Is The "Apple Tax" Real? Mac vs. PC Value Analysis

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Round 1. The 13" MacBook is Apple's most affordable notebook. If you want an Apple notebook any cheaper, you'll have to go to the used market or utilize an educational discount. For comparison's sake, we'll mainly be focusing on Toshiba's Portege R700 and Acer's Aspire Timeline X AS3820T-5246 as the competitors. We'll also touch on a few other 13" Windows-based machines, because there are obviously a multitude of options out there. In order to best set the table, let's look at the core specifications for each of these machines first.

13" Apple MacBook vs. 13" Toshiba Portege R700 vs. 13" Acer Aspire Timeline X
Specifications and Features
13" Apple MacBook - $999
  • Intel Core 2 Duo (2.4GHz; 3MB on-chip shared L2 cache)
  • 2GB of 1066MHz DDR3 RAM 
  • 13.3" LCD (1280x800 resolution)
  • NVIDIA GeForce 320M (256MB)
  • 250GB (5400RPM) HDD
  • 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
  • 8x slot-loading SuperDrive (DVD burner)
  • VGA Webcam (iSight)
  • Mini DisplayPort video output
  • USB 2.0 x 2
  • RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet 10/100/1000)
  • Headphone / Mic Input Jack (Combo)
  • Stereo Speakers
  • 'Chiclet' Keyboard
  • Gesture-Enabled Multi-Touch Trackpad
  • 4.7 Pounds (with non-removable battery installed)
  • Non-removable 63.5-watt-hour Li-ion Battery
  • "Up To 10 Hours" Claimed Battery Life 
  • 13.0" (W) x 9.12" (D) x 1.08" (H) (Dimensions)
  • Mac OS X Snow Leopard + iLife ’11 (64-bit)
  • 1-Year Warranty
  • Price (MSRP): $999
13" Toshiba Portege R700 - $999
  •  Intel Core i3-350M (2.26GHz)
  • 4GB of DDR3 RAM
  • 13.3" LCD (1366x768)
  • 500GB (5400RPM)
  • Intel GMA HD IGP
  • 802.11a/g/n Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
  • Webcam
  • VGA / HDMI video outputs
  • USB 2.0 x 2
  • RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet 10/100/1000) 
  • Headphone / Mic Input Jacks
  • Stereo Speakers
  • Standard Keyboard
  • Gesture-Enabled Multi-Touch Trackpad
  • Fingerprint reader
  • 8x DVD burner
  • Memory Card Reader
  • 3.3 Pounds (with 6-Cell Li-ion InstalleD)
  • "Up to 8.6 Hours" Claimed Battery Life
  • 12.4" (W) x 8.9" (D) x 1.0" (H) (Dimensions)
  • Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
  • 3-year Warranty
  • Price (MSRP): $999
13" Acer Aspire Timeline X  AS3820T-5246 - $699
  • Intel Core i3-350M (2.26GHz)
  • 4GB of DDR3 RAM
  • 13.3" LCD (1366x768)
  • Intel GMA HD IGP (128MB)
  • 320GB (5400RPM) HDD
  • 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
  • No optical drive
  • 1.3MP "HD" Webcam
  • HDMI and VGA video outputs
  • USB 2.0 x 3
  • RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet 10/100/1000) 
  • Headphone / Mic Input Jacks
  • Stereo Speakers
  • Memory Card Reader
  • Standard Keyboard
  • Gesture-Enabled Multi-Touch Trackpad
  • 3.97 Pounds (with removable 6-Cell Li-ion installed)
  • "Up To 10 Hours" Claimed Battery Life 
  • 12.7" (W) x 9.25" (D) x 0.86"-1.14" (H) (Dimensions)
  • Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
  • 1-Year Warranty
  • Price (MSRP): $699                          
So, let's break this down. There's an obvious $300 price difference between the MacBook and Timeline X ultraportables, but before shouting "See! The Apple tax exists!," let's have a logical look at how the Windows machines differ. For one, the MacBook has an 8x DVD burner. The Timeline X has no optical drive at all, nor does it allow you to add one. Second, the battery in the MacBook is on par or superious to the 6-Cell Li-ion in the Timeline X. Apple claims that users can get up to 10 hours of battery life, and reports around the web confirm that 7-8 hours is a reasonable figure to achieve. We've have tested Acer notebooks before and generally speaking real-world battery life doesn't typically come close to the claims.  Though admittedly we haven't tested this machine specifically.  Regardless, this is something that's difficult to put a price on, particularly since the battery in the MacBook is non-removable. That will definitely rub some the wrong way, but in general Apple's battery life claims have proven closer to reality over the years. (updated: 11/23/10 - 5;13PM)


