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The “Macs Are Too Expensive” Debate: It’s Ultimately Futile

Microsoft (s msft) CEO Steve Ballmer set the proverbial cat among the pigeons last week with his contention at the McGraw-Hill Companies’ Media Summit in New York that Mac buyers pay a $500 price premium for merely a designer logo.

“Apple gained about one point, but now I think the tide has really turned back the other direction,” Ballmer declaimed. “The economy is helpful. Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment — same piece of hardware — paying $500 more to get a logo on it? I think that’s a more challenging proposition for the average person than it used to be.”

Perhaps Mr. Ballmer actually believes the only substantive distinctions between Macs and Windows PCs are the logo and the price. It would be politically incorrect for him to say otherwise, since the Mac’s most profound superiority is that it runs Mac OS X instead of Microsoft’s Windows OS.

In that very important respect, the never-ending controversy over whether Macs are gratuitously more expensive than PCs is futile, being an Apples and, well, PCs comparison. It is true there’s great commonality on the hardware component side between Mac and PC CPUs these day, which of course begs the question: “What’s so special about a Mac anyway?”

There’s the cachet of the Apple (s aapl) brand of course, and I suppose that’s important to some, but not especially to this longtime Mac aficionado. I would rank Apple’s sublimely elegant aluminum chassis designs far higher than the logo, but for me the key to Mac desirability and superiority is the operating system. The Mac is not just another PC. Only Macs can (legally) run the Mac OS (plus Windows as well), and that is huge, because the OS is the main course of the Mac feast for many of us, who would and do pay an admittedly substantial price premium — if not happily, at least resignedly — in order to benefit from the manifold superiorities of the Mac OS.

PC World’s David Coursey observed this week that “Many people will happily pay $300 to not be subjected to Windows Vista…” As long as Apple continues (sensibly, in their interest) refusing to license the Mac OS, the argument is moot as far as many of us are concerned.

That doesn’t make us mindless “fanboys,” but rather connoisseurs of a more elegant and hassle-free computing experience with a low tolerance for aggravation, who just want to get our work done with a higher degree of enjoyability and efficiency. PC World’s Coursey, a cross-platform user himself, observes, as many others have, that Mac users tend to be more productive than Windows users “because they spend less time ‘messing’ with the computer and solving (or not) various Windows hassles,” adding that “In a business environment, this saving of staff time can offset the Mac premium so quickly it will make your head spin. Ease-of-use saves money,”

There are many ways to parse “expensive,” with up-front capital outlay being a rather simplistic one. The real value arbiters are TCO, total cost of ownership, combined with the quality of user-experience, and in those more-complex contexts, the Mac is the big winner.

For example, I’m typing this screed on an 9-year-old PowerBook Pismo running what was Apple’s current Mac OS version a year and a half ago (ie: OS 10.4.11 Tiger), and enjoying still satisfactory performance for the things I do with this computer. Try running Vista (which was the current Windows version when OS 10.4.11 was released) on a PC laptop built in early 2000.

I do have an up-to-date Mac laptop, a 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo unibody MacBook with Nvidia GeForce 9400 graphics, and it’s great. I could have bought a similar-sized and powered Dell (s dell) or Acer with a lot more RAM and hard drive capacity for a lot less, but I’m not complaining. The MacBook has a look and feel reminiscent of a fine Swiss watch, and runs the Mac OS, which are attributes that are difficult to monetize in a pricing abstract, but they do represent substantial value added, in my opinion.

In this economy, I can’t fault anyone for deciding a Windows PC is a better fit for their budget in straitened circumstances, but as long as I can manage to scrape together the up-front cost, I’ll be using Macs, satisfied that I’m receiving value for the deeper wallet-siphoning.

47 Responses to “The “Macs Are Too Expensive” Debate: It’s Ultimately Futile”

  1. lok cheung

    why would so many people seems forgot that Mac use much better materials to build?

    and does design come for free?

    thinking of Mac is just same hardware with the logo, is like judging the book by the cover.

