• Newsletter Issue #454

    August 10th, 2008

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

    Back in the 1980s, when I wanted to transition from traditional typography to desktop publishing, I chose QuarkXPress. One reason was that this application offered a level of precision that closely matched what I was accustomed to with the typesetting systems I had been using. Although PageMaker is regarded as the progenitor of desktop page layout software, it was geared more to the graphic artist accustomed to assembling the printed page from separate elements that were placed on a layout board.

    The original developers of PageMaker, to my way of thinking, made some bad design decisions, such as the inability to open more than a single publication at a time (not addressed until years later), which helped QuarkXPress ride the wave to ascendency in that market. However, in recent years, Adobe’s InDesign, which I regard as a 21st century version of PageMaker, has gotten the buzz among graphic designers. While XPress is still widely used by publishers, that, too, may be changing.

    So on last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we entered “The David Biedny Zone,” where our Special Correspondent held forth on QuarkXPress 8, the newest version of Quark’s flagship desktop publishing application. Now David doesn’t like the company, for various reasons he’s explained a number of times on the show. He was also not terribly impressed with the newest version, which seems to have more in the way of interface changes — bringing it closer to Adobe’s way of doing things — than actual feature enhancements.

    That is a subject, however, that we’ll cover in future shows, and you’ll certainly hear Quark’s own viewpoint on the subject. David also talked about the iPhone, the future of the Mac OS and other subjects.

    In another segment, Macworld writer and commentator Kirk McElhearn brought us up to date on a compelling alternative to Apple’s Time Capsule and the latest round of security issues and how they might affect Macs.

    In addition, you met James Rea, President of ProVUE Development, who detailed the history of their well-known database application, Panorama. And when you click on that name, by the way, you’ll get a special deal if you decide to buy a copy!

    Moving to another front, on The Paracast this week, you’ll hear from investigative journalist Leslie Kean of The Coalition for Freedom of Information, an organization seeking to unearth government information about UFOs. During this wide-ranging discussion, Leslie will talk about media coverage of the subjectand her efforts to spearhead creation of a new U.S. government agency to investigate sightings and report the details to the public.

    HERE WE GO AGAIN: REVISITING MAC VERSUS PC PRICES

    In recent months, I’ve come to believe that most people finally understand that Macs and PCs are comparably priced when comparably equipped. That is, until I read some more of that silly fiction that attempts to convey precisely the reverse, that Apple is the BMW, and the PC is the Ford, and that the former is priced accordingly when compared to the latter.

    I suppose this is a highly frustrating argument that will never end, because a simple change of the terms and conditions is enough to deliver different results. Indeed, I know some of you will argue that I’m wrong and provide very detailed reasons why. So let me put my cards on the table: Take a Mac and a PC from a brand name company and not a home-built model. Equip both with the same options in terms of equipment as much as possible. Then make sure that the software bundle is also similar, which means that Windows Vista Basic isn’t part of the picture.. Only Ultimate is the proper equivalent to Mac OS X, and that can represent a fairly stiff price hike on what’s otherwise a low-cost computer.

    Indeed, it appears that recent articles from CNET and editor/writer Joe Wilcox have implied they are going on fair shopping excursions, but they repeat the long-voiced fiction that you can buy a regular Windows computer for hundreds less than the competing Apple product.

    Now I have to tell you that I am quickly losing patience over such shenanigans, because I can see a great degree of intellectual dishonesty in these comparisons. More to the point, when I do match-ups using the criteria I’ve mentioned over and over again, the results I achieve continue to verify my statement that the Mac and PC, when comparably equipped, are closely priced. On the high-end, the Mac Pro, in reality a workstation and not a simple personal computer, comes out way ahead.

    One big problem with doing this sort of thing is that PC makers do not always have consistent price policies or configuration options. What’s more, if you perform a Google search, you might find some unadvertised discount coupons. As a result, picking a model at random may not always yield accurate results, and what’s accurate today will be inaccurate tomorrow.

    Once again, I selected Dell, simply because the company is at or near the top of the charts worldwide, and has an online ordering system that’s fairly flexible. In contrast, Acer, which now owns the eMachines and Gateway brands, has essentially given up on online sales and now only offers prebuilt models at retail stores.

    So I visited Dell’s confusing online store, and customized an Inspiron 1525 to match, say, a black MacBook. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, since not all the options are identical. I got to $1,525 (including the $140 rebate) without actually locating any software that came close to Apple’s iLife, which is free with the purchase of any new Mac. Besides, the Inspiron had a 15.4-inch screen, and the MacBook is 13.3 inches.

