How much is style worth?

by James R. Stoup Nov 13, 2005

Much speculation has been made, and much bull has been shot, over Apple’s announcement that they would be transitioning away from IBM’s PPC chip line and over to Intel’s new chip series. And as soon as people saw OS X running natively on an Intel processor they began to speculate on the idea of clones. Now, anyone familiar with Steve Job’s history with Apple should know that one of the first things he did after coming back was to kill the clone program. Furthermore, ever since that day he has emphatically denied any suggestion that Apple would ever license OS X and, as recent as June, reaffirmed that OS X will only run on Apple hardware. So there.

Of course, this is Steve Jobs we are talking about so everything he has said concerning clones needs to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, if Apple did decide to license OS X he would categorically deny it up until the time when he walked onto stage and introduced Mr. Dell. So, no matter which course of action Apple ultimately decides on they will still give us the same song and dance until it is officially released to the world. Well, having established that we know nothing of Apple’s plans for certain let us return please to our wild speculation and see where that takes us.

Guess #1 - Apple will license OS X
Guess #2 - Dell will sell computers with OS X
Guess #3 - Dell’s computers will be cheaper

Of those three guesses, if you assume #1 is true then the other two are givens. Dell is the largest PC maker around and they are also the cheapest. Thus, it is reasonable to expect them to become a major seller of OS X loaded machines. And this line of thinking will eventually lead one to the following question:  If OS X runs on an Apple as well as a Dell, which one should I buy? Here is my answer. (by the way, I chose Dell for this comparison for a number of reasons but any PC maker would work, HP, Sony, Acer or Lenovo it doesn’t matter because the principles involved are the same for each company)

You should buy an Apple if. . .
Style, quality and ease of use are the most important factors when buying a new computer. Head on over to Consumer Reports and take a look at the reliability ratings for Apple and you will see that they lead the pack by a good distance. Same goes for technical support. On average they have much better support than their competitors. As anyone who has ever walked into an Apple store and had someone behind the Genius Bar help them fix a tough problem for free can attest to. So if quality and support are high on your list, choose Apple.

Likewise there is no computer out there that can come near an Apple product where style is concerned. Sleek lines, no wasted space and a glossy finish set their computers apart. And, if that wasn’t enough, they are laid out with ease of use in mind. The best example of this can be seen in their laptop offerings. There are no ugly vents, confusing array of lighted symbols (explaining batter charge and the like) nor stickers adorning every surface. The ports are state of the art (do we really need a serial port anymore?) and intelligently laid out (anyone who has ever seen 2 USB ports stacked on top of each other knows what I mean). The screens are bright and secured by a catch that folds out of the way when not needed. Throw in a back lit keyboard, low weight and an ultra thin profile and you have a laptop that is second to none in design. And if these features are most important to you then buying Apple’s hardware is your best bet. However, you will be paying a premium for their product. (Hey, what can you say, innovation doesn’t come cheap) But this isn’t the end of the story.

You should buy a Dell if. . .
Price and customization are the most important factors when buying a new computer. In the same way that Apple charges top dollar for a superior product, Dell charges the bare minimum for a decent product. It isn’t pretty, it isn’t sleek and it definitely could be designed better but when it comes to price they are the cheapest (remember, don’t confuse having the lowest price with having the best value, they aren’t the same things!) However, it should be noted that a good many people will be quite happy with a “decent” computer that works “good enough”. And so, if you need a $300 computer for your grandmother then maybe a Dell is what you need.

Customization is Dell’s second big advantage. If you have deep enough pockets then you can get just about anything you want in a Dell (or, if you want to go really crazy, then maybe you need to check out Alien Ware). Need two built-in optical drives? You are SOL on a Macintosh but Dell would be happy to hook you up. Need a floppy drive? No problem. Want a huge choice of harddrives, video cards, sound cards, input devices or monitors? Dell has you covered. Now, it might cost you an arm and a leg when you get into the really high end systems but if you can afford it Dell can put it into your box. Apple makes some very nice, very powerful hardware in their PowerMac line, but there is a certain type of customer who wants a $10,000 computer. And those types will feel right at home buying an Alien Ware product and skipping out on the newest PowerMac. They don’t care if it is ugly if it is powerful enough. Running Doom 4 full screen, max resolution on a 30” monitor can make people forget that their computer isn’t the most stylish piece of equipment on the block.

