Cost: Mac or PC? A Look at TCO!

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 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.

The Software

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.

Additional Analysis

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!

30 thoughts on “Cost: Mac or PC? A Look at TCO!

  1. Come on man. Even with Windows Vista installed, as a windows user you have a lot of free software available, which does not happen a lot with a Mac. Now, if you consider working with Linux as your operating system, the TCO goes way downer.


  2. There is a lot of free software available for the Mac, as well. And if you’re a power user, Linux is certainly a good option. I’ve got two Linux machines running as we speak. For people that don’t enjoy tinkering though, Linux probably isn’t a viable option. Trying to find the right device drivers (network, printer, etc.) that work on Linux can require quite a bit of time. So if you’re really to save money, Linux and free/open source software is a great route. But not if you’re looking to save your time.

  3. I am very surprised about that, Kirk, what linux distro you use? You still need to find drivers? or you bought some devices outside of earth?

    I have been installing Ubuntu 9.04 on so many machines with different hardware now, even with WiFi, they all have no driver problems, simply put CD in, keep clicking next and you are set, I never have to install any driver after 8.10.

    Besides, I am using Mac also, there are lots of free apps.

    But going back to the article, I like the points saying that Windows Apps are more expensive, this happens big time in enterprise world. Reason? simple, check with server edition! Mac’s server edition is cheap comparing to Windows server edition and yet Mac’s server comes with everything already where you have to purchase other stuff to setup Windows machines. .NET developers are paid cheap but they charge high for their software.

    Setting up windows machine take more time and effor than Mac as Mac is coming as-is, where for windows you have to do tons of compatibility test even though M$’s list may tell you it’s compatible; and when you find that it’s incompatible? They will point fingers to vendor’s driver!

  4. Andy,

    I believe most of the devices I’ve purchased are from this earth.:-)

    Perhaps Ubuntu 9.x is better. When installing 8.x on both a Dell and Gateway, I ran into two problems. First was wi-fi, which I finally managed to get working through a bunch of Linux commands that would seriously frighten most people. Second is wireless printing, which still does not work. I’ve not yet upgraded to 9.x. But maybe that solves some of the challenges I was having.

  5. I was a solid Windows user for over 10 years, followed by a split Windows/Linux setup for a couple of years before settling on a Mac. By FAR I have never had a more reliable system than a Mac. As a heavy user (software engineer for all three platforms) I prefer the Mac for everything. You can run pretty much any UNIX/Linux app on OS X, including X11 GUI applications, as X11 support is built in (optional install from the OS disc). I also do all of my .NET development on OS X, either using Mono or in a Window virtual machine depending on the project. One of my favorite cost savings with OS X is the upgrade pricing for the OS – Snow Leopard upgrad was a mere $10…

  6. I recently brought a Mac (13″ Mac book pro) and have been a user of windows for more than ten years.

    Of course i like my Mac a lot : The design is uncredible and for the price tag, i’d compare with a PC with similar design.

    For me the good design and quality (Unibody, very compact, Aluminum material, LED screen…) is worh 300$ – 400$ in itself. So the initial price comparison is much more “equals”.

    But your comparison is biased. If you pay for MS Office for windows, take it for Mac too. And i’ll argue that to be fair, just go the windows route and install MS window in your Mac, and buy the same software. Of course you can if you want. So software price will not help a lot. Most of the time my guess is your software price comparison is simply because theses software doesn’t have the same features.

    And many time, you can find free alternatives too. So why pay in the first place ? And for office use if i’d really have to pay for one, i’d choose MS Office because it’s the standard and i want to be able to make, load and save any file that my customer or clients could give to me.

    Another thing that i do not like for mac is that I can’t buy and build the computer I want. On any mac book, buying a quad core processor isn’t an option. The fact is that quad core processor exist for nearly two years… In fact in a Mac book, the processor can’t be changed or removed. If i’d gone the Dell route, for €1000 i’d have a computer with a quad core i5 and 15″ screen. And i could imagine change it one day for a 8 core processor… (As many today dual core laptop can be upgrated to at least core duo quad…).

