Category: PC vs Mac

PC vs Mac: WiFi networks and 5 GHz WiFi

WiFi_symbol_smallWhile not strictly a piece about PCs vs Macs, it does involve a similar struggle with networking gear and Apple compared to other brands. It might also be of interest for those switching to 5GHz WiFi or those having similar problems to mine with their current WiFi network. 

Some many months ago I got tired with my WiFi dropping connection every now and then or having to restart one of the routers every couple of days. Well, actually I grew tired of it a long time ago and over the past 3 years or so I was replacing a lot of network hardware. It is important to note that all the problems were with the WiFi network. The wired network provided by the very same devices worked like a charm, no matter what brand. When the WiFi went down or didn’t allow devices to connect or dropped devices randomly, the wired network still worked like a charm.

What really happened those months ago was me moving to a new place and realizing how much network equipment I have amassed over the past 2 years. More than a dozen network devices such as routers, switches or access points from various brands like Netgear, Cisco/Linksys, D-Link or TP-Link. Before I moved to the new place, my network situation has improved in the end. But it hasn’t really changed as the same problems were still plaguing me, just by far not that often.

To some extend the improvement came from the new network hardware, but to be quite honest with myself, I have to admit that some of the improvement also came from just not connecting so many devices via WiFi as I might have wanted to.

The thing I have noticed over the years is that the more devices I connected via WiFi and especially the more of those devices worked with different standards (b/g/n), the more frequent the problems were. So I just stopped doing that whenever viable and connected as much via Ethernet cables as possible – I know, that’s one hell of a solution to a problem…

I tried a lot of things over these 3+ years like getting rid of all the cheap hardware replacing it with better, top of the line SOHO models and in the last stage having all network equipment from one brand. First it was D-Link and then TP-Link.  I switched from D-Link to TP-Link because the later was easily available to me and also supported the odd 3G modem I had as backup for my regular internet connection. Other than that, I noticed that the TP-Link routers had slightly better WiFi range than their D-Link counterparts, at least at my place. However, WiFi range wasn’t of concern to me in the old place. It was in the new place though.

The old place of mine was your typical flat. The new one however is a flat with two levels, with the large living and working area, kitchen and one bath downstairs and bedrooms and another bath upstairs. Downstairs and upstairs are connected by a fancy spiral stairs construction almost in the middle of the area downstairs. It’s great, looks really nice, but the way it is built there is just no way to connect everything with cables without some serious construction work or having network cables destroy the nice look of the place.

This means that for me WiFi now went from being a means of connecting phones and tablets to something I have to use also for some of the notebooks and possibly even a desktop or two. For me, that is a scary thought, considering my WiFi troubles and the fact that I’m a firm believer in network cables. And to make things worse, there were trice as many WiFi networks in my vicinity than in the old place.

To give you a better understanding of what that means: in the old place, my main router’s WiFi signal quality wouldn’t drop below ‘good’ at any spot in any room. Measuring with WiFi Explorer that means that at the worst spot I had well above 50% signal strength where the signal had to go through 2 walls.

In the new place, the same router’s WiFi had a ‘poor’ connection at barely above 50% mere 8 meters away without any obstacles such as walls in the way.

The WiFi connection upstairs was so bad, I would be better off using post pigeons for sending data. I kid you not, I tried to stream an episode of a TV show in SD and it wouldn’t work. Copying a 1GB file took I don’t know how long, but I managed to get downstairs, make coffee, get out on the balcony, smoke a cigarette and get back up upstairs only to see that the copying process barely passed the 1/3 mark. And just to top the misery off, various of my devices dropped WiFi multiple times during the first day.

You see, at the old place when a mobile device could not connect to the WiFi until I restarted a router wouldn’t really have been a critical thing. It could still connect to the other router and get its weaker, but still solid WiFi signal as I had WiFi enabled on two routers. And even if that failed, all my mobiles have extensive data plans and I could have just let them run on 3G, because nothing I did with them most of the time really required to be hooked up to my network. It was just me being a bit anal about it and wanting my stuff to work as intended.

