Are Macs More Expensive? Round Two: Survival of the Cheapest

In which a base MacBook looks pretty pricey compared to machines on sale at Best Buy.

By  |  Saturday, August 16, 2008 at 2:25 pm

On Thursday, I began my multiple-part look at the cost of Macintoshes by comparing a mid-range MacBook to some Windows laptops which I’d configured to be as similar to the MacBook as possible. Compared to those machine, I concluded that the MacBook was in the zone in terms of price and power, or, in other words, “not expensive.”

I also managed to stir up lots of controversy, in the form of dozens of comments and discussion elsewhere on the Web. So as promised, I’m back with another round of price comparisons, and based in part on comments to my original post by a reader named Michael, I’ve decided to stick with the MacBook and compare it to Windows laptops that happen to be on sale at Best Buy at the moment.

Once again, I’ll begin with a mini-FAQ:

Q. How did you decide what Windows laptops to include in this comparison?

A. I looked for ones that are currently on sale at Best Buy, then limited the options to ones that were in-stock at, to avoid any deals that were irresistible but unavailable. I then selected machines from Gateway, HP, and Sony that were as close to the base MacBook as possible. (Best Buy does sell Dells, too, but the only similar one was out of stock.) Since Best Buy doesn’t stock machines of all sorts and I couldn’t do custom configurations, the Windows boxes weren’t as close to the MacBook as in my first comparison–for instance, they all had larger screens, and none of them had Bluetooth.

Q. How do you factor in the obvious superiority of the Mac platform? (Or, if you prefer, its obvious inferiority.)

A. I don’t! Not in this story, anyhow. Ask just about anyone who likes Macs what they like best, and OS X will be the first thing they mention. But that’s ultimately subjective, and I tried to make my research err on the side of things that are easy to measure, like hard-drive size and the availability or unavailability of a particular feature.

Q. Can I find the Windows laptops even cheaper somwhere other than Best Buy?

A. Um, maybe, but I believe that these models are designed specifically for sale at Best Buy. Very similar models with slightly different names and slightly different configurations are probably available elsewhere. All of which makes precision comparison shopping maddeningly difficult.

Q. Will you tell me which of the systems is best?

A. Nope–this isn’t a review. I’m just trying to determine whether the cheapest MacBook looks pricey or reasonable when compared to low-cost Windows notebooks that are at least vaguely similar.

Q. Will you tell me your conclusions now so I don’t have to read any further?

A. Oh, okay–unlike the custom-configured Windows laptops in my first comparison, these Best Buy sale machines are all a lot cheaper than the basic MacBook, with more RAM, bigger hard drives, and larger screens.

Q. Why do you spend so much time asking yourself questions and then answering them? Is it some sort of nervous tic?

A. Sorry about that. Let’s get on with the show, starting with more details on the computers I compared.

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23 Comments For This Post

  1. Relyt Says:

    The Quote, “Macs are more expensive than PCs” is not necessarily true, but the following quotes are: “The average PC is cheaper than the average Mac” and….forgot it….never mind.

  2. Dave Says:

    Also true: “The average PC isn’t equivalent to the average Mac” and….forgot it….never mind.

  3. owen-b Says:

    Yeah, but “the average PC is cheaper than the average Mac” says to me that he added up all the prices of PCs and averaged them out, then added up all the prices of Macs and averaged them out, and LO! The average PC price was cheaper than the average Mac price. And that is true.

    But crucially it pays absolutely no heed to what you’re getting for the price. Yes – the cheapest Mac is waaaay more expensive than the cheapest PC – but spec-wise they’re not even in the same timezone.

  4. Lee Says:

    These comparisons are often a joke for one reason: just because the machines appear to have similar specs does not mean that they are equivalent. Build quality and the quality of components matter. For example, you can spec two models of Dell laptop to have more or less the same processor, gfx card, HD, RAM, etc. but one will cost $400 more than the other, so it’s a good bet that they aren’t equivalent machines.

