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

Everybody knows PCs are cheaper than Macs, right? Wrong! (At least sometimes.)

People have been arguing online about how much more expensive Macs are than PCs -- or not -- for more than a decade (and in print for years before that). These discussions usually involve some hard facts but also some persistent myths. As a longtime Windows guy who has recently migrated to the Mac, I think I'm in a pretty good position to try and sort out reality from fiction. Let's take a look at what you can really get for your money these days.

But first, let me say to all those people who have ever bought a Packard Bell or eMachines PC and believe that great value in a computer means any model that sells for $600 or less: I agree -- Apple doesn't have an answer for you. In fact, I suggest that you skip this article entirely. You're not going to find anything of interest in it.

It's the hardware

For those of you who are left, what I have found in my research is that neither side has a lock on good value. If you start with Apple's relatively short list of SKUs (three or four model variations for each of its lines, such as MacBook Pro, MacBook and iMac) and then look for comparable Windows machines, you'll find that Apple bests the competition in some ways and not in others, but the pricing overall is surprisingly on par.

Only a few years ago, it seemed like a no-brainer that Windows hardware was much cheaper. But if you're talking name-brand hardware, that's just no longer the case.

On the other hand, if you search the Windows side first, you'll quickly discover machines that -- in features and price -- fit in between the Mac SKUs. And in those niches, they represent very good values. So there's one answer to the question of whether Macs or Windows represent a better value: If one of those "in between" PCs suits your needs best, you'd be paying an unnecessary premium to get a Mac instead.

Let's look at some hard numbers. I started my research with top-of-the-line notebooks -- I spent an hour on Dell's site trying to find the cheapest notebook that offered everything Apple's $2,799 MacBook Pro 17 provides. That includes:

  • Glossy 17-in. screen with 1,680-by-1,050-pixel resolution (optional 1,920-by-1,200 resolution for $100 more)
  • 2.4-GHz Core 2 Duo processor
  • 2GB of RAM (upgradeable to 4GB)
  • 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT video
  • 160GB 5,400-rpm SATA hard drive
  • 8x SuperDrive (DVD+R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
  • Gigabit Ethernet port
  • 54Mbit/sec. a/b/g/Draft n Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 2.0+EDR, ExpressCard/34 card slot
  • Three USB ports
  • One FireWire 800 port
  • One FireWire 400 port
  • DVI port
  • Built-in iSight video camera
  • One-year warranty (upgradeable to three years)

(See Apple's site for the complete MacBook Pro technical specifications.)

I was a little surprised to find that Dell's Inspiron line doesn't currently offer processing power equaling that of the MacBook Pro. To get a 2.33-GHz Core 2 Duo processor (a 2.4-GHz version isn't available yet), you have to move up to Dell's more expensive XPS M1710 with Vista Home Premium.

Once I did that, though, and tricked out the M1710 with only those extras it had to have to compete with the MacBook Pro, I was surprised to see the Dell come in at a whopping $3,459, some $650 more than the Apple product. Now, it's true that the Dell has some additional features (higher-end video and six USB ports instead of three, for example), but it also weighs nearly two pounds more and is much chunkier (1.69-in. thick, compared with 1 in.).

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