  2. j o h n n y

    i remember when mac mini g4 was 399.95 but then later on the prices kept going up. apple keeps their computer line simple and certain machines are aimed towards certain users. macbook for normal internet, email, etc etc, although its actually capable of many other (advanced) things as well. however people dont accept that, bc its 13.2″ its small, so lets actually get a 2000 dollar macbook pro 15 for emails and internet when its meant to be for higher end users. ive seen a grandpa buying a 17″ macbook pro and the sales person asked if the man wanted the ipod deal, he didnt even know what ipod is. the sad thing is the mbp wont be used for what it is capable for. so the imac is exactly what you need for a desktop, simple, is very very capable, but people don’t appreciate it b/c its all in one, they rather have the cheap machine that you have to put together. this is bc that are a significant number of users who want a tower so its expandable / upgradable. but apple dont have a mid ranged tower, see if apple did that, their sales of other products will go down dramatically. thats why the “macbook is the most selling machine” the price is right, it does it all, but just small. :) same thing if apple released a netbook, their sales of macbook pros would drop simply because grandpas and moms or simple users will never use its capabilities.

  3. noah d

    okay for people saying OS X is the reason it costs more remember OS X Leopard is only $130 – not $500 more.

    I think the main problem is the holes in Apple’s configurations. No mid-range desktop for example, and Macs are not customizable at all. You only get the crap that Apple gives you (with the exception of the iMac – I love my iMac!). Heck Apple can’t even price their own crap right (For example a 2.66GHz Nehalem Xeon processor costs MORE than 2 2.26GHz Nehalem processors). And $1000 to upgrade to 4 gigs of RAM?

    Less people would complain if there was say an $800 Mac with the specs of an iMac but just in a tower, or something similar. The $799 Mac Mini should drop to $499.

  4. I am getting tired of this price debate because no-one seams to be able to provide conclusive proof either way. I have tried to do my own comparisons but just give up because it gets too complicated.

    Perhaps the simple realty is that despite buying expensive, quality Windows hardware for many years, since I switched to the Mac 18 months ago the amount I spend on computers has skyrocketed. The Total Cost of Ownership argument does not seam to have worked for me.

    The ultimately question seams to be that if Macs are such great value for money, why don’t Apple sell far more of them? The answer I get from my friends is that they simply can’t afford them. So perhaps for the majority of people they are expensive.

  5. Garreth

    I love working on my Apple computers. I really do. But after building a hackintosh for fun and the experience I have been forced to concede that Apple does charge a premium. I will not speculate why, although I have my suspicions.

    Whatever the case, my $1,000 CND hackintosh performs -nearly- as well as my $4,000 Mac Pro. Sure, the Mac Pro is better built and is a lot prettier. But they both sit under my desk and I never see them. Given the fact that I buy a new desktop every 2 years, the “built better” part hardly seems like a moot point.

  6. All this hype about Mac being trouble free is a big lie! One fine day my Mac just didn’t switch on!!! I really don’t know what happened! Thanks god it was still in warranty. And I didn’t have to pay extra. They had to replace the “whole logic board” which wasn’t available in my country. So it was sourced for some other part of the globe took nearly 10 days for it to be fixed. Of course they were very helpful and all… but it did blow the myth of Macs being “trouble free”. I use both a Mac and PC although the PC is still running on XP! ;)

  7. Melissa

    I have used a Mac for about 20 years now and have very few problems with it and have generally been pleased with it. I like the fact that not only am I working on a computer that will probably outlast most PC laptops, but also the fact that there are few virus issues, if any, that come to Macs. True, there is a cache when you have Mac, but its a fairly reliable computer and I don’t see myself switching to a PC anytime soon.

  8. scott kasden

    I Blamer wasn’t so rich and powerful, it would be easy to write him off as a malignant Pilsbury Dough Boy. Still.

    Macs cost more because they are worth it.


  9. I personally will stick with Linux, OSX is nice, and Windows has more software that will run on it.

    Lets clear some things up.

    It is a violation of the license agreement, not illegal – Apple won’t give you support for it on your PC. There is no police officer that could/would arrest you for installing OSX on a PC. You might get arrested for downloading an illegal copy though.

    Windows – Software Company – trying to get on as many machines as possible (this might be very difficult given the open nature of PC building) can’t blame M$ for trying, but there is a reason they struggle to get things right.
    Mac OSX – Hardware Company – They want OSX to run on their machines. Easier to control, less vunerable, and thus it is a much more polished.

  10. A $500 premium for a designer logo? Us uber-elitist Mac people might pay a $500 premium, but we get GREAT value for that premium…far greater than any designer logo might be worth. Nice try…..