In the new place however the situation changed drastically when some of our notebooks or even a desktop or two would have to work on WiFi. I just can’t imagine to have my notebook drop its WiFi connection while working away from my desk.

I needed to solve the problem and solve it properly. Shouldn’t be much of a problem for a guy with enough decent, quite recent networking gear to network a not so small office, right? Guess again.

The two strongest routers when it comes to WiFi signal strength at my disposal were D-Link’s DIR-655 and TP-Link’s TL-WR1043ND. Both are 3 antenna designs, but the TP-Link came with modified, better antennas and in the old place it provided a stronger signal than the D-Link. It was no different in the new place, except that the TP-Link’s advantage was even bigger. Still, the signal strength I mentioned earlier is the one from the TP-Link and that after I chose the least occupied channel. Mind you, least occupied channel is a very relative, if not meaningless term in this case, as in this vicinity there are more than 30 WiFi networks and the interference is excessive no matter which channel you use.

Dual band with two WiFi networks on separate bands (one on 2.4 GHz for the older devices and one on the 5 GHz band for the devices that really matter) and both networks extended with 1 or 2 access points on each floor looked like a good solution to approach the problem. WiFi Explorer and iStumbler have shown that I am surrounded by a metric ton of WiFi networks, but all of them operate on the 2.4 GHz band. There was not a single WiFi network working on the 5 GHz band.

Since dual band routers costs a lot more than 2.4 GHz ones here and there is not a single major internet provider in the country that provides a dual band router with their internet connection, that doesn’t come as a surprise. Hell, 5 GHz WiFi is such a rarity here, most of my friends who are IT professionals or software engineers don’t even think for 1 second about 5 GHz when you mention WiFi to them. They are hardwired to think WiFi = 2.4 GHz. They know it exists, but they don’t think about it until you point it out.

I myself never bothered with dual band WiFi before either, because I had no need for it. I didn’t need the increased speed, because I only connected mobiles or netbooks via WiFi and the later ones I actually started to connect via Ethernet more often than not. Until then, I haven’t connected a notebook or netbook via Ethernet for years.

With the WiFi trouble at the new place, my thoughts went to 5 GHz WiFi right away to get the hell out of the overcrowded 2.4 GHz band where most WiFi devices and networks are. It’s also the spectrum where Bluetooth, microwave ovens and lots of cordless phones and RC controlled toys operate on… you get the idea about how much interference I’m talking about, right?

However, 5GHz WiFi has one problem that I knew I would be facing: it has less WiFi range than 2.4GHz, at least in urban and in-house environments. 5 GHz waves just aren’t that good at penetrating obstacles such as walls, ceilings, doors or furniture for that matter. Still, at that point anything would be an improvement over the sorry state of my WiFi situation.

Going 5 GHz did pose another problem: I had no 5 GHz or dual band routers. 2.4 GHz and wired connection I had nicely covered, but not a single piece of my network equipment was capable of running on 5 GHz. The old stuff because 5 GHz wasn’t really around back then and the new stuff because I haven’t bothered with dual band as I didn’t need it. Another scary thought hit me a second later: how many of my computers are even capable to connect to a 5GHz WiFi if I had one?

Last, but not least, there is still the issue of the WiFi problems that plagued me in the old place. Beside solving the 5 GHz issue, I also had to eliminate the WiFi drops and router restarts. And I knew the later ones would be a more frequent occurrence considering how many devices I now needed to connect via WiFi.

When it comes to computers capable of 5GHz WiFi, the situation turned out to be not bad after all. Our notebooks are MacBooks Pro and Air and they do 5 GHz. None of the PC desktops are capable of 5 GHz, but that’s no surprise since they just don’t have WiFi at all. I haven’t really thought about earlier, since WiFi on desktop is still to date close to non-existent. I would have them connected via gigabit Ethernet downstairs and upstairs we would go with our Mac Minis since they handle 5 GHz WiFi and are pretty silent (most of the time) which the PCs are not.

Our netbooks however didn’t do 5 GHz and what’s worse, we were still using the Samsung ones occasionally. Neither did our iPhones nor the tablet, so the 2.4 GHz band would still be used extensively.

