I 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.
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.