    When it came to an All-In-One computer, which also appears in Dell’s lineup, the former starts at $1,299, while the cheapest 20-inch iMac is $100 less. At this point, I didn’t bother to customize either, as it wasn’t worth the effort.

    I realize these are casual comparisons, and that a more detailed study might yield a wider price gulf between the Mac and the PC, and perhaps put the latter in a more competitive advantage to some extent. At this point, however, unless you are really on a tight budget and can’t really afford more than an entry-level box, you have to focus on value.

    Will your PC, for example, be able to run the latest and greatest Microsoft operating systems and software four or five years hence? More to the point, will it even survive long enough for you to invest in upgrades of that sort?

    Understand that Mac OS 10.5 can be installed on most four-year-old Macs, whereas you will be in serious trouble getting a full Windows Vista experience — which includes the resource-hogging Aero interface — on most normally-configured PC boxes that were purchased more than a year or two back.

    That’s one reason, among many, why businesses have been slow to embrace Vista. They have already achieved a decent level of performance, compatibility and security with Windows XP, and they would be forced to buy new computers to upgrade to Vista. Even then, many are sticking with the tried and true, and are sitting out Vista, hoping, perhaps, that Windows 7 will be a better alternative. And that remains to be seen, even assuming it’s out in early 2010 as Microsoft promises.

    Remember, too, that MIcrosoft is notorious for shipping products late without all the promised features. Imagine if Apple tried to get away with schemes of that sort.

    In any case, I continue to maintain my position on the Mac versus PC price issue. They are very close. Sometimes the Mac comes out ahead, and sometimes the Windows PC. But the differences are seldom significant and there is a serious value equation you have to consider as well.

    When it comes to the low-cost bundles you see at the local consumer electronics stores, Apple won’t enter that market segment. There’s little or no profit in it, and the products you buy are generally under-equipped and simply won’t deliver a fully-realized user experience for most of you. You do indeed get what you pay for, and it’s unfortunate that the folks at CNET and some other tech sites haven’t gotten the message.

    THE GREAT CONSUMER ELECTRONICS DILEMMA: QUALITY OR RELIABILITY

    I know. You like to think that the best quality gear might also be the stuff that will hold up over the long haul of regular use and abuse. Well, I suppose that might be true, but it’s not always the case. Unfortunately, unless a manufacturer has a history to consult in message boards and in magazine reviews, it’s hard to know.

    When it comes to cheap stuff, of course, if something breaks, it’s usually best to just send it to the recycling plant when the warranty is up. The cost of repairs does not make sense, and extended warranties usually don’t either. They generally just enrich the dealer and the company who provides the coverage.

    If you’re talking about an expensive product, such as a flat panel TV, you have a right to be concerned. When you spend upwards of a grand, and possibly several times that amount, you hope it’ll provide years of faithful service, and certainly it should.

    While there may be some problems involving the imaging engines of projection TVs, you expect that the LCD or plasma model you bought should hold up pretty well. And, in fact, they do. Just about all of these products contain components sourced from the same handful of companies, so they are quite often more similar than different. There may be variations in terms of support circuitry, such as picture enhancement gimmicks and so on and so forth, but it’s hard to find a bad product in the bunch.

    One company that has almost always gotten extremely favorable marks for reliability — and often ranks at the top or near the top in terms of quality — is Panasonic. They also tend to make mainstream and highly affordable gear, so you’re not paying a premium price for what you get.

    That’s the reason, for example, that I had Panasonic on my short list when I was looking over 1080p plasma TVs recently. Yes, some products rate higher, but the differences are quite often only detectible in test patterns, and may otherwise be almost impossible to distinguish unless you look over every nuance of a picture for a long long time under ideal conditions.

    In the real world, such conditions don’t really exist. You don’t, for example, sit one foot from your TV to discern DVD or high definition encoding artifacts. Where visible, they won’t be of much importance unless they are readily visible at normal viewing distances. Even then, they may not be of sufficient magnitude to impair enjoyment of a show.

    When it comes to Panasonic, I’ve had pretty good experiences with their gear. I’m quite pleased with my Panasonic KX-TG6500 two-line portable phone system, and the original 5-disc CD changer bearing that company’s label, which I bought years ago, is still purring away in its new owners home. Sorry, I forget its model number. As with most other consumer electronics companies, such things are seldom memorable.

    Next week, I’ll be making my first foray into Blu-ray. That’s the high definition DVD format that emerged as the standard against HD-DVD earlier this year. Whether it’ll sustain itself on the long haul against online downloads and streaming has yet to be resolved. But I’ll be checking out Panasonic’s mid-range DMP-BD30K Blu-ray player to see whether the fuss was all worth it.

