Measuring the Cost of a Computer

I was all ready to crank out a heavy work post when this item in my Reader caught my eye.

Should You Pay Twice as Much for a Mac?

I love this type of title because it captures attention by being potentially controversial, and of course, it references Apple. Good tech news writing always drives traffic through the Cult of Mac. Plus, the author dangles a question, instead of an answer, to make it more interesting.

The crux of the article centers around the following research from NPD.

I think NPD refers to the NPD Group, but it’s not entirely clear. Also unclear is what additional context is presented beyond the table. Anyway, these figures leave a lot of unanswered questions about the research and how it was conducted, but setting that aside, they offer good fruit for conversation.

Especially in light of the recent discussions we’ve had here about the virtues of various O/S.

I think we can all agree that when you buy a computer, you’re paying for the software; hardware is a commodity. Maybe not entirely interchangeable when comparing Macs to Windows, but close enough.

The differences between O/S make the cost argument interesting; combine that with the intended user’s skill level with computers, and you get a really interesting cost analysis.

As someone who uses each of the main flavors of O/S on a daily basis, I’m fascinated by this debate because there are so many variables for cost.

  • Who’s the primary user and what level of skill does s/he have?
  • What’s the intended use for the computer?
  • What other software is required/recommended to keep the O/S clean and functional, e.g. anti-virus and anti-spyware software?
  • Who’s the first line of support and how much does it cost to get support?
  • What comes included, both hardware and software, and what is an upgrade? Who installs the upgrade?

Another interesting talking point is the speed of the Interwebs connection. People frequently say a computer is slow, when they mean that web pages are loading slowly. Your super fast 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Quad processor looks like a dog when you’re loading Amazon over a dial-up connection.

Factor in all this (and more), and it’s really hard to get a single answer. Obviously, I was willing to pay double for a Mac, but it fit my requirements. I’m not really a fair example though, since I also paid half for an XP box, and paid $0 to use Ubuntu.

And by the way, it sure would be nice to see a Linux distro on the list. If cost is the primary factor, the question should be, “Would you pay for and O/S?”

What do you think?

Focusing on out-the-door pricing seems too narrow to ask such a broad question. It would be very interesting to see a comparison of expected full costs (not just OOTB) for each of the major O/S.

Find the comments.




  1. You know, there's a TCO consideration missing here. A brief story to make my point (and apologies for what will certainly become a long-winded comment): Back in the heyday of Windows 3.x, I lived next door to a guy hooked on his Apple Mac (might even have been an Apple II – I just remember it seemed like an old system). He'd had the Apple box for some time and planned to keep it for several more years – in fact, I think he was using Jazz as his apps package for spreadsheets, word process, etc. (it's been a while, so my recall may not be entirely accurate). I went through Windows 3.0, 3.1, 3.11, 95 and 98 while we were neighbors. I also went through three hardware upgrades (because, shades of collusion, each O/S pretty much compelled me to buy new hardware to support it). And each time I upgraded, I excitedly called over my neighbor to show off the nifty new features in an attempt to prove that the Windows PC environment had finally passed up his Mac. And each time, after I showed off my costly new bells and whistles, my neighbor patiently demonstrated that his Apple system could still do anything my new system could do (with the caveat that it's all about the output – the niftiest power tools don't do a carpenter any good whatsoever unless it allows him to build stuff faster, better or cheaper; ditto with computers. They're a means to an end, not an end unto themselves). I suspect that, over this time period, I spent a whole lot more than my neighbor without any real comparative gain to show for it…he'd win the TCO comparison while at least matching my system's functionality.

    So did I convert to Apple for my computer systems? Nope, I just prefer the Windows PC platform at this point. It's like an old truck…there are better and newer trucks out there, but I'm attached to what I already have. But I also know that, over time, the frequency of required software and hardware upgrades makes it seem like I'm still paying a higher TCO than many of the Apple system users.

  2. Good story and important point: the type of user determines the cost analysis. You know Windows. For you, buying a Mac costs more in terms of relearning stuff in OS X. So, Mac would likely be more than double, even though you're a clever guy who could figure it out quickly.

    This is great fodder for debate though. I can't actually decide what I'd recommend to a brand new user b/c it's highly dependent on the purpose. The Eee PC does most of what most people want from a computer, but still, they buy too much computing power from some well-know Windows vendor or from Apple.

    It's a great discussion, especially among the highly geeky reader/commenters we get.

  3. Don't know about the US, but in Australia when you buy a 'Windows Desktop' you may just buy the system box if you already have a decent monitor. Or, even if you buy a monitor, you may choose a small cheap one or a large expensive one, and because of that choice, it may not be counted as part of the “Desktop” purchase. So I'd be wary about the desktop comparison unless there's something to confirm that only purchases including a monitor are included and there I would disagree with the “you’re paying for the software; hardware is a commodity” statement.

