Mac vs. PC: What you don’t get for $699

I‘m a sucker for a well-made TV ad.

Inspired by the Nike “Just Do It” and “Air Jordan” campaigns of decades past, I mentally mapped out storyboards of the spots I wanted to produce. Nowadays I laugh at clever beer and soda commercials and get mad or pump my fist in the air along with political ads.

I cheered for Apple’s 1997 “Think Different” spot that featured actor Richard Dreyfuss reading the “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” speech. The commercial resonated in a house full of Mac users at a time when Macs were widely considered an endangered species.

Apple’s more recent “Mac vs. PC” ads lampooning Microsoft strike a different chord: Macs are friendly, cool, easy to use, and they don’t have the kinds of problems usually associated with Microsoft’s Windows operating system; PC, portrayed by the hilarious John Hodgman, comes across as ridiculous – not unlike the real-world, buggy Windows Vista.

Now Microsoft is fighting back with its own advertising campaign. I’ve enjoyed some of its elements. The Seinfeld spots were weird. I was intrigued by some of the “I’m a PC” spots that aired last fall, depicting PC users engaged in a variety of jobs – teaching law, protecting endangered species, blogging for Barack Obama.

The message: You can use a Windows PC and still do cool and interesting things. Not bad. Then came the adorable little girls: Kylie, age 4, and Alexa, age 7, e-mailing pictures of fish and stitching together pictures of a fort into one. Microsoft, it seemed, had finally found its advertising voice.

Then came Lauren, the perky, red-haired twentysomething meant to represent an average American shopping for a computer. She wants a notebook with a 17-in. screen, and if she finds it for less than $1,000, she can keep it. Following her as she shops, we learn she considers the Mac too expensive – that she’s not “cool enough to be a Mac person,” she whines.

From the Apple store, it’s off to Best Buy, where she finds a PC that meets her specifications for $699. Mission accomplished, she jumps up and down clapping as though she won on The Price Is Right, ending the spot by saying “I’m a PC, and I got just what I wanted.” Aaaand Cut!

The price weapon
Microsoft used earlier ads to defend itself suitably against Apple’s nerdiness allegations. Now Microsoft is on the advertising offensive, wielding price as a weapon of choice. It’s an effective approach during a recession. But as is always the case with advertising, the full story is more nuanced.

Yes, $699 beats the $2,800 you’d pay for a Mac with a 17-in. screen. But when it comes to PCs, there’s still a great deal more to buy.

First, there’s security software. The PC in question comes with a 60-day trial Norton Internet Security 2009 from Symantec. After the trial runs out you’ll pay Symantec $50 a year to protect your PC (and up to two others in your home) from all the nasty viruses, worms, and other malware lurking on the Internet. That’s $150 over the three years Lauren is likely to hold on to her PC. No need for antivirus on the Mac.

Next, let’s say something goes wrong on the computer once the warranty expires and that it requires the intervention of a third party. Geek Squad will charge you $129 just for a diagnosis. A diagnosis from the Genius Bar in Apple’s retail stores? Free.

Then there’s iLife, the suite of multimedia tools that comes standard on the Mac. With iLife you can organise photos and home movies and turn them into watchable DVDs. Garageband helps you create your own music and another iLife element aids in Web site creation.

Extras cost extra
It’s hard to replicate that bundle if you’re a Windows user. The Hewlett-Packard machine in Lauren’s case does ship with discs for Muvee Reveal, a video-editing program that usually costs $80, and CyberLink DVD Suite, which runs $104.

But if she wants Adobe’s Photoshop Elements, including a membership in Plus, she’ll need to shell out about $140. Sonic Solutions’ Roxio Creator 2009, which combines video-editing and DVD-creating tools, will cost another $100. And the closest equivalent to Garageband on Windows is Cubase Sequel and it goes for another $100.

Add it all up and it’s not hard to imagine Lauren’s $699 computer costing something closer to $1,500.

But that doesn’t include harder-to-quantify shortcomings. The HP’s battery lasts only 2.5 hours on a charge, compared with eight hours for the 17-in. MacBook Pro, which also happens to be 1.2 lb. lighter and boasts substantially better screen resolution: 1,920 pixels wide by 1,440 high, vs. 1,440 by 900 for the HP.

Even if Lauren doesn’t care about pixels and multimedia software, her machine still doesn’t measure up when it comes to overall consumer satisfaction. No less an authority than Consumer Reports rated Lauren’s computer fourth in a class of six with 17- to 18-in. displays. The MacBook Pro was tops, despite its higher price.

PC makers should focus more on quality
Usually silent on such things, Apple did give me a comment on the Microsoft ads. “A PC is no bargain when it doesn’t do what you want,” Apple spokesman Bill Evans says. “The one thing that both Apple and Microsoft can agree on is that everyone thinks the Mac is cool. With its great designs and advanced software, nothing matches it at any price.” Microsoft declined to comment.

Microsoft and its hardware partners wouldn’t have to make this case had they focused less in the past decade on driving prices down and more on quality. Forrester Research recently released results of a study of consumer experiences with computer companies, assessing their view of a machine’s usefulness, usability, and enjoyability. Apple ran the table in all three categories, well ahead of Gateway (now a unit of Acer), HP, and Dell.

PC makers in the Windows camp have done everything possible to make their products progressively worse by cutting corners to save pennies per unit and boost sales volume. There’s good reason Apple is seeing healthy profits while grabbing market share.

It refuses to budge on quality and so charges a higher price. Rather than running ads that seem clever at first but really aren’t, the Windows guys ought to take the hint and just build better computers.

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