How much does it cost to own a small fleet of Macs? Total cost of ownership explained

Macs may cost quite a bit to buy, but as David Gewirtz discusses, they don't necessarily cost all that much to own.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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How much does it cost to own Macs? In this article, I'm going to walk you through the total cost of ownership of five Macs across their entire usable life. I've recently completed an upgrade sweep for my small company's computer fleet. That means that my older machines have been taken out of service.

Before we get started, let's talk about what the industry considers normal when it comes to cost of ownership.

A 2018 Microsoft study states that the "optimal age of PCs is no more than four years old." I'm replacing machines that were in service from 7.6 years to 9.9 years.

How much does a PC cost over its lifetime? Well, that's a hard number to come up with. I found an old 2011 article on ZDNet that "shows total cost of ownership for a locked and well-managed PC of $2,845 a year." When I asked our Microsoft expert, Ed Bott, for more current data, he said "It's a pretty squishy metric, at any rate. And you can quote me on that."

In this article, I'm not looking at squishy theoretical metrics. Instead, I'm looking at the actual lifetime ownership costs of five Macs that have been in use in a small business. The bottom line is this: TCO ranged from $527.64 per year down to $138.97 per year.

2011 Mac mini server - August 2011 to July 2021

This was the first of my stable of Mac minis. It was ordered in late July 2011 from Apple and put into service in August. It was bought with two internal 500GB hard drives, a mere 2.0GHz Core i7 processor, and 4GB RAM. The purchase price from Apple, including tax and shipping, was $1,075.90.

The RAM got updated to 16GB right away for a cost of about $120. A year later, the main drive, a slow hard drive, was replaced with an SSD for $150.

This little guy was not ever intended or used as a high-performance machine. It was used by administrative staff, primarily for business functions like bookkeeping, Word documents, and email, and later on as a scanning station.

This machine was in service for a total of 119 months. The total spent on the machine was $1,375.90. With 9.9 years in service, this machine's total cost of ownership was $138.97 per year.

2012 Mac mini - December 2012 to July 2021

This was a relatively low-end Mac mini, shipping with a dog-slow 5400RPM 1TB drive, 4GB of RAM, and a 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7. It was ordered in early December 2012 directly from Apple. With tax and shipping, the machine cost $848. I later added on a $162.50 Samsung 840 EVO-Series 250GB SSD and upgraded the RAM to 16GB for another $120.

This was another basic office machine, used mostly for writing, browsing, and business operations. This machine was in service for a total of 102 months. The total spent on the machine was $1,130.5. With 8.5 years in service, this machine's total cost of ownership was $128.46 per year.

2012 Mac mini server - February 2013 to July 2021

We bought this machine from Amazon instead of Apple. The only real difference in the Mac mini server models compared to the base Mac mini was that there were two hard drives included inside the machine. It came equipped with a 2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7.

I bought this to be a small, quiet media center machine. I installed Windows on the second drive. This Mac was used as a Windows machine for the first few years of its life.

It was purchased in February 2013 for $1,155.16 including shipping. There was no tax from Amazon. The Amazon order included a 16GB upgrade and an Apple SuperDrive (to play DVDs). I later added a $139.99 Crucial M500 240GB SSD.

This machine was in service for exactly 100 months. The total spent on the machine was $1,295.15. With 8.33 years in service, this machine's total cost of ownership was $155.48 per year.

2012 Mac mini server - April 2013 to July 2021

This is the second Mac mini server I bought back in 2013. I bought this specifically to be in the studio as a live video switcher and controller. It was used to record and manage video interviews as well as my webcasts. My studio space was very small, so the Mac mini was an ideal solution.

At the time, the most capable processor for the Mac mini was the 2.6GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i7, so that's what I put in it. I lived with two 256GB hard drives for a while but eventually upgraded it to another $139.99 Crucial 240GB SSD. It started with 4GB of RAM, but that got immediately upgraded to 16GB for an extra $130. We also bought another SuperDrive which never actually got used in the studio, but was moved to one of the other Mac minis.

This machine stayed in the studio until we left Florida in 2017. Once in Oregon, it became one of the three Mac minis we used in the family room for work, surfing, and conferencing. The total spent on this machine was $2,154.57. This machine was in service for 98 months or 8.16 years. The total cost of ownership for this video production machine was $264.04 per year.

27-inch iMac - November 2013 to July 2021

That brings us to the $4,041.78 27-inch iMac. In 2013, when I bought this monster, I was originally intending to buy a Mac Pro. But I wasn't impressed with the "trash can" Mac Pro (which was borne out by everyone who had it), and after much deliberation, bought a maxed-out iMac.

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It was a beast, with 3.5GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.9GHz, 32GB  DDR3 SDRAM, 1TB Flash Storage, and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M 4GB GDDR5 video. I intended to use this for all my processor-intensive work. At the time, I was running a ton of virtual machines doing network simulations while programming asynchronous website architecture code.

Another purpose was to replace my Windows machine, running Windows apps. I was tired of having two machines on my desk. Running Parallels virtualization, this iMac ran Windows apps faster than my previous insanely powerful Windows machine running Windows applications on bare metal.

Over the years, it was used to edit Premiere Pro multicam 4K video, Final Cut video, big Fusion 360 3D models, and more. Throughout it all, it remained my main development machine until I unplugged it in early July.

All told, the machine was in service for 92 months or 7.66 years. The total cost of ownership for what was probably the most powerful (and expensive) machine I'd ever bought was $527.64 per year.

The bottom line about the bottom line

I've owned desktop computers since there've been desktop computers to own. For my small business, I've usually had one maximally-equipped machine for doing development and high-end processor work, and a bunch of lower-end office machines.

As a general rule, my maximally-equipped machines lasted no more than 18 months before they needed upgrading. Most of the other machines lasted three or four years -- right on track with the PC average discussed at the beginning of this article.

But then I moved mostly to Macs (although I still have a few Windows laptops and a bunch of Linux servers). That super-expensive iMac lasted five years (not 18 months) as my primary machine, and it lasted another almost three years as my secondary development machine.

My previous main machines were generally about $3,000 each. They cost me about $2,000 per year to run -- costly, for sure, but these were the devices I used to make my living.

When I bought that $4,000 iMac, it was a kick to the wallet. But I needed to do both Mac and Windows work, so I took a deep breath and spent the money. I fully expected that it, too, would drop out of service in a couple of years. But, instead, it lasted almost eight years. It cost me roughly a quarter of the amount, per year, of the Windows machines I'd previously owned.

Also: Migrating to M1 Macs: How I'm upgrading my small fleet of older Apple desktops and laptops

That's why, when Apple started its move to the M1 processor and my 8-to-10-year old Macs were no longer upgradeable, I chose to do a full upgrade sweep. Sure, it's expensive. But I expect to have these in service for quite some time. And that means that while the cash outlay has been painful, the total cost of ownership will be, surprisingly, considerably more affordable than the equivalent PCs.

And that's not even counting the recently released Windows 10 PCs being obsoleted a year or two into their lives by Windows 11.

What about you? Have you determined your total cost of ownership for your Macs or PCs? Let's discuss it in the comments below.

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