    For 1400€ i miss that on the mac. I can’t even buy the core 2 quad by myself and put it on the Mac book pro.

    The problem is similar in iMac : Base price for iMac is not too expensive but :
    – There is only 21 and 27″ version. No 24″ version anymore (at least in europe). The price of the 27″ is so high, and i’d really like a 24″ but can’t commit myself to the price of a 27″.

    In a iMac, sure you can choose to go for the quad core route : If your buy the more expensive version with the 27″.

    On the oposite, if i just wanted a computer with a big screen and didn’t care about a fast processor, I’d have to pay for them, and pay 500€ more, to buy things i don’t need or care.

    You don’t buy a mac for the price. You buy a Mac for the design and the simplicity. You end up with good hardware (but not the fastest available) and beautiful object. And you still miss Windows compatibility out of the box… You need a VM or to use boot camp for that.

    Oh a side option : I choosed to include a 128GB SSD in my Mac Book Pro and i love it. It’s so fast and responsive. And no noise at all.

  7. this is a joke no one uses visio to draw this is biased. there is much more free open source software available for windows. I use openoffice and I use PAINT .NET to edit images. software purchased does not have nothing to do with the cost of ownership. software purchasing for users varies so much that its pointless to even measure that. most people develop for windows. most people look at the upfront cost and I dont understand why you skipped over the fact that the Mac cost $1000 more for similar hardware.

  8. paint .net was downloaded over 5 million times from download dot com and over 10,000 times last week. open office was downloaded 20,000 times last week and over 2 million times from one of its multiple download sources download dot com. I know people are using MS office more but I’m pretty sure that Paint .NET is under more use than visio. Also professional software that are developed for both platforms ie Adobe Photoshop etc costs the same for MAC and PC. So if a piece of software is important enough it will be available for both platforms at the same cost usually except for apple software and microsoft software cause they dont want you using the competitions platform of course.

  9. Some people have commented that Visio isn’t a popular drawing package – not sure I agree with that. BTW Paint.NET is an image/photo editor not a drawing package. There are free alternatives to Visio, but Paint.NET is not one of them.

    Anyway this isn’t a FOSS vs Commercial article, it’s a Mac vs PC article.

    For me Apple is all about the quality. My mum’s Sony Vaio 17″ laptop is less than 18 months old but the hinges that hold the screen on failed and it cost 100s to fix. That’s with a reputable brand on a top of the range model. A lot of the cheap end of the market laptops are simply built to fall apart.

  10. Nicolas – The reason I bought a Mac is so that I don’t have to run Windows, not so I can run Windows in a VM. But hey, if I do need Windows, the Mac will run it very well under a VM. In some cases, even faster than on a PC. And iWork offers most of what MS Office does. Why would I buy something more expensive when I don’t need it? Because it has the MS label? And iWork does a fine job of dealing with MS Office files.

    Thai – Not sure about the Dell with a 1080p screen. I couldn’t find it.

    DA – “…No one uses Visio to draw…” What? I sure hope they don’t use Paint.NET to draw. It’s photo editing software. Mac has photo editing software out-of-the-box (iPhoto). Gimp is good too.

    In fact, a lot of people on Windows draw using PowerPoint because the next best drawing tool is too expensive.

  11. Hey Kirk, two years ago bought a fully loaded ThinkPad. One year ago I bought a similarly loaded MacBook Pro 15″. Both actually cost about the same (Mac was a bit more). I was frankly surprised at how much software did not come with the Mac. Little things that only cost $20-50 but took time to find, install, update, … Examples? ControllerMate to deal with the screwed up Mac mouse acceleration curve. BetterZip cause, well the Mac zip handling functions bite. Mail Act-On because, no I don’t want my mail marked as “read” simply because I scrolled over it in MacMail. I spent 3 hours yesterday fighting with iTunes. On the PC there are loads of alternative music players that work. Mac, not so much.

