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Macs Are More Expensive, Right?

By Paul Murphy LinuxInsider ECT News Network
Aug 26, 2004 6:00 AM PT

Everyone knows PCs are faster than Macs, but Macs cost more. Right? There are two issues here: cost and performance. Right now I want to focus on the cost side of the myth, leaving performance for another column, possibly in late September.

Macs Are More Expensive, Right?

That suitability-to-purpose idea is reflected on the cost side by the Mac's commitment to multimedia components, such as the SuperDrive and FireWire connectivity missing on the PC.

On the performance side, it's reflected in the software supplier's commitment to the Mac with the general consequence that Macs are faster where the supplier made good use of unique Mac features such as the true multiprocessing capabilities in OS X or the Altivec short array processor. PCs are faster for software ported, essentially unchanged, from the PC.

Desktop Comparisons

If we take vaguely comparable units from the low end, midrange and high end of the Apple and PC lines using pricing from the Apple and Dell Web stores as of August 21, 2004, we get the comparisons shown in the table.

The Macs have built-in FireWire, Airport Extreme, and 10/100 Ethernet ports along with the OS X operating system and a bundle of software that includes iLife and stuff like AppleWorks, Quicken and the World Book Encyclopedia.

The PCs come with some variant of Microsoft Windows XP and varying levels of discount on Microsoft Office. Thus, Office Professional costs $359 on the low-end Dimension, $319 on the OptiPlex and isn't offered with the Precision bundle.

Oddly, Office Professional for the Mac includes a PC emulator, and the package most comparable to the "Professional" PC edition appears to be called the Standard Edition. It sells at $399 for all Macs.

Macs Over Spec

If we look at these raw cost comparisons carefully, it becomes obvious that none of them really work because the Macs are consistently over spec relative to the PCs. The entry level eMac, for example, costs $350 (78 percent) more than the PC but is usable only to run Windows 98 and other software carried forward from previous generations.

Desktops Price Configuration
eMac $799 17" CRT, 1.25GHz PowerPC G4
ATI Radeon 9200 32MB DDR
40GB Ultra ATA drive
14W stereo system
AppleCombo drive
Dimension 2400
$449 Intel Celeron processor at 2.40GHz
128MB shared DDR SDRAM at 266MHz
17" (16.0"vis) CRT Monitor
40GB Ultra/ATA 100 Hard Drive
Integrated Intel Extreme 3D Graphics
iMac $1,799 17-inch widescreen LCD
1.25GHz PowerPC G4
NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200 Ultra
64MB DDR video memory
80GB Ultra ATA hard drive
Apple Pro Speakers
AirPort Extreme Ready
Bluetooth Option
OptiPlex GX270
$1,759 3.0 Ghz P4/800; 256MB, DDR, non ECC, 333Mhz
80GB EIDE 7200RPM,
Dell UltraSharp 1703FP flat panel
64MB, nVidia, GeForce 4MX
G5 Dual $2,999 Dual 2.5GHz PowerPC G5
1.25GHz frontside bus/processor
512K L2 cache/processor
Expandable to 8GB SDRAM
160GB Serial ATA
8x SuperDrive
Three PCI-X Slots
ATI Radeon 9600 XT
128MB DDR video memory
56K internal modem
Precision 670
$4,009 2 x 3.4Ghz Xeon
160GB SATA, 7200 RPM Hard Drive
128MB PCI x16 (DVI/VGA) ATI FireGL V3100,
Accept Dell's rather warmly endorsed package of the basic upgrades needed just to run XP comfortably, and the price difference falls to $190 (24 percent). That's still considerably less expensive than the eMac, but still short stereo, an RW/CD/DVD combo, graphics capabilities, wireless connectivity and dual FireWire ports. Adding everything except FireWire brings the price to rough parity but still leaves the PC underspecified relative to the eMac.

The same problems afflict the iMac vs. OptiPlex270 comparison. The base PC is $40 less expensive than the midrange iMac, but the PC lacks the iMac's connectivity and multimedia capabilities. It's possible to add these, but doing so pushes the PC well over the high end of the price range for the iMac.

In this case, you should be aware that the PC represents Dell's latest product generation while Apple has just stopped taking orders for the current iMacs in anticipation of introducing the next generation iMacs in September.

At the High End

The high-end comparison shows the result of the underlying difference in functional focus much more clearly. Like the iMacs, Apple's current G5 offering is actually well past its intended replacement date because of IBM's delays in shipping new CPUs. But the basic box is still a full $1,000 less expensive than Dell's newest Xeons.

As usual, however, the PC lacks the Mac's connectivity features. More importantly, my price comparison above omits the monitors for both because the recommended monitors are designed for different jobs and are not remotely comparable. Dell's 20.1-inch flat panel LCD, at $899 by itself or $700 if bundled with the Precision 670, is just a monitor.