This brings us to my final question, how much is style worth to you? Now, I am not looking for a emotional or philosophical answer. I was hoping for a response with dollar signs in it. Think about it like so:  If Apple and Dell both made a machine with equal specs and sold them for the same price, which would you buy? Apple of course, all things being equal.

Ok, same scenario as before but now the Dell is $100 cheaper. Do you still go with the Apple? Well, now you might pause for a second and think about it. Maybe, like me, you would conclude that the superior style and reliability are worth $100 and still go with the Mac. But then maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe that nice crisp $100 bill in your hand would persuade you to the Dell side.

Once more with the same scenario only now the Dell is $200 cheaper than the equivalent Mac. Now which one do you choose? If you are like me you are thinking long and hard about it now. You see, $200 will buy a lot of RAM or a nice big harddrive or a brand new iPod. Suddenly you are reconsidering how much that Genius Bar’s free support is really worth. Would you still buy from Apple or would the lower priced Dell tempt you too much?

So, the real question is how much of a difference in price must there be before you jump ship from Apple and buy from Dell or Sony or anyone else? Is $200 a big enough gap or does it have to be $300? $400? Never? What is your magic number? How much before you decide that Apple just doesn’t offer the better deal? Mark my words, if Apple does indeed license OS X then there will be a very large number of Mac loyalist, switchers and potential customers who will be asking these questions.

So, what is your answer?


  • I would go for the “Dell” for my personal computer at home. After all it is sitting under my desk. I don’t think the current powermacs are nicer than the Dell towers anyway.

    When we’re talking laptop, it’s something different. You don’t want to be seen with a Dell laptop do you?

    So it’s coming down to style, I would pay a premium to be seen with an Apple machine.

    koendp had this to say on Nov 14, 2005 Posts: 1
  • Ain’t going to happen.  The super cheap Dells come with integrated memory and that would hurt OS X - especially since OS X loves RAM.  By the time you put in a graphics card you would be up to the cost of a Mac mini.

    The average user is very aware that they are paying an “Apple Tax” and that tax covers the cost of developing OS X as well as the other consumer additions, like iLife.  Dell would have to pay a good percentage of that Apple Tax, especially if they wanted to include iLife.

    Style is important - just ask anyone who buys clothes, furniture or a car now and then.  Apple’s style is good for exciting the Mac fans and helps a bit in getting a switcher to make the decision, but it is OS X and iLife that sells them on the Mac.

    The core issue, however, is that Apple is in the computer business.  They will be able to go head to head with competing Dell’s or Sony’s with their Mactels.  If you want a cheap computer for Grammy then a Mac mini is the way to go, even a refurb.  Get the Apple Care so Granny can call Apple if she has a problem and she’ll be fine.  Far better than a Dell where she would have to call India and be told to reinstall the OS.

    And this brings up a critical issue.  Apple has the best customer service around - actual Apple employees that want to take care of you and make you a long term customer.  Dell used to be that way before throwing customer service to some company in India.  It’s not the “language barrier” that makes this so bad, it’s that company’s desire to get you off the phone as fast as possible (long calls cost money) and your instructions to reinstall XP is given very quickly. 

    As someone who has experienced Dells original customer standards as well as the India nightmare I doubt if Apple is going to let Dell put Apple’s customer service reputation at risk.  It would be, in my opinion, about as impressive as Sony’s rootkit problem.

    Let’s keep Apple just the way they are.  Their roadmap in the computer area looks pretty good, especially with Mactels due soon.  Their “small” market share is very profitable and allows for significant growth without having MS drop Office for Macs or interfere with Apple’s increasing sales.  Apple is on a very good wicket and would be nuts to change.

