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Is The "Apple Tax" Real? Mac vs. PC Value Analysis
Date: Nov 23, 2010
Author: Ray Willington
Introduction: The Never-Ending Argument
It's an argument that has been around for almost as long as Macs have been rivaling PCs. And despite the fact that so much has changed over the past few decades, the argument still arises almost every time Apple introduces a new computer. No, it's not the argument of "PC versus Mac" from a software and compatibility standpoint; that's an entirely different animal worthy of its own analysis. This is an argument over dollars and cents. For years, PC loyalists (or just those who are anti-Apple for one reason or another) have argued that Apple computers are more expensive than their similarly equipped, Windows-based counterparts. From notebooks to desktops and pretty much anywhere in-between, many have complained passionately about the so-called "Apple tax."

The argument is, this "Apple tax" is a price premium that's added on for the simple fact that you're buying a Mac. Very little actual analysis goes into these claims; they simply fly from both sides like volleys in war time exchange, with neither side conceding. And neither side typically takes the time to evaluate this situation and back-up their claims. Apple loyalists have long stated that near identical machines (or as close to identical as possible) are actually closely matched in terms of price.

But with all of this hearsay ongoing, who should you believe?  We felt it was high time to put the argument to rest. In the pages to come, we'll look at a baseline 13" MacBook, a 21.5" baseline iMac and a Mac Pro workstation. We'll be comparing these machines to PC counterparts that are as closely configured as we can find, at similar price points. We're obviously making an "apples to oranges" comparison here, so things will never line up 100%, but we'll do our best to point out the gaps as we attempt to put a little reason behind this age-old argument.

The Apple Tax:  Fact or Fiction?
Round 1: 13" MacBook vs. 13" Windows 7 Ultraportables
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.
Round 2: 21.5" iMac vs. all-in-one Windows 7 PC
Moving on from the notebooks, let's look at all-in-one PCs. Apple's iMac is a staple in the industry, and it's widely viewed as one of the most stylish all-in-one machines out there. With a base price of $1,199 for the 21.5" model, we're pitting it against MSI's 21.5" AE2280, which retails for slightly less at $1,049.99. Here's the breakdown.

21.5" Apple iMac vs. 21.5" MSI AE2280
Specifications and Features (as tested)
21.5" Apple iMac - $1199
  • Intel Core i3 (3.06GHz; 4MB shared L3 cache)
  • 4GB of DDR3 1333MHz RAM 
  • 21.5" LCD (1920x1080 resolution)
  • ATI Radeon HD 4670 (256MB)
  • 500GB (7200RPM) HDD
  • 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
  • VGA iSight Webcam
  • Slot-loading 8x DVD SuperDrive
  • SD/SDHC/SDXC card slot
  • Mini DisplayPort Video Output
  • USB 2.0 x 4 + FireWire 800 x 1
  • RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet 10/100/1000)
  • Headphone / Mic Input Jacks
  • SD / MMC / SDHC Multimedia Card Reader
  • Stereo Speakers
  • Apple Wireless Keyboard & Magic Mouse Included
  • 30.5 Pounds
  • 25.6" (W) x 8.15" (D) x 20.4" (H) (Dimensions)
  • Mac OS X Snow Leopard + iLife '11 (64-bit)
  • 1-Year Warranty
  • Price (MSRP): $1199
21.5" MSI AE2280 - $1,049
  • Intel Core i5-650 (3.2GHz)
  • 4GB of DDR3 RAM
  • 21.5" (1920x1080 resolution) Multi-Touch display
  • ATI Radeon HD 5730 (1GB)
  • 640GB (7200RPM) HDD
  • 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • 1.3MP Webcam
  • 6-in-1 Card Reader
  • Tray-loading DVD Burner
  • VGA / HDMI Video Outputs
  • USB 2.0 x 6 + eSATA x 1
  • RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet 10/100/1000)
  • Headphone / Mic Input Jacks 
  • Stereo Speakers 
  • Wireless Keyboard & Mouse included
  • Bundled MCE Remote Control
  • 24.2 Pounds
  • 21.8" (W) x 2.9" (D) x 15.9" (H)
  • Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
  • 1-Year Warranty
  • Price (MSRP): $1049

This is a slightly more cut-and-dry look at the reality or misconception of the so-called Apple Tax. When you're strictly comparing hardware specifications -- which isn't a perfect science by a long shot -- the MSI machine bests Apple's iMac in essentially every regard. And it does so for $150 less. We will say that Apple's LCD panels are typically best-in-class, but with the MSI machine, you do get the added functionality of a touch screen. We have stated numerous times in all-in-one reviews that a touch panel makes little sense to us, particularly on a desktop, with the current state of Windows 7's touch interface, unless there is a robust touch interface overlay as can be seen in HP's TouchSmart line of products. Regardless, it's there if you decide you want it.