Apple's cinema displays are more than that. They're intended to function at the core of digital production environments. Thus all three models, from the 20 inch to the 30 inch, have things like DVI and dual FireWire ports to enable plug-and-go video recording or media sharing.

In consequence, the price ranges from $1,299 to $3,299, or $600 more than Dell wants for the 20-inch unit, but the additional things they do can't be done with the Dell at any price.

The least unfair comparison, therefore, is obtained by adding the Dell monitor, as the lowest common denominator, to both machines, thereby penalizing Apple's price by the $199 difference between Dell's stand-alone and package price. Do that and the Mac comes in at $3,898 with the Dell at $4,709 -- making the Apple about 20 percent less expensive despite offering more features.

At the low end, therefore, the PC desktops are marginally less expensive than the Macs -- if you can do without their connectivity and multimedia capabilities -- and considerably more expensive if you can't. At the very high end, however, all of the design focus is on multimedia processing and the PCs simply aren't competitive from either hardware or cost perspectives.

Server Comparisons

Servers Price Configuration
Apple X-Serve $4,399

2GB, 160GB, 2 x 2Ghz G5
unlimited users
MacOS- X

Dell 2850 $9,370

2GB, 2 x 73GB, 2 x 3.2Ghz Xeon
Windows 2003/XP Server
25 users

Sun V20Z $5,699 2GB, 2 x 73GB, 2 x Opteron 248,
Solaris x86

The Dell 2850 is a brand new machine while the Xserve is at the end of its product cycle with the replacement delayed -- only because IBM has been slow to deliver the higher-speed CPUs.

More importantly, the Xserve is designed for a very different role than the PC. It runs Unix and so can do anything the PC server can, but the design optimizations target work that the PC is very poorly suited to doing -- streaming out multigigabyte digital imaging files. Thus it has additional connectivity and a matching Xserve RAID array aimed at completing the package needed by digital media developers.

The Xserve RAID package uses very large, and individually slow, ATA drives in parallel to offer cheap ($10,999 for 3.5 TB) bulk storage for large multimedia files that are usually stored and retrieved via serial I/O. For this type of application, what counts most are reliability and sustained I/O streaming -- requirements that are met very well by a design combining RAID protection with highly parallel ATA.

Dell doesn't offer an Xserve RAID equivalent, and the 2850's PC design is not internally well suited to continuous sequential I/O. Instead, it's optimized for short but high speed I/O bursts of the kind associated with document or database storage and retrieval.

Client Access Rights

The killer issue, however, on comparing Apple's X-serve to the Dell 2850 is that Apple doesn't charge for client access rights. As a result, the Dell 2850, which costs nearly 30 percent more than the Xserve before software, costs more than twice as much as the X-serve once Microsoft's $3,295 charge for a 25-user license gets counted.

At the server level, therefore, a less unfair comparison would be to the Sun V20Z. Sun's machine, like Apple's, is 64-bit capable, has page protection, runs Unix and provides for full SMP. For roughly similar dual-CPU, 2-GB units with Unix, Sun wants about $1,250 bucks more than Apple with most of that difference accounted for by Sun's use of UltraSCSI 320 I/O in place of serial ATA.

Interestingly, strip out the OS and Sun's hardware is about $600 less expensive than Dell's. Include OS licensing for access by fifty general office users and you can buy both competing servers for the price of one Dell 2850.

Laptop Comparisons

Notebooks Price Configuration
Dell 12" $2,214

Inspiron 700M, 1.6Ghz PM, 256MB, 60GB
Intel Extreme Graphics
XP Professional

Apple 12" $1,599 Powerbook, 12", 1.33Ghz, 256MB, 60GB
NVIDIA GeForce FX (64MB)
Dell 15" $2,677 Inspiron 9100, 3.2Ghz P4, 512MB, 80GB
RADEON 9700 (64MB)
XP Professional
Apple 15" $2,499 Powerbook 15", 1.5Ghz, 512MB, 80GB
Radeon 9700 (64MB)

The notebook comparisons are comparatively clean and decisive.

Dell's low-end Inspiron 5150 ($1,079 after 10 percent discount) offers a 15-inch display but is otherwise not competitive with Apple's 12-inch iBook ($1,099). Dell doesn't offer anything to compete with Apple's 17-inch Titaniums ($2,799) at the high end.

In between, both Apple's 12-inch and 15-inch PowerBooks are less expensive and include more extensive connectivity capabilities than do the PCs.

So, bottom line, are PCs cheaper than Macs? No, despite what you read in the PC press, it's the other way around. Compare Apples to apples, and Macs are cheaper than PCs.

Paul Murphy, a LinuxInsider columnist, wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.

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