    MacKen had this to say on Nov 14, 2005 Posts: 88
  • If I could run OS X at least as well and reliably on a “Dell”, then the answer is “depends on what I need the laptop to do”. For low-end computing (web, email, text) I’d buy Dell if it were more than $100 cheaper for similar features. Truth is, today a 12” ibook is already competitively priced as compared to a similarly featured PC laptop.

    For myself, I’d love to owns a 15” Powerbook if I could afford it.

    Your question is really “how much would you pay for good design”. My answer is “as much as I could afford without it hurting me financially”.

    Johnny66 had this to say on Nov 14, 2005 Posts: 13
  • The very variety of Dells options would make it very difficult for an OS X machine to be as reliable as the totally controlled Apple hardware. It is exactly one of the things that make the Windows experience bad, an excessive number of legacy devices & drivers to be supported. And who would have to cough up that support? Dell? No, Apple. A major factor in the Apple experience is in knowing you will take it home, unpack it, and it will run within the hour. I’m sure many people don’t even bother to make a fresh backup before they run the Migration-Assistant.

    Regarding the question: When Dell, despite their philisophy of cheapness, is able to create a machine running OS X that is equal to an Apple in both functional and visual design… ah, forget it, it is impossible! Remember Ive talking about the material & structure of the iPod nano’s clickwheel? Do you think there is even a single person in Dell’s design-department (sometimes I’m not even sure they have such a department) allowed to think that far? Dell would always have to cut the cost somewhere if they want to be cheaper, and in one way or another you will always be affected by it. It is just not what I want, and I would not buy it in the same line of thought that will keep me from buying either cheap meat or a cheap knife to cut it.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Nov 14, 2005 Posts: 371
  • ... so the “alternative” would be a Thinkpad running OS X (unless Lenovo screws up that is), different philosophy in visual design. Without any advantage in price of course. At least that way one could get one’s hands on a tablet.

    Thinking about the vanity factor - I regularly feel sorry for people I see with a certain breed of laptop. For a number of reasons. I also admire them for being able to present those things along with their person. I doubt that I could do it. Not exactly because I would feel ashamed, but because it would mean that I would actually have to use the given monstrosity. The ability to perceive things this way is pricy by default. I would rather do without it than suffer each and every time I use it.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Nov 14, 2005 Posts: 371
  • The real question should be: Can you afford *not* to pay the “Apple tax”?

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Nov 14, 2005 Posts: 371
  • I’m highly offended that that crap known as Dell is even being mentioned here.

    hmurchison had this to say on Nov 14, 2005 Posts: 145
  • hmurchison,

    I don’t consider my writing a success unless I offend someone and since Beeblebrox hasn’t commented yet it’s up to you to carry the torch.

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Nov 14, 2005 Posts: 122
  • hmurchison, only the reek of crap will truly teach you appreciation for the scent of roses. Ignorance is bliss but it doesn’t get you very far. Usually.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Nov 14, 2005 Posts: 371
  • James ...I love the fact that you push the envelope moreso than others. Don’t ever change that. Here’s a shot outta left field for you.

    If Apple should allow licensing of OS X I’d recommend…...


    I know it sounds strange but if any company is like Apple inasmuch as advertising higher end stuff those funny cased floridians would be the answer to any doldrums in the Powermacs line.

    <donning flame retardant suit>

    Bad Beaver…well said.

    hmurchison had this to say on Nov 14, 2005 Posts: 145
  • Liking or disliking a product doesn’t go very far answering a question like this. In the beginnig, after the x86 announcement,  I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what might be the best logical move. I came to the conclusion that most of my thoughs centered around my experiences and what I wanted to happen based on that. That being better gaming support and the ability to load OSX on a machine I built. I have seen little difference from others.

    I backed up and tried again trying to take into account the 2 larger markets of business workstations and home computers. I feel like I start getting too far ahead. Right now Apple has pretty much full control. They have solid product line that is not too complicated. They have a good profit margin in an industry suffering from low profits and they have a loyal customer base.

