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Mac vs. PC cost analysis: How does it all add up?

June 8, 2007 12:00 PM ET

I continued my comparisons with a visit to Circuit City last weekend to take a look at high-end 17-in. notebook PCs. Like Dell, Sony has one with every conceivable bell and whistle selling for more than $3,000 -- the Vaio VGN-AR390E, which goes for $3,150. Like all the other Windows models available at Circuit City, the processor is a 2-GHz Core 2 Duo, slower than the one in the MacBook Pro. On the other hand, the Vaio comes through with 1,920-by-1,200-pixel screen resolution, a 5,400-rpm 240GB hard drive and a whopping 527MB of video memory. Like the Dell, though, at 8.4 lb. the Vaio makes the 6.8 lb. MacBook Pro look like a lightweight.

Moving downscale a little, both Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba have models in the $2,000 neighborhood that approximate the MacBook Pro's equipment. The HP Pavilion DV9260US comes with the Intel Core 2 Duo 2-GHz processor, a 240GB 5,400-rpm drive, Windows Vista Ultimate, and a 17-in. screen whose maximum resolution is only 1,440 by 900 pixels (a major drawback). Circuit City's price is $2,000.

Bottom line: Assuming that you want a high-end notebook PC designed to work, play and be your everyday machine with style, the MacBook Pro is a surprisingly good value. The models that I compared it with, the Sony and the Dell, had some extras here and there, but they were also more expensive. The key to the perception that Macs are more expensive is that Apple offers very few in-between models.

Moving to the midrange
In the midrange, where lower-cost 13-in. LCD MacBook models occupy price ranges from about $1,100 to $1,500, you may be equally surprised. Apple's recently updated MacBooks (see the technical specs) more than hold their own on price/performance comparisons with other 12- and 13-in. LCD computers from Sony, Toshiba and HP.

The desktop landscape may also be an eye-opener. Even though the likes of Dell, HP, Sony and so on have machines priced from about $500 and up, those prices don't include LCDs (in most cases), and they don't start to get hardware-competitive with the processors in Apple's iMac line until they hit about $1,000.

Because of the iMac's built-in LCD, it's actually less expensive, though some of the details (such as hard drive size and RAM amount) may be tilted in favor of the Windows desktops. If you know your way around PCs and want some extras, the Apple could in some instances be the clear value leader in this category.

For comparison's sake, let's look at Sony's attempt to out-Apple Apple, the Vaio All-in-One Desktop PC VGC-LS25E. It comes with a 19-in. LCD, 2GB of RAM, a 7,200-rpm 250GB hard drive, and Vista Home Premium, but it has only a 1.83-GHz Core 2 Duo processor. The Circuit City price tag is $1,800.

So, how does that compare to Apple's 20-in. LCD iMac, which sells for $1,500? The iMac comes with a 2.16-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a 7,200-rpm 250GB drive, and 1GB of RAM. (See the technical specs.) You would need to upgrade the video memory and system RAM (bumping the price to about $1,750) to make the iMac comparable with the Sony in those areas. But the iMac has a bigger LCD and a better processor no matter what, and even with the RAM and video upgrade, it still costs less than the Sony.

Plus, Apple's $175 RAM upgrade is costly. You can save money by buying the memory elsewhere and installing it yourself. Kingston memory is less expensive, offers excellent quality and is fully compatible with Macs. I've also had great luck on my Macs with the bargain-basement-priced memory from Data Memory Systems in Salem, N.H. (I just wish DMS would take PayPal.)

Bottom line: When you configure low-end and midrange notebooks and desktops, you'll find that except at the very bottom of the heap, Windows machines are roughly comparable in price to Macs. There are fewer Mac models, so if your needs vary from what Apple has decided on, you may find a Windows model that costs less for you. But Apple's choices make a lot of sense for most people, and when you do the point-by-point comparison, Apple is actually a better value for some needs.

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