Through the graces of an anonymous benefactor, I have a recent-vintage white MacBook to use for the next few months. Although I’ve tinkered with Macs in the past, I’ve never actually used one for more than a day or two at a time.
I’ve been using the MacBook off and on over the past few weeks, and after getting past some of the initial disorientation and learning the Mac way to accomplish some common tasks, I’ve reached the point of basic productivity. The Mac way is different from the Windows way, better in some cases (connecting to a wireless network is easier, for example) and not so great in others (I’m not liking the dock). I can adjust through trial and error, but I’ll need to do some reading and maybe even buy a book or two to learn the little secrets and shortcuts that translate into improved productivity.
Anyway, as a newbie Mac user, I paid special attention to Apple’s announcements of new MacBooks last week. And Microsoft paid special attention, too, as I received multiple e-mails from folks in Redmond, who wanted to make sure I know what a great value the PC platform is compared to Apple’s products. Microsoft is peddling a line about an “Apple tax,” but most of those analyses are based on the hardware cost. I’ve been paying close enough attention to know that the differences in price extend over multiple dimensions, far beyond just the initial outlay.
I’ve been keeping some notes about the experience. But right off the bat, here are some observations about the platform:
The hardware is relatively expensive. The white MacBook is the least expensive Mac by far (unless you count the Mini, which isn’t an option for me). If I had purchased this model from the Apple store a month ago, it would have cost $1,099. Now it’s down to $999, but with no change in specs. That configuration includes only 1GB of RAM and a 120GB hard drive, which is fine for basic tasks but will feel crowded if I want to run virtualization software or perform any kind of high-end digital media editing. Apple charges $75 to upgrade to 2GB of RAM (or $150 to bump the installed memory up to 4GB). That’s better than the $100-per-GB price gouging I saw a few weeks ago, but still excessive.
The new MacBooks start at $1299 and $1599, with much better CPUs, 2GB of RAM, and a refreshed hardware design. Apple’s upgrade costs are still excessive. ($150 to add 2GB of RAM? $200 to upgrade a 160GB drive to 320GB? Those are insane premiums to pay.)
At his new Technologizer site, my colleague Harry McCracken has been doing some interesting price comparisons to see whether the new MacBook is really more expensive than its competitors. His full analysis is worth reading, but the conclusion is pretty straightforward: ““The new MacBook is in the same ballpark pricewise as fancier high-style 13-inch Windows laptops. But if you’re happy with something a little more basic, you can get a Windows 13-incher for a lot less–or, for that matter, the white MacBook, which is a good deal at its new price.”
So yes, if I stay within the “fancier, high style” category and restrict my choices to those with the same screen size and CPU as Apple’s design, I can find comparable choices at comparable prices. But what if I expand the configuration options to other screen sizes and CPUs? I can stay above the bargain-basement level and still buy a very nice Windows-based notebook with equivalent or better specs (faster CPU, more RAM, more disk space) for less cash up front than even a white MacBook. Case in point: I bought an HP TX2500z notebook a couple months ago. It includes a 2.2GHz CPU, a 250 GB hard drive, 4GB of RAM, and a 64-bit OS, all for $915, which pencils out to a 15% savings over the white MacBook with 2GB – and the HP also offers touchscreen and tablet functionality. A similarly configured new MacBook would cost $1549.
Oh, and hooking up an external monitor requires a mini-DVI adapter cable, at a cost of $29 from Apple or about $20 from anyone else. A small amount, but a few bucks here and there adds up.
Running Windows makes it even more expensive. One of the big selling points of Intel-based Macs is that they can run Windows. That’s true, but the capability is certainly not for free. If I want to exercise that option, I need a Windows license ($100 for an XP or Vista Home upgrade, $200 for XP Pro or Vista Business). To avoid the hassles of dual-booting, I need virtualization software ($60 and up).
In either case (but especially if I want to use a VM), I need to add RAM (let’s call it $100 for me to buy 4GB and install it myself). A hard drive upgrade would be nice, too ($80 for 200-250 GB). If I were to buy all those parts new, I’d need to spend an additional $300-500 on top of the original purchase price.
The cost of new software runs up the price a little more. This is probably the biggest issue of all. In just a couple weeks as a part-time Mac user I’ve put together a short list of the software whose functions I would have to replace if I were to switch to a Mac:
For starters, there’s Microsoft Office. I could go for the free option and install OpenOffice 3.0. But that doesn’t include an e-mail client that would connect to my Exchange server, so it’s a nonstarter. Microsoft’s Office 2008 for the Mac has Entourage, which would solve the Exchange issue (at a cost of $300 or so), but it doesn’t have the one Office program I use every day: OneNote 2007. I have nearly five years worth of research, clippings from web pages, and interview notes in this format, which is available only for Windows. The good news is that my existing Office license permits use on a portable computer, so I can install it in a VM on the Mac and get everything I need. Extra cost: $0.
RoboForm, another Windows-only program, ranks high on my list of 10 favorite Windows programs of all time. Its combination of secure password storage and retrieval is hard to beat. For the Mac, I’ve looked at the open-source KeePassX, which unfortunately doesn’t integrate with Mac-based browsers. The closest option appears to be 1Password, which runs $30.
For the mechanics of writing and posting to my blogs, I’m spoiled by the free Windows Live Writer. The nearest Mac equivalent is MarsEdit 2, which costs $30.
And then there’s some stuff that simply doesn’t have a replacement. For example, there’s no Mac-based client software to allow access to remote virtual machines running on a Hyper-V server. Nor can I access my subscription music services (Zune Pass, Rhapsody) from a Mac, except to stream albums from a web browser.
So when all is said and done, the up-front hardware cost adds a premium of $100 or more, enabling Windows support adds at least another $300, and replacing a handful of utilities costs another $60. We’re now in the ballpark of $500 in extra costs for the costs of switching.
In this economy, I think a lot of people who do the math are going to stick with what they’ve got.