That left me with the WiFi network itself. I had a quick look at the usual suspects (read network hardware manufacturers) and they all offered a couple of dual band routers. A phone call to my favorite hardware store painted a bleaker picture: they could order any of them for me and I could collect them in 2-3 days, but if they don’t have hardware there already, it would gets tricky with returning hardware they had to order on my request. Then there was another problem: have you noticed how most reviews of routers on the net and in printed media are useless when it comes to providing actually relevant information as how they perform, especially when it comes to dual band? Half the stuff I have been reading about the routers I looked at from TP Link, D-Link and Netgear didn’t even mention if the stuff they wrote was for the 2.4 or the 5GHz band. So basically I might have as well flipped a coin or just go by the feature set and the looks of those devices.

Which actually brought up another interesting issue. Having lived in the new place for a couple of days already I had time to get the lay of the land, the networks around me, the signal strength in various configurations etc. I also had time to establish the best spots for the routers. One was downstairs at my desk and the other by the dining table.

WiFi_Airport_ExtremeSo far so good, but there was one problem. I am as geeky as the next guy, but putting a router at the dinning table is too much even for me.  Let’s face it: proper routers with good signal strength and lots of nice features aren’t exactly lookers. Some look nicer than others (i.e. the more expensive Asus dual band gigabit routers or TP-Link’s N750), but at the end of the day they are just some boxes with questionable design, shitloads of blinking lights and in most cases 3 ugly antennas sticking out (Netgear’s R6200/6300 weren’t available at that time yet).

The smaller ones that were smooth with lights hidden away and not looking like much, especially not like a piece of network equipment, were usually simply too weak or lacked important features or in most cases both.

Constructing some enclosure that would hide the “ugly” ones without affecting thermals and especially signal strength would be another approach, but quite frankly I couldn’t be bothered. I know from past experience that doing it right is something that gets complicated, time consuming and turns out to me just another major headache very quick.

At this point I started to look at Apple’s network devices such as the Airport Extreme. They don’t look like much which is a good thing and they don’t have batteries of blinking lights or antennas sticking out everywhere. However, when I see a router without antennas, I get worried about the signal strength, because from my not so tiny experience with various home and SOHO routers there was always one common thing: no antennas = shitty signal strength a room or two away. Still, the Airports had one thing going for them: they were from Apple. Wouldn’t mean a thing to me a year earlier, but since then I got a MacBook Air and we liked it and its operating system so much that my girlfriend got a MacBook Pro and we got a couple of Mac Minis since then and were converting pretty much everything to Macs by that time.

With that pleasant experience in mind I decided to give Apple a chance and read up on how their network devices perform.

The first hint was the name: Airport Extreme. I mean using ‘extreme’ in a product’s name would fit pretty much every hardware vendor in the world, just not Apple. But after a couple of hours reading it was pretty clear to me that these routers are indeed serious gear that have a chance to perform very nicely. They are also simultaneous dual band, meaning they can run 2.4 and 5 GHz WiFi networks at the same time. A minor argument for me, since I already had more than enough 2.4 GHz routers, but if you start fresh or have cheap hardware, that’s something to take into account. The reason I mention it is because, as so often, the Apple stuff comes with a higher price tag. Like twice the price of a comparable router from D-Link or such.

Since most of our furniture downstairs is white the looks of the Airport Extreme and its color were sufficient for me to justify its price – provided it would offer satisfying performance on the technical sides of things.

I didn’t care about the ease of use, because when you do your networks for 2 decades you already went through so much crap when it comes to how to configure that stuff, it doesn’t matter any more if it’s a bit nicer or not. For someone who isn’t into networks and doesn’t even know the terminology, the ease of configuration on Apple routers is a serious advantage. Actually it solves one of my problems: whenever some of my not so tech-savvy friends call me about their WiFi networks, from now on I will tell them to get an Apple router and be done with it. If they can’t configure that one, they shouldn’t use computers in the first place – yes, Airports are that easy to set up.

