Specification Obsession: Is a Souped-up Computer Worth It?

by Chris Seibold Sep 01, 2006

People like the security of numbers because they provide a way to avoid all the nuances of argumentation and get straight to objective reality. Gas is a great example of this; with gas you get an octane rating. You might not have any idea what (R+M)/2 actually means but you are certain that higher is better because gas stations charge more for the gas with the higher octane number.

Computers are similar to gas, the better specced machines carry a premium. The question is, do you really need to pay the premium. The short answer is: of course not. The longer answer is: no, really, of course not. The premium users pay for the latest and greatest is essentially wasted money. In the olden days, the argument made a little more sense. Go for as much computer as you could possibly afford, chip revisions were measured in years instead of quarters, hard drives space increased much slowly and feature sets were fairly static. In other words, the difference in the price of a top of the line computer and a “value” model could be justified by the functional lifetime of the machine, a compelling argument.

Was that argument ever correct? To get a firmer grasp on this notion let us compare two classic Macs: the Mac Classic and the SE/30. Both computers are compatible with Mac OS 6-7.5 and both share the same form factor. But, as far as real world usefulness goes, the SE/30 is the clear winner. The Mac Classic was obsolete for real world tasks starting about 1993 and even earlier than that programs were introduced requiring a processor more powerful than the Classic’s anemic Motorola 68000. The SE/30, conversely, was powered by a (no surprise) Motorola 68030 and remained a capable machine until the late nineties. The price difference between the two machines? A staggering $3,400. So, for a mere three and a half grand, you could squeeze a few more years of use out of the Mac SE/30. On the other hand you could have bought the Classic in 1990 and used the $3400 to buy a PowerMac 6100 with much better specs than either of the compact Macs and have $1,600 left to blow on cocaine or something.

Let us attempt to put recreate the exercise with a more modern machine. Consider, if you will, the PowerBook circa 2003. The top of the line machine ran at a blazing 1.25 GHz shipped with 512 MB of RAM, an 80 GB hard drive and cost $2,599. The base model puttered along at a decidedly pedestrian 1 GHz, had 256 MB of preinstalled RAM, offered a paltry 60 GB hard drive and managed to command $1,999.

So, what did the 600 smackers get those who went with the top of the line model? The lifetime of the computer certainly hasn’t been extended, which is no surprise. All the original clamshell iBooks are unable to run Tiger but the iBooks of a single generation later are officially supported because they have FireWire. In terms of lifetime of the computer, those who shelled out the extra $600 got nothing. Of course, the lifetime of the computer ignores the harder to quantify comfort of using the machine. Certainly, the money spent on the faster processor does provide some benefit as does the larger hard drive space. Conversely, not many people would seriously argue that a difference of .25 GHz provides a markedly different computing experience.

Dollars speak louder than abstractions about the computer’s responsiveness. What about resale value of the two machines, does the extra 6 pack of c-notes pay off if you sell the machine? The answer, according to EveryMac.com, is no. The el cheapo PowerBook has a range estimated from $1,100 to $1,250. The top-o-the line model? A disappointing range of $1,200-$1,400. Remember to add $600 to the price fetched for the low end Mac (if you keep money in a jar) $656 if your savings account features compound interest and a whopping $4,000 if you bought Apple stock with the saved $600 way back in 2003.

Of course, there are exceptions. If you’re a hardcore gamer the top of the line MacBook Pro is a better option than the base model (an example inspired by Aaron Wright’s excellent Ask Apple Matters work). Games are a constant test of processing power. If you make money off the computer and every second means cash, you’d be silly to save a few bucks only to give it back in lost productivity. In just about every other imaginable instance the only other reason to opt for the highest end of the Apple line would be a sincere desire to help Apple maximize profits.

Here one is reminded of a joke of undetermined origin. An overweight guy walks into a health club and asks about the fees. The manager patiently explains the monthly cost and the invaluable benefits to body and soul. Mentally calculating the cost to run the health club at full capacity the client realizes that a monthly profit would be impossible. He queries the manager about the sorry state of cash flow and, in a rare moment of candor, the manager reveals that, indeed, if everyone took advantage of their membership the health club would be in a sorry state indeed, but most people don’t come, so the club does all right. Pressing further the prospective client asks what the health club calls the people who buy a membership and then never use it. Those people, the manager assures the applicant, are called “profit.”


  • Evilcat, you’re an OK IT guy with me. We love Mac guys with heavenly PC stories to tell. Kinda like what some folks around here don’t want to admit:

    PCs = constant weekend mods and upgrades.

    Macs = sit on your lounge chair, lazy boy, and read Apple Matters great articles and comments.

    Is that clear enough?

    Robomac had this to say on Sep 03, 2006 Posts: 846
  • I’m the guy with the stolen G4 featured in Aaron Wright’s article, I already got the 2.16 GHz. MacBook Pro (I still can’t get used to that ugly name) and It’s really worth it guys, I was fiddling around with the specifications at the apple store website and once you add the 100 GB hard drive, the 1 GB RAM and some other goodies, the price difference between the 2.0 and the 2.16 was a mere 250 dollars, so I chose the 2.16, it really really rocks guys.

    I’m a bit of a gamer but that wasn’t the reason I got the Overkill model, I just like getting the most bang for my buck and from what I saw, I think .16 GHz. of processing power is worth the 250 dollars extra.

    Nemin had this to say on Sep 03, 2006 Posts: 35
  • But I am confident that the % extra dollars are considerably more than the % extra real-world performance.

    Therefore in terms of long-term expenditure, your buying model would not be optimal for a more $-constrained customer.

    Benji had this to say on Sep 03, 2006 Posts: 927
  • I agree with Ben on this one. 160 MHz for $250 extra greenies do not even add up to $1/MHz.

    I opted for the 2.0 GHz MacBook 13.3” glossy screen w/ 1GB DDR2 and it is sweet as those eye candies in Leopard. It just rocks! I am adjusting a bit for the smaller screen than my older PB 17 G4 but the speed boost is worth it! It is more personal next to my nightstand at bedtime than the big 17” PB.

    Me, I always choose the sweet spot of line for that’s what gives you the most BANG for the BUCK! It’s not that I can’t afford to increase my investment cost, it’s what Bbx said, “It’s an argument of diminishing returns”. $250 more for measly 160 MHz is not banging them bucks, no matter where you buy it. It is just pure profit margin to the Steve, if I can find an explanation.

    BTW, Ben, welcome back from South America. Got any Mac dudette down there? Find any Mac user groups? Elaborate to us Mac geeks.

    Robomac had this to say on Sep 03, 2006 Posts: 846
  • Nothing mac related I’m afraid, all animals and rainforests and volcanic islands and sealions and such.
    I have to say switching my powerbook on after a long break from using it gave me a strange feeling of elation. Partly because I’d used some really shite PCs for internet in a hotel, I really was newly amazed at just how clean the interface looks in comparison. Not sure it makes up for leaving my new buddies from the pacific, though.

    Benji had this to say on Sep 05, 2006 Posts: 927
  • Awesome! Perhaps ruggedized MacBooks has a waiting market for adventorous folks. That way, they don’t get left behind. Hmmm..beam up that idea to the Infinite Loop play-doh dept. smile

    Robomac had this to say on Sep 06, 2006 Posts: 846
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