I’ve owned Macs for about four years now. I use them daily. One of the biggest complaints I hear surrounding Macs is that they’re more expensive than their PC counterparts. This recent article in CIO examining total cost of ownership (TCO) for businesses using Macs left me wondering. For personal use, are Macs really that much more expensive than PCs, especially when factoring in TCO? Unfortunately, it’s not so black and white. Let’s look at some numbers.
For this little exercise, I’ve decided to compare sample TCO over a period of time (ie. 2 years) for a Mac and a PC. This includes the initial purchase cost, ongoing support costs, and software purchases. It does not include any personal time that you would need to devote to maintaining and managing the device, such as reinstalling the operating system, cleaning up unused applications, dealing with anti-virus software and configuration, and general troubleshooting tasks.
I’ve made my most valiant effort to present an unbiased view and have arguably given favor to the PC. It would have been easy to close the price gap much more quickly if I were to toss in a few not-so-easy to measure items, such as the likelihood that you’ll have to take your PC to a professional to have it saved. But I’m sticking with hard numbers; the stuff that’s easy to measure. Let’s get started.
The Initial Purchase
I picked two models, fairly equal in their capabilities – a Dell Inspiron 15 and a 15″ MacBook Pro. When purchasing the Dell, I had to configure it so it had specs equal to the Mac. Let’s look at purchasing and configuring the Mac first.
The MacBook Pro
The 15″ MacBook Pro we’re going to purchase comes already loaded, so we aren’t going to make many customizations to it. We’re going to go with the entry level model, which prices out at $1699. The general specs include a 2.53 GHz Intel Core 2 duo processor with 4 GB of RAM. All we’re going to do is increase the hard drive to 320 GB, which adds $50 to the price, and purchase iWork, which adds $49 (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote). For those not familiar with iWork, this is what we’ll use on the Mac instead of Microsoft Office.
Total price for the MacBook Pro: $1798.00.
The Dell Inspiron 15
Keep in mind that the Inspiron is under Dell’s “Home” category. What this generally means is that it comes pre-loaded with a whole bunch of useless trial software that expires in either 30, 60, or 90 days. After that initial trial period, you’ll have to purchase a license to continue using it. For a business, you’d probably purchase the Latitude to avoid all of this unnecessary garbage. To keep the price down, I’m going to go with the Inspiron 15. See…told you I was giving favor to the PC!
To get a somewhat even comparison, I’m going to have to customize this thing to bring it up to equal specs as that of the Mac we’re going to purchase. The initial cost of the base machine is $499. But without any further customizations, that machine doesn’t offer much horsepower. First, I’ve got to add a Core 2 duo processor clocking in at 2.53 GHz. This adds $225 to the price. We do need the wireless -N card, which adds $40. Why would this not be standard? Odd!
Next is Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, which adds $119. We need this if we want to create spreadsheets, documents, or presentations. I recognize I could have gone with OpenOffice, but I find that most people choose Microsoft Office, so that’s what I’m doing here. Since we’re running Windows, we need anti-virus software. With the Dell model, there’s an option to purchase a 36 month license of McAfee. I’m going to jump on that because it only adds $40 to the price.
At this point, we’re finished with the Dell. There are a few things we could have done to even out the playing field a bit more. For an additional $45, we could have upgraded to the 9-cell battery that would have given us up to 8 hours of battery life. Keep in mind the Mac has a battery that gives us about 7 hours. Additionally, the version of Microsoft Office we purchased doesn’t come with Outlook, so we’ll still need to find an e-mail client once we get our laptop. But I just couldn’t see spending another $160 to purchase the Small Business edition that comes equipped with Outlook. The Mac will have Mail.app preinstalled for us, which is a nice e-mail client with Exchange integration. Already, the cost of software licensing is a sign of things to come that’s going to factor heavily into TCO.
Total price for the Dell: $883.
While these are each good machines, to get great things done requires software. Each of us have different needs surrounding the software we use, so I’ll offer up a few samples based on what I use. It won’t take long to get a clear understanding of the significant impact this has on TCO. Choose your own software stack, and see how it adds up. Then, let me know if you’re findings are consistent with mine.
First, I want to purchase software that allows me to create some nice drawings. For the Mac, I’m going to purchase OmniGraffle, which comes in two versions, standard ($99.95) and professional ($199.95). For Windows, Visio is a good option, which also comes in two different versions, standard ($259.95) and professional ($559.95). Let’s go the cheaper route on each. This brings the total price for the Mac to $1897.95 and the price of the Dell to $1082.95. Note: If I had purchased the professional version of each, the TCO at this point would be 1997.95 and 1382.95, respectively.
Next, I want some screen capture software so I can create some short training videos for online publication. For this, we’ll use Camtasia. The Mac edition of Camtasia prices out at $99.00, and the Windows version comes in at a rather lofty $299.00. TCO for the Mac is now at $1996.95 and the Dell is at $1381.95.
See a pattern developing here yet?
Keeping this post at a reasonable length, I’m only going to make one more purchase. At some point throughout my time as owner of one of these wonderful products, it’s likely that a new version of an operating system is going to arrive. And I’m going to want to upgrade. When Snow Leopard for Mac hit the market, the cost to upgrade was a paltry $9.95. Alternatively, the price to upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium comes in around $119.95. In fact, a full license of Snow Leopard is only $29.95. A full license of Windows 7 Home Premium? $199.99! Again, the pattern is developing. TCO for the Mac is now $2006.90, while the Dell is at $1501.90.
At this point, the Mac is still slightly more expensive. But an initial price difference of $1200 was quickly dwindled down to just over $500 by the time we were finished. Clearly, the stark difference in the initial price is quite different from TCO. I could easily keep going, purchasing software that I want and need, and each time find that the Mac edition of the software comes in priced far below the Windows version. But I think I’ve illustrated the pattern here. The cost of software for Windows is more expensive than corresponding software for the Mac, and throughout the lifetime of ownership, TCO for Windows will approach, if not exceed, that of the Mac. For instance, Apple offers the option of purchasing a 5-license family pack of iWork for a mere $20 more than a single copy. A 5-license copy of Office is going to be quite expensive ($595).
Additionally, I have not broached the subject surrounding the time you’ll spend maintaining the Windows machine to keep it running smoothly. In four years on a Mac, I haven’t devoted any effort to tuning the machine for performance. It just works. After about six months on a Windows machine, I find that I’m always tinkering with it to maintain optimal performance. Since I can’t put an accurate price tag on this, I haven’t discussed it. But it is significant. Ok, I’m a little biased here, aren’t I?
Finally, I could have gone with the 13″ MacBook Pro with the exact same specs (just a smaller display) as the Inspiron 15 for an entry price of $1448.00. And the 13″ Mac is a great machine. After purchasing the software I want, the price for the 13″ Mac comes to 1656.90. That’s only $155.00 more for the Mac!
The Clear Winner Is…
The winner…you decide! All too often we compare Mac and PCs based on initial cost, failing to factor in the longer term TCO. When comparing Apples-to-Apples (errr…I mean PCs) though, the difference isn’t as stark. If you want a low end machine with a short lifespan, Dell (and many other PC manufacturers using Windows) offer this, including their line of netbooks.
It is possible to purchase a Dell for under $500. But remember, you get what you pay for. And side-by-side, machines of equal horsepower and capability are going to result in similarly equal TCO. By the time you spec out the machines evenly, and factor in TCO, the price of a Mac is arguably equal too, if not less than, that of a Windows PC. Either way, I know what my choice is!