Airport Extreme it is. I decided to order one and if it really works out that nicely, then I would get another one. When it arrived I first hooked it up at my desk and then tried it at the dinning table. I will spare you the details about configuring it using Apple’s Airport Utility, because there are more than enough well made guides for that on the net. I will however mention one important bit: OS X Mountain Lion comes with a new version of Airport Utility, the app you use to configure Airport routers. There is however an older one: Airport Utility 5.6 that you might want if you intend to tinker around with the router and have a look at all available settings. Most people won’t need it, but when you know your way around networking a bit, you are also likely to know the bad feeling one has if you don’t see all the options no matter if you need them or not.

It has been a while now since I switched my networking gear to Apple and despite the price, it is something I can only recommend. In the meantime I sold the Airport Extreme and bought a 4th generation Time Capsule that already has an Airport Extreme built in. However, the signal strength dropped by 2-3% compared to the Airport Extreme, but that’s rather negligible. Both the Airport Extreme before and the Time Capsule now perform admirable. As a matter of fact, they both went on my desk and to my surprise I did not need a second router for the 5 GHz band.

While the 5 GHz signal upstairs is only around 40% when connecting directly to the Time Capsule, the network speed is still a lot better than with 2.4 GHz at around 85%. I would have not imagined that. I got rid of all the other network devices except a simple TP-Link 4 port switch to have some of the desktop Macs and PC wired downstairs via Ethernet (as the Aiport Extreme/Time Capsule only has 3 LAN ports) and the TP-Link  TP-MR3420 that I use to connect my USB 3G modem into for a backup internet connection. WiFi on the MR3420 is disabled though, but it still occasionally causes trouble and needs a restart (like once every two weeks).

After all the trouble I went through with my collection of network devices, I still can’t believe that a single router is able to run my entire WiFi network on all its own and does so without external antennas.

For a couple of weeks my entire network was reduced to the Time Capsule, the MR3420 and the 4 port Gigabit switch and I had no trouble getting with my WiFi no matter what room I was in.

On 5 GHz the speed goes from around 22 MB/s while at my desk down to even 7 MB/s in the furthest possible spot. Upstairs where we have another desktop the speed is 13 MB/s. That’s not bad for WiFi considering these are real world numbers measured based on copying a mix of small (from 10MB upwards) and large files (up to 4GB).

While satisfied with my WiFi’s performance on 5 GHz, the 2.4 GHz performance was still bad. It was better than expected, but in some remote areas of the rooms upstairs very troublesome nonetheless. I solved the problem by supplementing the 2.4 GHz band with an Apple Airport Express router that is located upstairs and extends the Time Capsule’s WiFi network.

WiFi_Airport_Express_oldI went for the discontinued model that plugs directly into the power outlet. I like that design as I don’t need to find a place to put the router on.

These older ones, while dual band, can’t do both bands simultaneously, unlike the Airport Extreme or Time Capsule or the new Airport Express introduced in 2012. You have to select the band or rather, which is the only downside I discovered, the network you want them to expand. By default they choose the stronger signal which in my case was 5 GHz. I however needed to expand the 2.4 GHz band as it was too weak upstairs. The workaround is to use a different network name for 5 GHz on the Time Capsule/Airport Extreme and then set the Airport Express to extend the 2.4 GHz network. Don’t worry, all your computers and devices will still act like they are on the same network.

Airport Express, both old and new, comes with another nice touch that got me intrigued and I learned to appreciate with time: AirPlay. You can plug your speakers into the router and stream audio from any device connected to your WiFi. The audio jack is analog and optical, like so often found on Apple devices.

After such a long time I had finally no trouble with my WiFi despite having more devices connected to it then ever before and the number is still growing. I don’t know what Apple does differently in their routers than D-Link, TP-Link and others, but it works. I did at some point hook up my TP-Link WR1043ND to test something and as expected it was bad. While on Saturday its WiFi performed properly and the 2.4 GHz signal was around 20% stronger than the Time Capsule’s, it oddly enough wasn’t reflected by actual transfer speeds over the network. The difference was within the error margin. On Sunday the trouble started though and I had to reset it twice to get its WiFi going. Since we use those routers at the office too, I switched one on Monday and brought it home just to be sure mine didn’t go bad. It was the same: by Monday late evening the phones couldn’t connect to the WiFi and the router needed a restart.

