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By | Rik Myslewski 11th April 2009 06:10

Microsoft conjures imaginary 'Apple Tax'

What Price Nonsense?

Updated The age-old battle between Microsoft and Apple is heating up again, and this time, Redmond is cheating.

On Thursday, Microsoft released a company-sponsored snark-fest written by Roger L. Kay of Endpoint Technology Associates that is, simply put, an embarrassment.

This report, entitled What Price Cool? (PDF) and breathlessly pimped by The Windows Experience Blog-poodle Brandon LeBlanc, is riddled with inaccuracies, misstatements, and distortions.

The premise of WPC? is two-fold: first, that the Mac is a success because Mac fanbois simply want to be "cool," and second, that there's an enormous hidden "Apple tax" lurking to devour the wallets of Mac users.

We won't even touch the "cool" bait. Sure, ridiculing coolness is becoming a centerpiece of Redmond's latest assault on Cupertino - cf. Lauren's "I'm just not cool enough to be a Mac person" TV advert - but we'll leave a discussion of the powers of peer pressure and fashion fever to the social scientists and trend-spotters. We're geeks.

But before we continue with a deconstruction of some of Kay's more concrete arguments, let's establish one simple fact: Yes, it's nearly always possible to buy a Windows-based PC for less than a Mac. It you want a utilitarian box with which to check your email, browse the web, and wrestle with Excel and Word, a PC can usually get you there more cheaply.

But, then again, both a Fiat 500 and a Mercedes S-Class can take you across town.

Which is not to say that Macs are S-Class machines - we'd suggest E-Class, with S-Class reserved for laptops like a 13.3-inch Sony VAIO Z model VGN-Z698Y/X, which runs a cool $4,399.99.

Kay's point in WPC? is not just that you can find cheaper, crappier machines than those from Apple - and more-expensive, better-equipped ones as well. No news there. What he's trying to prove is that when you buy a Mac you get less bang for your buck - and that's where his arguments begin to get a bit sketchy.

For example - and for reasons that can at best be described as opportunistic - Kay repeatedly fixates on Blu-ray. After first admitting that it's "arguable whether Blu-ray will ever be adopted by mainstream buyers," he goes on to compare an internal LiteOn DH-401S Blu-ray player to "Apple's solution - a standalone player from Sony, the BDP-S350."

Apple's solution? Says who? The BDP-S350 is nowhere to be found on Apple's website or in its online store.

It gets sketchier. In his laptop comparisons, Kay compares a defunct Apple MacBook with entry-level Dell, HP, and Sony units, using MacBook specs that have been out of date for months. He also ignores Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, 802.11n, and Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics.

His comparison of desktop models is also disingenuous. Again, he uses the wrong specs for the Mac mini: wrong processor, wrong RAM, wrong graphics, wrong hard-drive size, wrong ports. You get the picture.

Now, it's possible - probable, even - that Kay is merely being unprofessionally sloppy, not bothering to go back and redo his work after the recent round of Mac upgrades. But that's no excuse for Microsoft to publish arguments citing these incorrect stats nearly six weeks after they went out of date.

Kay's next boner, though, is more egregious. In his comparison of desktop Macs, he states that "At the high end, the gap is particularly wide" - and then price-compares a quad-core Xeon Mac Pro with a quad-core Core 2 Duo HP d5100t. Aside from the fact that his text doesn't agree with his chart, equating a Xeon with a Core 2 Duo is ludicrous.

(Kay could have upgraded his chart to reflect the new Mac Pro - after all, it was released over a month ago. But maybe his PC crashed).

And so instead of Kay's risible comparison of a now-defunct Xeon 5400-based Mac Pro to a Core 2 Duo-based HP Pavilion Elite d5100t, let's try the more-direct comparison of two Xeon 5500 workstations: a current single-processor Apple Mac Pro versus a single-processor Dell Precision T5500 that we've configured to be as close, spec-wise - as we could to the Mac Pro.

Let's see how they stack up...

