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Mac vs PC Comparison

Posted : 19 Jan 2003

Mar 2003 Update : Look for an updated as both Apple and PC prices changed dramatically over the last few months. Also I have been doing some performance testing of my own between high end Macs and PCs - with some surprising results. Soon as I get the results together I will email them out.

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Settle down for a long session for this email review between the latest Mac's and PC's.

I think that a lot of you will find this comparison of Mac's vs PC's interesting. Basically, I have tried to configure PC's to match comparable Mac's as closely as possible (except in case 4). I'm not a Tom's Hardware and simply don't have the resources to do the extensive resource testing required for detailed performance analysis. I assume that most people are somewhat interested in how Mac's compare with PC's, performance wise. If so, have a look at these links for some interesting performance comparisons and discussions from people with more time and specialist knowledge than I have.

http://www.macintouch.com/g4performance.html
http://www.macintouch.com/g4performance02.html

Indications are though, that PC's seem to be well in the lead at the moment and can be up to double the speed of the "comparable" Mac in most benchmarks (except Apple's). Apple can thank Motorola for being in the doldrums and IBM for being, well IBM... Roll on the G6 (G5 may never get released) late this year.

To give you some idea of the complexities involved, I can run Warcraft 3 on both my Mac (G4/867 with 512MB RAM and Geforce 2 MX) and my PC (Pentium 3/800 with 512MB RAM and Geforce 4 Ti4400). Hands down the PC slaughters the Mac. Absolutely no comparison. Running 1024x768 with all sound and graphics options on the PC, Warcraft runs beautifully. Running 800x600 on the Mac with all options turned off the Mac is barely acceptable. How would it run on a G3 - quite poorly I reckon ! I tried to install the GeForce 4 card from the PC in the Mac but it wouldn't work unfortunately And at $940 to get a GeForce 4 Ti4600 from Apple it will never happen either. Of course the GeForce Ti card makes an enormous difference. How much, I cant put a figure on it but at least 100-200%? On the other hand, SETI data analysis is much faster on the Mac than the PC. Comparing my PC to one of my clients PC's (bought elsewhere), both are Pentium 3 800MHz machines - again no comparison. My PC runs rings around their PC in every respect and I would estimate a 300-400% performance difference. Again my PC is very well equipped and it shows the importance in using good components as they can make that much of a difference.

I have used name brand PC parts in the comparisons. In some cases the PC parts are identical to components that Apple uses. I used genuine Intel motherboards and Pentium processors. Comparing my prices/specs to Dell, I find they are very comparable for the specification so I feel justified in comparing my clone systems to name brand Apple systems. If you used "no-name" PC components then you could expect to reduce the PC price by hundreds of dollars. If you allowed for a better PC case then the price could jump up several hundred dollars. I only allowed for a deluxe case for the PC in case 4 as in my experience very few people ever buy one. You can argue about fine points about differences in specifications but that misses the point. This is simply an off the cuff comparison, although reasonably detailed.

I wont go into a blow by blow analysis of the relative advantages/disadvantages of Windows XP vs OS X. Again, beyond the scope of this email (which is going to be quite long enough anyway). But having owned and used every version of Mac OS ever released (and some not) and most PC versions of DOS and Windows over the last 20 years, I feel somewhat qualified to comment the current state of play. OS X is still not as refined as OS 9 but it is becoming increasingly compelling as Apple continues to add to OS X. Still not quite there yet though, although very usable. I still prefer OS 9 for every day use. Windows XP is (IMHO) at a very refined state. Wizards for everything. Hardly ever crashes. Support for almost every technology and protocol. Readily available software and hardware. It is easier to use than ever before. Which do I prefer? OS 9 first, then XP and finally OS X. Let the arguments rage on ...
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Case 1

eMac vs the Pentium 4/1.7 Ghz with 17" CRT

Just the entry level systems here. 256MB PC133 SD RAM, 40GB 7200 RPM hard disk, CD-RW & DVD-ROM combo drive with a 17" flat screen CRT. eMac works out to be $320 more expensive than the PC. The eMac is just about the heaviest cpu ever released and once it is sitting on your desk (which will undoubtedly creak under the weight) you wont be moving it often ! Some PC motherboards are offering 5.1 surround sound built-in but the sound on the Intel D845PESV motherboard is the ordinary stereo similar to that provided by the eMac. The eMac comes with built-in speakers and these pump out reasonable quality sound. The basic Altec Lansing speakers I have included with the PC are at least as good if not better and being independent of the cpu can be positioned somewhat more flexibly. I have always liked the all in 1 iMac/eMac concept although being unable to change the display is a disadvantage. With the larger 17" eMac flat screen CRT this is less necessary than ever. Good crisp picture on both the eMac and the Mitsubishi displays.