  11. I think it was stated in the first comment, but I’ll reiterate, but for the past several years the windows user experience was centered around things that the average user couldn’t care less about, or even comprehend. Namely viruses (wha?) and system organization metaphors (do you want a desktop shortcut? There are unused icons on your desktop), Start bar stuff in general doesn’t make sense, C drives? All these elements come to play when you use more than 2 or three programs, and outside of Outlook/Office, the way programs are used and files generated on Mac vs PC is night and day. Vista may have made inroads, but since IE 6 is still 23% of the browser market, most people are suffering with old technology and sub-par computing. Even Msoft must be frustrated they cannot provide value propositions since 2003…. Mac may not have all this sewn up, but most mac people aren’t using OS 9 with IE 5.5 for mac with Apple Works…

  12. @ Cad

    It’s probably a bit of bad luck; any support forum is always skewed towards the negative when it comes to reports about product (or service) satisfaction. Even if there are literally thousands of major complaints, remember that there are millions of satisfied owners out there (in the case of Apple products, anyway). Those people aren’t just going to drop in on the support forum to say their computer is working great, they’re too busy using it for whatever they bought it for.

    The other issue is, as Apple products go, that the traditional wisdom is to never buy the first generation of a new product. The unibody notebooks just came out and they’re still working out the kinks. I’m not trying to give Apple an excuse for your woes, but it’s just a proven fact that new products (especially from Apple) usually suffer from some quality issues. In general, I wouldn’t rate Apple above or below any other premium computer supplier, though. I’ve had my share of problems with my (first generation) MacBook Pro, but I had my share of problems with Dell’s, Sony’s and HP’s in the past as well. When people mention “Apple build quality,” I usually interpret this as meaning the design, fit, finish, and durability of the case, etc, not the reliability of the electronics. Also, early failures do not necessarily mean that you’ll continue to have the same frequency of failure over the life of the product — statistically, for electronics, failures usually happen in the first several months then infrequently until the product is several years old and things start wearing out.

    I wouldn’t expect better reliability from a Mac, but I do expect a better post-sale experience. The thing is that Apple does stand behind their products and is good about replacing/repairing defective ones. Just being able to take the equipment down to the Apple store and get it taken care of in 1-3 days rather than spending hours on the phone, shipping it out, etc is well worth the added hardware cost, if it exists, (and the cost of AppleCare). That said, if you don’t live near an Apple Store, the warning about buying first-generation products goes double for you.

    To address this article more generally, most of the complaints about Apple prices are from people who actually want something that Apple doesn’t make. If you want a 17″ laptop for under $1000 or an expandable desktop under $600 (or $2500 for that matter), sorry…Apple simply does not want you as a customer. Their success is based on creating products that appeal to specific (premium) market segments, and doing a really good job meeting the needs of those customers without adding anything extra. If they wanted to try to please everyone, they’d be Microsoft. And how many people actually like Microsoft? Having no other viable alternative does not mean someone likes your products. They’re just tolerating you out of necessity.

  13. I was a Microsoft developer for 6 years before switching to Java, and unfortunately i still have to use Windows in work. its slow, and painful to use, especially since our IT dept (PC maintenance) have all kinds of rubbish running on it to protect against the plethora of threats that exist. Friday afternoon is almost written off because the machine runs a full virus scan which brings it to it’s knees and there is nothing i can do about it.

    I was always the one my family used to come to to build/re-build/fix/upgrade etc. etc. their PC’s. Now, unless its a Mac, I simply refuse to offer any help. I recently persuaded my Girlfriend’s parents to buy an iMac after struggling for years with a terrible machine, followed by a better machine that ended up wriggled with malware despite being “protected” by Windows Defender and AVG. My Girlfriend’s sister has special needs and as a result can mis-type web addresses and we all know where that can lead!! so a Mac was the obvious choice. They Love it.

    My Girlfriend has this week upgraded to a Mac Mini from a G4 PowerMac (DA) which is about 8 years old and managing to run Leopard.

    Having built my own PC’s for years to save money, i now realise that its a false economy, I have no regrets paying £1600 for my MacBook Pro.

    Windows is one headache i can happily do without.

