Monday, June 17, 2013

Quantifying the Apple Tax

The last time I was a Mac user was in 2009 when I upgraded to the Canon 5D Mk 2 and got rid of my Mac Mini as being too slow to run Lightroom. Before 2006, I was a PC user and never bothered paying the Apple tax. It wasn't until I joined Quark Games, which was a mostly Mac shop that I ran into the Apple tax again.

The Apple tax impacts small development shops. Large corporations  like Adobe or Google aren't cash constrained. In fact,  at Google, most developers wouldn't even be aware of the Apple tax because most of their computation is done in the cloud. At a small shop like Quark, however, we are cash constrained and most of our computation is done locally, at the developer's desk.

Most of Apple's desktops are incredibly under-powered. For instance, the iMacs don't even let you replace a hard drive, which means that you have to pay Apple's incredible markup for SSDs, and in the case of the smaller iMacs, you can't even upgrade the memory yourself. For a developer workstation that potentially needs more than one SSDs, this is unacceptable. Yes, you can upgrade to a 3.4 GHz Core i7, but that's even more expensive than a Mac Pro and you end up with a machine you cannot upgrade.

Then there's the Mac Pro. It's mid-2013, and they cost $2500. What's worse, is that they use a 2009 Xeon CPU which under-performs my 2008 home desktop! And that machine cost me $1200 back in 2008! You can compare it with a current Dell with the latest Haswell i7-4770 processor. That machine would cost $750, with twice the processing power of the Mac Pro! Sure, the Mac Pro has a nicer case which makes it easier to upgrade. And it has ECC RAM (for all the good that'll do you --- I can't remember a single instance where I wanted ECC RAM for any of my development needs). The fact is, Apple has no mid-range towers, but if you need to deliver iOS applications to your customers you have no choice: you have to buy an Apple product. Yes, I'm aware Apple has a new Mac Pro at the end of the year. However, the new machine has no room for hard drive expansion at all, so I might as well buy an iMac!

At Quark, our solution has been to buy the 13 inch non-Retina Macbook Pros. With a couple of screwdrivers you can take those apart and upgrade the memory and hard drive. Unfortunately, when you need to process a lot of art and music assets, the CPUs on those machines bog down. Even then, using Macbook Pros save you because when we bought our Mac Pros, we could take the hard drives out of the laptops and stuff them into the desktops and get immediate productivity gains, without the pain of reinstalling all our software and losing a day in the process.

What's amusing to me is that the art team tells me that the rest of the industry has gone to Windows PCs for 3D-modeling and other art needs precisely to escape the Apple tax (and these despite Apple's reputation as the go-to computer for artists!). So it's only engineering that's stuck paying the Apple tax. Certainly, if Android were too crush iOS devices, small development shops will be the first to switch sides completely just to avoid paying the Apple tax, which stands at $1700/developer. I know I'll be switching our art team over at the next available opportunity. In the mid-1990s, I dreamed of the days when we'd escape the Microsoft hegemony. But now that we've largely escaped it's clear the Apple overlords are much worse than the Microsoft ones ever were.
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