By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 12:36 am
There’s something about comparing the prices of Windows PCs and Macs that makes otherwise cool and collected people–Windows and Mac users alike–become profoundly emotional and partisan, until steam shoots out of thefir ears and their eyeballs turn bright red. You can see this passion crop up in some of the comments on Ed Oswald’s two recent posts (here and here) on Microsoft’s new “Lauren” ad comparing 17-inch Windows laptops to the MacBook Pro. I’ve also encountered it every time I’ve tried to do the math on the Windows vs. Mac question–which I started doing within a few weeks of Technologizer’s launch last summer.
I haven’t returned to this issue since last October, but the moment Microsoft put it at the heart of a major national TV commercial last week, the blogosphere started debating it all over again. I continue to think it’s worth trying to answer the question in a very specific and unemotional way. The specific part is important because asking whether Macs are more expensive than Windows PCs is like asking whether Audis are more expensive than General Motors cars: It’s a meaningless question without context, since the answer is entirely contingent on the models you choose. And the unemotional aspect of my research tries to strip out any bias based on anything but the computers at hand. (Note that in the commercial, Lauren sets off a powder keg of controversy the moment she says she’s not “cool enough” to own a Mac–me, I want to judge computers, not people.)
In the end, those comparisons are all about collecting fresh data on the “Mac Tax”–the notion that you pay a premium for Apple computers compared to similar Windows PCs. Or, as Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer recently put it, “Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment—same piece of hardware—paying $500 more to get a logo on it?” And since the 17-inch MacBook Pro is the Mac that Lauren nixes in favor of a far cheaper HP Pavilion, it’s the one I’ll look at in this story.
First, as is my wont, a mini-FAQ on this project:
Q. How did you choose the Windows laptops?
A. In a perfect world, I’d select at least one computer from every major manufacturer. But these comparisons get unwieldy when they involve too many systems. So I picked notebooks from Lenovo and Sony, since those companies’ machines tend to be most similar to Apple’s in terms of features and industrial design, and added models from Dell and HP, the two largest PC companies in the U.S. Working at the configure-to-order sites of the PC companies in question, I chose machines that were similar to the base MacBook Pro, then tweaked the configurations until they were as close as I could get them.
Let’s meet our laptops. Starting with Dell’s Precision M6400 Mobile Workstation…
This is HP’s EliteBook 8730W…
Here we have Lenovo’s ThinkPad W700…
And Sony’s VAIO FW (Daniel Craig not included, as far as I know)…
I also selected a 17-inch Apple laptop–which turned out to be pretty easy, since there’s only one. That would be the 17-inch MacBook Pro.
For the record, I didn’t check the prices of the system until after I’d compared their specs–I didn’t want anyone to be able to accuse me of rigging my research, consciously or unconsciously, to make Apple look good.
Q. The Dell, HP, and Lenovo you picked look like mobile workstations, aimed at businesspeople who need a lot of power. The MacBook Pro is a consumer machine, so it’s not a logical comparison.
A. They are mobile workstations, but they also come closer to matching the MacBook Pro in terms of CPU and graphics than most consumer laptops. And the MacBook Pro is an unusual notebook with a split personality that’s a little bit business and a little bit consumer. (If you can call any notebook that costs nearly $3000 a consumer product, that is.)
Q. Best Buy has some machines that aren’t quite as well-equipped as the ones here, but they come close–and they’re much, much cheaper. This Dell, for instance. How come you didn’t include them?
A. Because I’m trying to configure Windows laptops to be as close to the MacBook Pro’s specs as possible, since that’s the best way to determine if there’s a Mac Tax hiding in Apple’s prices. But I may come back to look at some of those Best Buy systems in a future story.
Q. You’re going to try and convince us that Lauren should have bought the MacBook Pro, aren’t you?
A. No, no, no! She said she wanted a fast notebook with a 17-inch screen for under a grand. There are plenty of Windows machines that fit the bill, and no Mac that comes close. You can quibble with whether the HP Pavilion she bought was her best option, but unless you want to tell Lauren that she should settle for a 13-inch display instead of a 17-inch one, she unquestionably made the right decision in buying a Windows computer. There are tons of reasonable Windows laptops for under $1000, but only one Apple notebook in that range at all–the most basic MacBook.
Q. Are you saying that comparing one Mac to four Windows PCs can tell us whether Macs in general are more expensive than PCs in general? For instance, the Mac Mini looks underpowered and overpriced to me.
A. Nope–like I say, I’m trying to be as specific as possible. Draw no conclusions from this article about any other Mac models. Or, for that matter, any Windows laptops which I don’t mention here.
Q. Aren’t you aware that Windows laptops have Blu-Ray and eSATA and DVR capabilities and HDMI and embedded mobile broadband and a whole lot of other nifty features that you can’t get from Apple at any price?
A. Of course, and it’s good fodder for a more general conversation on the relative virtues of PCs and Macs. Did I mention I’m about to start work on some articles on that topic for PC World? For this story, however, I’m simply trying to figure out whether Apple is charging a lot more than its Windows-using rivals for the features it does offer on the 17-inch MacBook Pro.
Q. Isn’t it obvious that OS X makes Macs inherently superior to Windows computers? (Or, if you prefer, that Windows makes PCs inherently superior to Macs?)
A. I feel strongly that the biggest difference between a Windows PC and a Mac is the operating system, but I’m willfully ignoring that question in this comparison and focusing on the hardware question. You can’t compare OSes without immediately delving into opinions and subjectivity and personal preference. And hey, neither Steve Ballmer nor Lauren seem to factor operating systems into their take on all this, either–so at least I have company.
Q. Could you do me a favor and tell me your conclusions now, so I don’t have to click through the whole darn story and read thousands of words?
A. Sure, but only because it’s you. I found that the MacBook Pro had some features the other machines didn’t, and lacked others they did have, and was competitive overall, even when you ignore its operating system and treat it as a hunk of hardware. It cost less than the Dell, about the same as the HP, and $350 more than the Lenovo. And it was $1200 more than the Sony–although that machine was the skimpiest of the four. All in all, the MacBook Pro is priced nearer the high end of what you might pay for a similar Windows laptop than the low end, but if there’s a Mac tax it seems no worse than the Dell Tax or HP Tax–in this case, at least.
Anyhow, enough preface–let’s start comparing computers.