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Quick Pricing Update: Time To Pick On IBM

Published April 26th, 2005

A number of readers took me to task yesterday for picking on Dell without considering the other PC vendors. I explained that I chose Dell because that company is by far the largest supplier of Windows-based PC’s, and that it would be beyond the scope of my limited resources to cover all of the possible vendors.

That said, I picked up the newspaper today, and here’s a full-page ad in the Washington Post from IBM for a $999 ThinkPad. So I thought, OK, let’s see if this is really a better deal than an iBook. I just paid a quick visit to IBM’s online store, and here’s what I found.

First, one of the things I learned from doing the review of Dell vs. Apple is that the Pentium M is a major advance in chip technology from the Pentium 4. Clock speeds on these puppies are much closer to being comparable to a G4 than those of regular old Pentiums. (Thanks to a few critical readers and to the careful work of the folks at for that!) But it’s still the case that a 1.6Ghz Pentium M is roughly comparable to the speed in the 14″ iBook (1.33GHz G4). In any case, I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice!*

My first time through the store, I wound up thinking the advertised IBM Thinkpad (the R50e) was actually about a hundred dollars less than the larger iBook. Until I realized that this system has no separate graphics card and instead puts the load of graphics processing on the Pentium M (with the help of Intel’s “accelerated graphics”, whatever that is). Now, there are guys who will say, “But you don’t need a separate graphics card in a computer like this!” Come on, you’re only saying that because you don’t like the fact that I’m trying to make the systems’ hardware as comparable as possible, and that to do so in a case like this, I end up raising the price on the Windows PC. But it’s simply undeniable that having a separate graphics card in this system will result in better 3-D and complex graphics rendering performance, and certainly it costs a whole lot more to build a system that has one.

So I looked through the IBM R-Series ThinkPads to find one with a 32mb dedicated graphics card. The next in line had one (ATI Mobility Radeon 9000), but didn’t have a 60GB hard drive like the larger iBook does, and unlike Dell’s store, I had no option to upgrade from the base model.

A quick aside: In general, IBM’s store was much easier to use than Dell’s. Much less distracting, with easier-to-understand choices. However, to Dell’s credit, I liked being able to customize every option no matter which base model I started with. At IBM, I had to take certain specs no matter what if I started with one of the set configurations. That doesn’t mean I think Dell’s approach is better than IBM’s–and certainly not that I think Dell’s overall approach is good. (!) I just liked this one feature better. It’s worth noting also that IBM doesn’t use Windows XP Home Edition in any of its systems. This is a much more honest approach, don’t you think?

So that left me going a la carte, which fortunately IBM does offer. The configuration I ended up with is the ThinkPad R31, and it cost me $1,778, compared with $1,299 for the 14.1-inch iBook–the same configuration I used to compare with the Dell Inspiron. Not even close!

Here’s a PDF of the IBM configuration, by the way. It’s 132kb. I made it for free on my Mac, because you can make PDF’s from any application in Mac OS X without having to buy Acrobat. I forgot to mention that earlier.

There are pluses and minuses to each of these, but the pluses are heavily on the Apple side of the equation, as I see it. Pluses for the IBM:

  • 15″ monitor instead of 14.1″
  • Microsoft Office Basic Edition (Word, Excel, Outlook) instead of Appleworks (this was $129)
  • Free IBM ThinkPad Carrying Case and Button Travel Wheel Mouse versus no freebies at Apple

Pluses for the Apple:

  • Built-in microphone
  • Software, software, software! With the IBM, you get nothing whatsoever outside of Windows XP. I added Microsoft Office Basic because it was the cheapest option to get you basic word processing and spreadsheet capability. You still don’t have a database app like you do in Appleworks, which by the way also includes programs for drawing, painting, and presentations–as well as oodles of fabulous templates for each–in case you’ve forgotten. Other than that, you’ll have to buy:
    • Antivirus and spyware protection software plus a subscription to a service to update that information. You really don’t need that on the Mac. Really. Also, on the Mac your processor doesn’t have the burden of running the damn protection every hour. Don’t any of you Windows users get sick of the antivirus program starting up and churning your drive? On my 3GHz Pentium at the office, it takes a huge hit in the system’s performance.
    • Equivalent to iLife for managing digital photos and music, for easy creation and editing of home movies and DVD’s, and for indulging the rock star or songwriter lurking inside of you.
    • A finance program like Quicken
    • An encyclopedia like World Book
    • And some games other than Solitaire to entertain you.
    • Just for starters

So let’s see, that’s a software-impoverished IBM 15″ running Windows XP (yawn) for $1,778 or a software-rich iBook running Mac OS X (Tiger!) 14.1″ for $1,299.

Hard decision, don’t you think?

*Note for latecomers: I’ve corrected the original comparisons in yesterday’s review, but originally I had compared much faster Pentium M’s with significantly slower PowerPC G4’s. This confirms one of my hypotheses–that specifications for PC’s are simply too complicated for most people to figure out well enough to be sure they’re doing accurate comparisons. I’m pretty computer savvy (it’s what I do for a living), but I’m not as familiar with hardware specs in the PC world as I am with the Apple realm.

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