The Truth About the Apple TaxS

The Apple Tax is a popular term for people who believe Macs are overpriced. It's usually screamed at the top of lungs (or the blog-commenter equivalent), but it's rarely been dissected. The truth about the Apple Tax is straightforward on one level-you will pay more for the same specs on a Mac-and surprisingly complicated on another. It definitely exists, but it's not a flat tax. Even avoiding build quality and OS differences by looking only at Apple products, a Mac's price tag is justified in some configurations while in others, it's downright punitive. If you're a PC user thinking about switching, or just a Mac user looking to upgrade, our comprehensive look at the Apple Tax is for you. It's what you really get for what you pay.

In the case of Macs vs PCs, you could argue that customer support, the Leopard OS and design elements such as the new unibody construction and glass trackpads are what make up the Apple Tax. The only problem with this logic is that, when you compare Apple computers alone with no PCs in sight, the tax still swings wildly.

The Truth About the Apple TaxSClick on the chart for an even larger view

Here we've compiled for you two massive tables of raw specs. One covering the lower-end MacBook, new and old, and its best PC equivalents; the other covering MacBook Pros in the same manner. Each is organized by price, lowest to highest, in order to show value tradeoffs. While they're broken into two charts for readability, really you can think of them as just one-prices and capabilities of the MacBook line bleed into those of the MacBook Pro now more than ever before. Just because they're easy to read, doesn't mean they're easy to read, though.

The Truth About the Apple TaxSClick on the chart for an even larger view

As you can see, in a purely spec-based, part-to-dollar fight, PCs win. HP's dv3500t handily beats the new cheap MacBook in specs-same Intel chip, more RAM, discrete graphics for over $100 less. Similarly, HP's dv5t essentially matches for the high-end MacBook Pro's specs for $1,000 less, and you can add Blu-ray playback and a 400GB hard drive-features not available on the Pro-and still save more than $600. Asus's m50V stacks up similarly for an even lower base.

Interestingly, Dell fares pretty poorly in comparisons. Pricing isn't terrible, but the chipsets used to get the prices are last-gen; we're still waiting for Dell to join the Centrino 2 party. The end result is that the XPS M1330 is neck-in-neck in performance with the new cheap MacBook-Nvidia says the integrated GeForce 9400M performs comparably to the older discrete 8400M GS-with a similar price. Same situation on the XPS M1530, which gets handily trounced, spec-wise, by Asus and HPs in the same price bracket. The point worth making is that PCs are not generically of better value-it varies from brand to brand. But what you save may cost more later in less measurable things like durability, or even customer support.

When it comes to Macs alone, here's how specs and prices stack up-surprisingly, this where the Apple Tax reveals itself to the be most sinister and disconcerting. Two things make looking at Apple's lineup right now extremely messy-the beefed-up specs (and price) of the new MacBooks against the Pros, and the end-of-life last-generation notebooks that are currently available at steep discounts.

Strictly speaking, the best value right now are the last-gen MacBook Pros-they're so cheap they essentially negate the Apple tax, and destroy the new ones in performance-to-dollar ratio. The older, discounted black MacBook is also a decent alternative to the new "cheap" MacBook model.

The real takeaway is that Apple's lower-end $1,000 models appear to be shitty value propositions. The performance gap between the cheapie white MacBook (available for $150 less at Amazon) and the new $1300 MacBook is significant. Thanks to the faster RAM and graphics upgrade, it's dumb to pay Apple $1000 instead of getting the new one. But its 2GHz processor is not exceptionally fast and it lacks a backlit keyboard, so there's an even more compelling case to step up to the $1600 model, especially when you consider the hard drive bump alone is $100. Like the bottle of wine second from the bottom of a wine list, that $1,300 appears to hold a slightly larger profit margin than its more expensive ilk.

The MacBook Pro situation is worse, especially when you factor in the oh-so-viable option of a $1700 last-gen MBP delivering the same basic performance as the current $2500 model. But even when you consider the $2000 config against the $2500 one, the pricier one holds more value: Double the RAM, video memory, L2 cache and more storage/speed. It's almost dumb to get the $2000 one. Except for the fact you're now talking about a $2500 computer.

The real takeaway about the Apple Tax is that it's regressive-that is, lower-priced models get hit harder. It's like a tax break for the rich, cuz it almost always makes more sense to buy the higher-end product, especially given that build quality, customer support and warranties are all equal here. This is especially galling now, since being able to configure a cheaper model with what you really need-just the better graphics card, for instance-matters more than ever in this crappy ass economy. Correction: The previous-gen MacBook on Amazon has a combo drive; the current-gen white MacBook on Apple's site has an 8x Super Drive.