    Right, it’s a Panasonic again.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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    16 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #454”

    1. carl says:

      gene: i do think that, at the consumer level, apple costs “more” but i would quickly add “so what”? now, as an imac owner, i say this based on comparing what a certain dell would have cost me in Feb. 08 versus what the imac cost. but here’s why it doesn’t matter: if apple were to decide that it truly wanted to encourage widespread deployment of its operating system, then it would likely need to go the “clone” route. i’m not saying that it will or should (although i wouldn’t mind), but until it does so it is simply saying “we’re in a good place, making lots of $$, and don’t need to change our approach. even if people think we’re more expensive, we’re doing quite well.” so, at least to me, people perceive apple computers as something different, and different in a way that they almost expect it to be higher priced. apple has more of a boutique image, as far as the mac is concerned. anyway, that’s why i think it doesn’t matter.

    2. Apple won’t clone, because they make most of their income from hardware sales. Software is a value-added extra to move gear, plain and simple. Mac OS X sells Macs. iTunes sells iPods and iPhones, and the AppStore also helps with the latter.

      Clones would gut Apple’s sales, unless they were strictly designed to address areas where Apple wouldn’t compete, and even then I’d see possible cannibalization, and I’m sure they do as well.

      Peace,
      Gene

    3. Peter says:

      I’ll bring it up again.

      Mac mini @ 2GHz, 160GB HD, 2GB RAM: $949.00
      Dell Studio Hybrid @ 2GHz, 160GB HD, 2GB RAM: $699.00

      Differences:

      Mac mini has Bluetooth, Dell Studio Hybrid does not.
      Mac mini has 802.11g, Dell Studio Hybrid has 802.11n.
      Mac mini has no keyboard or mouse, Dell Studio hybrid has keyboard & mouse.
      Mac mini has Intel GMA 950, Dell Studio Hybrid has Intel X3100.

      Of course, you’ll be quick to point out that the Mac mini comes with Mac OS X and iLife. The sad part, though, is that if I was inventive and went out and bought Mac OS X ($129) and iLife ($79) and hacked it onto the Dell Studio Hybrid, it would still be cheaper than buying a Mac Mini!

    4. Your comparison is bogus when it comes to the version of the Windows OS it comes with. Remember what I said about that?

      The Dell computer comes with Vista Basic. When you go to Ultimate, and add the wireless card, the price is $819. Add Mac OS X and iLife, and the Mac mini is still cheaper. 🙂

      Peace,
      Gene

    5. Kaleberg says:

      The problem with a Mac is that you sometimes have to buy more computer than you need. If you want an Apple laptop without an optical drive, you have to move all the way up the MacBook Air! If you want a desktop without firewire, you have to buy a Mac Pro and have an expert remove the relevant chips. Apple just doesn’t make it easy to buy computers lacking certain features.

      Of course, if you want to buy a PC without a Vista or XP license you have another problem.

    6. The problem with a Mac is that you sometimes have to buy more computer than you need. If you want an Apple laptop without an optical drive, you have to move all the way up the MacBook Air! If you want a desktop without firewire, you have to buy a Mac Pro and have an expert remove the relevant chips. Apple just doesn’t make it easy to buy computers lacking certain features.

      Of course, if you want to buy a PC without a Vista or XP license you have another problem.

      Apple doesn’t play in that arena. They offer a basic set of standard equipment, with the option to add more. I do think there ought to be a special enterprise model where a business can buy hundreds of thousands of computers specially customized perhaps in the fashion you suggest.

      But it’s not as if Apple ever listens to me. 🙂

      Peace,
      Gene

    7. Richard says:

      Gene,

      The old adage remains true — you get what you pay for (sometimes).

      If I paid the same amount for a Windows machine that I paid for a Mac, I would be very, very angry because Windows is Windows. It’s not half bad, but who wants to pay more or the same for not half bad? There’s another adage that I love, by Churchill I think (or maybe not), which is, “He knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” This encapsulates the Windows is cheaper, so get Windows argument.

    8. Peter says:

      I see. You’re adding Windows Vista Ultimate. I stuck with Premium.

      Exactly why are you configuring it with Windows Vista Ultimate? What is available in Ultimate and Mac OS X that is not available in Premium?

      (Gads! Microsoft’s naming schemes are a mess…)

      Also, if I were to outfit the machine with Mac OS X and iLife (not that I’d ever do that, of course), why would I care what version of Windows it happened to come with? 😀

    9. I see. You’re adding Windows Vista Ultimate. I stuck with Premium.

      Exactly why are you configuring it with Windows Vista Ultimate? What is available in Ultimate and Mac OS X that is not available in Premium?

