Are Macs More Expensive? Definitely–Just Ask Microsoft!

By  |  Monday, October 13, 2008 at 8:06 pm

[SHAMELESS PLUG: Technologizer will be liveblogging the Apple notebook event on 10/14/2008 @ 10am PT. Please join us.]

A couple of months ago, I had a lot of fun comparing the cost of various Macs to various Windows PCs, with my goal being to determine if Macs are pricey. I learned that it’s a really complicated matter. Today, another observer has chimed in with a fresh look at the question. And that observer is…Microsoft.

Girding itself for the possibility of an $800 MacBook being unveiled tomorrow, the company has been talking to reporters about the notion of a “Mac Tax” that Mac users pay compared to comparable PCs. Its PR firm, Waggener Edstrom, sent along a prepared statement to me that attempts to provide a lot of supporting evidence for this idea.

Here are some bullet points from this statement, with [HARRY SEZ] commentary by me for each of ’em:

  • The economy is impacting consumer choices, but Macs, due to their high upfront, won’t sell in a more conservative market. On Sept. 29th, Morgan Stanley noted: “PC unit growth is decelerating and the remaining source of growth is increasingly the sub-$1,000 market where Apple does not play.” Even if Apple were to drop pricing, the Apple Tax still prices Macs well outside of the sub-$1000 range. [HARRY SEZ: Um, Microsoft? Your wording here is a tad ungainly, and you’re quoting a Morgan Stanley report that doesn’t take into account whatever Apple may announce tomorrow. Also, it’s likely that Steve Jobs will begin tomorrow’s event with stats that show Mac sales outpacing PC sales in general. That said, it’s quite possible a crummy economy will be hard on the sale of pricier computers–including both Macs and PCs. We’ll see what we see.]
  • You can get a PC laptop with a bigger hard drive, more RAM, a media-card reader, more USB ports, and a bigger screen, for much less than a Mac. See the comparison chart below for just a few examples of what you can get today…we’ll send out an updated comparison chart after Apple’s announcement tomorrow. [HARRY SEZ: I’m not bothering to reproduce Microsoft’s chart, since today is the very worst day possible to compare the current MacBook to Windows laptops. Suffice it to say that Microsoft found better-equipped Windows laptops for a lot less; so did I when I tried, although it’s also true that the more comparable a Windows PC is to a Mac, the less likely it is that it’s dramatically cheaper. But if Micorosft’s point is that it’s possible to buy a decent Windows PC for a lot less than a Mac, it’s true.]
  • You can upgrade just about any Windows desktop PC, but the only significantly upgradeable Mac is the Mac Pro listed at $2799.00. [HARRY SEZ: Microsoft isn’t defining “significantly upgradeable,” but I presume it involves internal expansion slots and drive bays…and while it’s true that PCs are far more likely to have ’em, they aren’t anywhere near as important as they once were. I’ve upgraded both the RAM and hard drive on my MacBook–both easy jobs–and most of the rest of the upgrading that I’ve wanted to do has been external, and as easily accomplished with a Mac as a PC.]
  • Repurchasing software to make your Mac do all the things your PC does will cost you hundreds of dollars. Buying a Mac means scrapping your software and buying new applications (for up to $1,100) that run on Mac, just to do what you can still easily do on a new PC with the applications you already have.  We’ve listed a set of common applications below. [HARRY SEZ: Microsoft gives Photoshop Elements, Toast Titanium Pro, and FileMaker Pro as examples of applications you may need to buy. And you might. But it doesn’t address the fact that Macs come with iLife, which lets Macs do an array of stuff right out of the box. And it’s hardly an example of a “Mac Tax” if you have to buy new software, unless you accept the idea of a “Windows Tax” for Mac defectors who buy a Windows PC and new software.]
  • HDMI, Blu-Ray, eSATA, MediaCard Readers, built-in 3G, Fingerprint readers, TV Tuners, all have been shipping as built-in features  on PCs for years, but none are available on a Mac.  Not only does this mean you get to use the latest and greatest now, but since it’s so easy to upgrade PCs, it also means that your computer is more future-ready…you can get today’s technology now, and tomorrow’s technology the minute its available. [HARRY SEZ: All true. There are a few features that are more common in Macs than in PCs–Bluetooth, FireWire, Gigabit Ethernet–but nowhere near as many as are PC exclusives.]

