The Apple Mac Cost Misconception

Note: This isn’t a guide to evangelize and convert people from Windows to Mac OS X. It’s a guide to give people options. If you’re happy with what you’ve got, great! But if you’re interested in alternatives read on.

After my first article on Macs and OS X, there were several readers who just down right bashed Macs for pricing and OS X without solid reasoning or legitimate hand’s on experience of Macs. So this is a follow-up.

Let’s get straight to the point. Tom’s Hardware isn’t about being a "PC fanboy." It’s about finding the best hardware, revealing up and coming tech and debunking predetermined notions. That begs the question, especially here: what’s so special about a Mac anyway?

Here’s the short answer: nothing really, just some very elegant aluminum chassis designs. The key, is the operating system. Even still, let’s settle this issue about price.

In a recent comment, someone came up with an analogy that a Mac isn’t really a BMW, but rather a Hyundai dressed up in a nice exterior. One problem: Hyundai’s don’t have nice European car exteriors. And to generalize it this way shows the lack of willing to understand the core of the Mac: it’s operating system. Because that’s really what it’s about. But for the sake of these first few pages, let’s leave Mac OS X out of the picture for now. Let’s just see where Apple comes in on hardware.

In terms of hardware, there’s nothing really special about a Mac aside from elegant designs, be it a Mac Pro or MacBook Pro, that makes it incredibly more worthwhile than the PC equivalent. And there’s no doubt that you can get an equally equipped PC, or build one yourself, for less money. In fact, I mentioned this in my previous article, although some people seemed to have completely missed the page where I complained about Apple’s outrageous prices altogether. However, building a PC to do the same isn’t the point, because you can always buy a cheaper car to get you from A to B. Instead, let’s see what you can get for $2000, from Apple and from others. For $2000, do you really get much less?

Let’s take a quick look at some of Apple’s competition and their pricing structure compared to Apple’s:

We went to Dell’s website and picked out what Dell indicated was a serious gaming laptop. We also took the XPS model that was priced the same as the baseline MacBook Pro. Let’s take a look at the results.

Apple vs. Dell Price Comparison
$1999 MacBook Pro$1999 Dell XPS M1730
2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo
2 GB of RAM2 GB of Shared RAM
NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT with 256 MBNVIDIA GeForce 8700M GT with Shared MB
200 GB HDD200 GB HDD
15.4-inch LED LCD17-inch LCD
Dual-Layer DVD BurnerDual-Layer DVD Burner
802.11n Wi-Fi802.11g Wi-Fi
Built in WebcamBuilt in Webcam
Backlit KB with Ambient Sensor       
Optical Audio Output/InputSPDIF through Dongle
Dual-Link DVI OutputDual-Link DVI Output
MagSafe PowerStandard female/male Jack
5.4 lbs10.6 lbs
1 inch thick2 inch thick

For the most part, the two systems are comparable, indicating that at least for a laptop, Apple’s pricing fits in line with comparable hardware. Certain things like shared memory for graphics leave some performance desires for the XPS, but the XPS has a strong leg up on the MacBook Pro with the larger screen size.

Apple’s MacBook Pro has several small advantages over the XPS, mainly with the MagSafe connector and it’s nearly take-for-granted use. I have seen several incidences where people have tripped over or through someone else’s MacBook Pro power cord and the MagSafe design literally saved the laptops from flying.

The biggest differences are the screen size, weight, thickness, and shared memory. For absolute performance, the screen size won’t matter here, but the slow shared graphics memory on the XPS will. For a laptop that Dell indicates is a gaming machine, shared memory is a disappointment, as graphics is an important area for 3D gaming.

For another comparison, let’s look at the MacBook Air to VoodooPC’s Envy 133:

Apple vs. VoodooPC Price Comparison
$1799 MacBook Air$2099 Envy 133
1.6 GHz Core 2 Duo1.6 GHz Core 2 Duo
2 GB of Shared RAM2 GB of Shared RAM
Intel GMA X3100 Shared RAMIntel GMA X3100 Shared RAM
13.3-inch LED LCD13.3-inch LCD
External eSATA Super Multi Drive
802.11n Wi-Fi802.11n Wi-Fi
Built in WebcamBuilt in Webcam
Backlit KB with Ambient SensorBacklit KB with Ambient Sensor
MagSafe PowerStandard female/male Jack
3.0 lbs3.37 lbs (with SSD)
0.16 to 0.75 inch thick0.70 inch thick
iLife ’08 SuiteNo software package

At this point, the Envy is $300 more expensive than the MacBook Air. Although the Envy 133 does include an external optical drive, tacking on Apple’s quite expensive $99 MacBook Air SuperDrive to the purchase of the MacBook Air still leaves a $200 gap.