      (Gads! Microsoft’s naming schemes are a mess…)

      Also, if I were to outfit the machine with Mac OS X and iLife (not that I’d ever do that, of course), why would I care what version of Windows it happened to come with? 😀

      The price difference is maybe $50 on the OEM level.

      Understand, though, that the Mac OS X version you get is the fully-enabled version; there is no other.

      Ultimate lets you fax, which you can do with Leopard, and take advantage of Remote Access, similar to the Back to My Mac feature in 10.5. Premium doesn’t have these features.

      The argument here has nothing to do with whether you want a feature or not; it has everything to do with making the comparisons as close as possible, which is why I chose Ultimate.

      Peace,
      Gene

    10. RobInNZ says:

      Gene,

      Maybe this is just one area we will have to agree to differ on opinion 🙂

      While I agree with you that ‘matching’ is the best way of comparing two similar devices, Id also suggest that the ‘value’ proposition is only valid if the purchaser actually cares about the features that are in one device v’s the other. If they dont, then its a moot point.

      EG at one point I would have GLADLY paid less for one that DIDNT have a webcam and a firewire port, as they were surplus to my needs/requirements. Any cost comparisons you might have done at the time which ADDED webcams/firewire would have had me spitting tacks. In this case, the Mac was overspecced in some areas and underspecced in others. (Why oh why do Apple always offer LAST-GENERATION or CRIPPLED video cards?)

      I would point out, that generally, people are actually far more interested in features that arent as easily changeable, such as processor, RAM, HDD capacity, DVD burner capabilities. Yes, these are upgradeable (to a point, well, not the CPU generally) though the HDD is apparently a little bit of a mission in the MBP. The issue there is that typically, the competition will offer similar specs at a cheaper price, or BETTER specs at a comparable price.

      A lot of consumers dont care about the s/w bundles, they often just steal it anyway.

      One thing that people dont notice, until they actually go and look, is how svelte the Apple notebooks are compared to the cheaper consumer notebooks/laptops. I was in a store yesterday, and even the Macbook stands head-and-shoulders above MUCH CHEAPER with SIMILAR OR BETTER SPECs… eg HP / Compaq, Toshiba, ASUS laptops.

      To put it bluntly, they are big ugly fat freaks. But they are also typically in the order of US $250 cheaper than the Macbook. And for typically with better or similar specs. The ONE area where I notice that Apple seems to head the field, rather than tailing, is typically CPU speed. Most of the consumer Core2 Duo notebooks are around the 1.8 – 2.2 GHz. However, Apple typically falls behind in amount of RAM and size of HDD.

      I will say it again, while the differential isnt anywhere near as significant as it has been previously, the Mac Tax still exists!!! Especially in overseas countries!

      And I know this from personal experience, having just gone through the painful exercise of jusifying a new MBP 15″ for myself.

      In the end I ended up going with a refurb because I just couldnt stomach the short longevity of the Macbook with its anemic vampire video, but couldnt justifty the price of a new MBP compared to just about every other laptop on the market in NZ. And yes, this even includes the Sony Vaio’s et al.

      Now, just for interest. I jumped on the web, and here is the results of the very first comparison I did:

      Dell XPS™ M1530
      Go to http://www.dell.co.nz
      Laptops | Executive
      (I tried to find something ascetically and of a similar ‘class’ to a MBP).

      Price: NZD $2353
      This is for:

      Vista Ultimate
      2.5 GHz Core2 Duo
      4 GB RAM
      320 GB HDD
      256 MB NVIDIA 8600 GT
      8x DVD RW DL
      Wireless N spec
      Bluetooth 2
      15.4″ widescreen
      8-in-1 card reader

      On the plus sides for the Macbook Pro:
      Its 5.8lb vs 5.4lb for the MBP
      10/100 MBit NIC v’s 1GBit for the MBP
      FW400 v’s FW800 for MBP

      Interestingly, this is actually cheaper than a black ‘book here in NZ ($ NZD 2399).
      Also interestingly, the base Macbook Pro (slower CPU, 1/2 the RAM, 2/3rds the disk) is NZD $3198.

      Even more interestingly, apart from only 256MB of Video RAM (and the aformentioned MBP plusses) its higher in spec to the MIDRANGE Macbook Pro (Same CPU, 2x the RAM, another 70GB of Disk, only 256 MB video RAM). That midrange MBP ships here for NZD $3999.

      The M1530 isnt a hugely attactive laptop, but I can also say that its not totally unattractive.

      By the way, that price differential for the Dell v’s the MBP base model is around the average weekly wage in NZ.

