The Mac mini: Apples and Oranges and Software

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Last week, I wrote an article comparing the new Mac mini to a “$399” Dell; I followed that first article up with a second where I responded to a number of comments sent in by readers. Today’s article completes the “Apples and Oranges” trifecta, as I focus on software.

Why software? Although in the original article I mentioned the Mac mini’s excellent software bundle, I didn’t spend much time on it because I wanted to focus on more tangible feature comparisons. But the truth is that for many buyers the software that comes with the Mac mini will be a significant benefit because it makes the mini more functional than similarly configured (hardware-wise) Windows PCs. Not only that, but in the long run it may make the Mac mini less expensive—the more good software a computer includes out of the box, the less money you’ll have to spend later to get the software you need. Accordingly, many fans of the Mac mini took me to task for “ignoring” its bundled software. I hope to rectify that today, as I compare the software bundles that come with the Mac mini and the Dell.

[Disclaimer: Since we’re talking about software, it’s going to be a bit more difficult to make objective comparisons than it was with hardware— I may think a particular software title is better than another, but you may disagree. That being said, I’ve tried to be as objective as possible.]

First let’s look at the software included with the Mac mini:

  • iPhoto Apple’s acclaimed photo management and editing application.
  • iMovie The highly-praised DV movie-making package.
  • iDVD The similarly well-regarded DVD production title.
  • GarageBand The music-making app, also (seeing a pattern here?) lauded by critics.
  • iTunes I don’t think I need to describe this one.
  • AppleWorks Apple’s “office” suite that includes modules for word processing, spreadsheets, databases, presentations, and drawings. It’s nowhere near as feature-rich as Microsoft Office, but it’s easy to use and more than adequate for many home users.
  • Quicken 2005 The popular finance and investment package.
  • Nanosaur 2 A third-party game.
  • Marble Blast Gold Another third-party game.

This is a heck of a software bundle—what does the average person need to do that they can’t do, out of the box, with the Mac mini?

[Side note: In an email sent by a Windows-leaning reader, I was accused of being overly biased in the original article because I said the Mac mini came with great software such as iLife. According to the reader, just because a Mac publication thinks the iLife apps are great doesn’t mean they really are. Ouch. Nevertheless, these apps have also won wide acclaim from Windows-centric publications. (Heck, even Windows fanatic Paul Thurrott has said some good things about the iLife apps, which is a bit like a Red Sox fan complimenting the Yankees on their attractive pin stripes.)]

How does the Mac mini’s bundle compare to the software accompanying the Dell system in the original article? Here's what the Dell gives you:

  • WordPerfect A good word processor that’s more powerful than the word processor module in AppleWorks.
  • Photo Album Starter Edition The limited edition of Corel’s Paint Shop Photo Album; to get the full version you need to spend $45.
  • Dell Jukebox Download iTunes (free). Now.
  • Acrobat Reader 6.0 Free for both platforms.

The only application included with the Dell that really competes with the Mac mini’s software is WordPerfect. On the other hand, WordPerfect doesn’t include the other modules provided by AppleWorks. (The Dell also includes a trial version of Corel Paint Shop Pro, but neither side gets credit for trial versions.)

So to make the Dell “comparable” to the Mac mini, you’ve also got to add a bunch of software. (That is, unless your only purpose for buying a computer is to type word processing documents, check email, and surf the Web; in that case, you’ll probably be happy with a bare-bones Dell so long as the first thing you do is install Firefox, Thunderbird, and some anti-virus software.) Sadly, the Dell’s software bundle is typical of “budget” Windows PCs, which generally come with some sort of word processor and then a bunch of free, trial, or, at best, “starter” editions of other software. (To be fair, eMachines’ $400 system sans monitor includes Microsoft Works and Microsoft Money. Kudos to eMachines.)

Considering the above, it’s understandable that the most common criticism I received from fans of the Mac mini wasn’t that I neglected to rave about the mini’s small size or its quiet operation—although I did get many such emails—but rather that I didn’t place enough explicit value on its software bundle. Readers felt that I should have tried to figure out how much the mini’s software was actually worth and then included that in the comparison.

Doing so isn’t as easy as you might think. The first, and easiest, method that springs to mind is to figure out how much it would cost you to buy the Mac mini’s software yourself:

  • iLife ’05 (iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, GarageBand): $79
  • AppleWorks: $79
  • Quicken 2005: $70
  • Nanosaur 2: $25 for downloadable version
  • Marble Blast Gold: $20

So it would cost you $273 to purchase these titles separately.

On the other hand, if we’re trying to best approximate the value of such software in comparison to the software that comes with a Dell computer, a fairer approach might be to figure out how much it would cost to equip the Dell with comparable Windows software. This is actually even tougher, because reasonable people are sure to disagree about which Windows software titles are “equivalent” to the Mac mini’s applications (not to mention that some of these applications really don’t have Windows equivalents). But here’s an honest attempt:

  • iTunes: Free for Windows.
  • iMovie: I’ve only seen one Windows title come close to iMovie for under $100, and it’s actually Microsoft’s free (for Windows XP users) Windows Movie Maker 2.1. It has some drawbacks as compared to iMovie ’05, and it’s not as easy to use, but it’s likely adequate for many users (especially those who’ve never tried iMovie).
  • iPhoto: Windows users are in luck here: Google recently released Picasa 2, a free iPhoto-like photo management app. It’s an excellent package and roughly comparable to iPhoto in functionality.
  • iDVD: The closest thing on the Windows side is probably Sonic MyDVD, $50
  • GarageBand: There’s really no comparable Windows title out there. A rough approximation would be the $60 Music Maker from Magix, but if you’ve used GarageBand ’05 you’ll likely be disappointed. But hey, if that’s all there is, that’s all there is.
  • AppleWorks: A good approximation would be Microsoft Works, $50.
  • Quicken 2005: A comparable title is Quicken Deluxe 2005 for Windows, $60.
  • Nanosaur 2: There’s no Windows version, so figure $20 for the game of your choice.
  • Marble Blast Gold: Windows version, $20

[Note to Windows users: If you have suggestions for better “equivalent” software titles, post them in our Forums, in the discussion thread for this article (link at the bottom of the article).]

Now, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this bundle of software is comparable to the Mac mini’s softare package, even though it doesn’t have the same cross-application integration as iLife and Mac OS X. Given that assumption, we can use this list of Windows software to estimate an “equivalent Windows value” for the Mac mini’s software: about $260. To be completely fair, since Microsoft Works includes a word processor we wouldn’t need WordPerfect, so we should credit the Dell bundle $30-$40 for that. (Dell wouldn’t credit us for WordPerfect, of course; I’m just trying to give the Dell system a fair shake.) We’re left with approximately $220 in extra software. That’s $220 on top of the retail price of the Dell.

So a comparison of included software comes out clearly in the Mac mini’s favor and adds further weight to the premise of my first two “Apples and Oranges” articles: Once you look at the entire system—including hardware and software—the Mac mini competes very favorably, price-wise, with budget Windows PCs. In fact, based on the above comparision, I contend that once you include software, the mini comes out ahead.

Why don’t Windows PC vendors include more good software? Most likely because it would increase the cost of their budget computers significantly. This is one of the major advantages Apple has over the Dells of the world—since Apple makes a lot of software, the company can bundle it for “free” with their systems. (It just so happens that Apple’s bundled software is often the best in its class.) This has the added benefit of letting Apple include more third-party software: Whereas the Dells of the world have to spend their “software dollars” on basics like a word processor, Apple can add Quicken and a couple nice games.

Now, one argument against this type of software comparison is that few users are actually going to use every application in a software bundle, so it’s not fair to add the total value of the mini’s bundle to the price of the Dell. I agree—the typical user wouldn’t buy all of the titles listed above for their Windows PC just to make it comparable to a Mac mini. So to some extent it’s up to the individual user to determine how much they’ll use each software title and, therefore, how much the bundle is worth. But the point is that they will need to buy some of these types of applications, because otherwise their new Dell won’t do much. Or another way to look at an extensive software bundle is that you get the ability to do the things you need to do right out of the box, along with the flexibility to do other things in the future. For example, you may not own a DV camera now, but if you ever buy one, the Mac mini already has everything you need to make your own movies.

On a final note, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the biggest “software” product of them all, the computer’s operating system. I don’t want to get into a Windows vs. Mac OS debate and all the subjective opinions it would generate, so let’s focus on the most salient issue of the day: the dangers of viruses, spyware, and malware. With Windows, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have to deal with them. With Mac OS X, you’re pretty much guaranteed not to. Time is money, and I gotta tell you, I spend more of my time—which ain’t cheap—dealing with these issues on my Dell running Windows XP Pro than I do with all three of my Macs, as well as the Macs of all my family members, combined. Not to mention the potential for downtime and, even worse, loss of data that comes with such problems.

This final point isn’t a trivial one. Last year a number of friends who had been longtime Windows users bought Macs for precisely this reason: They were just plain tired of dealing with viruses and spyware. And often the person didn’t make the switch because they heard Macs were better/faster/easier to use; rather, they heard that Macs simply weren’t as infested with viruses and spyware—that alone was their reason for taking a serious look at the Mac platform. Their time, like mine, is worth money, and they decided that enough was enough. There’s growing dissatisfaction with Windows precisely because of this, and I predict that this year we’ll see a lot more of these “forced” switchers—people who might normally have never considered the Mac, but feel compelled to by the security mess that is currently Windows.

And with that, my three-volume attempt at a fair comparison of the Mac mini to a budget Windows PC comes to a close. I don’t expect everyone to agree with every point I’ve made, or with every conclusion I’ve drawn, but I think most will find that these articles have tried to look at all the costs and benefits of both computers, and tried to do so somewhat fairly. At the very least, I hope the articles have left readers better equipped to do their own comparisons.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go update the virus protection on my Dell.


[ End note: A number of readers urged me to note the software that comes bundled with Mac OS X itself—Mail, Address Book, Safari, iCal, TextEdit, iSync, iChat, etc. Some might say that it’s not fair to list applications that are included with the OS, since Windows also comes with a few. My response to those individuals is, “Have you actually used the stock applications in both Windows and Mac OS X?” It’s not a stretch to say that Mac OS X’s built-in apps are in a different class than Outlook Express, Windows’ Address Book, Internet Explorer, WordPad, etc. I give Windows “equivalency” for the latest version of Windows Media Player vs. QuickTime Player; the free version of WMP 10 has some advantages over QuickTime Player, and vice versa. But overall Mac OS X gets the nod here.]

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

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