Monday, October 4, 2004

Gutenberg invented movable type. Columbus discovered the new world. And a Macintosh computer always costs more than its Microsoft Windows-based PC equivalent.

As my e-mail inbox last week demonstrated, the latter statement — a modified version of something said in this space seven days ago — is not true. Neither are the other two assertions, for that matter. China had movable woodblock printing 400 years before Johannes Gutenberg, and Korea used copper type for printing in 1392, five years before the German innovator was born. And while Christopher Columbus made an important discovery in 1492, he was not the first explorer to reach this part of the planet.

Now, back to Macs. While it is true that you can buy an inexpensive PC that runs Windows, there’s a difference between saying you can get an inexpensive PC for half the cost of Apple’s IMac G5 and what some readers’ perception was, that you could find that new Mac’s equal for half off.

To clarify: The IMac G5, with a 64-bit PowerPC processor, is a far more powerful system than any bargain-basement Windows machine. You can buy desktop computers running Microsoft Windows that have 64-bit processors; Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) each offer such CPU chips to computer makers and build-it-yourself users. But the price of such systems can surpass similar Mac configurations.

In August, writer Paul Murphy of the online publication compared a dual-processor Mac G5 system and a dual-processor Intel Xeon box from Dell. Both are 64-bit computers, and both have enough power for high-end computing tasks such as scientific computations and computer-aided design.

Mr. Murphy looked at Dell and Mac units with equal amounts of RAM (512 megabytes), hard disk space (160 gigabytes) and even video memory (128 MB). The Dell system, at $4,009, was $1,010 more expensive than the equivalent Mac.

At almost every level, Mr. Murphy found that Macs were less expensive than Dells with similar features.

E-mailing readers, such as Martin Hill of Curtin University of Technology in Bentley, Australia, also pointed out the differences between certain “all-in-one” PC configurations and the IMac G5: You can’t equal the latter system’s power on the PC side.

Why does the myth persist? Well, old “truths” do die hard. Macs traditionally have had higher “entry-system” prices than PCs, and while you can get a very good starter “EMac” computer from Apple, it’s not as widely known as some other Mac models.

Rob Enderle, an industry analyst with the Enderle Group, in San Jose, Calif., says buyers also pay a premium for Apple’s forward-thinking industrial design.

“Design has a cost. You do get what is a very elegant design with the IMac. It is a very attractive box. Neither of the other [all-in-one computers] are on the same page as the IMac,” he said.

At the same time, Mr. Enderle believes Apple could do more at the low end to challenge the entry-level machines from Dell, Hewlett-Packard and others.

The old Ronald Reagan line the late president used with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev comes to mind: “Trust, but verify.” When shopping for a computer, be certain what you are comparing is equal in power; but also, be sure of your needs.


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