Bottom line: Macs aren’t "way more" expensive than PCs. So where do things get really hairy with Apple? Upgrades. Apple really stabs you in the face when you’re upgrading your Mac. All goes well when you want to buy a base system, but as soon as you want to add options, be prepared to be murdered. I’ll talk about this later.

Let’s take a look at desktops.

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  • LePhuronn
    Since Apple adopted Intel architecture, like-for-like pricing has been pretty much equal, especially given the quality of the cases across the Mac line, and as Tuan rightly points out it's the upgrades that rape the consumer's wallet.

    I think the big problem comes not specifically from the cost of Apple's hardware but more from how Apple products are marketed, the lack of products in the low pricing range and the resulting gaping holes in the product line that result.

    Keeping with Dell for an example, yes you can get an XPS specced the same as a Macbook Pro for the same money, but you cannot get a Mac portable for the same money as a baseline Inspiron.

    The core message of Mac marketing is "hey you crazy kids, we're all living in a digital world where we share our lives visually and electronically, but we hate being spammed, and getting infected to knock us offline is SO bogus. To be cool and hip and do this the best way, you gotta use our shiny stuff. Same goes for you sexy media peeps - if it aint Mac, it's whack" and herein lies the problem.

    If Apple are trying to reach everybody and their digital lifestyle they have to have a product and pricing range that can meet everybody, but they don't. The cheapest MacBook is £699. The cheapest Inspiron is £370, and although it's running a Celeron processor it's still capable of surfing, uploading photos, listening to music and syncing your MP3 player. And that's the point: you can have a perfectly funky digital lifestyle for less money than Apple want you to spend - Inspirons over MacBooks, Zens over iPods (can you do HTPCs less than a Mac Mini?), and if both are equally capable to Joe Average, why pay almost double for the Mac? We tech-heads can tell you why the MacBook may be a better choice, but Joe Average doesn't have that knowledge, yet is still targetted by Apple's vision.

    If you buy into this marketing message you automatically therefore assume that anything non-Mac is rubbish and totally the wrong choice - Mac fanbois. If you don't buy into it then you automatically see Apple products as overpriced - Mac haters/PC fanbois.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's Apple's lifestyle that's overpriced, not its hardware. I can do everything with an Inspiron laptop, home-built tower, creative Zen and XDA Orbit 2 just as well as I can with a MacBook, Mac Pro, iPod and iPhone.

    Personally, I'm in the middle and as I'm looking to spend £2,000 each on a new Mac and new PC I'll probably go Mac Pro with BootCamp, get a few upgrades from elsewhere and save half my budget (although I'm more than open to going Hackintosh on a PC).
  • LePhuronn
    Addition: my new Mac and PCs are for business purposes and therefore the benefits PCs have in the gaming arena are not an issue here - gaming rigs will always be PCs until Apple gets off their ass and starts keeping up with GPU products.
  • 306maxi
    Yet more proof of how crap Toms is getting. You're very selective with what you choose to compare. How about comparing an iMac or a Mac Mini or a normal Macbook?
  • tomdrum
    Yeh didnt like that review at all. Try using a cheaper PC distributer.

    Its very weighted towards promoting mac features.
  • tomdrum
    Just realised this was American prices. Im looking in england and macs ar eprices a good £100 more for roughly the same kit (on low end laptops) whereas the higher priced stuff £200 more for less powerful specs.
  • thepeganator
    Why on earth would you want to put a PC together with dual quads anyway?

    Things would be way better for general use with a good quad and a new GPU, a 2600XT ffs! You wouldn't have to use FB-DIMMs too then.
    That would save almost $1000 on CPU and MB alone.
    And that PSU is stupid, you can get a HX1000W for much less, and it will be better too.
    Why would you want to buy Vista Ultimate anyway?
    Home Premium has everything you need, and you should know to buy OEM, buying retail in a review like this is pointless, if you got it from Dell it would be OEM.
    You really do have no idea what you are on about Toms...
  • LePhuronn

    Although I concur with the general sentiment of everybody's comments, I do have to suggest that you perhaps need to know more about Macs and what they're aimed at before you say Toms has no idea. We can argue bias and incomplete testing, but guaranteed they DO know what they are on about.