    So the software game is really hard to measure. Sticker price is one thing, my time is another. PC software has its quirks, no doubt and granted I was “changing” so there were many things that were new but I figure I’ve spent a total of 2 weeks of time just getting basic stuff to work on the Mac.

    Aside from that, processor speed etc is interesting but I am so completely bummed by the Mac screen resolution. My TP had 1900×1200 in a 15″ screen. May 15″ MBP? 1440×900. That’s almost a 2x difference. Oh, and MS fonts beat the crayola Mac fonts hands down.

    So, I am still using my Mac and there are many things I like about it. I do wonder though…

  12. Hey Jeff,

    I haven’t had the same experience. I don’t believe I’ve purchased any software that you mention. Though I agree, the zip utility on the Mac could use some help.

    I’ve always found I spend quite a bit less time administering my Mac than the PCs I’ve owned. PCs seem to slow down as they age, and require some nurturing to keep moving. In fact, I got in the habit of scrubbing my PC every six months or so to stage it back to original condition…just to keep it performing.

  13. Regarding the article, here is my question:

    If you can get a PC with equal in their capabilities than Mac for half of the price and you can install OSX on your PC (intel). Is it really worthy to buy a Mac?

  14. Yes, there is free software available. Most GPLed software is available for both platforms.

    When comparing Mac and PC, I would go for a full apple and full microsoft, so no MS Office on my Mac, would be unfair.

    For the developers: XCode 3 for the Apple developers: Free! All free, no express and professional and ultimate, all just free. And it works for Mac OSX, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and Safari plugins. Yes Objective-C is kinda odd but then Microsofts part:

    Visual Studio, Comes in express and professional AND ultimate AND premium editions. Express is free, but has lots of limitations. Then all other 3 versions have their price. Excluding MSDN aint possible, so we result in prices between 800$ and 12000$ (VS2010). You can just use Express, i am not very sure how this works. Maybe someone can explain?

    Update to next version of Visual Studio Not-Express comes with the costs, again.

    About the PC-Mac comparing: mention the way better screens in macbooks, imacs etc than in windows-running devices.

  15. For me, as a blind user, mac wins hands-down. It is equipped out of the box with a feature rich accessibility suite of products. I can have speech or braille at startup, rather than after load, doesn’t studder like my former ubunto did locking and crashing, and I don’t need assistance to re-load should I do a stupid of my own making and bugger up the works. I can load my accessibility from the dvd. To get The admittedly nice screen readers to work with windows, and they are quite nice, I’m adding a$1000. to $1500 additional initial cost, and those lovely smas, which keep things current at between $150 and $300 a year. Love to opt out but blindness is manditory and opting out isn’t in the current contract:)

  16. Excellent article and unbiased perspective on TCO, Kirk. You hit the nail on the head. Overall, the TCO for both Mac and Linux are less if one includes the total realistic picture than they are with the incumbent Microsoft Windows. Speaking of intangible benefits, how does one gage the cost of cleaning up a viral/root kit infestation or an emptied bank account because a thief gained privileged information theft?

    Due to problems with viruses with Microsoft Windows, all variants, I purchased for my daughter a Mac laptop when she went to college.

    At home, all my systems except one are dual boot Linux Ubuntu and Windows. (My ASUS 4G Surf netbook uses Linux.) I use Linux for all Internet and E-mail activity. I only use Windows for games and for websites that can only be navigated and transacted because of Microsoft specific web content.

    One thing you did not mention, does not Mac include their Boot Camp boot manager, so one can also run Linux?