If someone asks me today what network brand to use at home, my answer is pretty obvious, despite the fact that Apple’s Airport routers are quite pricy. The tiny Airport Express costs $99 while the Airport Extreme is $179. The 2TB Time Capsule is a staggering $299. But you know what? When I consider how much I have spent on cheaper routers over the past 2-3 years (that didn’t even worked properly), even the $299 looks almost like a bargain.

Mind you, when it comes to routers it’s not all nice and shinny in Appleland. There is no denying that other brands offer more features, more variety, more ports etc. Apple does not make the best routers out there, not by far. However, for a SOHO environment in my experience they offer all you need and they do work reliably and that triumphs every other feature in existence. Maybe one day I will actually figure out why they work so well while others don’t, but for now I’m just glad they do.


PC vs Mac: Macs are overpriced

PC vs MacI already wrote recently about the PC vs Mac when it comes to upgrades I figured I might as well follow-up on the topic and write some thoughts about the most common argument in the PC vs Mac discussion: price. My view on this topic is a mixed bag of pros and cons. I also don’t agree with some of the supposedly valid arguments like Mac’s longevity. I am however getting sick of the “Macs are so overpriced” arguments I am having so often. I will just write my thoughts on the subject and redirect friends and co-workers to this post instead of further wasting time on that discussion.

 Apple customer ordering in a fancy restaurant: “I’d like exactly the same as last time, just a bit more expensive.”

Are Macs overpriced?

I remember not so long ago I wouldn’t even think for a second before replying with a ‘yes’. But since I actually bought some Macs, I am far away from a simple answer. Yes, Macs cost a lot. There is no such thing as a cheap Mac, but does a high price tag by definition mean that something is overpriced. I think some people either confuse these two terms or are just too shortsighted or narrow-minded to really grasp the big picture.

I often hear how overpriced the iMac is. It isn’t cheap, that’s for sure, but why is it overpriced? I remember having a very heated discussion on that topic with a co-worker in November last year and we sat down and looked up the specs and price of an all-in-one 27” Dell. I had no clue what they cost, but I figured they would be like $300 cheaper and I could make the argument of better build quality on the iMac’s side to compensate for the difference. Imagine our both surprise when we discovered that a similar spec (the Dell had a slightly worse GPU) was $200 more than the iMac. Needless to say we checked twice and went on to compare the local prices. That actually turned out to be further in favor for the iMac as local dealers offered them even cheaper.

Since I am already on the topic of the iMac: the argument that a tower PC with way better specs cost like half the price never gets old. This one really cracks me up on multiple levels. First and foremost is the fact that people try to compare a tower PC with an all-in-one. This is a comparison that is deeply flawed. Components and production processes with these form factors are just too different to allow for a 1:1 comparison.  It’s a bit like comparing prices on 4 door sedans, picking one and going to the dealer and telling him you want it as a 2-seater convertible and you’d like it rear wheel drive rather than front wheel drive.

Then there is the matter of displays. I can’t count the times when friends slap $120 on top of the PC’s price for the display. I’m sorry, but this where I am losing it. 24” vs 27” is just not fair on any level. What’s next? Comparing the Mac Pro to a netbook because, you know, they are both computers?  Size aside, I spend at least 12+ hours in front of screens every single day and the quality of the monitor does make a hell of a difference. Comparing a bottom of the stock cheap display with the displays Apple builds into its products renders the entire comparison useless. Go for a HP or Dell 27” with similar quality as the Apple display and suddenly things start to look quite different when you discover that the display alone accounts for 30-40% of the price tag of said PC.

However, as so often, there is also a different side of the argument to be made. It isn’t really the buyer’s fault that Apple does not offer a consumer oriented tower Mac. So while the all-in-one vs tower comparison is flawed, it is not entirely unreasonable when comparing PC and Macs on the surface. However PCs are not equal and people seem to often forget that as well.

Build quality

This brings us to quality. PCs are not cheap. They can be cheap, very cheap actually, but when you buy a PC with quality in mind you will quickly notice how expensive it gets. I believe a lot of people seem to forget that and orient their opinion based on bargain deals in their local mall they see advertised on billboards while driving to work.

