iMac?
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Feature Article
iMac?

October 1, 2002
By Scott Lewis

For some time I have been contemplating the idea of getting a Mac for my next computer. I have always admired the cute little computer for its simplicity and stability.

But what would it really take to move to a Mac? Would I really want to? And what will it cost? These are serious questions, and I have a few answers that are missing from the mainstream press about this topic that we need to consider if we really want to leave WinTel.

iMac Widescreen

Apple has been pushing the "switch" to the Mac pretty heavily lately. I have even seen commercials for it. But what does Apple really have to offer except a cute, and maybe underpowered, computer?

Then I saw the iMac Widescreen. This was the final straw for me. I thought the latest iMac with a 17" widescreen LCD display was too much to look past. It was just the thing to make the iMac different enough from a WinTel box to get me to want to switch.

I stopped by CompUSA to pick up Kid Pix Deluxe for my kids. I was blown away by the massive Mac displays. They had everything. They had flat panel displays on all the PowerMacs. There were plenty of those clear speakers. My kids thought it was all so cool. So did I.

As a bonus Apple has released OS X 10.2 (code named Jaguar). This is the latest version of the new Mac OS X. It has a number of features that make it the best version for people moving from WinTel and/or connecting to a Windows network.

The widescreen iMac should be powerful enough to perform anything I would throw at it for some time with a 800 MHz G4 processor (or is it, more later). But what about 2 or three years from now. What will it take to upgrade it? My current computer is a 450MHz Celeron based computer. For about $200-300 I could replace the motherboard and CPU and have a much faster computer. Add another $100 for a bunch of memory and I could be close to today's top speed computers. My current hard drive is a 7200 RPM drive, which is still the same speed going today. It is easy to get a motherboard with decent video and sound on board to avoid those extra costs.

The Widescreen iMac is $1999, and I bet it can't be upgraded at all except for maybe a simple memory upgrade.

But its not fair to compare a new computer against an old upgraded computer on price. So what would it cost to find an equivalent WinTel box to the iMac? I checked Dell out to see what they had these days (these days being early September when I did the pricing for this article).

Computer
Monitor
Processor
Memory
Hard Drive
Video
Network
Speakers
CD/DVD
Ports
Price
Tax
Firewire
Total
iMac
17" Widescreen LCD
800 MHz G4
256 MB
80 GB
NVidia GeForce4 MX
10/100 Ethernet
Apple Pro 3
CD-RW/DVD-R
Firewire/USB
$1999
$154
N/A
$2153
Dell
17" LCD
Intel 2.0 GHz
80GB
256 MB
NVidia GeForce4 MX
10/100 Ethernet
Pc w/ Sub
DVD+RW (& CD-RW)
USB
$1888
$146
$27
$2061

The iMac Widescreen is a pricey Mac. What about the low end of the Mac lineup:

Computer
Monitor
Processor 
Memory
Hard Drive
Video
Network
Speakers
CD/DVD
Ports
Price
Tax
Firewire
Total
eMac
17" (All-in-One)
700MHz G4
128 MB
40 GB
GeForce2 MX 32 MB
10/100 Ethernet
Built-in
DVD/CD-RW
Firewire/USB
$1099
$85
N/A
$1184
Dell
19" (free upgrade)
1.8 GHz P4
128 MB
40 GB
Intel Extreme 3D
10/100 Ethernet
3 Pc w/ Sub
32x CD-RW/DVD
USB
$897
$69
$27
$993

As you can see it still costs more for a Mac just for hardware. I was a little surprised that the prices were as close as they were. I expected a bigger difference. Notice that the price was closer at the high end then the low end. Interesting. One factor here is the CD-RW in the high end Dell. To get DVD burning capability in the Dell I had to configure it with TWO drives. This does cost more than a single drive solution, but the Dell solution provides a big boost in performance for reading and writing CDs with a dedicated CD-RW drive.

Sales Tax

You are probably wondering why I included sales tax in this comparison. Well, next month I plan on comparing the information here to a home built computer. I have built 5 or 6 computers so far, and I have never had to pay sales tax. I don't expect I will have to pay sales tax when I mail order all the parts if I build another computer. So sales tax is something that must be considered in the budget eventually. It will be more clear next month. Just be patient and know that it makes sense.

Now, let's take a deeper look at each system for a moment to go over its advantages and disadvantages.

