Ding! Mac vs. PC cost analysis, Round II

Whose software, reliability are better? Our findings might surprise you.
Plus: Figuring in the Mac's fun factor.

There's no question about it. My Mac vs. PC cost analysis column, which focused on the relative costs of Mac and Windows hardware, struck a chord. I was praised and lambasted around the Internet for it when it appeared in June.

It seemed to me that people who criticized this story missed the key points I was trying to get across:

1. This was a pure, hardware-based, speeds-and-feeds kind of comparison. I was comparing the hardware goods only, including CPU, chip set, RAM, video, display, hard-drive capacity and specs, ports and upgradeability, dimensions and weight, and so on.

In other words, I was attempting to make an objective comparison that did not inject any evaluation of the hardware, anything at all about the software, or anything about my personal experience with the operating systems and hardware involved. It was an on-paper comparison.

I did that purposely to lay the groundwork for further analysis about the value of Macs vs. Windows PCs. I started with the objective measures.

2. The main point I was trying to make is that when you compare Macs with comparably equipped Windows PCs, sometimes Macs beat Windows PCs in the price/performance comparison. Sometimes Windows PCs beat Macs. Overall, there's relative parity.

There is a time component to this kind of analysis. The Windows PC makers lagged behind Apple for a while on the CPU front, but with the release of the Santa Rosa platform (Intel's marketing name is Centrino Pro), many are catching up again. The value meter may be tipping a bit toward Windows PCs now as a result. But this ebb and flow is a natural part of computer valuations. It never rests. Pricing is always in flux.

It's definitely true that Apple Mac pricing has not always approached parity. I've made this comparison before. Macs have clearly been more expensive than Windows PCs in the distant past. But if you're talking about name-brand Windows PCs from reputable manufacturers like Dell, HP, Toshiba, Acer, Gateway, Lenovo and others, right now, the out-the-door pricing is more or less on par.

Important point: For a direct comparison to be made, there has to be a Mac SKU that directly equates to the exact set of features you want. And that's where we enter into a completely subjective realm and get away from intrinsic value.

Just because you don't want this or that small feature that the Mac offers doesn't mean that everyone else doesn't want it. And vice versa. So if you desire a specific set of features that falls between specific Mac SKUs and the way those machines can be configured, then some Windows PC somewhere may, in fact, be a better value -- for you.

This point isn't unique to computer sales. Buy a Honda automobile, for example, and you'll find there are three or four models for any car type, and the only options are dealer installable. Like Honda, Apple has smartly positioned its specific models.

There's also a corresponding point to be made: The Macintosh lineup consists of five model lines and 12 basic SKUs (or specific models), each of which offers additional configuration. There are three desktop and two notebook model lines.

When you look closely at these model lines, there are economy, middle-of-the-road and high-end models. Macs are no longer just premium computers. Apple has changed its stance on that markedly over the past 10 years. If you're not that familiar with Macs, you have to open your mind, take a look at the different Mac models and closely compare the specs.

Dean Abanila, technology specialist at the Rhode Island School of Design, said it well: "I work with more than a few students and faculty looking for computer-buying advice. Many are making PC-to-Mac transitions. Your analysis is dead on. At least twice per week, I spec out both Macs and PCs for folks. More often than not, the Mac is cheaper, and this has been the case for some time now.

"Before I start to sound like a Mac fanboy," Abanila goes on, "let me say that I often recommend PCs, and will continue to do so. I support both platforms here at RISD. As I am sure you are aware, recommendations depend on the user's goals."

One last hardware point: I agree with those of you who wrote to say you're with me on the comparison, but as purchasers of corporate microcomputing hardware, you feel Apple doesn't have a product that meets your needs. Apple has a huge opportunity right now with the pushback on Vista and the upswing in Mac sales to release a Mac designed for business.

At my company, where there are many new Mac users, the MacBook Pro 15 has become the standard. But a laptop that starts at $1,999 is pretty expensive for some companies to justify. I think the MacBook might be a solid alternative for some companies, and its pricing ($1,099 and up) is more in line with, or even more attractive than, that of small-screen Windows notebooks from Lenovo and others.

That said, there's room for a MacBook business machine that has a better keyboard, a better-looking case and perhaps a docking station. I also don't think the iMac is a great desktop computer for business. I don't like the integrated monitor from a support perspective.

So there's room for Apple to do something in the business arena, but the real problem for Apple is that it doesn't have a corporate sales channel to speak of. It's a retail-oriented B2C company, not a B2B company. Some companies are ignoring those downsides, though. Witness Computerworld's recent cover story about Tacoma, Wash.-based Auto Warehousing Co.'s decision to dump a major part of its IT infrastructure and PCs in favor of Apple servers and Macs. It does happen.

So much for hardware.

Software comparison

A lot of people have asked me to dive into the software comparison between Macs and PCs. Software needs, however, are far more variable than hardware needs. For example, some people are required to use Microsoft Word, Excel or PowerPoint. They would be forced to either buy or get their companies to buy Microsoft Office 2004 for the Mac, which sells for $399 list.

I know that some of you believe that alternative office products negate the need for anyone to use Microsoft Office for the Mac. That simply isn't true. There are interoperability issues with even the best alternative office apps. Trust me on this; some companies require us to use Microsoft products.

On the other hand, some people don't have those constraints. They might be very happy, indeed, with a product such as NeoOffice, the free, open-source Mac office suite based on the OpenOffice.org office suite. Some Mac users believe that Apple's $79 iWork '08, with the new Numbers '08 spreadsheet program, will do the trick.