  14. j o h n n y

    remember when it was cool to have a mac b/c no 1 had one? well its not cool to have one any more b/c every1 has one. so just imagine if apple was cheaper. idk about that.

    again i think apple is worth every penny, the technology that goes behind each machine is incredible. everything apple does is innovative, new and there are not any like it out there. apple designs their product from inside out. and every little element in the design had a purpose. so its def worth it. people need to appreciate those things. if you dont then fine, go elsewhere. : )


  15. The arguments are stupid to begin with. The new Macbooks blow the doors off other laptops on the market if for no other reason than the build quality and weight. Sure it looks cool, but when it’s in my backpack, I like that it takes up minimal space, is light, and I know the battery is going to last. It’s got enough power to dance circles around a budget PC and cost me about $1500. I’ll gladly pay extra for the peace of mind that I won’t have to replace my laptop every 6 months.

    Even if the Macbook didn’t have OS X on it, I would have still bought it for the hardware. I’d just have installed Linux instead.

  16. @Joe

    I didn’t think about the “hidden” cost of free antivirus, but you are right. They do take up system resources and can slow down your machine quite a bit.

    Follow up to my first post:

    My post was mainly out of frustration. My limited experience has left me frustrated with Apple. I am wondering where this better experience is that I paid more for? I don’t mind paying more upfront but I have not seen the payout. How can I expect my hardware to be used years later when it has been shipped back to Apple three times in four months. That is why you see people continuing to debate the price.

    Is my case abnormal? Am I just unlucky? I am getting ready to buy a new desktop and had dismissed Apple because of my Macbook problems. Should I give Apple another try?

  17. A few months ago, my beloved iMac G5 (original model) died of its 14th capacitor attack (a common problem for this and other computers due to a bad supplier. Lacking the funds to purchase a new Mac, I did not foresee being happy to buy one of Ballmer’s Bargain PCs. What did I do? I purchased a not quite new (then) current vintage Mac Mini and an el-cheapo 19″ monitor. Along with the existing Mac keyboard and (sorry, folks) MS Mouse, I was back in business for far less than the cost of the Budget Ballmer. AND – I did not have to buy any new software or risk losing my data. How did I do? My Mac-in-a-Box solution is far faster than my brand new HP Compaq laptop that my employer has made available at the office. The screen is much larger. My young children vastly prefer it to their Toshiba laptop (very recent vintage, purchased by my estranged ex). And I’m very happy.

  18. Mac hardware vs generic pc parts yes Apple get a premium for their hardware, more reliable that’s to be seen. Lots of issues with the latest UMBP. The differnce is the OS, Windows vs OSX, I’ll pay a premium for OSX because it’s simply a better OS, less hassle, more user friendly. I have both, use both and prefer OSX for my daily computing needs.

    My time is worth something, and the hours of wasted time keeping a windows machine running vs after 2 years with 3 different Macbooks/MBP’s OSX wins hands down. I no longer waste my time with Windows issues, I simply USE my computer for what i want to do with it. Turn it on, enjoy it, turn it off.

    My latest UMBP 17″ purchase was compared to a couple of other 17″ models. I’ve had decent luck with Sony products in the past and spec for spec their 18″ model vs 17″ UMBP was within $300 bucks hardware for hardware. Their 16″ Model was a bit less but lost some features and resolution. There is always going to be a differnce but then again I prefer a unibody aluminim design at 6.6lbs vs a 2″ thick plastic case at 9+ lbs.

    Value comes in many forms. That is worth way more than $500 bucks to me.

  19. @Cad

    I will agree with you that the argument that Macs are “hassle-” and “worry-free” is a bit exaggerated. Apple hardware is not perfect. However, I can say from personal experience that I’ve had less problems with my two Macs than I’ve had with any single PC I’ve owned in my life, and I’ve owned quite a few.

    As for the cost of an antivirus: it’s not just the price. Antiviruses use quite a bit of system resources to run as well. You are correct, though, to point out that the cost of software cannot be figured into the debate.

    For me, it’s OS X and it’s the hardware. My iMac and MacBook have given me no problems, and they feel much more solidly built than any non-Apple hardware I’ve owned.

  20. CVBruce

    The argument is pointless. The end solution is not Mac or PC; Windows or Mac OS. It is that system which best meets the user’s needs/requirements. I know many PC/Windows users that are now looking for Macs because of their experience with PCs and Windows. They found that in the long run PC/Windows machines didn’t meet their requirements. And to be fair, I’ve seen people that have moved from Macs to PCs for the same reason.