    Most of these comparisons with Macs take the cheapest possible Dell/HP with similar specs instead of the most expensive Dell/HP model with similar specs, and therein lies the fallacy, since they have no reason to assume that the Mac’s hardware is equivalent to the cheaper model rather than the more expensive one.

    And in no way is VIsta Home Basic or Home Premium equivalent to OS X. If you want to make an objective comparison, you must use a Business or Ultimate version, since OS X does not have a crippled version.

    If you also deducted average expected resale value from the sticker price, you would find that the Mac was much cheaper, since Macs have higher resale values than equivalent PCs. Given that fact, cost is not a reason to buy a PC over a Mac.

  5. Francine Says:

    To make this comparison really meaningful IMO you need to take a $1000 PC laptop and compare it to the $1000 MacBook and see how they stack up. Now who wins? Just what do you get for your $1000 spent on a Mac and your $1000 spent on a PC notebook?

    Every time I am in the market for a new computer, I do the comparison and wind up with a PC even though there are things about the Mac that are appealing. The Macs always lose for me because I can’t bring myself to spend so much more to get the same or even close to equal specs that I can get on a PC.

    I just bought a new PC notebook running Vista 64 bit and it has bluetooth, wireless N, card reader and fingerprint reader. No problems setting it up and adding it to my home network.

  6. MacHadit Says:

    How’s about the intangible costs of owning a Mac? For example:

    * Being forced to buy an OS upgrade that I didn’t need and didn’t want when Apple switched servers to MobileMe.
    * Having been told, 18 months ago, when I bought my first (and last!) Mac that my Quicken data, which Apple staffers obligingly converted from PC to Macintosh format for me, could be converted BACK to PC format if I decided I wasn’t happy with the platform, and then learning, after the MobileMe and Leopard adventures, that this promise is not true now and never has been true. When I switch back to a PC, which I will do the instant my 2008 tax report is done at year-end (assuming the Mac survives until December 31), I will lose 12 years worth of data to a sales pitch. This particular sales pitch (dare we call it a “lie”?) cost me years of data, years of work, and future hassles whose real cost remains to be seen.
    * Losing functionality of Mac Mail (part of the $100/year .Mac/MobileMe fee), thanks to the migration to MobileMe, and finding the instructions to try to revive the program too complicated for me to follow.
    * Learning, after the Mac crashed just as the MobileMe fiasco was letting up a bit, that when the machine dies once and for all, my blog in iWeb dies with it. Once and for all.
    * Learning that iWeb data cannot be imported into any other blogging platform, and so to transfer my blog into, say, WordPress I will have to copy and paste seven months’ worth of posts.
    * Learning that to run MS Windows on the Intel-based Mac I bought would require purchase of an expensive new version of Windows, which I could not afford after having ponied up a ton of money for the Mac itself.
    * Learning that installing said operating system on the Mac is difficult enough to require me to hire an IT technician;that installation is a process not recommended for amateurs; and that this is a process the Apple “Geniuses” will not perform.
    * Being forced, therefore, to use Quicken, Word, and Excel for Mac, none of which come up to the standards of the PC-compatible programs.
    * Learning that it is decidedly not true that the Mac can safely run without antivirus, antispyware, antimalware programs.
    * Watching the Mac run at the speed of a stampeding snail because more than two programs are running at once, or because the system has been left on “sleep” overnight.
    * Wrestling with the endlessly confusing architecture of iPhoto, just getting it figured out, and then having an update impose a whole new, very messy and unwieldy architecture (how do I hate “Events”? let me count the ways…).
    * Realizing that there’s no easy way to get images out of iPhoto and into a PC other than by posting them to a website and downloading to the PC them one-by-one.
    * Being told that data saved to an external hard disk using Time Machine, including PC-compatible data files in Excel and Word, will have to be decoded by a Mac into which the my own Leopard program disk is inserted, should my existing Mac crash.
    * Learning to detest Word for Mac, because its keyboard commands are different from the real Word’s and because keyboard commands that correspond to real Word keyboard commands are freaking system commands for the Mac!
    * And consequently learning to deeply loath point-and-click point-and-click point-and-click point-and-click point-and-click point-and-click point-and-click point-and-click point-and-click point-and-click point-and-click point-and-click point-and-click….