So how do we figure this out? Do we tote up $400 in the Mac column or not? It's not easy to draw reasonable comparisons about software on a level-playing field. I believe each person has to make his own assessment on the software front. Here are some software aspects I think you should consider when analyzing Mac vs. PC costs:

1. There is plenty of software available for the Mac, both from established software houses and from individuals. Surprisingly, there are more products in some product categories than there are for Windows. For example, every time I turn around, I stumble across another project management tool for the Mac. There are more browsers for the Mac than there are for Windows.

I don't think Windows users realize just how many Windows software product categories Microsoft has come to own, eliminating all or most of the viable competition. Though it's true that in some categories there are only two or three Mac offerings, all in all there is a very solid, rich spread of software makers creating Mac applications. As a longtime software reviewer, I've been surprised by the quality of these applications.

2. The $80 Parallels Desktop for Mac virtualization application lets you run Windows and Linux seamlessly on your Intel Mac and switch between Mac and Windows, for example, with a simple keyboard command. It's even possible to run Windows applications as if they're running in the Mac interface and to associate data files on the Mac with Windows applications. This extremely powerful tool literally gives you access to all your Windows applications on your Mac.

Parallels is one of the best software utilities I've tested in years. It adds a huge chunk of software value to any Mac purchase. VMware's Fusion virtualization tool for the Mac competes with Parallels. Apple's free Boot Camp beta software is less convenient than virtualization programs, but it offers the same ability to run Windows on your Mac.

3. You don't need security software. OK, so I'm not one of those Mac users who chortles up his sleeve about security. I take it seriously. And I don't think the Mac is inherently immune from security threats. But the real-world truth right now is that most security threats are aimed at criminal financial gain, and the Mac's market share is just too small to be a cost-effective target. I mean, really, would you rather pirate the giant cargo ship with the gangplank resting on the dock or the buttoned-up tugboat moored 100 yards offshore?

Other than software to block spam, Mac users don't need any of the security products that Windows users absolutely require -- antivirus, anti-malware/spyware, identity-theft protection, antibot and so on. (The Mac comes with built-in firewall software.) There's definitely a cost savings because of this. And I suppose we could work up some numbers based on annual subscription fees and the need to upgrade to new versions of security products every year or two. This does add up over time, but it's not really a big chunk of change.

To me, the far more important cost is the system overhead, user distraction, system instability and the need for user troubleshooting that Windows security software entails.

Kenneth Burton, a technical director for a school system, e-mailed me with the same thought: "What about the issue of spyware and antivirus software? One of the reasons I switched to a Mac at home two years ago was because of the hassle of cleaning up the computer after my 16-year-old son."

Another reader, Rudy Wolf, agrees. "Having just made the switch myself (we now own four Macs), I have to take exception to your [first article in this series]. You didn't go far enough! Where is the discussion about the hours I used to spend messing with Symantec's Norton utilities and Windows utilities to keep my Windows PCs running and optimized? I have personally gained one to two hours per week because I no longer have to maintain four Windows PCs.

"My MacPro is now almost two years old. In that time, I have not run one utility to defragment its disk, optimize the system or upgrade software. The worst I've had to do is press the Enter key a few times when the computer upgraded itself (flawlessly each time). I don't know about others, but getting back 50-100 hours a year is a savings that has to be factored into the equation."

4. Software is cheap. Unless you're talking AutoCAD, Photoshop or Microsoft Office, software isn't all that expensive, folks. Just two hours of my time spent working on a Windows PC problem is worth far more than the average cost of most software programs. Even if you're retired, you have to factor in the time wasted wrestling with problems.

The point I'm trying to make is that, OK, so you may have to back your Mac purchase with an investment in software, but you had to do the same thing with your Windows purchase at some point. It's a cost of doing business. But more important, you can amortize the cost of the software against the time you'll save not wrestling with stupid PC problems.

The reliability factor

Mac users who have Windows in their past tend to agree on a simple point: The Macintosh operating system and its custom-tailored hardware make for a far more reliable, less trouble-prone environment than Windows. It's difficult to put a price tag on that advantage, but it's the advantage that I find the most compelling.

Remember the Yugo, a car introduced to the U.S. in 1984 whose main claim to fame was that it was incredibly cheap, woefully underpowered and highly trouble-prone? Yugos spent a lot of time in the shop. In considering the savings on the purchase price, Yugo buyers probably didn't factor in lost personal time, aggravation, repair charges and what they were paying for transportation when their cars were being repaired. This is the very definition of being penny wise and pound foolish.

I'm not saying that Windows is a Yugo, believe me. But reverse the picture: The Mac represents the most reliable vehicle you can buy (perhaps a Toyota?). There's a hidden value to having far fewer problems than average. And a big segment of the computer-using marketplace doesn't seem to want to acknowledge that.

That's why the single most frustrating thing about being a Mac user is the disdain with which some Windows users view Macs. Apparently, you're not a real man unless you're suffering with everyone else.

The thing is, I don't think Windows users (I know, I was one myself for many years before my conversion) give much credence to the notion that Macs are far more trouble-free. Because it's difficult to quantify, it must therefore be false. It's a subjective data point. As a longtime Windows author, reviewer and expert, I know that I felt that I could solve any Windows problem (and probably could), and as a result, the Mac's advantages held less benefit for me.

Surprise, surprise

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