Last week I got a new toy in the mail: a shiny new 13″ MacBook Pro.  It’s a gorgeous machine!  It’s sturdy, ergonomic, and – of course – very sexy.

It was also expensive.

Compare the price of this laptop to something you could get from Dell or Gateway, and you’ll find what Microsoft loves to call the “Apple Tax”.  I’ve been hearing this for years: anytime I would get excited about an Apple product, there would be countless people telling me that it’s a waste of money.  But is it?

I don’t think so.  If you’re willing to put up the extra cash up front, as well as follow a few guidelines, you can end up ahead of the game with a lower total cost of ownership.  Just keep these tips in mind:

1.  Be patient.
If your current computer is still functioning, wait for the right model at the right price.  The last 13″ MacBook was tempting, but it was a new model with a few quirks, such as the absence of a Firewire port.  My previous laptop was over 6 years old already, so waiting a few more months wasn’t a big deal.  It turns out the wait was worth it: this new model has Firewire, it’s $200 cheaper, it has a backlit keyboard, a 7 hour battery, and I used my student ID to get $100 off and a free iPod Touch.  Not too bad.  If you’re OK with certified refurbished models, those tend to pop up after a few months as well.

2.  Go basic.
I got the entry-level model with the slower processor [2.26 GHz instead of 2.53 GHz].  Why?  Because it’s still 2.6 times faster than my old laptop.  I could have paid extra to get a 2.9 times boost in processor speed, but I doubt I would have noticed the difference.

3.  Upgrade later [and do it yourself].
When are hard drive space and RAM the most expensive?  Today!  Memory prices are always on a steady decline, so an extra 2 GB of RAM or a beefier hard drive will cost you more now than if you upgrade a year from now.  Wait until you’re actually reaching disk capacity or need a significant speed boost before you pull out your wallet.  Also keep in mind that these kinds of upgrades are often easy enough for most people to do on their own to avoid installation costs.  Check out sites like iFixit.com for hardware recommendations and instruction manuals to do it yourself.

4.  Keep it alive
Apple products are pretty durable – that’s what the “Apple Tax” is about.  My old laptop handled one major drop and a few other bangs & scratches, but it kept on chugging.  Over 6 years I sank an extra $230 into it to give it a replacement hard drive, an extra 1 GB of RAM, and a new battery.  As a comparison, my sister got a high-end Dell laptop for $400 less around the same time.  After 3 years, the thing was literally falling apart and couldn’t be saved (the plastic pieces were breaking).  Doing the math, her cost of ownership was $2.00 per day while mine was $1.30.  Add the fact that she needed to buy another computer after 3 years, and that cost goes up.

Also worth noting are the new unibody enclosures that are made out of a single piece of aluminum.  It’s almost no comparison between this enclosure and one made out of plastic.  Check out this link to see a MacBook Air that survived a plane crash… and still functions.  The poor owner survived the crash too, but with a fractured neck.

5.  Sell [or repurpose] your old one.
Another good thing about durability is that Apple computers tend to hold their value.  A quick search for my old model shows that it’s being sold for $100-$600 these days.  I’m giving that laptop to my mom, who had my previous laptop.  That one, which is now 10 years old, she just sent back to me.  I wiped the hard drive, reinstalled the operating system, and it now belongs to a friend who is using it for school.

These tips could – and do – apply to non-Apple products of course, but their plastic construction probably won’t hold up to the same use & abuse.  So if you’re willing to pay the “Apple Tax” and take care of your investment, you can expect some decent returns in the long run.


James Roy’s first computer was a Macintosh SE when he was 8 years old.  Now he uses his Macs to make high energy music you can check out here or on iTunes