The Microsoft statement segues from bullet points to price comparisons between MacBooks and MacBook Pros–which, again, are almost certainly relevant only until 10am tomorrow. Then it throws upgrades and peripherals into the “Mac Tax” mix–but the comp:

–It compares Apple’s $499 1TB Time Capsule router/storage device (the “Apple Solution”) against a $50 Linksys router and $170 1TB Iomega network drive (the “PC Solution”). But the Linksys and Iomega products work fine with Macs; I should know, since I used a Linksys router and Iomega hard drive for years with my MacBook. And the Apple Time Capsule works fine with PCs. The integrated Time Capsule is hardly comparable to the separate Linksys and Iomega products.

–It compares a standalone Sony Blu-Ray player (the “Apple Solution”) to an internal Lite-On Blu-Ray drive (the “PC solution”).  I’m not sure what Microsoft is talking about here; there is no Blu-Ray solution for Macs, as it rightly pointed out earlier in its statement. The Sony player sits in your living room, has nothing to do with Macs, and costs the same no matter what sort of PC you own–there can’t be a “Mac Tax” on something that simply isn’t available for Macs, like a Blu-Ray drive.

–It compares a $499 Apple Store 2GB memory upgrade to a $71.50 Kingston 2GB memory upgrade for PCs from NewEgg. That’s a comparison of third-party memory versus OEM, and therefore not very meaningful: If you buy your memory upgrades from Apple, you’re either so well-heeled you don’t care or aren’t aware of the massive price premium over third-party upgrades. Memory that’s certified for Macs is maybe $20 or $30 more than memory that isn’t, not $400+ more expensive.

–It compares an ATI graphics card sold by the Apple Store to an “excess inventory” one for PCs sold by Kind of like comparing prices at Macy’s and TJ Maxx.

Finally, there are some additional price comparisons between Macs and PCs that are so cryptic that I won’t dig into them–except to say that I don’t understand why Microsoft is saying that Mac buyers will want to pay $99 for an iLife Family Pack when it’s impossible to buy a Mac that doesn’t come with iLife pre-installed.

Microsoft doesn’t, of course, mention anything that might tilt in the Mac’s favor; almost anyone who thinks a Mac is worth the bucks would likely name OS X Leopard as the number-one reason, for instance, and many folks would mention the time that Mac users save by not wrangling with security problems and junkware. I won’t ding Microsoft for these omissions, since there’s just no way the company would ever factor them in.

I don’t wanna sound like a Mac partisan. Some of Microsoft’s points are entirely valid: It is possible to buy a well-equipped PC for much less than a Mac, and it will unquestionable remain so no matter what Apple unveils tomorrow. There are also multiple benefits of Windows PCs that Microsoft doesn’t address, like the far wider variety of form factors available. (14″, for instance, is a nice screen size for a notebook–widely available in the Windows world, and unknown with Macs…at least as of this evening.)

Bottom line: You could make the case that Windows PCs are cheaper than Macs, and make it convincingly, without stacking the deck in all the ways that Microsoft did in its comparison. I plan to revisit the whole PC-vs.-Mac price question when we learn about tomorrow’s MacBook announcements; we’ll see what my conclusions are.

(Side thought: Ultimately, it’s impossible for Microsoft itself to do a Windows-versus-Mac price comparison that anyone will take very seriously. Maybe it should have hired some objective third-party research firm to do a price comparison: The results would have almost certainly proved the point it wanted to make in a radically more balanced, airtight fashion.)

When I received the Microsoft statement, I dove into it so quickly that one of the most obvious facts about it floated right by me at first: It’s a very different world when Microsoft feels it necessary and appropriate to devote considerable energy to making the case for Windows versus the Mac. And “we’re cheaper!”–which is the ultimate conclusion of its comparison–isn’t a message that will make anyone’s pulse run quicker.

But at least Windows’ new overarching tagline remains “Life Without Walls” and not “Microsoft: We Sell For Less”…

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  1. Michael D. Rubin Says:

    Great article Harry, as always. I am a true fan of both Apple & Microsoft-and not for politically expedient reasons-just the fact that both make some darn good products-warts and all for Microsoft, price and all for Apple.