    IMHO, the Mac, while it has many engaging features and multitudes of fresh-faced and charming Apple Store staffers, is the most overrated and oversold machine on the market. The Emperor of Appleland has no clothes.

  7. Gene Says:

    Oh gosh. MacHadit really scrapes the bottom when looking for things to complain about — blaming Apple for the shortcomings of Intuit’s Quicken and Microsoft’s Office… making a bizarre assertion that you can’t run a Mac without anti-virus programs (I’ve never touched an anti-virus program and I’ve been using a Mac since 1984 without incident)… many many MANY completely wrong assertions such as “no easy way to get photos out of iPhoto” (um, they’re all just photos in a folder within your Photos folder)… hating point and click???
    And just when that screed couldn’t get more bizarre, there’s the complaint — without a hint of irony — that not only must Windows be PURCHASED, but that WINDOWS IS TOO DIFFICULT TO INSTALL and thus the Mac is no good? The mind boggles.

  8. Gene Says:

    Oh, and… right there in the Quicken for Mac file menu is EXPORT>TO QUICKEN FOR WINDOWS.
    Gah. Love the people who don’t bother to look.

  9. Matt Ryall Says:

    Thanks for the follow-up article, Harry. Very interesting. I think Apple has traditionally avoided competing in the low-cost consumer market, but this may change if they increase the specs and drop the price of MacBook as you suggest.

    Please continue with this series. I’d be interested to see a comparison of higher-end notebooks.

  10. Lollerskates Says:

    MacHadit…um…LOL. The other guy said it all. Please keep it down, your QQ’ing is interrupting all the productive and profitable work that I’m doing on my Mac…and have been for the past 24 years.

  11. Thomas Says:

    Wow.. just wow. MacHadit is either one of those astroturfers employed by (presumably) a Microsoft funded organisation or a seriously misguided individual who probably does not even own a Mac.

    The only true thing in that list is that you have to buy a copy of Windows to run on a Mac.

    Anyone whose decision to buy or not buy Apple products is influenced by this should employ some critical thinking. Sure, Macs are not for everyone, but don’t let someone else decide for you. Especially not MacHadit.

  12. RICO Says:

    Even so, if you think it’s a pain to install Windows on your Mac, try installing OS X on your PC.

  13. gene 2 Says:

    teh macbook has some features for working developers that nothing at its price point or below has:

    Firewire out (small, nice to have)

    DVI output (huge differentiator)

    high-quality sound card (every Win laptop i’ve ever experience has an absolutely horrific sound card)

    VMware fusion (also huge): you cn run XP or vista or ubuntu at same time as OS X.

  14. blucaso Says:

    Well, MacHadit’s complaints sound very common to someone who isn’t very knowledgeable about Macs and who has a lifelong set of Windows habits. The fact is, for some people like MacHadit, a Mac switch can be a traumatic, even disastrous event. Frankly, a friend of mine had a nearly disastrous attempt to switch from a PowerPC to an Intel iMac. Simply put, there were so many of her programs (she’s a graphic designer) that either didn’t work correctly, didn’t work at all and required an upgrade that she couldn’t afford, and the ones that worked were running in Rosetta and therefore slower on a computer roughly 3 times as powerful as her old one.

    Honestly, I can see MacHadit’s complaints fall into the following categories:

    1) “Things on a Mac don’t work like on a PC.” i.e. “Old habits die hard”. For some people, resistance to change is a huge disincentive to switch platforms. People in this category probably shouldn’t switch to Macs. Or even to Vista from XP for that matter.

    2) “I can’t figure out (or get someone to help) how to do it, so therefore it can’t be done.” Like getting photos out of iPhoto, or converting files back and forth. Granted, these things aren’t always perfectly easy or intuitive, but they are usually possible. In iPhoto, for example, they fall into the category of perfectly easy. See that photo you want? Drag it to your desktop. A copy appears ready to drag to any Windows disk. You can even ignore those “events” you hate so much and just view the photo library the old way by clicking “photos” or whatever it’s called, right below the “events” view. More options are better, unless you don’t realize the old options are still there.