    Laptops are a much better comparison. I guess there's a lot of volume at the low-end of the laptop range and I suspect that a lot of people aren't in the “they buy too much computing power from some well-know Windows vendor” category. They are buying the cheapest machine on the shop floor (probably out-of-date, old tech, discontinued and using parts that don't meet the quality standards of the premium products).
    I know if/when I'm looking for a machine for the kids to use for school work, a $500 laptop will probably be the result.

  4. “I think we can all agree that when you buy a computer, you’re paying for the software”

    There is absolutely no way I'm going to buy a 14″ dim-screen notebook that weighs 6lb (check the HP site for more details about this model). I spent a lot of time with the computer to sacrifice back and eyes, so that puts me out of the $800 category. I'm also very unlikely to buy a discontinued model, so can't benefit from the $200 discount you get when the stock gets retired.

    So that puts me in the $1,500 price bracket at the minimum, where Apple, Dell, Sony and others start selling their quality machines. I'm even more picky about screen quality, weight and construction, which lands me in the unfortunate $2,500 category. That's a long way from the Wal-Mart $500 PC counter.

    First factor in calculating TCO is the hardware I run: eyes, back, fingers.

  5. Honestly, desktops are a non-starter for me anymore b/c I only buy laptops. We have no way of knowing what went into the desktop numbers, which as I noted, seems a bit odd. The accompanying research was missing from the graphic.

    Anyway, glancing at assaf's comment, I can see he too takes issue with the h/w statement. I stand by that assertion b/c the long-term costs associated with support are s/w costs. Vendors will replace faulty h/w, and you don't hear as much about tweaking the h/w to run faster. Sure, maybe people like us add memory or disk aftermarket, but that's not a hidden or support cost IMHO.

    For your $500 laptop, you'd probably have the luxury of putting any O/S on there, by any I mean Windows or Linux. So, the pricetag wouldn't necessarily include the O/S, and even if you went Windows b/c it was already on there, you'd have the chops to reinstall, reimage, etc. Not everyone has that level of support. So, $500 to them doesn't include support by a computer-savvy father.

  6. Interesting. I hadn't thought of these concerns, which are glossed over the by the seemingly apples-apples (no pun intended) comparison. You do get more from the Macbook h/w.

    My statement focuses on the important differences btw the s/w on these machines that are lost when you go with a price comparison.

    I like your point. I'll have to use that when I get my next Mac. Although, I think my wife is an OS X convert by now. So, possibly moot.

    Thanks, good stuff.

  7. Yeah, I agree with the comments about hardware not necessarily being a commodity.

    When I bought my macbook pro – I would have been fairly open to buying a non-apple laptop and running linux on it. However, my criteria included:
    <li> 15″ display, with graphics card powerful enough to drive a 30″ 2560×1600 monitor
    <li> no more than about 6 lbs weight
    That was enough to narrow it down to the mbp (which has about 3 hours battery life), or an alienware laptop that reportedly got about 45 minutes of battery life.

    Now, maybe my requirements aren't that common, and this was 8 months ago, so the landscape may have changed, but I went through a very similar process when I bought a 12″ ibook about 4 years ago.

    Certainly every laptop I've bought, the decision has been primarily made on hardware considerations rather than OS.

  8. The common thread here is h/w requirements driven by experienced users, and as in assaf's case, a fair comparison of h/w tells a different story when comparing Win and Mac.

    I also agree w/his assertion that the “research” was thrown out to troll for commentary.

  9. I'm suprised that I'm not hearing more discussion similar to what happened to my father. He outgrew his “webtv” and we decided to get him an windows computer. I will not say the brand but one might be interested to know that it rhymes with hell.

    After several months of serious problems (motherboard replaced 2x) and no customer service, I gave up and got him a mac. In the end I needed him to have a computer he could take somewhere and talk to a human when he got lost/confused. That ended up being the TCO discussion for me.

  10. For a lot of us who are asked to fix relatives' computers, supportability is a big selling factor. Although it's tough to explain why they should pay more for a Mac, everyone wins at that end of the user spectrum when they listen to you.

    Even though I do find the Genius Bar a bit annoying, since most people who walk up are assumed to be total n00bs, they usually are successful, and yes, I do eavesdrop just for my own edification.

    The problem here is that price alone is a terrible measuring stick for a computer. Assaf makes good points about h/w and the bare minimum that is quoted for Windows. O/S considerations are huge; support is a big deal.

    So, I guess as a talking point, it's a fun comparison, if nothing else.

  11. when buying a computer we should always opt for choosing a system with good configuration and not the best because performance difference doesn't a normal computer user.

  12. What do you mean by “good configuration”? Configuration includes h/w and s/w. I'd argue that a normal computer user should use a Mac, due to its ease of use for n00bs. However, Macs tend to have/require higher performance h/w.

    I'm not clear on what you're saying.

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