    There's a very good reason you'd want dual Quads on a Mac Pro: Final Cut Pro, Combustion, Shake and the other pro media software packages are all multi-core capable and eat up as much processing power as you can throw at it. And given that the Mac Pro is built on a Xeon server platform, not a Skulltrain platform, you use standard DDR-2 RAM.

    I would agree though that a newer GPU would be better, although the point of the comparison was to show how much identical specs cost if you're buying a PC box - trying to trump the Mac's spec for the same money is not what the comparison is about. Besides, the Mac Pro isn't about gaming and if the old 7300 GTs can run a 30" and a 24" at the same time you don't need much more

    Regarding Vista, granted you probably don't need Ultimate, but again given what a: OSX can do and b: what's required from a business OS, Vista Ultimate is the OS to compare.
  • Anonymous

    Everyone's needs are different. LePhuronn points out some examples in video, but even Photoshop can stress some hardware if you set your mind to it.

    For example, back in 2005, I posted (elsewhere) a DIY benchmark test:

    A 1.2GB Photoshop 7 file with an image size of (17433 x 11551) ...yes, that's ~200 megapixels ... took 1:20 (one minute, twenty seconds) to read it in from the hard drive, then a very long 6:50 to do a simple "AutoLevel" on it. Resampling it down to ~6MP (3018 x 2000) took 1:35.

    Clearly, for day-to-day productivity tasks, this is too slow...need more hardware horsepower.

    Dropping to a much smaller 120MB Photoshop file (8717 x 5778; = 50
    MegaPixels equivalent), it took :05 to load, :02 to AutoLevel, ~:01 to
    do a 180 degree rotate, ~:01 to run a sharpen filter. Good enough for day-to-day productivity.

    Its now three years later and this particular PC is still in use. But now with playing around with HDR (high dynamic range), the task can be to take a couple of the above images and open & stack them and process. Since HDR requires some interactive tweaking, to avoid sitting there for 8 hours on a single image project, how much more horsepower is needed? The simple answer is that dual-quads are a "good start".


    PS for Tom: something else to keep in mind when comparing the $2800 Mac Pro prices is that if you go shopping at Dell for the equivalent product, they ring in at a tad over US$4000 the last time that I checked.
  • Eplebiten
    I see you chose a Xeon X3360 CPU for the PC. But remember that the Mac Pro got a 54xx CPU.

    I've been using PC's since the middle of the 80's and Mac's since 1995, and I still use both. My laptop is a cheap PC-laptop with Centos, by I prefer a Mac Pro to do all my editing. Mainly because I work with HD with Final Cut Pro.

    When I bought the Mac Pro 1.5 year ago, it was approx 15.000 NOk (approx. 3000$, and yes, this is in Norway) cheaper than the cheapest alternative with the same processors (2xXeon 5160). So the decision was pretty easy to make.

    thepeganator: Well, in some cases the GPU really isn't that important, but the CPU is. I use 2xGeforce 7300 GPU's, with 3x24" screens, and I don't need any better GPU's than this. The Mac Pro is designed for "pro"'s, and not for gaming. I do have a pretty good PC for gaming, but still this one don't use a quadcore CPU. It all come down to what the computer is gonna be used for, and not how cheap you can get it.
  • Anonymous
    This comparison is way out in left-field. Sure, you have ONE valid point to this entire finger exercise of yours and that is OSX is very nice. Ok, with that out of the way, let's jump straight to the hardware shall we? On new egg, if you price out a Mac Book Pro and find a comparable Lenovo. We're talking matching the same exact hardware. You'll find the lenovo is about 3-400 dollars cheaper. So I could buy this lenovo, put OSX on it and save 3-400? Probably. Am I going to do it? No. I'll wait till Apple gets its head out their own butts and release OSX to the PC market. Then they will start capturing some of that american dream. Until then, PC's rule, Macs Drool.
  • LePhuronn

    "PCs rule, Macs drool"? Isn't that the close-minded Mac-hater mentality I pointed out - if you don't buy into the hardware cost you automatically write them off as shite.