    3) Apple idiosyncrasies can be a killer. The fact is, iWeb’s storage is a mess. You can’t work on your iWeb files natively from another computer (Mac or PC), and your website isn’t easily converted to another program. iWork doesn’t always export and import to Word correctly, and sometimes things just don’t work the way they should. Time Machine’s proprietary format is dumbed down to make it user transparent, but it’s also not in a standard file format that’s portable. I understand why, but it doesn’t change this particular user’s dismay at finding it out. These parts of the “Mac experience” need some serious work, and I think Apple should spend some of their Snow Leopard time and effort on them.

    I also don’t know what the comment on Antivirus means. Either he had a problem and believes it was caused by a virus, or maybe he installed Windows and caught a virus because he had no Antivirus on the Windows partition. I don’t know.

    I’m in agreement that complaining about installing Windows on the Mac is pretty baseless – first, Apple’s printable BootCamp instructions are pretty straightforward (I won’t say simple, but easy enough to follow). The most problematic parts of the process (at least for me) were the Windows parts, which I had no familiarity with. And the reason the Apple Geniuses won’t touch it is that Apple doesn’t want to do support for Windows, for obvious reasons – it’s a whole mess of problems that require that much more training and information, and from which Apple realizes no income. So yes, they will provide you with a way to use Windows, but no they won’t help you do it. Understandable from their perspective, but not great for you, I get that.

    In all, I think your particular combination of 1) Ingrained Windows habits, 2) Lack of familiarity with Macs and 3) running into limitations of certain Mac systems or programs caused you enough problems to guarantee seeing the Mac experiment as an epic failure. Your experience may not be typical, but it’s no less valid because of this. Good luck to you getting your computer life back on track.

  15. josh Says:

    Sounds like MacHadit has had it with Macs.

    Some words of advice. Never trust anyone 100% when they give you tech information. Migrating from one OS to another can be painless but don’t count on it.

    It appears that you took seriously people who didn’t know what they were talking about. I don’t have time to go into all your complaints but a couple stand out. Firstly the Quicken issue has been discussed already – you were clearly misled (unless you were actually talking about some arcane PC format that we are not aware of).

    Now, the next complaint I want to talk about is your MobileMe upgrade problem. To do this we need to establish what OS version you’re using. You said that your machine is 18 months old and is Intel-based. That means when you bought it it came with 10.4. MobileMe supports 10.4.11, a free upgrade, so you were again, given bad info. (Some Googling reveals that you may need to delete some old .mac preferences file if you wish to avoid some synch issues – hardly a big issue.)

    Throughout your tirade you make it sound like you find Macs and Mac software difficult to use. Since most Mac users would disagree with you on that I’m forced to conclude that you probably had a couple of bad experiences and then just gave up. Many of the things you have claimed are either untrue or highly subjective – iPhoto exporting, installing Windows etc. The iWeb issue does sound bad but at least you could export the pages in html.

    Since you have had reasonable experiences with Windows in the past, I would seriously advise you to try and get a copy of Windows XP for you next machine (or even for this current one) and stop trolling Mac articles. I sincerely doubt you will ever be happy on Mac, unlike most of us. Oh and BTW, “real Word”? The current Mac Office is independently developed in parallel with the Windows version. Word started on Macintoshes in the 80s, so the keyboard commands you’ve learned on Windows are in fact ‘wrong’. Imagine my frustration every time I try to use keyboard commands on PCs! Why did they steal so many ideas from Apple but change them ever so slightly?


  16. josh Says:

    Oh man! looks like blucaso and I were typing at the same time but boy did s/he beat me to the point. They were virtually all the things I was thinking – only so much better put, and more polite. Well put blucaso. That really was the post I had in my mind.

  17. Paul King Says:

    I looked at cheap laptops recently and typically battery life was described as 3 hours or less. It’s likely that the MacBook has a substantial advantage on this point.