13" Apple MacBook

The Mini-DisplayPort output on the MacBook is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, Apple sells adapters to channel nearly anything out of that port, but on the other, you'll need to buy another adapter. The Acer machine has VGA and HDMI outputs, both of which are widely adopted. Advantage Acer, here. The MacBook is nearly a pound heavier, but we're chalking that up to the inclusion of an optical drive and more rigid construction of the Macbook. 

Something perhaps a bit more significant is with respect to the GPU. The Acer unit relies on integrated Intel GMA HD graphics, which are suitable for full 1080p HD video playback but only very light-duty gaming. The MacBook, on the other hand has an NVIDIA GeForce 320M GPU. NVIDIA's GeForce 320M is also fully capable of playing back 720p/1080p video and it's capable of a bit more gaming performance as well. It should be noted, however, that the Acer laptop has a superior screen resolution and includes a multi-format card reader, whereas no card reader at all is included on the MacBook. Also, the Core i3-350M in the Acer will outperform the Core 2 Duo in the Apple unit everyday of the week.


13" Acer Aspire Timeline X

A more closely linked comparison is between the $999 MacBook and the $999 Portege R700. These units are on level ground when it comes to pricing and size. Both units have an 8x SuperDrive, but the CPU in the MacBook is weaker than the one in the Toshiba. Conversely, the MacBook's GPU is far nicer than the IGP in Toshiba's unit. It's a tradeoff -- do you want more CPU horsepower or more GPU horsepower? Of course, you also get a few more pixels on the Toshiba display, and you'll also get double the HDD space, double the RAM and a built-in memory card reader. Looking at these two, the Toshiba seems like the better deal if graphics aren't very important to you. If you were to upgrade to a machine with a discrete GPU with a similar form factor, features, and specs, you can figure on paying at least another $100. But even then, you'd retain twice the RAM, twice the HDD space and a faster CPU.


13" Toshiba Portege R700

But this debate cannot be had without discussing the software aspect. Apple ships their MacBook with OS X Snow Leopard as well as iLife '11, a $49 bundle of applications that cannot easily be replicated on the PC. iPhoto is a wash, but both iMovie '11 and GarageBand '11 have no real PC counterparts, which are included on either comparison machine.

Then there's the issue of OS X versus Windows 7. Both operating systems get the job done for the average consumer, but some might say that it's worth paying a premium for OS X in order to avoid some of the issues associated with Windows. Viruses and security issues come to mind -- there's a certain peace of mind that comes with owning an OS X machine, as they simply get attacked less. There are numbers to prove it too. Again, that's something that's difficult to put a price on.

Additional Stiff Competition - Enter Asus
Finally, it has become fairly obvious that the intense competition in the notebook sector makes the Apple Tax loom even larger in this particular category. Asus' 13.3" U35, for example, has a 2.4GHz Core i3, 4GB of DDR3 memory, a 500GB hard drive, NVIDIA's Optimus technology (GeForce 310M + Intel GMA HD) and Wi-Fi for $879.99. It's also one of the better designed PC laptops, offering a nicer suite of hardware (but a software suite that lacks iLife, obviously) for over $100 less than Apple's 13" MacBook.

13" Asus U35JC with NVIDIA Optimus

In this example, it's clear that there's an Apple tax of some sort, which varies from machine to machine. If Apple would include 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, a longer warranty and a media reader, you'd have no room to argue. But even now, you have to place value on the GeForce 320M GPU on the MacBook that's not on the Toshiba model. At most, however, we're looking at a $100 "Apple tax" compared to a comparable Windows 7 notebook, and if you place a high value on the iLife '11 software, the discrete GPU or OS X in general, that price may be worth it to you.

We can't leave this section without pointing out a few other notables though. That $100 premium becomes ever smaller when looking at Apple's unique design innovations in the notebook sector, including the breakaway MagSafe power connector, a rigid "unibody" frame (whereas most PCs at this price point are made of flexible plastics) and arguably one of, if not the best, touchpads in the industry, with excellent multi-touch gesture support.

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