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It's About Time


Week of November 6, 2004

The road to Cupertino is long and winding.

The PC hardware market is a price-gouged junkyard, yet the perception is that PCs are cheaper than Macs. A growing suspicion is that this is the result of calculated spin in Redmond and Santa Clara, for nothing could be further from the truth.

Macs are overwhelmingly cheaper than PCs and better equipped too - and this still doesn't consider the quality of the hardware and software, areas where Apple are traditionally expected to shine.

PCs are generally considered better performers than Macs, but this too is spin.

Finally there is the perception - the suspicion - that the PC has overwhelmingly more and cheaper software - another 'truth' in need of a lot of modification.

Home users and shops both stand to profit by moving operations to the Mac. The Mac is no longer just a cute little box that says 'hello': it's a rugged - and extremely competitively priced - powerhouse that gives a better return on investment not one or two years down the line, but at the point of purchase, in hard currency, already today.

It's about time the spin stopped.


The data for this article comes from Paul Murphy. If you want to read his original articles, click the links below. This article only exists because some of you will not click and it's important you see the facts. But all credit goes to Paul for it.

Paul writes for the Linux Insider and is the author of The Unix Guide to Defenestration.


Myth One: Macs Cost An Arm And A Leg

Fact: it's only marginally true at the very low end, below what is generally usable today. Otherwise Macs are totally more bang for buck.

No matter it's desktops, SMB networks, or notebooks, PCs are more expensive.

On The Kitchen Table

Desktop Price Screen CPU RAM Video VRAM HDD CD DVD Other
eMac $799 17' CRT 1.25 GHz PPC G4 256 MB SDRAM ATI Radeon 9200 40 GB ATA R/W R
$449 16' CRT 2.4 GHz Celeron 128 MB SDRAM 3D Graphics 40 GB ATA
iMac $1799 17' wide LCD 1.25 GHz PPC nVidia GeForce 5200 64 MB DDR 256 MB SDRAM 80GB ATA HDD R/W R/W Speakers
AirPort Extreme
Dell OptiPlex GX270 $1759 1703 Flat Panel 3 GHz P4 256 MB DDRAM nVidia GeForce 4MX 64 MB 80 GB EIDE R/W R/W
G5 Dual $2999 Dual 2.5 GHz PPC 64-bit 512 MB SDRAM ATI Radeon 9600 XT 128 MB 160 GB ATA R/W R/W 57 K Modem
3 PCI-X slots
512K L2 cache/CPU
Dell Precision 670 $4009 Dual 3.4 GHz Xeon 512 MB 160 GB SATA R/W R/W FireGL V3100

The eMac is over spec when compared to the 2400; Dell's upgrades to run XP cost an additional $160; the 2400 still won't have stereo, CD, DVD, graphics capabilities, wireless, or dual FireWire ports; add these and the price becomes equivalent, but the 2400 is still under-specified.

The iMac is also over spec when compared to the GX270; the latter is $40 cheaper but lacks the iMac's connectivity and multimedia capabilities; add these and the price of the GX270 goes way over that of the iMac.

The Power Mac Dual G5, despite its powerhouse 64-bit duo, is a full $1000 less than its 670 counterpart; the 670 lacks connectivity features; add monitors - the 20' Dell LCD for $700 - and the differences grow.

Apple's Cinema Display series is more than just a selection of monitors: it works as a core in digital production environments, with all three models (up to 30') with DVI and dual FireWire ports. The prices range from $1299 to $3299, or at least $600 more than for the Dell 20', but they offer things Dell cannot do at any price.

Add the cheapest Cinema Display and the Dual G5 is still over spec and 20% cheaper.

In The Shop

Fact: it's when you think 'corporate network' that PCs really begin to hurt.

The above is nothing compared to shop costs, for now it's bang for server and client bucks as well. Not only is the Mac alternative cheaper, but the PC alternative suddenly looks outrageous - a bit like price-gouging.

Server Price CPU RAM HDD OS Users
Xserve $4399 Dual 2 GHz PPC 64-bit 2 GB 160 GB OS X Server Unlimited
Dell 2850 $9370 Dual 3.2 GHz Xeon 64-bit 2 GB Dual 73 GB MS 2003 Server 25

The price difference is dramatic; add that Apple also have Xgrid and the Xserve is about to be upgraded more anyway and that the 2850 is relatively new (and still under spec).

More importantly, OS X Server is Unix and can pull off computational stunts its MS counterpart cannot. Xserve RAID with 3.5 TB capacity for $10999 is cheap storage for large multimedia files accessed with serial I/O.

Dell has no RAID equivalent; the 2850 is not suitable for continuous sequential I/O.

The killer here is nevertheless obvious: the licence agreement. Apple doesn't charge for client access rights; Microsoft does. The Dell, which costs nearly 30% more before the software, costs more than twice as much once the $3295 MS wants is added on.

On The Road

Notebook Price Screen CPU RAM Video VRAM HDD OS
Inspiron 700M $2214 12' 1.6 GHz 256 MB Intel Extreme Graphics 60 GB XP Pro
PowerBook 12' $1599 12' 1.33 GHz 256 MB nVidia GeForce FX 64 MB 60 GB OS X
Inspiron 9100 $2677 15' 3.2 GHz 512 MB ATI Radeon 9700 64 MB 80 GB XP Pro
PowerBook 15' $2499 15' 1.5 GHz 512 MB ATI Radeon 9700 64 MB 80 GB OS X

Comparisons are easy here; Dell has nothing to compete with Apple's 17' high end which is only $100 more than the 9100; connectivity for the PowerBooks is superior.

