The Mac mini 'smoke screen'

Don't let your Macintosh friends mislead you as they have been misled. In an educational setting where client needs are as diverse as their experience levels, the Macintosh is not a cost-effective general-purpose computing solution. No amount of "Windows-on-a-Mac" propaganda will change that.
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor

I just finished Chris Dawson's piece, My anti-Mac bias rears its ugly head,  and it bought to mind a friendly discussion I had with one of my colleagues just yesterday about my favorite 'red herring' -- the perpetual claim that the Mac mini is Apple's answer to entry-level computing.  Of course, this red herring is a circular argument that goes something like this ...

(First, let me freely admit that now that Apple uses Intel processors, and has invested significant sums of money supporting "Windows-on-a-Mac", that Dell and HP price-points are nearly identical to Apple's when comparing hardware, ahem ...  "apples-to-apples".  {8^)

Windows guy: 

"I can buy a decent dual-core Dell system with Windows Home Premium on it for under $600."

Mac guy: 

"You should buy a Mac mini for $599 instead."

Windows guy: 

"If I want to add an Apple-branded display, mouse, and keyboard, it'll cost me more than for a new iMac -- and the iMac is more powerful.  Besides, for $600, the Dell comes with a 20" monitor and keyboard/mouse, just like the iMac."

Mac guy:

But you can use the monitor and keyboard that you already have.

Windows guy:

I need new ones anyway -- and they are included with the Dell.

Mac Guy: 

"But the Mac mini has better graphics."

Windows guy: 

"Dell's graphics card upgrade is only $50 and the Dell has twice the HD space."

Mac guy:

"But the Mac mini has better multimedia software."

Windows guy:

"I don't need to do anything with multimedia except tweak some photos and listen to music and watch videos.  Windows Home Premium does everything I need."

Mac guy:

"But, but but ..."

And so it goes. 

The bottom line is that if you have very specific needs which can be better served by a Macintosh, buy a mid-range Macintosh and you will get your money's worth.  (Not so much with the entry-level Mac mini.)

As a consumer, you may want to buy more than you need today so you can put off your next purchase a year or two.  If however, you are an IT professional, especially in a setting like education, where funding is tight but predictable, establish a life-cycle, determine your life-cycle needs, and buy based upon your needs.  Expect your needs to lead you to a mixed-platform environment.  If you identify a single-platform solution, someones needs are not being met.  In an educational setting, letting anyone's needs go unmet is a disservice to our educators and to our children. 

That doesn't mean buy more than you need today, that means buy what you need today but buy with upgradeability in mind.  Don't need 2 GB of RAM  today?  Buy 1 GB today but leave expansion room so you can add RAM as your needs change (and RAM prices drop).  This applies to hard drives and other components as well. 

Apple has selected its markets carefully and it is to their credit that they can compete price-wise in the markets they have chosen to pursue -- especially considering their very low unit volumes compare to Dell and HP.  Nevertheless, Apple does not compete in the entry-level commodity marketplace -- largely because they don't want to, but also because they cannot afford to at their sales volumes. 

Chris is correct, the Macintosh is simply not cost-effective as a single-platform solution in an educational IT setting.  Yes, Boot Camp and Parallels make Macintosh more attractive in environments where dual-platform capabilities are a requirement in roughly equal measure but this is not the norm. 

I may not agree with Chris on universal Linux services as a suitable replacement for the wealth of Windows-based software available to our educators today but he is entirely correct that Macintosh is not the one-stop answer for education, where the diversity of instructional needs cannot be met by any single-platform solution.

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