The Mac mini: Comparing Apples and Oranges

For years, people have criticized Macs for being more expensive than Windows PCs. Although at one time that was the case, those of us in the know realized a couple years ago that when you look at comparably equipped Macs and brand-name Windows PCs—that is, once you add the hardware features and software to a Windows PC that come stock on a Mac—the differences in price are much smaller, if they exist at all. This aspect of “price comparisons” has been lost on many tech pundits and analysts (as is the fact that Macs generally come with an excellent software bundle unmatched on budget PCs).

Now, to be fair, one of the rebuttals to the above argument has always been, “Well, what if I don’t want all the extra features that come stock with the Mac? What if I just want a cheap, limited computer?” And it was a valid point. But with last week’s announcement of the new $499 (see Best Current Price ) Mac mini, Apple undercut that argument something fierce. Now Mac users, too, can get a stripped down computer for a lot less money.

But it was only a matter of time before someone would argue, “It’s still not price-competitive with the cheapest Dell.” And within days we’ve got our first such columns and articles, all of which leave me scratching my head, wondering if these guys are as bad at comparing products when they shop for themselves as they apparently are when comparing products for their columns.

The first one I came across can be found at the popular online investment site The Motley Fool (fool.com); it includes this shot across the mini’s bow:

Mac fans who’ve been sipping Steve’s Kool-Aid have often claimed that price—in addition to various Microsoft conspiracies—is the only thing keeping the masses from switching to their favorite brand, but take heed. Even if that were true, a quick online check shows you can get a comparable, full Dell system for $450...I’m also pretty sure Ma and Pa Kettle can do the third-grade math that escapes the headline writers for now, which shows the cheapest Mac system you can build around this thing is still 78% more expensive than a comparable PC.

(I’m assuming the “78% more expensive” comment refers to a system with a $999 Apple display and a $58 keyboard/mouse bundle, ignoring the fact that the Mac mini can also be used with the least expensive such peripherals on the market—a savvy shopper could get a 17” CRT, mouse, and keyboard for ~$70.)

Another, similar, comparison comes from InfoWorld’s “Tech Watch” blog:

Let’s look at the stats and see what you get and don’t get.

Mac Mini, $499, 1.2GHz processor, 256MB RAM, 40GB hard drive, DVD-ROM/CD-RW...What you don’t get are a monitor, mouse keyboard.

For $399 [from Dell] you get a 2.4GHz processor tower with 512MB RAM, 40GB hard drive, CD or DVD ROM drive, and a 17-inch monitor, a keyboard and a mouse.

ExtremeTech puts it the most succinctly:

Let’s not get too carried away about the “cheap” Macintosh. It’s cheap relative to past Apple systems, but you can still get a complete Wintel system for considerably less.

Can you? I decided to find out, using everyone’s favorite budget PC maker, Dell, as a point of comparison.

First, check out the Mac mini’s specs below—not bad. Then take a look at the specs of the cheapest Dell desktop we can configure on the Dell website, the Dimension 2400—currently “starting at $399 (after 10% discount)”:

Mac mini Dell Dimension 2400
$499 $399
1.25GHz PowerPC G4 processor 2.40GHz Intel Celeron processor
256MB RAM (supports up to 1GB) 256MB shared RAM (supports up to 512MB)
ATI Radeon 9200 (32MB dedicated VRAM) Integrated Intel Extreme Graphics (uses system RAM for video)
40GB hard drive 40GB hard drive
Slot-loading Combo Drive (DVD-ROM/CDRW) DVD-ROM (read-only) drive
One FireWire 400 port no FireWire
Two USB 2.0 ports USB 2.0 (assumed--Dell doesn't list this in the specs)
10/100BASE-T Ethernet 10/100BASE-T Ethernet
56K V.92 modem 56K PCI Data Fax Modem
AirPort Extreme- and Bluetooth-ready No wireless
Audio out Integrated audio
Operating System: Mac OS X 10.3 Operating System: Windows XP Home Edition
Software: Stock OS X apps, iLife '05, AppleWorks, Quicken 2005, Nanosaur 2, Marble Blast Gold. (Not to mention TextEdit, which has limited Word compatibility.) Software: Internet Explorer, WordPerfect, Paint Shop Pro Studio trial, Photo Album Starter Edition, Dell Jukebox, Acrobat Reader 6.0
One-year warranty 90-day warranty
No display 17-inch Dell E773c CRT display
No keyboard/mouse Dell keyboard/mouse

The Dell includes a monitor—worth $45, according to Dell—and a ~$20 keyboard/mouse bundle. So let’s take those away to make the Dell “equivalent” to the Mac mini and give it an even better apparent price advantage: $334 .