I'm a bit annoyed with Apple for not preloading their OS anymore. Now you have to do the old CD shuffle to install the OS prior to using your Mac. Most PC suppliers will pre load the OS for you, although neither computer will be anywhere near setup for use. By the time you have loaded your ISP settings, email address book, web bookmarks, setup your printer, installed all your software and applied all the latest updates, you might have wasted a day or 2 (or more). The eMac comes with Appleworks, Quicktime (naturally), Acrobat Reader, Stuffit, flash player, DVD software, iPhoto, iTunes, Explorer, Mail and a whole swag of OS 9 and X programs. Both are easy to configure but the Mac is easier. OS X is particularly impressive in it's ease of setup. The PC comes with a raft of software too, but the eMac bundle is better. About the only Apple software I don't like is Disk Burn. Toast is far superior. MS are particularly stingey unless they made the software, whereas Apple has licensed a whole pile of useful software from other manufacturers. The essential Acrobat & Flash player are but 2 examples. Both OS's include a free Internet software updating service. Anti-virus software is essential on any PC, much less so for Mac's but not to be neglected. Firewall software is pretty much essential these days too, again more so for PC than Mac. The latest Macs come with a complete OS 9 and X disk image install process. Separate OS X 10.2 CD's come with the CD bundle and Apple have dropped OS 9 install CD's completely. To reinstall a blown up OS 9 requires you to do a complete OS 9 and X install using 3 to 4 CD's. Windows XP comes as a single CD, but it take a while to install. Allow for 30-60 minutes for an XP install or reinstall. The Microsoft registration process is a pain. If your hardware changes beyond certain allowable limits within a certain time span, MS actually require you to reregister Windows again.
Almost all PC's come with serial, parallel, PCI, USB 2, PS/2 and sound ports/slots these days. It is rarer to get firewire, which is standard on all Macs now. Some of the latest PC's also come with built-in RAID and serial ATA. Macs miss out on USB 2 (as fast as firewire) but this can be added with a $90 PCI card, which is about what it costs to add a PCI firewire card to a PC.

I have never worked out why PC's seem to print faster than Mac's. It seems almost as soon as you have pressed the print button on a PC than the paper pops out of the printer. Mac's seem to take a bit longer to start but otherwise they seem to print at the same speed.

PC seems to feel a bit more responsive than the eMac and this was the case with all the Macs. If I ever get the time I would like to do a series of real world bench marks just to see what the speed difference really is. For day to day tasks, both are more than speedy enough to get done whatever you require.
Why Apple put the eMac go button on the back right hand side of the eMac amazes me. Sometimes they are so stupid it makes me angry .The old G3 iMacs have it on the front - where it should be. And why did they remove the go/shutdown button from the keyboard? Unbelievable ! The MS optical mouse with 2 buttons and a scroll wheel is far superior to Apple's single button specimen. Everyone who ends up trying a 2 button with scroll wheel mouse, never looks back. Thankfully the iMac and eMac now come with 3 USB ports, almost as good as the 5-6 available on most PC's .... I'm glad they added the extra USB port on the cpu as the keyboard always takes up one of the slots. The unpowered USB port on the keyboard wont run all devices often requiring an AC powered external USB hub to be added. By the time you add a printer, scanner, zip drive, external USB floppy drive, digital camera, etc., the built-in USB ports on a Mac don't go far. Most PC cases are now going for front access USB ports which is better than the side ports on the eMac/iMac. The PC cases look pretty clunky although many are now making more of an effort to jazz up their designs. A definite craze for transparent PC cases is happening with blinking and flashing lights, LED's and cables making some PC's look like robotic Christmas Trees. This will pass in time.

Having a lot of things built-in on an eMac avoids a lot of the cable jungle that is inevitable with many computers. But it does somewhat depend on how many external accessories you have. With the PC you might as well give up straight away and accept the tangled mess of cables that occurs within 5 seconds of turning everything on. Lack of a floppy on the Mac isn't really an issue, and if you need one simply get an external USB unit.

The PC is quieter than the eMac but PC's have definitely faired worse with inferior power supplies and fans over the years. Apple fans and power supplies very rarely fail.

