A mobius strip debate: PC vs. Apple, by the specs

Over the weekend, I picked up our new custom-built home PC system from my brother’s house. That, along with Apple’s new TV spots, got me thinking about the endless debate of PC/MSFT vs Apple. While I feel it’s one of those mobius strips of personal belief- like abortion or Red Sox vs. Yankees, its a debate neither side can hope to “win”- I still think that popping up every once in a while to make a point is good exercise.

As I said, what’s set me off this time are two factors. I’ll get to the cost/quality factor later on, but first I want to talk briefly about Apple’s new TV spots running all over prime time and cable. The commercials are typical Apple- smug, sarcastic, and delusional. They’re a far cry from the “Switch” campaign, which should a demographically-diverse range of “real” people, talking naturally about how switching to Apple did meaningful things for them- such as make their lives a tiny bit easier.

Today, Apple has traded that image- one of inclusion and friendliness- for that of a 20-something hipster with an all-powerful attitude towards a laughably stereotypical nerd that is supposed to represent a personified PC (and PC user).

The sad part here is Apple’s shocking hubris. As recent as five years ago, they were taking a friendly tact towards earning customers. Now that they’ve had admittedly gigantic success with a music player (it’s a single product line, mind you), they’ve gone into full-on jerk mode, effectively saying that the only people they need are the affluent young urban and suburbanites who sing the praises of the iPod and by proxy related products. This is a classic example of a company putting on huge blinders and believing that the magic dust they’ve been splashed with is anything but the latest in a long line of popularity-driven trends, which, as many other companies know, can be as quick to leave a product as they are to arrive.

I could be wrong, but I see Apple painting themselves into a giant corner here. They’re betting their entire future on a small subset of the population whose tastes are so notoriously fickle that they can destroy a product in weeks without a single afterthought?

So that’s hubris and blindness, now what about the actual product specs? Those happen to be exactly what irks me most about Macs. See, if they were more extensible, more powerful, and more accessible products, I could easily forgive some of their arrogance and defend their longer-term prospects. However, if you take a real look at technical specs, you find that Apple loses to any number of intelligently-built PC systems on all counts: performance, selection, customizability, and of course, price.

Recently, our home desktop system died and we began looking for a new system. My first stop was to check out Apple’s site since my search began just days after they announced support for Windows XP on their machines. I figured I’d give them a chance, hardware-wise, and see how they compared to my history of building my own custom PC systems.

I found just one system that was not outrageously overpriced, and since I’m not into the habit of paying through the nose for something just because it happens to be hip this year, I narrowed it down to a single potential Mac system: the 1.66GHZ MacMini model, retailing on the Apple site for $799.

Curious to compare Apple’s “Power has never been this economical” system with a custom-built PC for around the same price, I turned to my brother, a systems administrator, long-time custom PC expert, and VP of a networking consulting firm to see what he could deliver me for $800, or the same price as the MacMini.

Before I tell you which system I chose, I’ll let this handy comparison chart fill you in on the details of the Apple MacMini vs. the custom-built system my brother designed for me:

  Apple logo
Apple MacMini 1.66GHZ
Antec Super Lanboy PC case
My own self-built PC system
Winner
Processor 1.66GHZ Intel dual-core AMD Athlon 64-bit 2.1GHZ PC! – 50% faster, 64-bit power
Memory 512MB DDR at 667mhz 1GB Ultra DDR RAM at 400mhz PC! – Double the RAM!
Hard drive 80GB Serial ATA 7400RPM 74GB at 10,000RPM PC! – You can’t beat 10k!
Optical drive Dual-layer DVDR/RW/CD/R/RW at 8x speed Plextor dual-layer DVDR/RW CD/R/RW at 16x speed PC! – Twice as fast, plus the reliability of Plextor
Video card Intel GMA950 64MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory nVidia GeForce 6200 256MB HDTV/DVI/PCI video PC! – 4 times the RAM
Case Apple MacMini case Antec Lanboy aluminum case; dual fans (one oversize), hidden-door front Your call – But I’ll take my case. It’s expandable, for one.
Ports 4 USB, FireWire, 10/100 GB Ethernet 9 USB, 9-in-1 card reader, 3 FireWire, 10/100 GB PC! – double the USB, triple the FireWire, same ethernet
TOTAL PRICE $799 $680 PC! – It’s $119 less!!


Additional notes:
These specs don’t even consider that my system also includes three additional hard drives– a 100GB, 80GB, and 40GB- that I was easily able to swap out from my old PC and place into my new PC. I also took my ATI TV Wonder VE TV tuner and easily popped it into my new case. Likewise, if I want to upgrade to 2GB of RAM in the future, it will literally be a snap.

Of course, swaps, transfers, and upgrades likes these are the dirty little secrets of Apple’s vaunted hardware. Besides the impossibility of adding anything to the MacMini, you’d also have to contend with the sheer lack of selection of hardware and get hit again with exorbitant prices anytime you tried to upgrade existing parts. Combine that with Apple’s frustrating and long-standing habit of releasing new products while your current system still feels fresh, and they get you again. And again.

As you have probably guessed, I chose the custom-built PC system and pocketed the extra hundred bucks. I even used part of my leftover cash to pick-up a low-cost HP printer to replace my 10-year old DeskJet 742. Add that to the list, and I’ve still got $50 to spend on something besides a computer. Sorry, Apple, I guarantee you that whatever it is, it won’t be shiny and grey with a little silver apple etched on it.

  • Maybe you should compare your machine to an apple tower, since yours is. It’s like comparing it to a powerbook, they just aren’t the same thing! GOSH!

  • OK, Alex commented, and Apple zealots don’t stand alone. I mean c’mon.

    I actually think Apple’s going for the opposite message with their campaign – they’re saying that anyone, not just geeky businessmen, can use a Mac. Hey, it worked for the iPod (cool dancing people instead of showing off MP3 player features actually attract people? neato!).

    I’ve had this PowerBook since October ot-3, and I have to say I’m still very, very happy with it. That’s more than I can say for any Windows box I kept for that long. As I see it, 90% (or more) of people won’t care about the upgrades, or the amount of RAM, or the processor inside the thing (by the way, I don’t think comparing Duos – on Macs or PCs – to Athlons based on purely numbers is fair); that 90% cares more about the experience, the ease-of-use, the support, and the reliability of their computer. Have you sat down and actually used a Mac that’s running one of their newer OS’s? I can’t stand using Windows anymore; the spyware and the overall crappy design really makes me sick sometimes. That’s not arrogant… it’s just having an opinion after using a different (and better) product for a few years. The software just makes my life so much easier than it would be if I were using Windows.

    I hadn’t had a good ol’ fashioned Mac rant for a while. I’m sorry it had to be directed at you, Jason. Next time I’ll be more insightful and less cliche.

  • Thanks for the comments, Justin. Some good thoughts- you’re arguing more for user experience than for specs, which can be powerful factors for sure.

    I’ve never been bothered by spyware, though I know many have. And I tend to prefer the Windows experience, but that’s just me.

    Your trip down Rt 27 sounds interesting; hope you post some photos on it.

  • andy

    c’mon guys…

    I work in the multimedia industry as a graphic designer. And in my studio about half of us use Macs and half PC’s based solely on what we’re most comfortable with. Both have their pros and cons but I must admit, my HP dual Xeon workstation kills any G5 workstation in actual processing speed and reliability, and that alone is enough for me to want a PC over a Mac (which btw Steve Jobs, definately DO crash!).

    I may be a designer, but I’ll always choose performance over frills!