I used to build some of my PCs myself and the difference between those and the ones I have bought already build from respectable shops is significant. And you do notice the difference a couple of months down the road very quickly when your PC suddenly starts to act up because of a cheap power supply or fans start to make very unpleasant noises. You can’t put all PCs into the same basket, they differ in quality a lot.

Just look at things as basic and simple as the case your PC goes into. You can buy a case for $20. But you shouldn’t. I’m not saying you should go for the high-end crazy stuff, but you should settle on a good quality level. I personally like the Fractal Design cases a lot. Those will already cost you around $120. And it is the same thing with most of the parts that a PC is made of. Stupid things like fans can range from $5 to $150. Graphics cards? You can buy a graphics card with the same GPU and amount of RAM for let’s say $200, but you can also buy it for $400. Same cards on the surface, but the quality and the small details make the difference. You get the idea.

Want to see build quality independent of your PC/Mac preferences? Replace or add another hard drive to a Mac Pro. The craftsmanship and quality are astonishing. Makes the Fractal Design cases I like feel like the $20 stuff 😦

What it boils down to at the end of the day is: if your PC is built using cheap parts, all you get are specs. But the quality of the PC will render these specs meaningless very quickly and you won’t be able to use the PC for very long without pouring more money into it or you just buy another one in the hope the new “brand” will be better.

Macs last longer

And so we made it to another topic worth mentioning. Because of the build quality of Macs it is often argued that Macs last so much longer than PCs. It’s hard to argue with that one for me, because I look as used Macs a lot more now. Although I do have some very old PCs and notebooks (my Toshiba Portégé notebooks spring to mind with the 7020CT still working just fine) I do have to admit that Macs of the same age just hold up better and are clearly in a better shape. When it comes to longevity Macs just win, even compared to PCs that were initially as expensive or even more expensive than the Macs.

However, I personally find this argument deeply flawed, too. Take a PowerBook G4 for example. Since being on the lookout for one I have seen quite some and they were in pretty good shape. They clearly outlasted their PC counterparts, but what for? The hardware made it, but it got rendered obsolete by the software.

Support for PowerPC based systems has been widely dropped. Apple itself cut many of these Macs off in 2007 with Leopard and all of them in 2009 with Snow Leopard. Flash? Nope. iCloud? Nope. Updates? Nope. Recent software in general? Nope.

Yes, the hardware lasts, no question about it. But it just doesn’t count for much. And it would be prudent to keep the past in mind – your top of the line Mac may end up in the same spot a couple of years down the road as well. Recent case in point: AirPlay Mirroring. A great feature introduced in Mac OS X Mountain Lion (mid 2012) it does not support Macs older than early 2011 models, in some cases mid 2011 models. Let this sink in: your barely 2 years old iMac or MacBook Pro/Air already shows first signs of being outdated. Quite frankly, if I would have bought my Mac a couple of months earlier and would now not have Airplay Mirroring I would be, let’s put it mildly, disappointed.

Macs hold their value

The PowerBook G4 might have been rendered obsolete, but it doesn’t mean you can buy one for peanuts. Macs do hold their value. This becomes immediately clear when you look up the prices of 5 years old PCs and Macs. The PCs tend to go for peanuts while looking at the prices for Macs you often end up with a large sign saying “WTF?!?” filling your mind. Yes, even old they are expensive. That means they do hold their value. While the PC you just bought for $1500 will be worth $300 on eBay 2 years down the road (if you are lucky to actually manage to sell it), your $2000 Mac will still find ample buyers for $800. Travel that road further to 5 years and you will be looking at $50 vs $500. It might look like madness, but that’s how it is.

Towards the end of 2012 I figured I should sell all my PCs and just buy a shinny new one with all the bells and whistles. Since I moved to Macs I don’t need more than 1 PC anyway. Long story short: if I would sell all 5 of my PCs (the newest being 2 years old and the oldest 4 years old) I would not be able to buy a new one that is significantly better than my 2 year old gaming PC.