21.5" Apple iMac

From top to bottom, the MSI AIO PC is just more capable. A faster CPU, a superior GPU, more hard drive space, support for more memory card formats, more USB ports, etc. In this case, you're paying $150 more for the iMac in order to get less impressive hardware and an arguably superior software suite. Again, if you place a high value on Mac OS X over Windows 7, and you'll actually use iLife '11, it's possible that the software value more evenly aligns these two.

Looking briefly at a few other Windows-based all-in-one machines, Lenovo's IdeaCenter (A and B series) both offer beautiful designs with prices starting as low as $699 (with high-end machines only reaching $999), and that even includes a TV tuner and remote with the B series. Dell's Studio One also has a gorgeous design and starts as low as $589, but of course that only ships with a 19" display suitable, so it's definitely not a perfect spec-for-spec comparison with the 21.5" iMac.

21.5" MSI AE2280

It's crystal clear to us that Apple themselves place a high value on their software and design aspects. The question is: do you?
Round 3: Baseline Mac Pro vs. Windows 7 Workstation
Onto the final showdown: workstations. We'll touch more on Apple's lack of a mainstream desktop in our conclusion, but for now, let's remain focused on the task at hand. The Mac Pro is a heralded workstation, particularly by creative professionals. But does it cost a fortune in comparison to a similar workstation from the Windows-based universe? Here's the breakdown between a baseline Mac Pro and a similarly priced Dell Precision T7500.

Apple Mac Pro vs. Dell Precision T7500
Specifications and Features (as tested)
Apple Mac Pro - $2499
  • Intel quad-core Xeon 'Nehalem' CPU (2.8GHz)
  • 3GB of 1066MHz DDR3 ECC SDRAM 
  • ATI Radeon HD 5770 (1GB)
  • 1TB (7200RPM) HDD
  • 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
  • Tray-loading 18x DVD SuperDrive
  • Three open PCIe slots
  • Four total HDD slots
  • Eight total RAM slots
  • Mini DisplayPort (x2) + dual-link DVI (x1) Video Outputs
  • USB 2.0 x 5 + FireWire 800 x 4
  • Input/Output Toslink Digital Audio Ports
  • RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet 10/100/1000) x 2
  • Headphone / Mic Input Jacks
  • Apple Wireless Keyboard & Magic Mouse Included
  • 39.9 Pounds
  • 20.1" (W) x 8.1" (D) x 18.7" (H) (Dimensions)
  • Mac OS X Snow Leopard + iLife '11 (64-bit)
  • 1-Year Warranty
  • Price (MSRP): $2499
Dell Precision T7500 - $2444
  • Intel dual-core Xeon E5503 (2.0GHz)
  • 4GB of 1333MHz ECC DDR3 SDRAM
  • NVIDIA Quadro NVS 420 (512MB)
  • 250GB (7200RPM) HDD
  • Five total HDD slots
  • Tray-loading 16x DVD Burner
  • Seven total PCIe slots
  • DVI / DisplayPort x 4 Video Outputs
  • USB 2.0 x 11 + FireWire x 2 + eSATA x 1
  • RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet 10/100/1000)
  • Headphone / Mic Input Jacks 
  • Dell Wired Keyboard & Mouse included
  • Bundled MCE Remote Control
  • 39.0 Pounds
  • 22.6" (W) x 8.5" (D) x 22.3" (H)
  • Windows 7 Professional (64-bit)
  • Microsoft Office Starter 2010
  • 3-Year Warranty
  • Price (MSRP): $2444
 HP Z600 Workstation - $2329
  • Intel Xeon E5630 Quad Core (2.53GHz)
  • 3GB DDR3-1333 ECC
  • NVIDIA Quadro FX580 (1GB)
  • 500GB (7200RPM) HDD
  • 16X DVD RW Dual Layer Multi Drive
  • Three PCIe Slots, 2 PCI Slots
  • 2 Internal 3.5" Bays, 2 External 5.25" Bays
  • Rear I/O: 6 USB 2.0, PS/2 keyboard/mouse
    1 RJ-45 to Integrated Gigabit LAN
    1 Audio Line In, 1 Audio Line Out, 1 Microphone In 
  • 3 Internal USB 2.0 Ports
  • Wireless Keyboard and Mouse
  • 37.4 Pounds
  • 17.5 x 6.5 x 17.3 in (Dimensions)
  • Microsoft Windows 7 Professional 64-bit
  • 3 Years parts, labor and onsite service
  • Price (MSRP): $2329
Judging workstations is pretty difficult. Prices vary wildly depending on manufacturer, chassis design and how you purchase them (via your business agreement or otherwise). This is Apples vs. Oranges at its best. But when comparing a similarly priced Dell workstation to Apple's baseline, low-end Mac Pro, we think Apple has the edge here. Yes, it's $50 more, but even when you add a $90 CPU upgrade to the Dell, you are still looking at a machine with a far slower processor.