Now, look hard at those specs—do these really look like “comparable” computers to you? Let’s take a closer look at what $334 really gets you from Dell as compared to the $499 Mac mini:

  • The Dell comes with 256MB of RAM, but it’s shared between the computer and the video card. Dell says that 32MB to 64MB of that RAM will be used by the video card, leaving you with 196MB to 224MB for the operating system and all applications (even though the company recommends 512MB to 1GB if you want to “run several programs at once or plan to edit photos"). Dell says that the 2400 can only be upgraded to 512MB, still shared, but readers claim the limit is actually higher The Mac mini includes a video card with dedicated memory, and you can upgrade the Mac mini’s RAM to 1GB—contrary to rumors around the Internet, Apple has told Macworld that you can even do it yourself without voiding your warranty “unless you break something when you open it.”)
  • The Dell includes a DVD-ROM drive that can’t burn anything. To be able to burn CDs, you have to add another $18 for an upgraded optical drive, but then you lose the abililty to play DVDs. Want to be able to do both? $53 for an additional optical drive—Dell doesn’t offer a combo drive. In either case, you need to add another $26 for the RecordNow Deluxe software if you want to do anything but the most basic CD burning. The Mac mini includes a combo DVD/CD-RW drive, as well as a number of easy to use tools for burning audio and data CDs.
  • FireWire? Not an option on the Dell. Standard on the Mac mini.
  • The Dell comes with a 90-day warrantly, compared to one year from Apple.
  • The Dell runs Windows XP Home Edition, a feature-limited OS. (I’m not talking Windows vs. Mac here; I’m talking Windows XP Home vs. Windows XP Pro—Pro is a significantly better OS than Home, but it isn’t even an option on the Dell.) The Mac mini comes with the same OS found on Apple’s high-end hardware.
  • Software? The Dell gives you a word processor, trial or starter versions of two apps, and Dell Jukebox; the Mac mini gives you a bundle of great software—including the ’05 version of the award-winning iLife suite—that’s worth half as much as the Dell’s hardware alone.

Heck, the Dell doesn’t even include antivirus software (a $62 option), which for Windows computers these days is like selling a car without brakes—in both cases you simply turn it on and pray.

Once you take a hard look at the mythical “$400 Dell,” it becomes clear that to make it somewhat comparable to the Mac mini, you have to add a dedicated video card, DVD/CDRW capability, FireWire, Windows XP Pro, anti-virus protection, a longer warranty, and some decent software. Ouch! The cheapest Dell is not so cheap any more.

Does the Dell have any hardware advantages? It does include 3 PCI slots for expansion. But let’s be realistic here: How many people in the market for a sub-$500 computer are ever going to upgrade their computer via PCI cards? (Besides the ones who realize that they need a FireWire port to connect their video camera, that is. Did I mention that a FireWire port is included on the Mac mini? Why, yes, I did.) Some might point to the Dell’s “faster” processor, but it’s a Celeron. Sure, the Mac mini’s 1.25GHz G4 has been around for a while, but the Dell’s got a Celeron . I call it a wash—both these machines are underpowered for advanced users, but both will suffice for their target market. (For those unfamiliar with the Celeron, it’s Intel’s budget processor. It has a smaller Level 2 cache and slower bus speed, resulting in performance that’s significantly inferior to the more expensive Pentium 4.) The only real hardware advantage for the Dell is that it has a faster hard drive; whether the target market for this computer will realize any benefits from this advantage is debatable.

Now there are surely numbers in this comparison with which an ardent Dell fan—or a Mac fan, for that matter—might quibble, but the point is clear: When you attempt to configure even the cheapest Dell comparably, it’s no longer cheaper than the Mac mini; in fact, it may even be more expensive.

And then there are the intangibles the Mac mini has in its favor: No viruses; no spyware; easier setup of peripherals; a much smaller, more attractive, and quieter enclosure. And if you want wireless connectivity—AirPort or Bluetooth—you can order your Mac mini with these capabilities built-in; with the Dell, you’re stuck using USB dongles and adapters. Aren’t these “features” worth something?

To be clear, I don’t advocate a Mac for everyone. As much as I’d like to, there are people whose needs would be better served by getting a Windows PC (although their numbers are shrinking every day). And even though the Mac mini is a stripped down Mac, there are going to be some people who don’t need the extra functionality even the Mac mini has over the cheapest Dell; these people may be satisfied with the even-further-stripped-down Dell for a bit less money. But for everyone else, the Mac platform deserves a serious look, not half-baked “comparisons” that aren’t, well, comparable .

More to the point: Articles that criticize the Mac mini by comparing Apples and oranges serve no one. The next time you see a tech writer making such comparisons, send him or her the URL to this article; maybe we can convince them to compare Apples to apples, instead.

 

[ Endnote: When I was writing this article, I also looked at the bargain machines from other Windows PC vendors. As I browsed these companies’ websites, something popped out at me: The different ways in which Apple and the Windows PC vendors (including Dell) “strip down” their low-end models. The Mac mini is stripped down externally —no mouse, keyboard, or display—while still being a full-featured machine internally . Windows PC makers generally take the opposite approach: You get a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, but limited hardware features and little to no software. And speaking of software, why do so many Windows writers neglect to include the value of bundled software, monetary or otherwise, when they “compare” computers? I suppose it’s because the “free” software that comes with most Windows PCs stinks—in the budget PC world, if it comes with the computer it must not be very good. Tip to Windows writers: You’ve been led astray. The software that comes with a computer can be free and great.]

See more about Mac mini at Macworld's Mac mini page.

(Updated 1/18 at 4:00 PM PT, adding specific verification from Apple that opening the Mac mini doesn't void your warranty unless you break it while opening it.) (Updated 1/26 at 10:45am PT, adding note about the Dell 2400's RAM upgrade limit.

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