xeons, for example, usually costs hundreds less than similar products from Dell, which would mean a Precision Workstation.

But even with similarly priced gear, there is something you can’t do on a Mac, which is to downgrade to the basics. Hardware customization is limited, except for the Mac Pro. You can’t eliminate extras that you might not need, such as Wi-Fi or a Web cam in an office where you don’t need either. I suppose that might present a problem in a business setting, where corporate purchasing managers are accustomed to equipping a PC just so, free of options that aren’t necessary.

I understand that point of view, and why, when a company needs to buy a few thousand similarly equipped PCs, customized in the same way, the Mac may not be on their radar even if it has other advantages. I’m sure Apple knows this. They don’t want to become bottom feeders or compete with the overall PC market in the rush to beat everyone on price and price alone. As Apple says, they won’t build “junk,” and having a heavy share of the premium PC market has been a successful strategy. They won’t earn a heavy market share in the enterprise, but that doesn’t matter.

When it comes to the iPhone, we’re still talking of a premium-priced device, and it may well be that the unit costs alone will result in lost sales to other smartphone platforms. But every single iPhone sold yields a hefty profit margin. So even if Android OS products ultimately become more popular than the iPhone worldwide — and they’re moving ahead in the U.S. now — that won’t stop Apple from remaining competitive and generating huge profits and sales.

More to the point, tens of millions of people appreciate an operating system that is smooth and, usually at any rate, just works. That can’t always be said for the Android OS, although it’s getting better, and the problems with Windows are well known, even though Microsoft has improved things.

Apple has succeeded with elegance; the competition just wants to make it cheap. You get to choose what you prefer.

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7 Responses to “Make it Elegant or Make it Cheap!”

  1. dfs says:

    Purchasing PCs makes great sense for at least two kinds of people. One is people who are just so plain broke that they can’t afford anything else. Times are indeed tough and there are plenty of such people. Not just individuals but purchasers for cash-strapped companies, school-districts and so forth who really have a need to make their dollars stretch as far as possible (especially when these are tax dollars). Plenty of people are driving a Subaru even though they know for a fact that a Mercedes is a better car, not because they want to but because they have to. One can only sympathize with such folks. The second category (for whom I feel no sympathy whatsoever) is suggested by Gene’s question “Are you the sort of person who doesn’t mind getting your hands dirty fiddling around with rough interfaces and complicated and convoluted steps to alter settings or just access a basic function? ” Gene, there are plenty of people who have a job doing just this and who have a vested interest in complexity, rough edges, and all the other things that go along with the PC. Then they can come along and look and feel useful and important putting things right. Hell, if things “just worked” within their organizations they might very well find themselves out of work. So the PC is their bread and butter and Apple can only look like a serious threat. Allow them any input into IM purchasing decisions, what do you imagine they’re gonna buy?

  2. DaveD says:

    Dad gave me one of his jewels of wisdom in my teenage years. He said that as long it was affordable, always buy the best because it will last longer that the cheap ones.

    My 1998 PowerBook G3 Series is still in operation today. In my opinion, it was one of Apple’s most beautifully designed and well-engineered notebook.

    I chose elegance.

  3. Andrew says:


    I’ve long disagreed with your version of a “fair” comparison. The fact is, PCs and Macs are different, and each user is different.

    I agree wholeheartedly that elegance (industrial and interface design) costs and is worth money, but I will not accept the need to add an unwanted feature when comparing prices.

    When I bought my car last year, the BMW dealer touted the run-flat tires on the 328i as an advantage over the regular tires on the Mercedes C300. Those two cars were otherwise similarly equipped and similarly priced. The fact is, I didn’t want run-flat tires as they are noisier on the highway and have a stiffer ride (without the handling benefits of a stiffer suspension).

    So, do I add the cost of run-flat tires and buy the BMW as the “better value”, or do I ignore their presence on the BMW and consider the cars on their merits and prices without the run-flat skew?

    The same argument exists for computers. If I was comparing a MacBook Pro and a ThinkPad for instance, how to consider the webcam if I have no desire to have that feature? The ThinkPad makes the webcam optional, while it is mandatory on the MacBook Pro.

    Ignoring all other differences in the computers themselves, imagine a 15″ MacBook Pro and a 15″ ThinkPad that are otherwise identically spec’d. You say add the $30 for the webcam to make a “fair comparison”, but I say ignore the presence of the webcam on the MacBook Pro (if the feature is unwanted) to make a “fair comparison” to the web-cam-deleted ThinkPad.

    I always enjoy this argument, and remember making the same one about a Low End Mac comparison that added $49 to the cost of the PC for a copy of the Nanosaur game that came with the G4 Mac Mini. Adding the game to the PC was just as ridiculous then as adding antivirus to the cost of a Mac is today, unless of course, the game, the antivirus or whatever is a feature that the buyer actually wants and would buy anyway.

  4. Andrew says:

    Buying quality is never a bad thing to do. Back when I was a poor, struggling college student, I bought used ThinkPads and PowerBooks instead of new Inspirons and Gateways. Sure I gave up some performance, but was delighted when at the end of law school my then 4-year-old ThinkPad T20 and 2-year-old 12″ PowerBook still looked and worked like new, while most of the Inspirons (most popular laptop in my law school class) had long since fallen apart and either been replaced or were held together with duct tape, had failing components and numerous mechanical and electronic problems.

    That old ThinkPad, wiped clean and configured with a bare OS and the required testing software was used for the California Bar exam. Where owners of new, cheap computers had all sorts of issues getting their computers up and ready, mine booted instantly and worked smoothly. Quality is never a disadvantage.

    I sold the 12″ PowerBook years ago (in perfect, like-new condition), but still have that now 11-year-old ThinkPad, and it still looks and works like new.

  5. Bill in NC says:

    One can buy certain netbooks or build a desktop using certain components and then load OS X on them.

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