By Harry McCracken | Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 10:50 pm
[UPDATE: This is one of the most popular stories we've ever published, but with the arrival of the new MacBook on October 14th, it's also obsolete. Read it if you like--but this new article compares the new MacBook to comparable Windows computers.]
It’s of those eternal questions of the computing world that never seems to get answered definitively: Does the “Mac Tax” really exist? Some folks are positive that Macs are overpriced compared to Windows computers; others deny it steadfastly. Almost nobody, however, bothers to do the math in any serious detail.
So that’s what I’m going to do. And since Apple manufactures multiple models, I’m going to do it one computer at a time, starting with the MacBook, the company’s consumer notebook.
First, a mini-FAQ on this project:
Q. I see Windows notebooks for $500 everywhere. There are no $500 Mac notebooks–that proves Macs are more expensive.
A. Um, that isn’t a question, but yes, the cheapest Windows machines are cheaper than the cheapest Macs, and probably always will be. But the most expensive Windows PCs also cost more than the priciest Macs; there’s simply a far wider range of Windows computers out there. That’s a point in the favor of Windows systems for sure, since variety is good and some folks want a very basic machine at a very basic price. And it’s true that the average selling price for Windows boxes is around half the average price of Macs. But the only logical way to compare prices is to do so for roughly comparable systems. That’s what I’ve done here.
Q. How did you do your research?
A. I chose a standard MacBook configuration–the middle one, which is neither stripped down nor high-end…
Then I configured laptops as similarly as possible from the country’s two largest PC manufacturers (HP and Dell) and one which, like Apple, is associated with sexy-but-not-dirt-cheap machines (Sony).
The Dell was the XPS M1330…
The HP was the Pavilion dv4t…
…and the Sony was the VAIO VGN-SR190.
I did all my shopping at the manufacturers’ sites, since they all provide extensive tools for custom configurations, letting me pick machines that were as close as possible in specs.
Q. How do you take into account the fact that OS X is so obviously superior to Windows Vista?
A. I muse about how the operating systems compare a bit towards the end of this article, but I didn’t factor the question into my overall conclusions, since this is a price comparison, not an attempt to answer the overarching question of which platform is better. I also considered only purchase price, not overall cost of ownership. (You might make a case that Macs are cheaper to own than PCs simply because you spend less time worrying about spyware, adware, and junkware.)
Q. How do you take into account the fact that OS X is so obviously crummy as a gaming platform, or the fact that I can’t run my favorite accounting software on it?
A. See above answer. Whether a Mac is a good gaming or business PC is a different question from whether it’s cheap, pricey, or somewhere in between.
Q. Will you tell me which of the four machines I should buy?
A. Nope, this isn’t a review–I did no hands on testing or speed benchmarking.
Q. Are you going to make me read this entire article to learn whether the MacBook is expensive?
A. Oh, all right, here’s an executive summary: It’s in the same zone as the Dell and HP, while the Sony is around $300 more. If Macs are overpriced, the MacBook isn’t very good proof.
Q. Will you get on with your conclusions, already?
A. Sure–just click on to the next page.
(UPDATE: I answer even more questions about this project in this post.)