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Recrunching the numbers on Mac procurement

Last month, GCN covered the issue of using Apple Macintosh computers in the workplace. We considered both the supposed pros (security, ease of use) and the cons (interoperability and the price premium) of using the Macs.

While, thanks to the Web, interoperability has become all but a non-issue over the past few years. But pricing remains a concern, real or imagined. In one of its government marketing Twitter blogs, Microsoft made hay with a Computer World article stating that Mac sales dropped by 17 percent, a drop one analyst attributed to the premium prices of the computers.

But enough evidence exists that the truism that Macs are always more expensive than PCs may, in fact, not always be true. In some cases, perhaps the Mac is the best deal.

In the GCN article, we compared the cost of a few Macs, along with a few similarly outfitted laptops on the General Services Administration's Schedule 70 for government IT purchases. It was a quick, informal comparison, one that pitted the a $1,900 MacBook Pro against a $738 Acer Aspire 5315.

One government IT manager, who wishes to remain on background, e-mailed that our comparison was hardly apples-to-apples (or Apple, as the case may be). The high-end MacBook Pro—with its 15-inch screen, backlit keyboard, Intel Core2Duo, two gigabytes of random access memory, Nvidia GeForce 9600M graphical processing unit—is just a much more powerful machine than the budget-minded Acer model, which is heavier, has a smaller screen and runs on a slower Intel Celeron processor. It is a "very big difference," he e-mailed, echoing more than a few reader comments.

If we wished to compare budget laptops, he suggested, a more apt comparison might be between the Acer and a basic MacBook, which is priced starting just below $1,000, not including any GSA discount. It's still pricier than the Acer, but not so much that the Apple polish couldn't justify the additional cost.

For additional consideration, our source also offered a very telling pair of comparisons between Apple laptops and Microsoft Windows-based devices. He compared list prices of both two mid-priced workhorse models and two budget-conscious models.

For this comparison, he chose the Dell Latitude line of laptops as the closet Windows equivalent to the Apple MacBook, on the basis that the Latitudes are generally pretty sturdy.

In the mid-priced market, he found that a white-clamshell MacBook, with an Intel 2 Ghz Core 2 Duo processor, would run $1,248, while a Dell Latitude E4300 with a similar specification and an Intel 2.26 Ghz processor would actually cost more, $1,690. In other words, in some instances, an Apple laptop may actually cost less than a similarly-configured Windows-based one.

On the other hand, when looking at the high-end, our source found that Apple is still more than willing to help you spend your money. An Intel 2.4 Ghz Core 2 Duo processor-based MacBook Pro, with configured for the power user could cost about $2,348, while a roughly equivalently configured (though arguably less elegant) Dell Latitude E6500, one with a 2.26 Ghz Intel processor, would run only $1,356.

In this case, you can get more computer for fewer dollars with Dell.

Both the MacBooks and the Latitudes in his comparison had similar hardware configurations, when it comes to Random Access Memory, processor speed and the like. And both products come with a three-year warranty.

Of course, comparing prices between competing products can be a never-ending game, and can be rigged in no end of ways. If you're enduring a slow day, why not do some of your own comparisons across both the Dell and Apple sites? As always, common sense holds true here: To get the most from your (or the taxpayer's) money, you have to understand your requirements very well. How fast do you really need your processor to be? How much memory do you need? How much disk space? How rugged does it need to be? How light? These comparisons do provide enough evidence, though, to start rethinking the idea that Apple Macs are always the more expensive choice.

Posted by Joab Jackson on Mar 18, 2009 at 9:39 AM

Reader Comments

Thu, Mar 19, 2009 OrionX San Diego, CA

I've administered joint networks of 1,000+ nodes of Macs and PC's and I absolutely agree with 'almost retired.' I had one engineer working for me service roughly 500 macs vs. 3 engineers to take care of the same number of PC's. Regardless of whether an administrator picks Macs or PC's, they should be relieved from their job if they don't factor in the total cost of ownership including technical support costs. The other comment regarding iWork's lower costs vs. Office also has great merit. iWork, which can also read Word and Excel and Powerpoint docs, is a strong office suite, especially Keynote, but I would not say it's Office's equal yet. Regarding stability, there is no question that the Mac is superior. If anyone wants to question that I would be happy to compare our Macs which can stay up for half a year or longer without crashing next to a Windows based machine. Then there is the better separation of the data from the operating system. If Windows crashes, at least this is the case from XP and earlier versions, you would likely lose all of your data, assuming there was no backup. On a Mac if the operating system were to crash, you just replace the OS, all of your data is safe on the hard drive. The engineering is just better. Macs are usually at the forefront of technical innovation as they were with wireless connections before other major manufacturers, larger screens, SCSI (which was way ahead of other solutions at the time), firewire /ieee 1394 (also ahead of other solutions at the time), magnetic power supply connectors on laptops, etc, etc. Lastly, they just last. I had a Powerbook laptop which lasted over 10 years. I used it to check on our websites with a piece of software that checked them every minute. That kind of life is typical for a Mac. They still have life far after they are a fully depreciated asset.

Thu, Mar 19, 2009 visual info specialist

I'd love a MacBook Pro for my work, but there's a general perception that Macs are too expensive/difficult to integrate into the gov environment. Most software I use (Adobe CS4) works on both platforms and MS Office for Mac (Word, PPT, Excel, etc.) has special pricing that costs federal users only $20 (normally $200). I hope for the chance to use a Mac but I won't hold me breath.

Thu, Mar 19, 2009

You guys really should get out more. Once you add cost of software (MS Office at $500+ vs iWork '09 at $40 gubmint pricing - same or better SW, and the docs produced are seamlessly interchangeable with Office users), pus life span (it is not unusual to get 8 years or more USEFUL life out of a Mac), time not spent patching or addressing security breaches, Macs are almost always cheaper in the end, in terms of cost of ownership. When talking about bulk purchases, the savings in seat costs with OSX vs Windows makes it a no-brainer. (Note: "White Clamshell" Macbooks are at end-of-life and cost well under $1200. A little homework is in order. Also? The term "Clamshell" has not been used since the multi-colored Macs were phased out about seven years ago). Both this and the previous piece about Macs in the workplace are well done, except for the concept and execution.

Thu, Mar 19, 2009 almost-retired

Joab, I'm getting tired of all these comparisons. I've been managing Macs for 20 years and I know that you get what you pay for. I'm tired of government sites always going for the lowest initial bid. These bids never end up costing the least and that's the problem when comparing Macs and Windows PCs. It's like comparing the cost of ink jet printers. It's the stupid consumables that end up costing you the most. Go ahead and buy the compatible ink and see how long both your printer and prints last. It's the same with Windows PCs. What's the total cost of ownership? This initial cost of anything is never what you end up paying. With most Macs, you get a nice suite of software and hardware that doesn't fall apart before it's delivered to your desk. Dell, HP, Acer, none of them provide the software so you get to choose either Windows or Linux and the incremental costs associated with both (yes, Linux does have some costs). Talk to the IT staff about all the jobs created trying to secure the Windows environment (network and OS). Yes, Macs can be attacked but all the money spent on anti-virus scanning, intrusion detection and protection, is spent to protect Windows systems. Look at what these systems have for anti-virus signatures. Very few are Mac-based. This is the true difference in cost between Macs and PCs and it's not a couple hundred dollars, it's thousands when you include the infrastructure costs for normal government installations.

Thu, Mar 19, 2009 AAA

I don't feel you chose same level laptops to compare. High-end Dell Latitude E6500 $1356. Mid-priced Dell Latitude E4300 $1690.

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