Upgrading an eMac beyond putting more RAM can be difficult. Upgrading the internal hard disk requires a difficult and tedious disassembly. Although you can easily add an external firewire drive. And as for why standard PC video cards wont work in Mac's. Apple makes you pay around double for "their" card. If you have a CD-RW eMac and want to upgrade to a CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive then they charge you $1,300. Yep $1,300 ! And that is the changeover price too ! Panasonic and Pioneer combo drives are available for around $175. There is no way this virtual robbery can be justified. You can always add an external firewire drive but this sort of upgrade is very straight forward with a PC (and cheap). The motto of this story is to buy the right model eMac at the beginning. And if it cant plug into a firewire or USB port then you are probably in trouble. No PCI slots in eMacs.
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Case 2

iMac vs the Pentium 4/1.7 Ghz with 15" TFT

Very similar to case 1 except the systems come with a CD-RW and 15" TFT's. Here the iMac is $329 more expensive. The main difference is with the 15" TFT screens and the absence of a fan in the iMac, making it much quieter than both the eMac & PC. Pulling the iMac apart for drive upgrades is even harder than the eMac and definitely not for the faint hearted. Performance is similar (ie, the PC is faster). Both the Apple TFT and the Mitsubishi TFT 15" displays are great to look at. TFT's are better than CRT's because they : use less power, generate almost no heat, don't expose you to any EMF, don't go out of focus. Unfortunately they are also double the price and are expensive to repair if the backlight goes or a few pixels go dead. They can now be calibrated like CRT's and apparently the profiles are very stable (unlike CRT's which need constant adjustment).

The iMac go button is also in a stupid position. The flexible support stalk for the iMac screen is excellent as it very easily allows the screen to be positioned anywhere you wish and also to be moved easily. Better than the conventional deskbound TFT's. In fact the whole deskspace taken up by the iMac is very small. Much smaller than the PC. Apple's excellent design department at work again.
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Case 3

G4/867DP vs Pentium 4/2.0 Ghz

Here the price difference starts to really get noticeable at $1,009. No displays here, just comparing cpu's. The G4's give substantially more performance than the iMac's and eMac's. Dual processors, better G4 processors with more cache, faster graphics cards, better motherboards, faster RAM, all add up to a much faster package. Shame that the PC's still seem to be faster, although the gap narrows a little.
The first time the dual fans in the G4 spin up to full speed you almost think that your G4 has turned into a hovercraft and is about to float off the desk. I'm amazed that quieter fans cant be designed. If submarines propellers can be made virtually undetectable, surely they can make quieter computer cooling fans. The PC is much quieter. The noise is annoying particularly when playing music and even more so when listening to DVD's.

The PC and Mac are both very expandable. The G4 is easier to do it with it's industry best case. The PC comes with 5.1 surround sound, which makes 3D gaming and DVD playing a superior experience on the PC. Of course you have to go out and spend $250 or so to get a good set of speakers to actually take advantage of 5.1 audio. With the $1,000 you save by buying a PC you could buy these speakers, more RAM, a 2nd hard disk, a better graphics card, larger display and even a faster processor. What is there about owning a Mac that makes people returning again and again to buy one? The operating system, the security and reliability, the design. All factors for sure. With Apple market share at 3 to 4% and shrinking they are certainly a niche market. But a very vocal and dedicated one. Unix market share though with Apple as the single biggest Unix platform is increasing, although probably Linux is the main beneficiary.
Graphics cards are of similar performance. Running in OS 9, unless programs specifically support it, the dual processors do not come into action. The situation is much better in OS X where the OS itself directly supports multiple processors.
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Case 4

G4/1250DP vs Pentium 4/3.0Ghz

And the price discrepancy gets even larger - $1,336 now. These systems are the best you can buy. Again no displays. In some ways the PC has far better specifications, as unlike with the first 3 cases I really went to town and loaded it up with almost everything that you could put in. The PC comes with 5.1 surround sound. and the presence of both a DVD-RW and a DVD-ROM allows both CD to CD and DVD to DVD copying. The PC graphics card is the excellent GeForce 4 Ti 4600 - which is markedly superior to the Radeon 9000 Pro inside the G4. To add this to the Mac would cost an extra $500 (only available through the Apple web store or as a special build to order option), which I find interesting as the PC GF4 card itself costs just $585 - and this is buying the card outright and not upgrading it from a Radeon 9000 Pro. It would be possible to put in a PC dual processor motherboard and 2x 3GHz processors and this would likely make the PC around the same price as the Mac. Both units use Pioneer DVD-RW drives but Apple appears to have not upgraded to the A05 4x writer yet and is still using the A04 2x superdrive. So for the moment the PC can write twice as fast until Apple decides bundles the A05 drive into Macs with a Superdrive.