Myth Two: Macs Are Slow

Fact: RPMs don't translate into power; Macs consistently outperform PCs.

On raw hardware capabilities Macs win hands down. But Mac users don't upgrade as often because their hardware lasts longer. Stripping out the OS and application design shows how the two platforms really compare.

The NCSA Tungsten cluster runs 2500 dual Xeon 3.2 GHz Dell PowerEdge servers with a throughput of 3.1 gigaflops per CPU; the Virginia Tech cluster runs 1100 Power Macs with a throughput of 3.7 gigaflops per CPU.

The Mac is faster by 19%.

Apple's Xserve does even better as it has fewer bottlenecks. The Mach5 cluster built by Colsa and the US Army runs 1566 Xserves with a throughput of 4.8 gigaflops per CPU - 50% faster than the Xeon, and this is still last year's 2.0 GHz PPC competing with this year's Dells.

Even 64-bit PCs come up short: Los Alamos's Lightning runs 2816 Opterons with a throughput of 4.0 gigaflops per CPU - 20% slower than the Macs.


There are three aspects to productivity comparisons.

  1. Macs run Unix; the PPC is 'RISC'. This is inherently more reliable and more secure. In science and engineering Microsoft doesn't have the software to compete. Compare BSD on the 64-bit PPC with Linux on the Xeon and you have a 50% speed advantage for the Mac.

  2. The Mac GUI - NeXTSTEP - is a way for users to tell the computer what they want done; the PC GUI is middleware linking users to applications, each of which has its own way of communicating with the user. The PC GUI is at least one full generation behind the Mac's.

  3. PCs dominate the games and other markets; Mac ports, to the extent they are available, are mostly halfhearted unoptimised attempts at making a little more cash.

To quote Paul Murphy:

I've never met a PC user whose focus on the job he or she was supposed to be doing wasn't significantly diluted by the need to accommodate the PC and its software, but I've never met a business Mac user who considered the machine anything other than a tool, like a telephone or typewriter, for getting the job done.

Myth Three: Mac Software Is Sparse And More Expensive

Fact: it's not the number of available applications that counts, it's the amount of available functionality.

1995 was a year of change in business software development. Suddenly Unix was dead as NT grabbed more and more market. But this was before Linux and Open Source came to the fore; the trend has now reversed again, and Unix is the winner.

Linux projects are easily ported to the Mac - but not to the PC. The really niche markets where tomorrow's software is being written today are all Unix - not Windows. Almost anything written in academia since mid 2001 was done on Linux or BSD - the Mac's Unix - meaning the Mac port is eminent, but the PC port is rather unrealistic.

The wave of academic NT software which resulted in today's advanced business software is now atrophying from its roots forward, while today there's an explosion in worldwide development on Unix.

But Mac Software Still Costs More?

Fact: PC companies either charge more for Mac software licenses than they do for PC licenses, or they use differing marketing methods. Either way the Mac user can end up paying more even if the list price is nominally the same.

PC OEMs usually bundle MS Office at a discount; Apple do not; the MS price is the same. But averaging out over all software purchases, the Mac has to be cheaper as it can use just about any Unix program ever written, and software targeted for the Mac and not later ported is typically at the same level as on the PC or lower.

On the server end the difference becomes more dramatic: Windows 2003 server costs $1199 with 20 clients at $799, but additional software costs extra; basic messaging and collaboration services require Exchange Server which is priced at $1299 plus $67 for each client after the first five.

A Mac shop with 50 users pays $80 more for each copy of MS Office, but the PC shop pays Microsoft another $1298 for the discounted five-user Windows SMB Server 2003 licence, then $4142 for the additional 45 clients - in the end the PC shop spends about $1000 more.

And although there are more application titles in the PC market for any given application area, one or two players usually own each area with lesser vendors making up the numbers; the Mac market is more evenly spread.

And PC products pretty much do the same things in the same ways, whilst Mac products are generally more diversified. In the Mac world there are a half dozen genuinely competitive word processors, whilst WordPerfect for the PC is today little more than a Word clone.

There are holes in the Mac market, but it otherwise offers a wider range of choices, and when you add in the 900 Unix programs on every OS X disk, you end up with a lot more functionality at a noticeably lower cost.


Fact: Apple have the lowest hardware return rate in the industry, even better than IBM.

Apple hardware goes through rigorous tests to leave a factory. Every factory is capable of shipping a lemon, but the odds - and the statistics - are dramatically lower when it comes to the Mac.

Mac hard drives undergo 100,000 butterfly read-writes prior to shipping; if they fail they get pulled. In contrast, most PC OEMs put the box together before testing anything and if they're able to get the Windows welcome screen, it's good enough.

Apple hardware lasts longer. The cost of a Mac gets better over the years one would have wasted buying additional PC hardware to replace parts or complete computers that long since wore out.

Macs don't crash or hang. PCs do little but.

PC users spend a considerable amount of time fighting off malicious software; Mac users don't.

PC users end up spending a lot more money purchasing additional software that gives them what the operating system should have given them from the beginning. Mac users are generally content with what they got 'out of the box'.

PC users want to throw their computers out the window. Mac users love their computers and sometimes even want to marry them.

It's not just about style.

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