On the Mac side though, things look different. Just for the “fun” of it I looked up the prices for my Macs and if I would just sell both my Mac minis and my Air I could easily buy a new iMac or Macbook Pro.

So if you look at the financial aspects and look beyond the price tag on day one, Macs look a lot better than PCs. I still can’t explain it, because quite frankly the value of used Macs is just not reasonable in my opinion, but that does not change the facts. Last year, when I was all wet behind my Mac pricing ears, I figured – just for the fun of it – I get myself an old Mac Pro to play around with. The first Mac Pro dating back to 2006. I looked up the prices on eBay and the cheapest Mac Pro in an only somewhat reasonable condition in basic configuration was $450. That’s a 7 years old computer! I was quite shocked to be honest. A new one costs $2500.

What is overpriced, really?

One of the most common overpriced Apple products I hear about is the Apple Thunderbolt Display. “$999 for a monitor? Are they [Apple] insane?!?” is the most common one. I am using the display as example also for another reason: I am currently in the market for a 27” display and am looking what the market has to offer. I have various displays from Dell, NEC, Samsung and HP here ranging from 20” to 24”. These are the 4 brands that convinced me over the years (except Samsung recently) so I started to look into what these companies have to offer.

Now, a Dell U2711 is $750 and a Dell U2713HM even $650. Apple’s Thunderbolt Display is $999. All three really are great monitors. While there is an argument about build quality on Dell PCs, from my experience their monitors are superb in that area. All have the same size, same resolution and “same” display quality – although for professional photography the U2711 is supposed to be even better than both other choices.

I personally would be very satisfied with the cheaper Dell U2713HM. I have seen it last week next to a Thunderbolt Display and I couldn’t spot a difference in panel quality even if my life would depend on it. And the Dell is $350 less than the Apple display. Actually, I prefer the Dell for two major reasons: 1) better connectivity with HDMI, VGA, DVI and DisplayPort and 2) a lot better adjustability and pivot. Granted, the Thunderbolt display looks really beautiful on a desk, but it is not like the Dell is a sore sight either.

On top of that the Dell comes with USB 3.0 ports as opposed to USB 2.0 ports on the Thunderbolt Display (although it is safe to assume Apple will bring out one with USB 3.0 soon) and a 3 year guarantee. While I am a sucker for nice looks, $350 difference for the looks and taking into account all the advantages of the Dell are just not reasonable on any level. The verdict here would be clear: overpriced! Or wouldn’t it? We only covered a part of the story. Let’s look at the whole picture.

The Thunderbolt Display comes with built in speakers that really aren’t bad and FaceTime HD camera. Those two are not useful to everyone, but they are there. If you want to hook it up to a MacBook Pro or Air (like I do), you don’t need the camera. If you have proper speakers on your desk already, you don’t gain anything from the built-in ones either. On a side note, Dell offers a sound bar for their monitors at around $45.

The Dell shines when it comes to connectivity. But there is one thing it is missing among its connections: Thunderbolt. That is all the Thunderbolt Display has. As a pure display, the Dell in my opinion is clearly the winner and the Thunderbolt Display can be seen as overpriced. But the Thunderbolt Display is more than just a display. When you are looking at a display for your MacBook, things start to change in favor for the Apple display. In this scenario the Thunderbolt Display also offers a docking solution. You get power supply, FireWire 800 and gigabit ethernet. Suddenly we come to realize that in this scenario it isn’t $350 more just for nice looks.

Just for the sake of a 1:1 comparison let’s add an camera and speakers to the Dell and throw a Thunderbolt docking station into the mix, i.e. matrox DS1 at $249. That sums it up to around $980 vs $999 for the Thunderbolt Display. The Dell still wins with connectivity, adjustability (unless you VESA mount your monitors anyway) and guarantee. On the other hand, the Thunderbolt Display is a neater solution, looks better and there is the matter of Thunderbolt connectivity itself. Since this is the usage scenario I am actually looking for right now, the Apple Thunderbolt Display is actually pretty good value. So much that I haven’t decide yet which route to go.