The PC case is good, the G4 case is quite simply the industry's best. I have yet to see better engineering and design in a computer case - if only you could get them for PC's ! 1 latch to lift and everything is exposed for easy access. The G4 allows for excellent expansion with room for 4 hard disks and 2x 5.25" CD sized mechanisms. From benchmarks I have seen on the Internet the PC with it's 3Ghz processor and fast GeForce display card outruns the Mac in the performance stakes. But both are very fast systems.
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Summary

Well the PC's are cheaper, no secret there. Consistent right through cases 1 to 4 above. The more expensive the Mac the greater the price difference.

Performance. PC's appear to win there also, although some may dispute this one. It all depends on the benchmarks being used.

Features. Given that PC's can be configured any way you like, with whatever components you like I feel that PC's have a distinct advantage here. The problem is in understanding the technology and jargon well enough to be able to work out what bits you need. Simply doing the research to find out whether it is worth paying for a GeForce 4 Ti 4200 64Mb over an ATI 128 Rage Pro 32MB AGP 3D display card can take weeks of research. Ask 10 different people about PC's and you will get 10 different answers. And then once you have decided on the specification you still have to work out what brand of component you should get. There is an enormous difference between brands. The trap with PC's is that you can end up with a fast heap of unreliable, crashing junk unless you get the right bits. The PC sales guys are rarely of great help. Apple make it all simple. Increase the RAM, choose whether you want a CD-RW or a superdrive, all in one, notebook or G4 desktop. That's about it. Piece of cake.
Usability. Macs have to win here. Even with OS X. Although for existing OS 9 users changing over not is not as simple. Windows XP has never been better though. MS keeps on refining and improving all their products.

Expandability. RAM is easy on the Mac's. Other components are harder. XP is pretty much plug and play, not plug and pray as WIN OS's used to be. Most Windows users are scared to touch their PC's once they get it all setup and working. Come to think of it so are most Mac users ! The sealed nature of eMac's and iMac's make it very difficult indeed to upgrade to even a larger hard disk. Want to change your sound card or video card - forget it. G4's are a dream, as long as you use bits that come with Apple drivers. PC's? Well, apart from the cable tangle and sharp edges inside the generic PC case, it is relatively straight forward to upgrade parts. PC's have to win here, although the G4 case is an amazing piece of engineering that is yet to be surpassed. Little things like poor quality cables, fans and power supplies in PC's can let you down sometimes. Mac's with firewire and USB can generally use external devices to expand their capabilities.

Standards. PC's win again. Apple persists in making non standard items and standard PC bits wont work in Mac's. Why a stock standard PC GeForce display card wont work with a Mac is a disgrace, as is the Apple price for "their" version of the card which does work. Apple needs to support 5.1 surround sound. Makes DVD watching/listening the experience it should be.

Warranty. Standard Apple warranty is 12 months. Most PC warranties are 2 years. You can get extended warranty. In the case of eMac's this costs $226 for another 2 years warranty.

The Future. The competition between Intel and AMD is pushing the advances on the PC side faster than for Mac's, who to some extent have only themselves to compete against. If the AIM (Apple IBM Motorola) consortium could ever pull their finger out then Mac's and PC's would likely have very similar performance. There have been continuing rumours that Apple has extensively tested AMD processors for potential use in future Mac's. If Motorola and IBM pulled out of making processors this would leave Apple with either manufacturing themselves - probably not a viable option due to the expenses involved, or changing to Intel or AMD processors. Remember that Next ran on PC hardware so the change could be less unlikely than many people think. After all is the important thing the OS or the processor? For the time being IBM seems to offer the light at the end of the tunnel with their next generation of processors and Apple looks to be trying to abandon Motorola as they haven't been able or seemingly willing to produce the results that Apple would like and expect. But the next generation is many months away and for the time being the PC performance lead looks like being extended even further.
Almost makes you wonder why you would buy a Mac doesn't it? Well there are some good reasons. Apple's bundled software is really something special and the marvellous iTunes is just fantastic. Now with the integrated bundle Apple has released called iLife - the packages are now even better. Mac's are easier to setup although PC's with XP are not much harder. . Colour calibration is harder with PC's (which is important with the graphics professionals). Fonts are more difficult with PC's, although OS X is having a good go at stuffing the mature font handling that we had with OS 9. Unix is a better and more secure OS than anything Windows. Apple have a well deserved reputation for security and reliability. OS X is more reliable and powerful than XP, but XP is no slouch here. Both are major improvements over their predecessors for reliability. If anything XP is less secure than previous PC OS's. Finding a good PC supplier can also be a somewhat challenging experience.

