% fortune -ae paul murphy

TCO, Wintel 7, and the G4 Mac

One of the major cost sources raised by Mr. Jordan in last Saturday's comment on TCO for Windows 7 at home involved the costs and risks attendant on upgrading or replacing custom components like his "5.1 surround sound system card from Creative Labs."

I believe this problem - the cost consequences of the absence of continuing automated support for third party peripherals in Microsoft's products - to be very common among PC users and want to discuss it today in the context of the mutual hand washing that goes on between consumer marketing and consumer education in the retail personal computer business.

Thus it's an absolute axiom of faith in the Wintel community that Macs cost more than PCs - and, happily for them, this is actually true now that the Mac uses Intel processors. It wasn't true, however, when the Mac ran on PPC and Mr. Jordan made his decisions - and therein lies the link to consumer education and the costs Mr. Jordan now faces with respect to Windows 7 and his creative labs sound board.

Here's a desktop comparison from before the change:


If we take vaguely comparable units from the low end, mid range, and high end of the Apple and PC lines using pricing from the Apple and Dell web stores as of August 21/04 we get the comparisons below:

Model Price Configuration
eMac $799 17" CRT, 1.25GHz PowerPC G4
ATI Radeon 9200 32MB DDR
40GB Ultra ATA drive
14W stereo system
AppleCombo drive
Dimension 2400
$449 Intel Celeron processor at 2.40GHz
128MB shared DDR SDRAM at 266MHz
17" (16.0"vis) CRT Monitor
40GB Ultra/ATA 100 Hard Drive
Integrated Intel Extreme 3D Graphics
iMac $1,799 17-inch widescreen LCD
1.25GHz PowerPC G4
NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200 Ultra
64MB DDR video memory
80GB Ultra ATA hard drive
Apple Pro Speakers
AirPort Extreme Ready
Bluetooth Option
OptiPlex GX270
$1,759 3.0 Ghz P4/800; 256MB, DDR, non ECC, 333Mhz
80GB EIDE 7200RPM,
Dell UltraSharp 1703FP flat panel
64MB, nVidia, GeForce 4MX
G5 Dual $2,999 Dual 2.5GHz PowerPC G5
1.25GHz frontside bus/processor
512K L2 cache/processor
Expandable to 8GB SDRAM
160GB Serial ATA
8x SuperDrive
Three PCI-X Slots
ATI Radeon 9600 XT
128MB DDR video memory
56K internal modem
Precision 670
$4,009 2 x 3.4Ghz Xeon
160GB SATA, 7200 RPM Hard Drive
128MB PCIe x16 (DVI/VGA) ATI FireGL V3100,

The Macs have built in firewire, airport extreme, and 10/100 ethernet ports along with the OS X operating system and a bundle of software including ilife (which Apple describe as "office for the rest of your life" - GarageBand, iTunes, iPhoto,iMovie and iDVD) and stuff like AppleWorks, Quicken, and the World Book Encyclopedia.

The PCs come with some variant on Microsoft Windows/XP and varying levels of discount on Microsoft Office. Thus Office Professional costs $359 on the low end Dimension, $319 on the OptiPlex, and isn't offered with the Precision bundle.

Oddly, Office Professional for the Mac includes a PC emulator and the package most comparable to the "Professional" PC edition appears to be called the Standard Edition. It sells at $399 for all Macs.

If we look at these raw cost comparisons carefully it becomes obvious that none of them really work because the Macs are consistently overspec relative to the PCs.

The entry level eMac, for example, costs $350 (78%) more than the PC but the latter is usable only to run Windows 98 and other software carried forward from previous generations. Accept Dell's rather warmly endorsed package of the basic upgrades needed just to run XP comfortably, and the price difference falls to $190 (24%). That's still considerably cheaper than the eMac, but still short stereo, a R/W CD/DVD combo, graphics capabilities, wireless connectivity, and dual firewire ports. Adding everything except firewire brings the price to rough parity but still leaves the PC under specified relative to the eMac.

The same problems afflict the iMac vs. OptiPlex270 comparison. The base PC is $40 cheaper than the mid range iMac, but the PC lacks the iMac's connectivity and multi-media capabilities. It's possible to add these, but doing so pushes the PC well over the high end of the price range for the iMac.

In this case, furthermore, you should be aware that the PC represents Dell's latest product generation while Apple has just just stopped taking orders for the current iMacs preparatory to introducing the next generation iMacs in September.

The high end comparison shows the result of the underlying difference in functional focus much more clearly. Like the iMacs, Apple's current G5 offering is actually well past its intended replacement date because of IBM's delays in shipping new CPUs, but the basic box is still a full $1,000 bucks cheaper than Dell's newest Xeons.

As usual, however, the PC lacks the Mac's connectivity features. More importantly, my price comparison above omits the monitors for both because the recommended monitors are designed for different jobs and are not remotely comparable. Dell's "UltraSharp 2001FP 20.1-inch Flat Panel LCD Monitor with Height Adjustable Stand" at $899 by itself or $700 if bundled with the Precision 670, is just a monitor.

Apple's cinema displays are more than that. They're intended to function at the core of digital production environments. Thus all three models, from the 20 inch to the 30 inch, have things like DVI and dual firewire ports to enable plug and go video recording or media sharing. In consequence the price ranges from $1,299 to $3,299, or $600 more than Dell wants for the 20 inch unit, but the additional things they do can't be done with the Dell at any price.

The least unfair comparison, therefore is obtained by adding the Dell monitor, as the lowest common denominator, to both machines, thereby penalizing Apple's price by the $199 difference between Dell's stand-alone and package price. Do that and the Mac comes in at $3,898 with the Dell at $4,709 -making the Apple about 20% cheaper despite offering more features.

At the low end, therefore, the PC desktops are marginally cheaper than the Macs if you can do without their connectivity and multi-media capabilities and considerably more expensive if you can't. At the very high end, however, all of the design focus is on multi-media processing and the PCs simply aren't competitive from either hardware or cost perspectives.

Mr. Jordan couldn't do without some of those extra features: ended up paying more for his PCs than he would have had he bought a Mac and accepted both the limitations of XP and the personal responsibility to maintain security while downloading and installing his own drivers in preference to just running OS X 10.3 with everything pre-integrated and PPC security. Worse, he now faces a difficult choice between continuing to nurse obsolete equipment along or paying the cost of upgrading to the latest Wintel partner offerings.

And what are those offerings? Well, there's the anachronism - and the link to consumer education. Back then, of course, the PC press reviled all this stuff as uninteresting and unnecessary - trapping people like Mr.Jordan in higher costs then and a choice between living with obsolescence or throwing money at replacing perfectly good systems just to keep up - and, meanwhile most of those G4 e and i Macs - are still working: unchanged.

P.S: but the PCs were so much faster, right? Wrong. Remember Apple OS X on a G4 offered pretty much what Windows 7 does on i7 -so to see the processor performance difference try loading W7 on that 2.4Ghz Dell Celeron.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.