Opinion: Does Dell beat MacBook Pro on price?

Regular Macworld readers might remember an article I wrote a little more than a year ago comparing a Mac mini to a comparably-equipped Dell desktop. (Well, several different comparisons, to be exact.) I was inspired to perform these comparisons after reading several knee-jerk articles in which pundits made statements to the effect of “The Mac mini is still more expensive than a budget Windows PC.”

My conclusion: not necessarily true. When you actually equipped a Mac mini and a Dell model comparably , the Mac was very price-competitive.

[ EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written on Monday, Feb. 13, 2006, before Apple started shipping the MacBook Pro with revised specs and prices. A new comparison has been compiled using the new numbers and can be found here.]

Apple’s made a big splash with last month’s unveiling of the first Intel-based PowerBoo…er, I mean, MacBook Pro. And with the release of that laptop, slated for some time in February, comes the return of the “But the Mac is still more expensive!” rants. In many cases, these arguments are just as flawed now as they were a year ago.

Case in point: this blog entry from ZDNet’s George Ou called “Dude! The Mac Duo is almost $1000 more!” He claims a Dell Inspiron E1705 can be had for $1,432, while the best price he could get on a MacBook Pro was $2,374. Here’s his comparison table:

Dell Inspiron E1705 Apple MacBook Pro
1.83GHz Intel Core Duo 1.83GHz Intel Core Duo
17" XGA+ TFT 15.4" 1440x900 TFT
1 GB 533 MHz DDR2 SDRAM 1 GB 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM
8x DVD+RW/CD-RW 4x DVD+RW/CD-RW
NVidia GeForce Go 7800 256 MB ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 256MB
100GB 5400rpm Serial ATA hard 100GB 5400rpm Serial ATA hard
Bluetooth Bluetooth
Intel 802.11 a/b/g Intel 802.11 a/b/g
$1,432 $2,499

Based on these specs, Mr. Ou claims that the Dell is a better computer—his words: “with mostly superior specifications”— because it has a bigger screen, an optical drive that can write DVDs at 8x instead of 4x, and a better video card. And the table seems to make clear that the Dell is approximately $1,000 less than Apple’s MacBook Pro. But just like the “Dell’s cheaper for a better computer” claims from January 2005, Mr. Ou’s comparison doesn’t really look at comparable computers (or at typical prices, for that matter). For my own personal edification, I decided to give it a try.

Ah, coupons…

Before I get to that comparison, it should be pointed out that in the table above, the Dell’s “$1,432” price is after $650 in various Dell discount/coupon finaglings. Granted, Internet shopping geeks (and I consider myself to be one, so that’s not an insult) will be able to find a Dell coupon fairly easily, but your typical consumer? And even then, this one’s a whopper—it’s not often that you can buy a $2,100 computer for less than $1,500. So I’m going to look at regular prices and then let you do the “coupon math” at the end.

(It should also be noted that everything in this article was based on Dell’s prices on a particular day last week. As anyone who has done serious bargain-hunting on the Dell Web site knows, prices change daily—even by the hour and minute.)

Comparable?

As with the “Dell vs. Mac mini” comparisons we saw last year, the two systems listed above are hardly comparable. For starters, the Dell Inspiron is Dell’s “home” line of laptops, which are generally lacking many features found in Apple’s pro line—the basic Inspirons are closer in features to Apple’s iBooks. In fact, you can’t even build the E1705 to be roughly comparable to the MacBook Pro.

Unfortunately, Dell’s “professional” laptops, the Latitude and Precision lines, aren’t currently available with Core Duo processors. So, since the point of Mr. Ou’s comparison was to look at Core Duo-based laptops, I had to stick with the Inspirons. I found an Inspiron that could be configured to be much more comparable to the MacBook Pro than the E1705: the 9400. Here are the specs of the $2,499 MacBook Pro and a Dell Inspiron 9400, configured as closely as I could get it via Dell’s Small Business store:

MacBook Pro vs. Dell Inspiron

Apple MacBook Pro Dell Inspiron 9400
Processor 1.83GHz Intel Core Duo 1.83GHz Intel Core Duo*
Display 15.4-inch display 17-inch UltraSharp Wide Screen*
RAM 1GB DDR2 SDRAM 1GB DDR2 SDRAM*
Hard drive 100GB 5400RPM SATA 100GB 5400RPM SATA
Video ATI Mobility Radeon X1600
(256MB, dual-link DVI)
NVIDA GeForce Go 7800*
(256MB)
Optical drive Slot-loading 4x SuperDrive
(DVD±RW/CD-RW)
Tray-loading 8x dual-layer*
(DVD+/-RW)
Ethernet 10/100/1000BASE-T (Gigabit) 10/100BASE-T
Wireless AirPort Extreme
(802.11b/g)
Bluetooth
(2.0+EDR)
Intel PRO/Wireless 3945*
(802.11a/g)
Dell 350 Bluetooth*
(2.0+EDR)
Modem No Yes
Camera Built-in iSight None
Microphone Yes No
Audio-in Optical/analog line-in jack Analog microphone jack
Audio-out Optical/analog headphone jack Analog headphone jack
FireWire 1 FireWire 400 port 1 FireWire 400 port
USB 2 USB 2.0 ports 6 USB 2.0 ports
Expansion slot ExpressCard/34 ExpressCard slot (34 or 54?)
Speakers Stereo speakers Stereo speakers
Illuminated keyboard Yes No
Ambient light sensor Yes No
Remote Apple Remote No
S-Video Out Optional Yes
Miscellaneous MagSafe power adapter 5-in-1 media card reader
Battery 60 WHr Lithium Ion 80 WHr Lithium Ion*
Size 14.1 x 9.6 x 1.0 inches
5.6 pounds
15.5 x 11.3 x 1.6 inches
8 pounds
Software Mac OS X v10.4.4 Tiger
iTunes
iPhoto
iMovie HD
iDVD
iWeb
GarageBand
QuickBooks
Comic Life
Omni Outliner
Photo Booth
Front Row
Windows XP Professional
PC Restore by Symantec
Starter Entertainment Pack
Adobe® Acrobat® Reader 6.0
Price $2,499 $2,681

* custom option

Notes: A “standard” screen is available for the Dell for $149 less, but the UltraSharp is of comparable quality to the screen of the MacBook Pro. Also, the same Inspiron 9400 configured through Dell’s Medium & Large Business store was $2,944 on the day of my comparison, $263 more, but included a 90-day antivirus subscription and Word Perfect.

As you can see from the specs above, the two systems still aren’t perfectly comparable. The MacBook Pro offers a built-in video camera and microphone, faster networking, dual-link video output, optical audio in/out, an illuminated keyboard, ambient light sensor, and unique features such as the MagSafe power connector and Apple’s Remote control. It’s also significantly lighter—not just because of the smaller screen—and, based on my experience with Dell and Apple laptops, sturdier (if a bit more scratch-prone).

The Dell, on the other hand, offers a significantly larger screen, more USB ports, a handy media card reader, faster (and dual-layer) DVD burning, S-Video output (available on the MacBook Pro only via an optional adapter), and a modem.

In my opinion—and some may disagree—the MacBook Pro is a better-equipped machine overall than the Inspiron 9400, with the exception of the Dell’s larger screen size. For $200 less at “regular” prices.

And what about stuff besides hardware? This turned out to be a major plus for the Mac mini in last year’s comparison, and not much has changed in the 13 months since. The Dell comes with basically nothing. The MacBook Pro comes with an entire suite of first-class software; as I mentioned last year, it would cost you hundreds of dollars to get similar software functionality on your Dell. Then there’s the whole virus and security advantage: With the Dell, the first thing you’ll need to do is buy virus protection software and subscribe to a virus update service.

It’s disingenuous not to include these various costs, which will end up adding hundreds of dollars to the total cost of a typical Windows PC when comparing it to a Mac. (And I’m leaving out a discussion of intangibles; see last year’s articles for much more on those.)

Same old song and dance

Once you spend a little time trying to compare similar systems—hardware, software, the whole shebang—that “$1,000” difference in price seems more than a bit overstated. In fact, given Dell’s current lineup, a comparably -equipped Dell laptop isn’t going to save you much money, if any, over a MacBook Pro. Of course, headlines that state “Dell isn’t $1,000 cheaper than a Mac” don’t generate as much water-cooler talk.

What about the Dell Coupon Argument? For bargain-searching geeks, Dell’s random coupons do indeed offer significant discounts. But even if you’re lucky enough to take advantage of Mr. Ou’s $650 markdown, once you equip your Dell with all the software and anti-virus protection necessary to actually use it, the big price differential shrinks significantly.

Comparing comparisons

As I noted last year, there are surely numbers in this comparison to which an ardent Dell fan—or a Mac fan—might object. But even with a quibble here or there, the general point holds true: When you actually configure offerings from Apple and brand-name Windows PC vendors comparably , you’ll often find the two to be surprisingly price-competitive—even when the Mac isn’t cheaper, the two are often close enough in price that you can make your purchasing decision based on what you want to buy rather than what you think your budget allows.

To be fair, one area in which Dell does hold a price advantage is that the company allows you to remove features you don’t want in order to save some money. And there are still people for whom a Windows PC is a legitimately better option. But those in the market for a computer should do their own comparisons—of comparable systems—to see which system will provide them with the best value.

2/14/2006: Corrected specs on MacBook Pro optical drive.

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