    If price was the only consideration we would all be using computers made from parts collected at the local swap meet running a free OS like Linux.

  21. “Macs are more expensive at the register, period. There is no debate on that front.”

    I will happily debate that point. I have a Mac because it was $2,200 less than a comparable Dell. If not for that initial price difference, my former boss (who had ascended to the company presidency via accounting) would never have approved it.

    Now… does this mean that the cheapest Mac out there isn’t more expensive than the cheapest Ms Windows–based PC? Of course not. There is *definitely* no debate, on that front. But if you want the same features, the Mac is virtually always less expensive, and as my own experience proves, often significantly so. (The fact that I’m still using the same computer, six years later, is just gravy.)

  22. About a month ago, my Sony Vaio laptop’s motherboard fried on me after just 2 1/2 years. It always ran hot, as it had an Nvidia card in it, so im not surprised. I ran Ubuntu Linux on the computer and Ubuntu’s OS almost had me buying a new PC (Windoze certainly wasnt a selling point). However, my experience in trying to get my Sony fixed by Sony scared me away from PC’s forever. I ended up buying a new MacBook aluminum and I love it. It’s amazing that it has an nvidia card in it and yet it runs cool and quiet. Great engineering!

    I live in New York City, so it is great to have an Apple Store to go for tech support, rather than calling a stranger in India who knows nothing about computers.

    As for Linux, Im still using it on an old Dell Desktop and it does what Linux does best, speed up old hardware. To me, if Vista doesnt scare you away, the experience of having to trash a perfectly good computer after a short amount of time will certainly change people’s minds about buying “PC”. As someone said, you get what you pay for.

  23. Gazoobee

    Another point to include that doesn’t always get mentioned is the margins each company uses.

    The reason Windows boxes are cheap is that the vendors are operating on razor thin margins, whereas Apple’s margin is about 32% on everything. That’s why the prices are “high” but also why Apple is able to offer better quality products and a better experience all around. It’s the same argument as taxes. European taxes are higher, but you get more government service as a result. In the USA you don’t pay as much tax, but you are pretty much on your own for everything.

    The thing about all this that is *NEVER* mentioned, …. Microsoft’s average margins on it’s products????


    While Apple’s margins are actually pretty standard retail margins, it is Microsoft that is robbing the customer blind, just because they can. If there was competition and Windows was priced at a market value with similar margins to other software sellers, it would be maybe a quarter of it’s current price.

  24. Champs

    Yes, this debate *is* futile. It’s not that Macs don’t stand up to PCs at a given price point, it’s that there are several popular Windows system price points under $999, some of which do the job quite well, depending on your definition. Some people want their screen bigger/smaller, some people can’t live without a dedicated Delete key, some people just like having stuff festooned with stickers, switches, and lights. It’s all about choices — some for the better… some not.

  25. I wish people would just stop with the “worry free” or “hassle free” computing experience with Macs. Like the author of the article said, it is a matter of up front cost. Macs are more expensive at the register, period. There is no debate on that front. After you leave the store is when the debate can be carried on. Also, there are a lot of quality FREE antivirus solutions for PCs like AVG, Avast, Antivir, etc. So, people can stop saying that antivirus protection is an added cost to PC users.

    I have always been a PC user but I bought my first Macbook (unibody aluminum 13″) for my wife for Christmas. Since then we are now on our third Macbook because of hardware problems. All you have to do is go to the Apple support forums and see there are thousands of people with issues. Not really hassle or worry free when I am consistently wondering if my hardware is going to fail.

    However, I really like my experience with OS X. OS X puts Vista to shame and the increase in productivity is real (for me and my wife). Having said all that, if I could use OS X on someone elses hardware I would.

  26. The premium of adding Microsoft office should be noted – reduced on from£349.99 to £274- still extra money to shell out after purchasing the hardware, reducing the overall initial investment value.

    Plus the ease of use and the productivity that my mac provides and the pure enjoyment from using OSX is worth the extra pennies.

  27. You get what you pay for. For a small premium you get superior quality, a great user experience, worry free computing, and a machine that is eay to administer and where things just work. On the other hand my PC friends are always having virus issues and are needing to hire support to manage their machine … in the end they pay much more than mac-buyers.