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PC-Mac debate ends with price


Whenever I make my semiannual recommendations to PC shoppers, I get calls and messages from Apple Macintosh owners asking why I don't mention their favorite computer.

There are a couple of reasons. One is that Macs account for only 5 percent of the desktop computer market (Apple's own figure). Of those customers, a sizable chunk are professional designers and artists at the high end, and schools at the low end.

As a general-purpose consumer PC, the Mac really doesn't make much of an impact. There are many more sources for Windows-based computers, which are considerably less expensive than Macs and have more software available for them.

More important, I don't see a whole lot of difference between the Mac operating system and Windows in terms of the user's experience. If you're writing a paper using Microsoft Word, it's pretty much the same whether you're using an IBM PC or a Mac. Same for balancing your checkbook, reading e-mail and browsing the Web.

I also get tired of the hate mail. Whenever I've been anything less than sycophantic in praise of the Mac, the Macolytes have come out of the woodwork, assaulting my intelligence, my sanity, my knowledge, my ancestry and my ethics (I must be on Bill Gates' payroll). Over a 30-year career covering everything from small town cops to Capitol Hill, the only people who ever questioned my integrity have been the Macolytes. Other tech writers have had the same experience - the Mac is as much cult as computer.

This doesn't mean the Mac gets bad press. If IBM, Compaq, Gateway or Dell introduces a new PC, it might get a paragraph or two in the trade rags, but when Apple CEO-for-Life Steve Jobs comes up with a new model, every business page in the country runs a picture of the master showman strutting his stuff. He's very good at it.

But Jobs also knows that the occasional splash may not be enough to get his message out. So he's opening 25 company-owned Apple stores in yupscale locations such as the Tyson's Corner Mall in Northern Virginia. It's hard to turn a profit at a couple of hundred dollars a box in a store that costs you $500,000 a year in rent alone, but that's not the point. Jobs is trying to build a buzz, to show the world just how cool his Mac is - and that it's worth the premium he charges.

And the Mac is indeed a cool computer. It's elegant and beautifully crafted, and Apple has developed clever software for making digital movies that it's plugging like crazy. Unfortunately, it takes a $1,000 digital movie camera to make the software work.

That's always been a problem with the Mac. It's champagne when most of us are satisfied with Bud Lite. To illustrate, I took a trip to the online stores operated by Apple and Dell (the largest Intel-based PC maker) and tried to create two machines that were generally comparable.

This isn't a precise science, because Macs are built around PowerPC processors manufactured by Motorola, while Dell uses Intel Pentium chips. And they're fundamentally different designs, so you can't directly compare clock rates - the number of cycles per second at which chips operate.

This has always been a marketing problem for Apple because the fastest Power PC in its G4 line runs at 733 MHz, less than half the clock speed of Intel's fastest Pentium 4. But the PowerPC does more work in fewer clock cycles. At the top of the line, the PowerPC probably has the edge in raw speed. So saying that one is "better" than the other means taking sides in a religious war. They're both fast enough to do anything the average user might ever want to do.

I think the "sweet spot" in Apple's market is at the bottom end of its tower line, with a 466 MHz G4 processor. Even a "slow" G4 is an incredibly fast chip - unless you're a professional designer or multimedia developer, the 466 is all you'll really need.

In any case, trying to match cost and horsepower, I decided to believe Apple's boasts and matched the Mac against a Dell 8100 with a top of the line, 1.7-GHz Pentium 4 processor. I configured each machine with 128 megabytes of memory, a 40 gigabyte Ultra-ATA hard disk and a CD/RW drive, which is virtually a necessity today for backup purposes.

Identical 32 MB, NVIDIA GeForce2 video adapters provided the graphics in both machines (standard equipment on the Dell, a $100 upgrade on the Mac). To display the video, I chose Apple's superb 17-inch Studio Display and picked a top-of-the-line 17-inch Trinitron monitor for the Dell.

To the Dell I added a FireWire adapter with movie editing software to match the Mac's built in support for the high-speed digital transfer technology. For networking, the Dell uses a 3Com 10/100 MBPS Ethernet card. The Mac comes with a "gigabit" network adapter that is potentially much faster, although few existing networks support the extra speed.

Since a computer is supposed to do some real work, I ordered Microsoft Office 2000 Small Business edition installed on the Dell and ordered Office 2001 for the Mac (they're roughly comparable although the Mac version includes PowerPoint).

The bottom line: $1,857 for the Dell and $2,708 for the Mac (including a $50 rebate on Microsoft Office). That's a difference of $851, and in this particular matchup, the Dell is likely to be a somewhat better performer thanks to its newer, faster processor.

How much "cooler" does a computer have to be to command a premium of almost 50 percent? An interesting question.

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