Are Apple computers overpriced?

Opinion – Even if you are following tech news just loosely, by now you probably have heard about PsyStar, accompany that intends to challenge the OS X License Agreement, which could enable it to sell an Open Mac, basically a cheap Intel-based PC running OS X. Yes, the system’s specs are no match for an 8-core Power Mac, but still: It’s a “Mac” for $399. Considering the fact that a Power Mac will set you back at least $2800 and an iMac at least $1200, there is the question why there aren’t cheaper Macs and the unavoidable argument that Apple PCs are way too expensive.

Let’s be honest, Apple computers carry a 15-20% price premium over brand-name PCs with similar specs. There is just no way around this fact.

What exactly do you get for this premium. Among the obvious points to be made here is the unique minimalistic design, which has become a trademark for Apple and most big competitors are apparently are not able to match. Then you have a those small, but ingenious features you can’t have on a PC, for example that magnetic power plug that pulls away from your notebook, if someone trips over the power cable. There is a Mac OS X operating system, which, even the Windows Vista users on our staff have to admit has a clear edge in usability over Microsoft right now.   

So, overall, you could argue that Apple not only sells a cold PC, but a product that is much more emotional than most PCs. If you buy a Mac, you would expect to enjoy this technology more than what you expect from the average mainstream PC. It is up to you to decide what characteristics really make a Mac and Mac, but at least to Apple, there is a whole range of packaged features that create the experience of a Mac.  Apple doesn’t offer quite the patchwork of hardware, operating system and third party applications we are used to from buying a PC.

But is all this worth an extra premium? Well, every Mac user, be it a Mac faithful or a switcher, will tell you these benefits outweigh any price premium by a large margin. Of course, every PC user who hasn’t used a Mac to draw conclusions from a real-life experience and with a very specific, PC-focused purpose in mind will tell you that Apple is ripping people off by selling the design. Does Apple really sell form over function? Is Apple the only company that cares equally about functionality and looks? Why should looks matter at all in high-tech?

No company can sell high-tech today, be it cars, kitchen appliances or high-tech gadgets, just by selling functions and benefits. Ten or 15 years ago, computers sold themselves because the technology was exciting. But PCs have become a commodity. Tools to serve a purpose. You just don’t defrag your hard drive anymore every day, at least if you are part of the mainstream market. PCs are good enough for virtually any application in the mainstream market and you don’t fine-tune Windows anymore. You expect everything to work out of the box. That is the promise Microsoft and PC makers have made and that is what the market largely looks today.

Since gadgets and computers have finally become usable, you could argue that technology alone no longer sells the product. Instead, experience, emotion and design matter more than ever. It seems that Apple discovered this trend first more than 10 years ago and we have others like Sony, Toshiba, Lenovo, Nokia, Sony Ericsson and even Microsoft trying to catch up. To us, the problem in PC products still seems that design is treated as a (cost) problem rather than a priority and opportunity.

Are real Macs worth the premium over the PsyStar? You will have to answer that question for yourself. If you look for a cheap PC running Mac OS X, this should turn out to be a great product. Even as a secondary Mac that serves a very specific purpose, this system could become a hit. But you clearly won’t get the whole package that is offered through Apple.