The Mac mini: Apples and Oranges, a Follow-up

Last week, I wrote an article comparing the Mac mini to a “$399” Dell. Although I assumed it would generate some discussion, I wasn’t quite prepared for the reaction: A bunch of “letters to the editor,” scores of direct emails, and over 180 responses (and counting) in the related discussion thread in the Macworld forums. It seems people are interested in how the Mac mini stacks up against budget Windows PCs.

[Before I continue, I just have to say that the article, which I thought was reasonably fair to both sides, generated a good number of less-than-friendly replies from apparent Dell fans, putting to lie the theory that only “Mac fanatics” take the time to write nasty notes to columnists with whom they disagree. But I digress.]

Overall, the responses I received tended to be either civil or constructive, and occasionally both. Feedback ranged from the reasonable (taking issue with my depiction of Windows XP Pro as being signficantly better than XP Home) to the ridiculous (accusing me of exaggerating the advantage that iTunes gives the Mac mini—I never even mentioned iTunes in the column, nor did I ever consider it since iTunes is free for both platforms).

Interestingly enough, many responses ignored the key points of the article to—as I predicted last week—quibble over $10 here or $20 there. To reiterate: What the article was trying to demonstrate is not that the Mac mini is the cheapest computer on the market; rather, that it’s clearly price-competitive with the budget brand-name Windows PCs, especially once you look at what you get for the money. Offhand “But Dell has a $ xxx computer” remarks are just that: offhand, without much attention paid to the differences between systems or to the target markets for them. Sure, there are less expensive computers out there, but the old adage “You get what you pay for” holds true.

That being said, a number of points were made frequently enough that I thought they deserved a response. Below are a few of the most common issues raised by readers, along with my comments. Agree or disagree, hopefully you'll find that this discussion further informs the original comparison.