    Overall, Linux supports more hardware including legacy than Microsoft Windows. I have found that some hardware such as certain Microsoft specific wifi adapters, scanners, and All-in-Ones will not work in Linux, due to lack of specific drivers. Some wifi adapters will just not work using NDISwrapper and the Microsoft drivers or partially work until encryption is enabled. I ran into this problem with the TRENDnet TEW-423PI PCI card. NDISwrapper only worked in non-encryption mode, a definite security risk.

    However, these hardware issues are not a huge obstacle if one does a little research and selective purchasing to avoid incompatible hardware. For $13 US through, I bought a Sabrent PCI-G802 wifi which has native support in Linux. That solved my wifi problem.

    I like the overall better security of these Unix and Unix like operating systems, Mac OSX and Linux included.

    Regarding OpenOffice and fork LibreOffice versus Microsoft Office, I have found that for office automation software, that overall there isn’t anything I can’t do in those that I did in MS’s Office. I’d say that overall, given what most people do, OO and LO would meet 95% of user needs in both the working and recreational world.

    Keep up the good work with your blog, Kirk.

  17. $500 dollars PER UNIT is definitely not “slightly” more expensive. And every bit of software you mentioned has a 100% FREE Windows alternative.

    It feels like youre just blindly grasping at straws in a futile effort to justify wasting thousands of dollars for what is essentially just a brand name and a prettier plastic shell. Youre buying designer clothes, made in the exact same sweatshops as everyone elses Levi’s.

  18. I use a PC, and frankly I’m quite disappointed in the TCO.

    I find that the biggest component of my TCO is having to deal with flagrant mac fanboys all the time on the internet, who incite discord needlessly and groundlessly.

    I purchased a 3 year old dell Laptop from ebay for 235 clams. Rigged it with 8gb ram, and it has now been editing my video for 2 years, flawlessly.

    That means with no costs associated with EVER having to fiddle with AV software, which I don’t use and never have (and never had a virus). All I have is a third-party firewall. So, can you find a Mac purchase on the planet that beats my TCO? Nope. But I have people everyday who think that this can’t possibly be the truth.

    They’ve heard and read so much Mac propaganda, that they think that it’s normal to have service calls. I’ve never had a service call on ANY PC that I’ve ever owned.

    I’ve had three macs though. And no, I never serviced them. Lost a motherboard on one, which could happen to a PC, but more than that, my Macs could never do the same video and Photoshop work that my PC’s have done. The macs were all too slow, or just froze so often that I eventually made service calls moot, because I drove over one of my macs it was so frustrating.

    So, I factor my gas in to my cost of Mac ownership. And that’s both gas in my bowels and gas for my car. And so should other Mac owners, because they’re going to spend gas money bringing their little darlings to the “geniuses”.

  19. Wow this was incredibly bias. You didn’t factor in the cost of buying antivirus software for the mac, and yes macs can get viruses they are not impervious. Also you made the pc buy expensive drawing software that is not necessary and you could find a cheaper option. And for some reason you think that Microsoft office is free on mac.

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  23. Nice article, and more accurate than not. As stated the comparison is complex. As one commenter whined that MS Office for the Mac would cost more and should have been selected. Fair enough, what does an iLife software set for the pc cost? As noted the unibody construction and robust design are value as well. Truly equivalent pc laptops actually cost more. As for the dude that thinks he’s building his own computer, are you changing out the chipsets too? Not likely, optimum design doesn’t leave latitude for easter egging the components. I’ve known for a long time Mac’s are cost effective. I just retired my eMac (early 2000 vintage), No one uses pc’s that long. My new iMac will be inservice twice as long as the equivalent dell laptop my boss provides. That really blows the sides off the TCO discussion, doesn’t it?

    I remember when the PC world was blasting Microsoft when they introduced Vista. Microsoft demonstrated vista on a macbook with bootcamp. Ran very well, and so ended the drivel from the rabble. Make no mistake about it, You get what you pay for.

    To writer, nice job! Very fair portrayal, you didn’t trash the pc side, you gave a reasonable assessment. Thanks.

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