Apple Mac Pro

Also, Apple throws in Wi-Fi, a GPU that could actually get a bit of gaming done after-hours, a full 1TB hard drive, and a faster DVD burner. We agree that having only 3GB of RAM in a $2499 machine is just crazy, but that's really the only major knock we could find on this system. At this level, the Apple Tax is far less noticeable. We certainly wish it matched Dell's 3-year warranty, though. We will say that it's probably more important for a true workstation owner to have a GPU that's certified for use in pro-level apps like Maya, but we think that Apple is trying to hit a happy medium with the Mac Pro considering that they do not offer a true gaming tower as well as a workstation; they simply have one true tower that has to cater to both markets somewhat.

As we mentioned earlier, workstation pricing varies wildly, and changes frequently. It's probably the most unstable pricing market of any of the sectors covered here. HP's Z600 workstation is currently being sold for just under what the Dell is ($2329), with a faster CPU and GPU. But of course, even HP lists these as "while supplies last," so we felt it somewhat unfair to compare a machine that was on clearance, limited in supply or otherwise on closeout. Still, deals are out there if you hunt!

Dell Precision T7500

On the next page, we'll condense what we've learned here and try to make some sense of the argument, or the legitimacy of it as a whole.
Judgment: Any Truth To The "Apple Tax?"
So, what have we learned from these comparisons?  First off, there's no way that these three comparisons can be representative of the entire Apple Tax argument. That's lesson number one. There is no overriding answer that covers every single Apple machine versus every competing Windows-based machine. Comparisons can be made that prove either side's point. It's a case-by-case basis based on personal usage model as well, and must be thought of that way. The next lesson is that this is an "Apples vs. Oranges" comparison. That's a theme that continually recurred for us.  Attempting to compare Apple to every other PC maker is difficult for two primary reasons: differences in software offerings and differences in design, aesthetics and materials.

Apple places a high value on their own OS X software and their own design chops. Most people, even those who hate Apple, will confess that their chassis designs are often leaps and bounds better than most other PC makers. Just look at the Mac Pro versus any other PC workstation. The Mac design is in a league its own. Of course, whether or not it's worth paying a premium for a computer to look good is something that can only be determined by the consumer. Some people couldn't care less what the case looks like, as long as it's a powerful and reliable machine. But here's a fact: there's a price premium associated with Apple designs, and it varies from machine to machine. There's really no arguing that. Apple machines tend to, in general, cost somewhat more than PC counterparts with similar specifications, and design is one of the huge differentiating factors that's hard to put a solid value on, though obviously that value is definitely tangible.

Now, let's touch on software. Apple clearly feels that OS X is superior to Windows. They tout the operating system as being more stable than Windows (though that can argued) and less likely to be targeted by viruses. The latter has more to do with virus makers targeting the OS with the widest audience than anything else, but no matter the reasoning, there's no arguing that Macs get hit with fewer viruses and other assorted malware. Again, this comes down to a personal decision by the end users. OS X is not right for everyone. Neither is Windows 7. Most of the reason for the "Apple Tax" argument revolve around disagreements here; Mac users generally assume that the OS X operating system is worth paying extra for, while Windows loyalists cannot understand why anyone would pay extra while Win7 handles their needs just fine.

In the end, we found each Apple machine to cost more than a similarly equipped PC counterpart, with the baseline Mac Pro being the exception. Usually the delta is around $50 to $150, and even that can be mitigated by using an educational discount or otherwise finding a deal from one of the many Mac e-tailers out there. Furthermore, each new Mac comes with $99 off of a printer, and there actually is a $99 printer you can select; so, if you need a new printer, that's an imputed $99 total system savings.

We did want to touch on desktops quickly. Apple essentially has no consumer-level desktop outside of the iMac. For example, there's no "headless iMac" to select. The only tower desktop sold by Apple has a Xeon server-class processor in it; nowhere is the option to select a more mainstream Core i7 CPU. Thus, it's impossible to compare Apple's tower to any of the various gaming towers on the market. If you're a gamer, and you need a desktop, Apple shouldn't even enter the discussion. They simply aren't catering to that market much, if at all.

In conclusion, yes, most Apple machines cost a bit more than similar PC counterparts. But if you put a great deal of value on longer battery life, generally improved resistance to viruses, eye-catching designs that use high-quality materials, and will make use of the robust iLife '11 software suite, then the tax--if you can even call it that--is worth paying. The real take-away here is that there's no reason to argue whether or not the Apple Tax is worthwhile; it will always be a case-by-case value-based decision for each consumer.  Depending on your needs, one product or the other will or won't make sense. Now, can't we just all hug and make up? 

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