Dell

One of the biggest advantages to buying a "second" computer, is software. The Dells were packaged with Microsoft Works, which is adequate but not really an Office suite. Apple includes AppleWorks on the iMac (I don't know about the eMac). Again adequate, but not a true Office Suite. If you already own a copy of MS Office (as I do) you just install it on your second (or third or fourth) computer, don't you. Prior to Office XP there was nothing to actually stop you from installing a piece of software you already own on another computer. Microsoft calls this "casual piracy." I don't think the vast number of people that do this think of it that way. But I will not get into that at this time. That is a topic for another article. Suffice it to say that people will inevitably install copies of software they own on a new computer, whether they keep the old one or not.

If you want Office Professional on the Dell it will cost an extra $349. Ouch! I checked the price for a full version of Office X for the Mac and it was $427. Just trying to be fair. I mention this because as we will see soon, it is more expensive than people realize to "switch" to the Mac. One thing to keep in mind here are discs. Dell probably pre-installs Office, and you may never get actual discs that allow you to install the software on another computer. This is important information for people buying their first computer with the knowledge they will be buying more computers sometime in the future.

Dell's low end system uses a custom "slim line" case with an external monitor. In my opinion this is an advantage. Although its slim case probably has little to no room to grow, it should still be reasonable to replace the hard drive with a bigger one down the road. Not many people upgrade their computers, but the Dells still gets an advantage in upgradeability over the Macs. In fact you can go to a flat panel screen with Dell's slim line case at any time. And those little cases are pretty cool looking lately, so they almost make up for the style the Apple provides. With Apple you make your decision on your configuration at purchase time and stick with it until you get another computer.

Dell's high end system uses a mini tower case and is far more upgradeable than any iMac or eMac. In fact, it probably takes a standard size motherboard so that a motherboard and CPU upgrade could be performed anytime the need arises. Most people won't do this, but it is there, and you don't pay extra to get it.

I added a firewire card to the cost of the Dells above. I priced it mail order through www.buy.com at the time of this research. One of the reasons I have for wanting to go to the Mac is the iPod... a truly great portable MP3 player. If I stay in the WinTel world, I will need FireWire for the PC version of the iPod.

Apple

The Apple computers provide something you don't get will other brands... style. Although Gateway came up with a stylish "all-in-one" flat panel design after I started the research on this article it still isn't as stylish as the iMac. Sorry Gateway. Even the Dell's slim case, though nicer looking than a big tower, is not as attractive as anything Apple is producing.

But how important is style in a computer. Many Mac fans will say a lot. If so then why did the Mac Power Cube fail to take off with Mac fans? I won't go there. Remember... the reason for a computer is to run software. You really don't need style to do that. But even I can't help being swayed by Apple's style. This is a judgment call that you will have to make for your self.

If we think of a computer as a device to run software then the biggest concern for Apple IS software. Neither system comes with Office. So if you need MS Office you will have to buy it. With the Dell I already own a copy of Office 2000 (which is more that good enough, and I prefer Office 2000 over Office XP). Since I will be giving my current computer to my kids or making a mini server out of it, it will not need Office so I would be completely legal in installing my copy of Office 2000 on my next computer. I can't do this if I buy a Mac. The iMac comes with AppleWorks which is supposed to read and write MS Office documents. But AppleWorks is a lightweight application, and may not handle a lot of the stuff Microsoft handles in their file formats. If you really need to read and write Office files, expect to buy Office X for Mac X. That is a cost that does not make it into the realm of getting people to switch from Windows to the Mac. Many articles I have read seem to ignore this point. They assume you will burden a similar cost when buying a new PC and buying Office for it. If you own the discs to Office already then you probably wouldn't think twice about installing it on a new computer. If Apple really wants people to switch they should bundle all their computers with MS Office X.

Price is a big problem with Apple. If you want an iMac with a large screen you have to get the iMac Widescreen at $1999. All the other iMacs have the 15" LCD. At least the eMacs now have a 17" CRT Monitor... now that 19" monitors are cheap and plentiful. Dell was providing a 19" monitor as a free upgrade (at the time of research) on its low end model. Hello Apple!

Two grand is pricey for a regular desktop computer these days. What about a typical desktop configuration. If you move to the Power Mac G4 (monitor is a separate item, not permanently attached like the iMac & eMac) they START at $1699 without a monitor. Ouch! And Apple only has LCD monitors on its web site. You would have to go looking for a Mac compatible monitor from another manufacturer if you want a killer CRT for a decent price.

Something to notice about the Power Macs is that they all have dual processors. Is Apple admitting that two processors are needed to keep up with Intel's single processors in the high end desktop market? This gives me pause about the processors used in the iMac and eMac. Are they going to feel as fast to a Windows user as a 1.8, 2.0 or 2.4 GHz WinTel computer running mainstream applications? Don't forget, even as I researched this (a couple of months ago) you could get WinTel boxes up to 2.53 GHz, and 2.8 GHz was just around the corner.