    If you're saying that Macs suck simply because they are comparatively expensive then by that flawed logic Alienware and VoodooPC suck too. I can build equivalent systems for a lot cheaper than those two vendors yet I won't get the fine tuning, craftsmanship and "brag" factor.

    Besides, if you're doing heavy video editing and motion graphics you simply cannot beat an 8-core Mac Pro. Period.

    So no, they don't drool (and drool is an involuntary reaction to positive stimuli or relaxation so that means Macs are good surely). They're just comparatively expensive.
  • Anonymous
    I found it an interesting article. The point of apple upgrades is a very good point but I admit the base price is very competitive. Design wise apple is spectacular but I need a high spec computer/laptop and the upgrades is what kills it for the high end user. Upgrade yourself and lose your warranty!!

    OSx is very good but had many revisions to make it what it is. The problems my apple friends have had (I work in audio/visual) with logic and protools in the last year or more (since osx started) has been crazy!

    So my request is: Can Tom do an article on Apple service/trust? Apple spends a lot of money advertising about reliability/service etc etc. As far as I am concerned the main reason I have not gone mac is I don't trust them as a company. They continually release products which are not fully developed or functioning reliably and literally "lied" about how much better/faster they (and their hardware) were in the past. Their cooperation with 3rd party companies (like Digidesign) is crap. OSx... true 64bit ? My arse!!

    I'll use any machine but I put alot of importance on support and service and there are a lot of lousy companies and gotta say apple is one of them.
  • Gasek
    I work at a company that produces videos and animations. We've got a Dual Quad Mac. I've been trying to make OPen GL work in our MAC for 2 months now. It crashes as often as my PC which is never. We only use Adobe Products (all of them) and Maya. We are working with Adobe to make our After Effects work properly. In our PCs After Effects works very well. Previews in our Dual Quad MAcs are laughable at best. It is not the card. We've got an 8800 GT in our Mac and GTs in our PCs (which should be slower).

    The thing Apple is doing right is marketing and I wait for the day when we will have 50% Windows - 50% MAcs, then we will truly have a chance to have a real good product in our hands. As is stands they are both flawed. Sony and IBM have been making stylish and great laptops for a long time now. Welcome Apple.
  • Gasek
    Before somebody corrects me: IBM (Lenovo).
  • LePhuronn

    OpenGL has never worked in After Effects in either PC or Mac, and to be honest I don't use it. It's nice to have GPU acceleration when testing 3D motion and such but a lot of the shadow and motion blur effects don't work with OpenGL I've found, so I just render through pure CPU brute force.
  • Anonymous
    YOu need to check your pricing numbers again as they are way, way overstated. I just went onto the dell website, selected a 2.5Ghz dual core laptop with an OLED hi-res screen, same graphics cards as the MacBook plus a whole host of upgrades above and beyond the base Macbook and got a price of $1799 Canadian. Apple store sell the MacBook pro base for $1999 US. This whole article is very suspect and the upgrade prices quoted just don't match what's on the Apple Store.
  • Anonymous
    I have to question why THG chose a gaming laptop to compare to a business/professional laptop. Gaming laptops by nature are priced with higher margins than non-gaming laptops that offer similar quality. And come on, the screen is the most expensive part of a laptop. Why try to compare machines with different screen sizes? The M1530 is really the fair comparison. I get a price of $2099 CDN for the MacPro and $1719 for the equivalent Dell with ultimate vista installed. That's a $400 differnce so yes Apple pricing in general IS premium.
  • Anonymous
    The M1730 is NOT a fair comparison - gaming vs business laptop? COme on THG. The M1530 is a fair comparison and I come up with a $400 difference in price. Apple is indeed priced at a premium. Very poor article.
  • LePhuronn

    How can it be a poor article when everybody here has gone off and looked at pricing themselves? Surely that shows a successful article, inspriing free thought instead of fanbois and haters just taking what they read as gospel.

    Badly written or misinformed article? Maybe. Poor article? Definitely not...
  • unconnected

    It's a poor article when all the discussion you've sparked is regarding the poor sourcing and citing of the facts you've used to get your opinion across.

    At what point did you think it was a fair and accurate comparison when you compared a 17in laptop against a 15in laptop? Surely someone who writes articles for Tom's would realise the component expense a LCD panel represents?

    So again, to reiterate - even if your argument carried any weight at all, backing it up with frankly suspicious comparisons have ruined any chance you had at coming across as neutral.