    Whatever I may want to happen , I don’t think they are going to try to set the world on fire right out of the X86 chute. Right now I see no reason not to believe what they have already told us. Nothing, at least in the beginning, is going to change. Apple will still be an Apple and a PC will still be a PC.

    Wundryn had this to say on Nov 14, 2005 Posts: 10
  • I think it’s another world now - Apple is proving they can make money selling a $499 machine where you get to customize with your keyboard, mouse & monitor or for $1,299, you get the whole shebang plus a onboard camera - that should cover most people PLUS Apple gets to make money so Apple doesb’t really need Dell or any clone makers - how much lower are you going to go than $499? (without OSX & ilife, what would the point of a $200 PC?)

    Next, unlike previously where distribution is a problem - Apple stores supposedly cover 80% of the country. You have CompUSA and some Best Buy’s for people who like to touch and buy on the spot - and for people who don’t live in Apple 80%, or not near a Best Buy/CompUSA, campus location or some indy dealer, my guess is you are used to living with some inconvenience (presumably your choice) and presuming you have mail delivery - even will delivery for free ... And Apple certainly makes it pretty easy - three desktop lines and two portables, the specs take a little more work but if you’re on the internet, you shoudl know which computer to buy.

    Adding anyone else to the mix is just a customer service nightmare - just look the ipod thing, yes,it’s an ipod sir - but you have to call HP ... that makes NO ONE HAPPY. This way, you know who to praise or blame or yell at.

    If someone really cannot afford a Mac mini plus the required extras - sorry, not everyone can afford a computer - let alone a mac. I can’t afford a Ferrari.

    jbelkin had this to say on Nov 14, 2005 Posts: 41
  • If Apple did license OS X, and let’s say everyone starts using OS X instead of XP, would anything really much change in the world? What possible benefit would there be? Not necessarily to Apple, but to anybody in general. I mean think about it, seriously….

    Because of the impending low profit-margins from making that move, Apple wouldn’t make any more money than they do now.

    It won’t affect those people who haven’t switched to Macs, because if they don’t care enough to switch, they’re definitely not going to care enough to make any big deal about moving to OS X over XP.

    And it definitely won’t affect us, because we’re already on Macs.

    The only people it could possibly affect is those windows purists who will never move to OS X. And who cares about them anyway? These would just become windows zealots in the low market share.

    I like it how it is. You all like it how it is. Apple likes it how it is. And Windows users don’t like it how it is, but they’ll learn soon.

    But maybe I’m just looking into this too much. Maybe James just ran out of stuff to write about.
    I guess the premium I’d pay for Apple style over Dell style is about £2000 (±$3500)
    But I do wonder if that same question applies in the same way to mp3 players….

    Luke Mildenhall-Ward had this to say on Nov 14, 2005 Posts: 299
  • As indicated by Bad Beaver, there is much more than style and usability in Apple hardware.

    Apple controls the horizontal and the vertical - the software and the hardware. The mantra is “It just works” is born from this synergy. 

    A perfect example of this is bluetooth and Wi-Fi. No drivers to install. No third-party configuration options. Support is built into the OS.

    Supporting commodity PC hardware would open up a whole can of worms that I’d rather not deal with. My guess is that Apple doesn’t either. I’d rather spend my time “using” my computer, than building or configuring it. 

    Also, by creating their own hardware, Apple isn’t bound by legacy PC technologies like the rest of the WinTel world. They can take advantage of new architectures from Intel without worrying about backward compatibility. This freedom could make Apple a showcase for new Intel technology, allowing them to bring products to market before the rest of the industry.

    Scott had this to say on Nov 15, 2005 Posts: 144
  • You forgot the third option, which I’d definitely take. Build my own box - to my specifications and pretty much my own design. I’ll grant that it’ll definitely be uglier than anything Apple will design but there’s something about putting in a box exactly what you need.

    nigham had this to say on Nov 15, 2005 Posts: 10
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