Another thing, how many Mac applications really make use of dual processors? I considered building a system with dual processors a while back. Windows 2000 easily can use them, but what about applications? None of the applications I have will gain any performance from two processors. An application must be written to take advantage of two processors or else it will run on just one. In fact, the overhead on the Operating System to juggle two CPUs may be enough to negate having them if your applications can't use them. Until games start using multiple processors don't expect it to become a trend in regular applications.

Price & Configuration

When I did my research I was trying very hard to configure the Dells to match the Macs. But you can't go the other way around. The Macs come in very few variations. Dell is not perfect in this area. The slim line case of the dells does not allow you to upgrade it graphics or sound, which means it is probably built into the motherboard and you will never be able to add a better graphics card, and may have trouble installing a better sound card. However, Dell still beats Apple hands down for customization.

The Apple computers are pricey. Since I matched the Dells to the Macs it is not fair to Dell. Why? Because what if I want a big 17" LCD monitor but I don't want a DVD-R drive. I had to pay extra to get the DVD-R drive in the Dell. I could have saved a couple of hundred dollars more without it. And I could still add one later if I wanted to. You are stuck with Apple's Choice if you buy a Mac. Also consider that if you skip the DVD-R drive in the Mac lineup it will drop to a 15" screen. I could save money on the Dell by getting a 15" display. I could easily add a 17" LCD to a low end Dell. In fact, the slim case of the entry level Dells would look almost "stylish" with a LCD, and it would be a configuration you simply cannot get from Apple.

Bottom line... WinTel boxes are cheaper than Macs. Apple puts together packages that seem reasonable when compared to matching configurations on PCs. But maybe you don't want the configuration they think you should have. I'll bet if we took a "standard Dell configuration" and tried to get a Mac to match it you would see a bigger spread in price.

Software

I need to stress the software issue again. Beyond Office there are still concerns for the Mac. It will cost a lot to start over on a collection of software. Productivity suites, Games, Personal Finance, Games, Image Editing, Games, Content Creation, Games, etc. All computers come with the basics for living in an online world. Browsers, E-Mail clients, etc., are all included... but then again they are also free. Microsoft still offers Internet Explorer as a free download. Once you get past the Operating System there is still a lot you can do for free. But having the software pre-loaded, and ready to go right out of the box can be a huge benefit to many people.

Personally, I need a replacement for Paint Shop Pro, MS Office including FrontPage & Anti-Virus software. These are the major applications I need. I use MS Money, but since I could keep using that on my laptop I don't have to worry too much about buying Quicken 2003 for the Mac for $53.67. Sun has OpenOffice for the Mac, which could go a long way toward saving money in the short and long run... if it meets your needs.

However, I don't even know of a product equivalent to FrontPage for the Mac. If you do, please let me know. Also, if there is an equivalent to FrontPage for Linux.... please let me know because I may be tackling the Linux issue in an upcoming article.

How To Sell A Mac

I know exactly what Apple needs to do to penetrate the PC market and sell a ton of computers. Lower the price! If a Mac were cheaper than a Windows PC then people would start flocking to it. But it also needs to have the software that would enable users to switch. That means including Office... even at the lower price. Once people converted to the Mac I think it would be much harder to convert back to the PC world if the applications were there. Steve Jobs... are you listening?

Total Cost

It is hard to determine the total cost of these computers. If you really want to go on the cheap with software you can use Freeware and Shareware. There are also low cost alternatives to Microsoft Office, such as OpenOffice, StarOffice and ThinkFree Office. These are all available on Windows and/or the Mac. They all read Microsoft Office files. So you could get away without buying a lot of software. Apple has pretty good music, movie (yuck!), etc. software so you don't need to run out and buy anything to be reasonable productive.

Games is the biggest drawback for me. Top quality games are few and far between on the Mac. I don't see this changing until after Apple has made huge leaps in the desktop market... which is unlikely. My current favorite game is Warcraft III... thankfully it is available on the Mac. But I already bought it for the PC. Do you think Blizzard will cut me a deal on buying a second copy for the Mac? I doubt it.

Conclusion

Windows is more than good enough (especially Windows 2000 and Windows XP Professional). There is no compelling reason to make the switch to Apple's cute little Mac. But now Apple is pushing the switch. Too little, too late in my opinion. Sorry. At this point I will stick with WinTel until Macs get lower in price, or offer something more than a great MP3 player to make me want to switch.

Besides, the iPod is available for the PC now anyway.

Next month I will compare the two Dells above to what you can build yourself. Come back then to see if it pays to build it yourself or buy a computer from a major vendor.

Until then...

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