      Rob In NZ

    11. David says:

      The argument here has nothing to do with whether you want a feature or not; it has everything to do with making the comparisons as close as possible, which is why I chose Ultimate.

      Peace,
      Gene

      I don’t think you truly believe that Gene. Nobody wants to pay for a feature they’ll never use. Windows PC buyers have the freedom to pay less if they want less, Mac buyers don’t. Bulking up the price of a PC with unnecessary features and conveniently ignoring the areas where the PC is actually better, is an exercise that will never win any converts to your point of view.

      I think your justification for Vista Ultimate argument is silly. Leopard may do fax but Apple makes you pay $50 for an external modem if you want to use the feature. Likewise you mention Back to My Mac yet that requires a $100/year subscription to MobileMess.

      My niece recently received a Toshiba notebook for college. Below I’ve compared it with the base MacBook showing the winner and why.

      Weight: MacBook 5lb vs 6
      Size: larger screen probably worth the extra bulk
      Battery life: MacBook 4.5 hours vs. 3
      Processor: MacBook 2.1GHz vs. 2.0
      Bus: MacBook 800MHz vs. 667
      RAM: Toshiba 3GB vs. 1
      HD: Toshiba 320GB vs. 120
      Optical: Toshiba DVD+RW vs. combo
      Video: Both use Intel GMA X3100 with shared memory
      Video RAM: Toshiba 358MB vs. 144
      Network: MacBook gigabit vs. 10/100
      Wireless: both have 802.11n
      Bluetooth: Toshiba version 2.1 vs 2.0
      Webcam: both have one
      Microphone: both have one
      Flash reader: Toshiba built-in vs. added cost peripheral
      Analog modem: Toshiba built-in vs. added cost peripheral
      Audio In: MacBook digital vs. analog
      Audio Out: both have digital
      Video Out: MacBook digital vs. analog
      USB ports: Toshiba 4 vs. 2
      FireWire: MacBook 6-pin vs 4-pin
      OS: MacBook
      Bundled software: MacBook (although web based software is making this less important)
      Price: Toshiba $749 vs. $1099

      I personally think the more modern MacBook with it’s superior OS, relatively low weight and much better battery life is worth it, but there are some obvious areas where a MacBook buyer could be forced to spend more and carry a bunch of peripherals around in order to accomplish tasks the PC can do. Which brings us back to the argument of whether the machines have to be identical or simply meet ones needs before deciding which one to buy.

    12. And which version of Windows did that Toshiba have?

      You see, this comparison can only be accurate if you configure both computers with the same options, as much as possible, including the bundled software. If you depend on one’s specific preferences, there are 1,001 answers, so you have to keep it simple.

      Peace,
      Gene

    13. David says:

      The Toshiba came with Vista Home Premium. I already gave the MacBook the victory in that area because OS X is better than any version of Vista.

      For a professional writer like yourself it certainly seems most appropriate to match specs whenever possible, but real consumers don’t do that. I’d rather see comparisons of units that are close enough to be comparable with the differences clearly stated. That way each reader can place value where he/she sees fit and come to a conclusion.

      In my laptop comparison I placed high value on raw speed, the OS and battery life. Another buyer might rightly say that 1GB isn’t enough RAM to do any serious work, a 120GB HD is too small and the lack of a flash memory slot or DVD+RW means the MacBook is actually bigger and heavier because external peripherals are needed. Both points of view are equally valid.

      I find it perfectly natural to compare different brands of car without loading each with options in an attempt to get a better match. Why should computer comparisons be any different?

    14. Well, you’d probably compare different vehicles with essentially the same standard equipment, right?

      OK, Vista Ultimate is the closest equivalent to Mac OS X.

      Peace,
      Gene

    15. carl says:

      Here’s a question: do most or does the “average computer user” really make a distinction between Vista Ultimate and Premium? While the Ultimate might be most comparable to OSX, I think many, many people would find Ultimate overkill, considering the price; yet, they don’t feel cheated/slighted/underserved by getting premium.

      Finally, in this eternal debate, I find a lot of arguments from the Apple side remind me of the mid-90s debate about cable television rates in the U.S. As the rates increased, people complained. Cable’s response was: “We’ve upgraded our plant and now can offer you 200 channels as opposed to 80. Thus, your value has increased.” My response was: “I’m more than, more than happy with 80. Why must I pay for more when I didn’t ask for it?”

      And ditto to what RobinNZ said.

    16. Same answer. You can use an arbitrary standard based on the features you might think you need, of you can take a fair approach and compare comparable models. I chose the latter.

      Peace,
      Gene

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