  18. britt Says:

    Heh… well, I’m running a 24″ iMac, that’s about 1.5 yrs old, latest Leopard, 3GB ram, and a 2Ghz core 2 duo… at the moment I’ve got 15 apps open, and it’s running just fine (about 85% idle, according to Activity Monitor).

    Having built a number of PCs, and running Parallels on my Mac, I can say that installing Windows on a PC is just as hard, often harder, as installing it on a Mac – on the PC, there’s a driver disk (or download) for every device; on the Mac, there’s just one (or, for Parallels, no driver disk at all; Parallels will run the installer for you).

    At the moment, .mac/mobileMe is a mess… Perhaps they’ll get if fixed soon, but until that happens… I would avoid it for now. I also wouldn’t use iWeb for anything serious; it’s really a basic program. I use RapidWeaver, and sometimes edit the files with TextWrangler, and push the resulting HTML (and css, js, etc) files up to a standard linux web server.

    Time Machine does **NOT** store your files in a proprietary format; what’s on the backup drive is the raw files… any machine that can read HFS+ volumes (the standard format for a hard drive on the Mac) can read the data. The one sticking point, for switchers, is that PC’s can’t read HFS+ without a 3rd party utility, so this usually means that to recover data from a Time Machine backup you need a working Mac.

    I don’t know where MacHadit is getting advice, but whoever it is isn’t giving accurate info.

  19. Jari Says:

    I constantly see ads about these cheap Windows-laptops and actually own one (around $700). I also own a “higher end” laptop running also Windows ($1500).

    The cheap one is a fully functional laptop and can handle needs of a basic user. But I prefer the more powerful one and use it for my work. The processor, HD, RAM, casing, screen and other features ain’t comparable on those two, the twice as more expensive is better on every aspect.

    Since I got my first Mac (Mini) I instantly started to plan the purchase of a Mac-laptop, nevertheless my PC is working alright and does the job perfectly for what it’s meant for. What is most important, the price isn’t the issue – I wouldn’t buy a PC under $1000 anyhow for the job I want it to handle. I think that Vista is great OS, but out of those two I just want it to be Mac.

    You can get a good laptop with $1500 and you can get a working laptop with $500.

    If you want a good one, my conclusion is that it’s a more of an OS question better than a hardware.

  20. Relyt Says:

    Another point: Macs try to be all-in-one machines (and they do a pretty good job of doing that) as oppose to PCs differ: they could be minimalist, have “too much features”, specialize in a certain area (like speed), etc. With PCs you can pick and choose what is in and powering your machine, but with Macs you pick the one that fits you budget and have to go with it. The choice (and no, I am not prioritizing PCs) is yours.

  21. holycalamity Says:

    Relyt, I think that’s a fair point. I’ve been using Macs practically my entire life, but I get that it’s not right for everyone (a point which even the “Mac vs PC” commercials concede). If you have very, very specific needs or prefer to build your own computer, Windows PCs are probably better for you.

    But I sense that for most people who want a mid- to high-end machine for more than just emailing and web browsing, and they’re looking at mass market Dells and HPs, Apple machines are a more than viable choice, and the “overpriced” complaints are just ignorant or dishonest.

  22. Yacko Says:

    * Learning that it is decidedly not true that the Mac can safely run without antivirus, antispyware, antimalware programs.

    Perhaps you would care to elaborate on this and explain why you feel this way? I think it’s more likely as another comment mentioned – “he had a problem and believes it was caused by a virus”. When a paranoid former Windows user has even a slight Mac problem all their mind can turn to as an explanation is malware or maintenance like defrag. I can assure Windows users, their is no fear factor using a Mac, no self-corrupted or slow filesystems, no bad attachments, no wrong email messages to click on, no bad web sites that could compromise, no chance your machine could be relaying info to bad guys or used as a zombie pawn spewing spam to others. The normal Windows user lives in fear and a Mac user has none. No matter how you compare Macs to Windows machines, this one characteristic alone makes the Mac advantage priceless.

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