One-on-One Xeon Action

Apple Mac Pro

  • 2.66GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon 5500 "Nehalem" processor
  • Mac OS X 10.5.6
  • 3GB DDR3 1066MHz ECC SDRAM (3 DIMMS)
  • Four full-length PCIe 2.0 slots
  • 640GB hard drive
  • 18x double-layer DVD+/-RW
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 512MB
  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
  • Four internal 3.5-inch HDD bays
  • Two external 5.25-inch optical bays
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • Seven USB 2.0 ports (two on keyboard)
  • Four FireWire 800 ports
  • Optical digital-audio I/O TOSLINK ports
  • Price as configured: $2,499

Dell Precision T5500

  • 2.66GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon 5500 "Nehalem" processor
  • Windows Vista Ultimate Service Pack 1
  • 3GB DDR3 1333MHz ECC SDRAM (3 DIMMS)
  • Two full-length PCIe 2.0 slots
  • Two half-length PCIe slots
  • One half-length 64-bit/100MHz PCI-X slot
  • One full-length 32-bit/33MHz PCI slot
  • 500GB hard drive
  • 16X DVD+/-RW
  • NVIDIA Quadro NVS 295 256MB
  • Two internal 3.5-inch HDD bays
  • Two external 5.25-inch optical bays
  • One external 3.5" flex bay
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • Eight external USB 2.0 ports
  • Three internal USB 2.0 ports
  • Two FireWire 400 ports (with PCIe card)
  • One eSATA port on back panel
  • Price as configured: $3,630

We could have boosted the Dell's hard-drive capaciousness from 500GB to 750GB, since the company doesn't offer a 640GB model as Apple does, but that would have raised the price by another $100, and we didn't want to seem overzealous.

After all, we're not Robert L. Kay.

Oh, and we didn't bother to add up the minor, niggling annoyances such as Dell charging for computer and display recycling that Apple offers for free and charging $25 for Laplink PCmover Essentials when Apple includes Migration Assistant as part of Mac OS X.

After bumbling his way through Mac hardware, Kay trains his dusty spyglass on a hardware-software package - and here's where his analysis becomes an embarrassing display of Redmond-focused toadyism.

First, Kay invents a hypothetical PC-using family that already has all the software they need, in versions that will work seamlessly as they transition from Windows XP to Windows 7 (to his credit, he does give a nod to "Microsoft’s stumble on Vista"). He therefore assumes no software costs for his PC model and a full complement of software costs for his Mac model.

He completely ignores - as he does throughout his analysis - any and all software bundled with Mac OS X, just as he entirely ignores the aesthetics of the Mac OS X experience. Oh, sorry - we had promised to leave subjective "coolness" out of this argument. Back to the facts.

Kay also provides his hypothetical family with a Mac Pro, when 99 per cent of Mac-using consumers would be just fine with an iMac. Presumably, he skips the iMac because, as he notes earlier in his screed, "In midrange desktops, Apple is more competitive than in other areas."

Finally, Kay overloads his Mac family with services such as AppleCare, Apple Store One to One Care, five years of a MobileMe Family Pack, and a hypothetical future iLife Family Pack upgrade. Oh, and that darn Blu-ray drive makes an appearance again in year four.

As you might guess, looked at this way, the WPC? "Apple Tax" is mighty hefty indeed - as would a "Windows Tax" be if a Mac user needed to completely rebuild his family's software collection for a move to Windows 7, and was forced to buy unnecessary services and unneeded hardware.

In addition, Kay doesn't mention three other items that such a Windows Tax would include: the need for regular malware-purging system enemas, the time lost in wrestling with an OS that may be improving but still remains recalcitrant, and the bottle of Jägermeister a Windows user needs to keep in his desk drawer to calm those Conficker jitters. ®

Update

Two sharp-eyed Reg readers have pointed out an error in this article's Mac Pro versus Dell Precision comparison: that a single quad-core Mac Pro uses a Xeon W3520 ($284 1k unit price) and not a Xeon E5550 ($958 1k unit price) as in the Dell. Same Nehalem architecture, but the W3520 has a single 4.8 GT/s QPI link while the E5550 has two 6.4 GT/s QPI links for dual-socket configs. Also, the Dell is bundled with a 19-inch 1909W display.

Error regretted, point well-taken, posters thanked.

However, a stock Mac Pro with two Xeon 2.26GHz E5520s, 6GB of 1066MHz DDR3 ECC SDRAM, 512MB NVIDIA GeForce GT 120, a 640GB 7200rpm HDD, and other config details as listed above runs $3,299, while a Dell Precision T5500 with the same processors, 4GB of 1066MHz ECC DDR3 (Dell doesn't offer a 6GB config), 512MB Nvidia Quadro FX 580, a 500GB 7200rpm HDD, and other details as listed above runs $3,430.

Difference minimal, no "Apple Tax," argument remains in play.

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