Sometimes I think Mac owners are a breed unto themselves. Looking at Mac's and PC's dispassionately on a cost basis only, you would have to go for a PC almost every time. But many Mac owners would almost chop off an arm rather than buy a PC. And as I have listed above there are many other reasons other than cost. But particularly with the cost and performance discrepancies as they are at present it is harder than ever to not go for a PC.

Which would I buy personally? Easy for me, I need 1 of each. If I had to be limited to 1 computer only, well a Mac of course. Did you really expect anything else !
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Mac Specifications :

Entry Level eMac with CRT - $2,151
- eMac G4/700 256/40G/CDRW-DVD ROM/56K/17"

Entry Level iMac with TFT - $2,424
- iMac G4/700 256/40G/CDRW (24/10/32)/GF2MX/15" LCD

G4/867 - Entry level G4 : $3,615
- G4/867DP 512/60G/CDRW-DVD-ROM/GeForce 4 MX

G4/1250DP - High end G4 : $6,632
- G4/1250GDP 512/120G/DVD-R/ATI 9000 Pro
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PC Specifications :
Base Specifications for all PC's are :
Intel D845PESV series socket 478 motherboard with on board sound
- 5x PCI, 6x USB, 1x serial, 1x parallel, 2x PS/2
DDR PC2700 or PC3300 RAM (as specified)
Midi ATX tower case with 300W power supply
Samsung 104 PS/2 keyboard
Panasonic 1.44MB floppy drive

Pentium 4 - Entry level : $1,890 (Matching eMac with 17" CRT display)
1.7GHz P4 400MHz FSB with 256MB PC2100 RAM & 845 Intel Motherboard $1,050
ATI 128 Rage Pro 32MB AGP 3D display card $0
Seagate 7200rpm Ultra ATA100 40Gb IDE HD $35
Pioneer DCR-111 CD-RW/DVD-ROM Combo Drive $175
Nero CD Burning software $16
Mitsubishi 17" display 1786FD Diamondview Flat $295
MS Intellimouse Laser Mouse - USB & PS/2 $45
Dynalink internal PCI 56K modem $35
220 stereo speakers - 11W RMS $59
Windows XP Home $190

Pentium 4 - Entry level : $2,095 (Matching iMac with 17" TFT display)
1.7GHz P4 400MHz FSB with 256MB PC2100 RAM & 845 Intel Motherboard $1,050
ATI 128 Rage Pro 32MB AGP 3D display card $0
Seagate 7200rpm Ultra ATA100 40Gb IDE HD $35
Mitsubishi 40/12/48 CD-RW $99
Nero CD Burning software $16
Mitsubishi 15" TFT 13DV153 - 1024x768 pixels $625
MS Intellimouse Laser Mouse - USB & PS/2 $45
Dynalink internal PCI 56K modem $35
Windows XP Home $190

Pentium 4 - Mid Level (Matching G4/867DP) - $2,606
2.0GHz P4 400MHz FSB with 256MB PC2100 RAM & 845 Intel Motherboard $1,145
Additional 256MB PC2700 333MHz DDR RAM $185
Seagate 7200rpm Ultra ATA100 60Gb IDE HD $70
Pioneer DCR-111 CD-RW/DVD-ROM Combo Drive $175
Nero CD Burning software $16
Power DVD 4.0 MPEG Decoding Software $15
Creative Live SE 5.1 256 $70
Asus GeForce 4 MX 420 64MB RAM $165
MS Intellimouse Laser Mouse - USB & PS/2 $45
Dynalink internal PCI 56K modem $35
Gigabit Ethernet card $320
Windows XP Pro $285
Pioneer 16x DVD-ROM - tray load $80

Pentium 4 - High end (Matching G4/1250DP) - $5,296
3.06GHz P4 533MHz FSB with 256MB PC2700 RAM & 845 Intel Motherboard $2,245
Additional 256MB PC2700 333MHz DDR RAM $185
Seagate 7200rpm Ultra ATA100 120Gb IDE HD $265
Extra deluxe case $320
Pioneer A05 DVD-RW/CD-RW $625
Pioneer 16x DVD-ROM - tray load $80
Nero CD Burning software $16
Power DVD 4.0 MPEG Decoding Software $15
Creative Audigy 2 $275
Asus GeForce 4 Ti 4600 128MB RAM $585
MS Intellimouse Laser Mouse - USB & PS/2 $45
Dynalink internal PCI 56K modem $35
Gigabit Ethernet card $320
Windows XP Pro $285