Here is an interesting bit of information to add to the ‘overpriced’ argument: one of HP’s ZR2740 models (XW476A4) uses the same panel that is being used in the Thunderbolt Display. The cheapest I could find was $899 + shipping and it comes with DVI and DisplayPort only. Add just the matrox DS1 to that and suddenly Apple is cheaper than HP. What did the world come to?

Apple router for $179 when you can get a good one for $40? LOL” would be the next one on my list of stupid overpriced discussions, but I will safe that one for another day since my opinion on networking gear for soho usage and cheap vs good value would be even longer than this post already is.

It would be a similar case to the display or the iMac or any other Apple product for that matter. When you look at the whole value picture when it comes to Macs, you will very often realize how deceiving the overpriced argument is. I believe people who make that argument just look at the price tag and don’t look at what they get in return for that price.

I intentionally left out Mac OS X vs Windows vs Linux, because while an important factor for sure, it wanted to focus on the value of hardware.

PC vs Mac: PCs are so easy to upgrade

PCvsMac_1Having many friends and co-workers being quite perplexed with my sudden switch from PC to Mac makes for a solid basis for stupid PC vs Mac arguments.

Beside a Mac’s price the PC’s upgradeability seems to be the most common topic. I really can’t count the times I have heard that one…in the last month alone.

It usually goes along the lines of “When my game runs slow, I just buy a new graphics card. When my software struggles, I buy more RAM or faster RAM or replace the CPU. If I need more connectivity, I just pop in a new card and have the ports I want. I don’t need to buy a new computer for that.

It’s hard to argue with a PC’s potential for upgrades, at least on the surface. Just look up any video tutorial about upgrading RAM on a 2009 Mac Mini or swapping a HDD on an iMac on YouTube. Upgrading anything, even something as simple as a graphics card on a Mac? World piece is child play in comparison.

However, there is another side to the story. The whole PC upgrade thing only works within a certain time frame and a lot of people seem to forget that. Want to swap your graphics card and upgrade memory on a 6 years old PC? Go ahead and let’s have the same talk afterwards. I strongly believe most people providing the “easy upgrade” argument for the PC have actually never upgraded an older PC before.  When they mention they can swap their old Core2Duo or first generation i3 for a speedy new i7 you just know they are full of it.

What people seem to forget is that not only CPUs and GPUs change as time passes by, but also sockets and chipsets change quite often. Remember getting a new PC with socket 1156 only to see socket 1155 being introduced shortly after and rendering all your upgrade plans useless?

While on the surface the PC upgrade argument is true, reality isn’t all that shinny as people would like it to be. There is no question that a tower PC is easier to upgrade than any Mac except the Mac Pro, but when your PC gets older and actually needs an upgrade, you often find yourself with basically buying a new PC…or wishing you bought a new one.

When I bought my gaming PC I didn’t look what is coming onto the market next. I didn’t have the time as I needed the PC immediately and quite frankly I couldn’t be bothered. I had more interesting things to do at that time than spending hours and hours on the net researching the topic. I went for the good stuff that was available back then and that was a bit over 2 years ago. If I wanted to upgrade that PC today all that would be left are its case, power supply and some of its drives. And if I am perfectly honest with myself, the case should be replaced, too.

Then there is the matter of threating all Macs the same and not making a difference between desktop and notebook. I often hear the upgrade argument from people who talk about a desktop PC, but all the PCs they use are notebooks.

A couple of months ago I wanted to max out the RAM on my MacBook Pro 13”, replace the HDD with a SSD and replace the DVD with a larger HDD. This was the first time I opened up any Mac and it was a simple and painless procedure. Ordering the drive bay and an USB enclosure to use the DVD as external drive took a lot longer than actually upgrading the notebook. Shortly after a friend of mine liked that idea a lot and went on to do the same upgrades to his Samsung notebook. Getting to his RAM and HDD was an ordeal that took the better half of the day and until today he didn’t find a drive bay allowing him to replace his optical drive with a second HDD. Needless to say at least he won’t bring up the upgrade argument again…

Yes, ‘Macs’ and ‘upgrades’ are not the best words to be used in the same sentence, but the reality of upgrading PCs is often miles away from the shinny picture people try to paint. Something to keep in mind when deciding between a PC and Mac.