"Anti-Mac mini” Comments

  • Why did you compare the Mac mini to a Dell? Brand XYZ makes a cheaper computer! True, it’s possible to get a (slightly) less expensive Windows PC from several other computer vendors. I chose Dell for two reasons: (1) The article was written in response to several flawed price comparisons that specifically used the Dell in question as a reference; and (2) Dell is the most popular name-brand, budget PC vendor by a significant margin, and thus the one more people in the market for a $400-$500 Windows PC will be considering. So the focus of the article was a more objective price comparison between the cheapest Dell and the cheapest Mac. (Not that those less expensive computers would have necessarily fared better; most have many of the same shortcomings as the Dell.)
  • But the Dell [insert different model number here] can be configured to give you better (or similar) features for the same (or less) money See above for why I chose this particular model. But in the interest of fairness, I checked up on some of the other Dell models sent in by readers, and the truth is they aren’t that much different, and it generally takes a bit of effort to get the best price: Sometimes you have to buy a cheap model and build up, other times you need to buy a “more expensive” model and then remove features. (And interestingly enough, by the time I got to the Dell site, many of these example systems were quite a bit more expensive than readers claimed—more on that in the next point.)
  • But Wednesday afternoon between 4:13pm and 4:37pm, the Dell 2400 was $34 cheaper! (Corollary: “But when I went through Dell’s XYZ store, it was $27 cheaper!") I chose the cheapest Dell the day of my article, but it’s true that depending on the day (or even the time of day), and which of Dell’s four online stores (Home & Home Office; Small Business; Medium & Large Business; and Government, Education & Healthcare) you go through, the price of a particular system (and even the components of that system) may vary, often significantly. I’ve since seen the Dell system referenced in the column at both higher and lower price points, but mostly around the price noted in the column, so I think that price is a good representation of what someone looking to buy would pay for it. (I also think the above says something about the ease of use—or lack thereof—of using the Dell online store. Those people who spend their days checking “deal” websites for the best possible buy may appreciate these wildly fluctuating prices and different paths to configuring the same computer, but for your average consumer, it’s frustrating.)
  • You focused too much on the Mac mini’s software Actually, I don’t think I focused enough on the included software—I mentioned it in a single bullet point—and many Mac users took me to task for that (see below). I actually find it quite odd that some people completely ignore the value of included software in a computer system, considering it’s that very software that the user will end up spending most of their time working with. (And the more good software that ships with a computer, the less money the buyer will need to spend later to get the software they need.)
  • Windows doesn’t really need the $26 CD-burning software; Windows XP includes basic CD burning functionality. Fair enough. I personally would pay for RecordNow Deluxe on my own Windows machine, but to be fair, it is possible to burn CDs using Windows XP and Windows Media Player.
  • For the home user, there’s no reason to pay for Windows XP Pro; XP Home is more than adequate To some extent I agree with this point—many XP Pro features will never be used by a typical home user. However, it does have some advantages over XP Home of which some home users may take advantage. More importantly, if the user ever gets another computer and wants to network them—a situation that’s becoming more common every day—XP Pro’s networking and sharing features are superior. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, XP Pro is the “equivalent” of Mac OS X; XP Home is not. Since I was trying to make a fair comparison, I felt it was worth pointing out that the operating systems are not really comparable. (Interestingly enough, this comment, which appears to take into account the differences between home users and more advanced users, frequently came from the same readers who didn’t seem to understand how those differences affected other aspects of the comparison—included software, ease of setup, upgrade expectations, etc.)
  • Upgrading is much easier on the Dell thanks to the PCI slots; you gave this feature short shrift If we weren’t talking about budget-priced home computers—i.e., if we were talking about machines likely to be used by more advanced users—I would completely agree. But as I said in the article, and I still contend, most people in the market for these computers will never take advantage of those PCI slots. Heck, most of my Windows “power user” friends have never used any of their PCI slots. In these days of ubiquitous USB and FireWire peripherals, “PCI expandability” is an overhyped computer feature for your typical home user. (Several readers commented that at least they could upgrade the Dell to a better video card; unfortunately, the Dell doesn’t include an AGP slot, so you’re stuck with either the integrated video or a PCI video card, which isn’t going to give you much of an improvement.)
  • Upgrading RAM is easier on the Dell. Although most people buying these systems probably won’t upgrade the RAM—even though they should, in my opinion—this is a fair point. Upgrading the RAM on a Mac mini isn’t a trivial task.
  • FireWire isn’t a big deal to Windows users; we have USB2.0 If you have a DV camcorder, FireWire is often a big deal, even for Windows users. FireWire also has advantages over USB2.0. (Granted, some of them, like Target Disk Mode, aren’t even possible on a Windows PC.) Since I was comparing what you get for the money with these systems, it was fair to point out that the Mac mini comes with FireWire but the Dell doesn’t. Nevertheless, this is a $10 point, since, as I mentioned in the article, you can use one of those otherwise unnecessary PCI slots in the Dell to install a FireWire card.
  • You don’t have to pay $69 for antivirus software; you can download and [install/compile] the [free/open-source] XYZ Repeat after me: Target market. Target market. Target market. I could easily download and install one of the many free antivirus products out there, a few of which are excellent. But none of my neighbors or close relatives could. Most home users are either going to buy their antivirus software with their computer, or go to CompUSA and pick up the first box of Norton AntiVirus or Internet Security they see.
  • The Dell has 6 USB ports as compared to two for the Mac mini True, as I finally found by digging around the Dell website. Note to Dell: Make it easier to see the detailed specs on your computers. (As a side discussion, how many USB buses does the Dell have? I couldn’t find this info on the Dell site, nor could I get an answer from Dell’s press office, but I’d bet money that it’s one or two. If so, it means that the only difference between the Mac mini and the Dell is that the Dell comes with a built-in, inexpensive USB hub—they have the same number of USB buses. This is an important point because the way USB2.0 works, if you stick a few low-speed devices on your USB2.0 bus, it can slow down the other devices on that bus, so you’re not going to get the theoretical “fast” speeds of USB2.0. This is where FireWire comes in handy: You can use FireWire for all your external hard drives, iPods, optical drives—all the things that take advantage of higher bandwidth—and leave your USB ports for low-bandwidth peripherals like mice, keyboards, printer, etc.)
  • Instead of stripping the Dell of its keyboard, mouse, and display, you should have added those to the Mac mini I credited the Dell $65 for these items based on Dell’s own credit amounts. I did some shopping here in the Bay Area last week and easily found a 17” CRT and USB keyboard and mouse for a total of $75. In other words, the resulting diffence in price between stripping these items from the Dell and adding them to the Mac mini wasn’t significant, so stripping them from the Dell made the comparison simpler.
  • But I could build a computer from scratch that would blow away that Dell and the Mac mini! So could I. But most people in the market for a $500 home computer couldn’t (or wouldn’t if they could); they just want a system to take home, plug in, and start using. (Plus these custom-built-for-cheap systems lack the software that users will need to actually do anything. That costs money, too, you know.)
  • Instead of spending $50 for DVD/CDRW functionality from Dell, you could spend $ x on a bare drive and upgrade the Dell yourself. See the previous point.


"Pro-Mac mini” Comments

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