'Book Value

How Come Dell Can Sell a New 15" Notebook for Half the Price of a Refurbished MacBook?

Charles Moore - 2008.12.11 - Tip Jar

Sometimes it pays to step outside the box one inhabits for a perspective shift.

For example, I've been chewing over whether it makes more sense for me to buy an Apple Certified Refurbished early 2008 MacBook Pro 2.4 GHz for Can$1,449, which is a decent discount of Can$650 from what they were selling for new a couple months ago, or to buy an Apple Certified Refurbished (ACR) 2.4 GHz MacBook for Can$1,049. Or even go with the black 2.4 GHz MacBook for a hundred bucks more than that. Or wait until some of the new Unibody machines hit the refurbished channel. Or wait until Snow Leopard ships....

Dell Inspiron 1525

If you share this affliction, you know how it is. And then I opened the newspaper this week and there's Dell Canada advertising Inspiron 1525 notebooks for the netbook-esque price of $549. That's Canadian $549, and with the Canabuck having dropped into the mid-to-upper 70 cents range US from its dizzying, intoxicating historical high of just over US$1.10 a year or so ago, we're talking a full-fledged Inspiron laptop here for the equivalent of US$440 at today's exchange rate.

Dell Inspiron in Sunshine YellowFor that astonishingly small amount of cash you get a 15.4" widescreen display, a Pentium dual-core processor (2.0 GHz/667 MHz FSB/1 MB cache; for a Core 2 Duo add $100), 2 GB of RAM, a 250 gigabyte hard drive, an 8x dual-layer SuperDrive, wireless, HDMI out, free shipping, and it comes in your choice of seven attractive colors: Jet Black, Espresso Brown, Ruby Red, Midnight Blue, Spring Green, Flamingo Pink, and Sunshine Yellow. Uh, make mine Espresso.

Dell Inspiron in EspressoBy comparison, the refurbished black MacBook has a 13.3" display, a Penryn Core 2 Duo processor, 2 GB of RAM, a 250 gigabyte hard drive, an 8x SuperDrive, wireless, an external display port that requires an optional adapter, free shipping, and will set you back $1,149. (If you opt for a white housing and a 160 GB HD, it's $1,049 for a refurbished unit.)

Too Cheap?

Steve Jobs says you can't build a laptop computer for under US$500 that isn't junk and that Apple doesn't do cheap. So the Inspiron 1525 is definitely cheap, but is it junk? I'll venture that there are some quality and design compromises by comparison with the MacBook, but are these egregious enough to justify opting for a machine that costs more than twice as much and isn't even brand new?

ITManagement's Jason Perlow says he buys his PC in boxes from discount clubs like Costco, where quad-core 4 GB DELL and HP desktops with 500 GB hard drives can be had for $499-$699 as disposable commodities - using them for a while and then presumably passing them on or even discarding them and buying another.

That may make bottom line economic sense, but it rubs me the wrong way in several contexts. For one, it is hideously wasteful and contributes to the tsunami of electro-trash that is becoming another of the world's manifold environmental problems.

Apple Quality

Another aspect is that Steve Jobs has a point about cheap computers and quality. Even my old G3 iBook, which is the cheapest Mac I ever owned in terms of its original list price, may not have had the high standard of finish or build and materials quality, but it doesn't look ugly or cheap or compromised notwithstanding its mediocre keyboard and less than precision panel join gaps, not to mention that model's generally spotty reliability record (although mine, now in my wife's possession, is just a month short of its sixth anniversary in continuous service having never given any serious trouble).

So, getting back to my current system upgrade conundrum, I had initially been leaning toward the early 2008 15" MacBook Pro, then thought hard about taking advantage of Apple's Black Friday discount and buying a Unibody MacBook (but in the end couldn't countenance going FireWire cold turkey), and subsequently been considering a refurbished 2.4 GHz old school MacBook as discussed above, then becoming persuaded again that the MacBook Pro is the way for me to go.

For one thing, the 15" MBP represents the biggest Apple Certified Refurbished Discount from its recent list price among last generation models - 30%. I've become addicted to the 1440 x 900 resolution display in my 17" PowerBook - the same resolution as the 15" MacBook Pro. The pro MacBook's display is also LED backlit, which the plastic MacBook's 13.3" screen isn't. I don't like to give up on having an expansion slot, and perhaps the clincher: Snow Leopard is coming and reportedly will be leaning heavily on graphics processor unit (GPU) power. The MacBook Pro has a pretty good Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT GPU with 256 MB of dedicated video RAM, which runs rings around the plastic MacBook's Intel GMA X3100 integrated graphics that leaches 144 MB of system RAM for graphics support and is by most accounts still slow and mediocre.

It's not hard to deduce that the MacBook Pro should be a decent Snow Leopard machine, but the pre-Unibody MacBook likely a disappointing one.

As for waiting for the first refurbished Unibodies, the Revision A troubles being reported by some early adopters has cooled my jets substantially on that alternative, but I'm wondering if at this point I should at least wait and see what happens at Macworld Expo before pulling the trigger.

Sorry, Dell

And the Inspiron? Notwithstanding urgings from an associate who has done successful hacked installs of Tiger and Leopard on a variety of PCs and thinks the Dell laptop would make a great OS X computer, that's not my style,.

But if Apple ever decided to license the Mac OS for use on PC boxes, I would find that alternative difficult to resist, which is why I'm doubtful that Apple will ever license OS X for PCs.

That's my thinking at this point at this point, anyway. Stay tuned.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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