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Macs are the BMW of computers?
Close, but not really

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

I tend to use Car analogies a lot. So I decided to really let loose, at least once.

Specs and Benchmarks

There are many things about cars and computers that are similar. Both Cars and Computers are very complex systems, and there are lots of useless specs that some car nuts THINK have a lot of value -- like Horsepower. Two identical cars, with different horsepower, will have different results -- but there are many, many other factors as well. Like torque and weight of the car. A Cadilac De Ville may have a monster motor, but it ain't going to out power or out handle a car with a little less HP and a lot less weight.RPMs are useless for performance or power, though most people think MHz are valuable -- yet they mean roughly the same thing. What matters doesn't fit into a single specs.... just like computers. People know that benchmarks are nice small indicators, but not to take them to seriously (individually). So why is it that most people understand these concepts when buying a car (except the car nuts), and those same people throw all this knowledge out the window when buying a computer?

So what matters? Well some people like the car equivalent of "Application Benchmarks" -- that would times in the Quarter Mile, 0 - 60, or total top-end, or slalom times. The trouble is that each one has some value, for some people, and may have absolutely no value if you only care about the other ones (or the one that your car does poorly). I can put a big motor in a bad car and make it go fast in the quarter mile (or 0 - 60) but that won't make it a good handler, and I might not want to drive it. I can make a relatively gutless car handle really well -- but it will probably rattle your fillings out. So the true results are much more subjective than any specs -- they are the collection of ALL the specs, mixed in with other intangibles (like styling, comfort, sound, and so on). So specs are often useless unless you are balancing the whole system -- what is the gestalt of the car? That is why a car isn't as good as its best spec -- a car (or computer) is really only as good as its WORSE spec! That is the measurement of true engineering (the balance).


Some cars have "reputations". Like BMW has a reputation for being expensive (kinda like Macs). Interesting. A few years ago, my wife and I were looking for a replacement car for her. She wanted either a little 4x4 looking car, or a zippy replacement for her Honda CRX (we've both owned Honda's and Toyota's -- and many other cars as well).

The Toyota RAV-4 was not bad, but by the time we got it to where we wanted it (amenities) it was over $20,000 (actually a fair amount over). Ouch! We checked out the Honda's, and they were worse (actually the little 4x4 minivan thing was about the same, but cars like the Prelude and Accord were more). Double ouch! We kept looking around, and looking around. Finally she drove the BMW 318ti -- a little hatchback BMW was making that was a little larger than her CRX (and lot nicer and faster). She loved the car, but I made her (and I) compare and try lots of other cars before just buying that one. There were many things that made the BMW the best car in its range -- price, durability, safety, handling, power, style, amenities, luxuries, insurance costs, and so on. There was nothing really "bad" or that you wouldn't like on the car (it's worse features were often better than the best features on some others).

I negotiated the BMW for a few hundred over invoice and we walked out at something like a whopping $22,500 -- or basically less than most of the other cars we were looking at. So much for the BMW costs more reputation. As it has turned out the car has not cost us far less than most would in repairs (except for flipping oil changes that cost a bit more) -- it has been amazingly reliable, and we will be happy with it for years. Years longer than we would have had we bought a lesser car. So the total cost of ownership on the car is even better (as well as the enjoyment). She loves the car, and I like it too -- when I get to drive it. It was just what she wanted, and a bargain compared to anything else we could find in its class. Again, this all makes sense to people when you talk to them about cars -- but they forget about this when they compare computers.


Well, maybe the 318ti was an anomaly. So years have gone by, and it was time for me to finally look for a car for me (my 10 year old Isuzu Amigo was getting tired). I went out looking and drove lots of sport-luxury touring-coupes. There are certainly a lot of nice cars out there. I liked the Audi A4's (and got to play in an Audi TT), and the Hondas, Acuras, Toyotas. I tried a few Nissans and Mazdas, various American cars. I tried some sports cars like the Corvette, Mustang, and many others. The Chrysler 300M was nice looking, but big, and so on. I liked the BMW 3 series, but it was a bit pricier than I wanted to go. And there was no doubt that some other cars in it's range cost a little less money (and were good cars). But there is a difference between cost and value. Some people only remember costs -- I am looking for value.

I think the Audi's were probably a better value (at least they didn't charge you $500 for split rear seats) -- but it was better if you were only looking at features (it was a more luxurious car, that handled worse and wasn't as powerful). Many American cars were better values if you were looking at cost (but most handled much worse, had worse repair records and so on). Japanese cars weren't doing very good at the exchange rates and were damn expensive at this time (but they have good reliability records). And so on.

Then I went and drove a BMW M3. All the specs in the world didn't mean a thing compared to personal experience. The nicest driving car I'd driven before the M3 was the Corvette -- but there was a subjective difference that goes beyond words. It doesn't matter than the Corvette was far more powerful and had a better skid-pad results, or any theoretical numbers -- what mattered was all the variables in a car that make a car into what I wanted to drive. The M3 just drove better -- not as rough, but somehow completely connected to road. The BMW was quieter, but with a great sound. The BMW got better mileage, and has excellent safety features. The amenities were nicer, the controls better placed, the seats felt better, fit and finish was better, and so on. A few tenths of a second in a quarter mile don't matter in the real world -- the 100 less horsepower made an immeasurable difference (other than in MPG). The styling was different (the Corvette is more exotic) -- but I preferred the more conservative and cleaner BMW. I didn't have to climb down into the Beemer -- and I could seat 4 or 5, and I had more cargo space. For me, I just couldn't find a reason that I wanted the Corvette.

I don't think the Corvette is a bad car -- though it has a few weak points. I would say that there are many things about the Corvette that would make it a worse car for most people than the M3. Hmmm -- just like my views on the Mac versus the PC.

The interesting part was the price. While they start out about the same price (and the Corvette is the cheapest car in its class), when you look at which car holds its value better the BMW is far FAR better. After 3 years, the BMW is still selling at like 80-90% of original, while the Corvette is worth more like 60-70%. Repair costs work out to be the same (the Corvette is a little higher maintenance historically). In the end, I sold my wife and bought the BMW (just kidding about the wife). The same amount of money that would have made me feel "over extended" or "too much" for the Corvette, felt like a bargain to me for the M3. I love this car -- and that helps make it the better value.

Getting to the point

The point of all this is obviously not to sell you a car. The point is that specs don't tell the whole story. I could look at brochures and technical specs until I was numb -- but none could convey the thrill and superiority of my car.

After I bought the car, I started looking into the reviews more heavily. I didn't really care what they said (much) -- I was just curious. I was stunned to find that they all agreed with me whole heartedly. Car and Driver, Road and Track, Motortrend, and many other car magazines all said about the same thing -- the M3 was the sports car that other cars should be compared against. The drivers said that it didn't matter that many cars had twice the horsepower, they liked the BMW. They called the BMW the most forgiving driving car that "just drove right". I read reviews about exotics like the Acura NSX's, which they said were great cars at $90,000, and "nearly as good as the BMW M3" -- at only twice the price. The same for many other cars.

If only computer reviewers had the same objectivity. Everyone with a clue admits that the Mac is the computer to benchmark against when it comes to usability, performance, installability, ease of use, style and so on -- some just can't get past the technical or theoretical benchmarks and admit the many subjective (or collective) advantages.

Since buying the BMW's I've learned that there is an amazing amount of resentment towards these cars and their drivers. Many consider the BMW drivers "arrogant", or even "Zealots" (since there are car clubs and the like). I don't belong to a car-club, and other than espousing my satisfaction with my purchase I'm not a real advocate. Arrogant? Maybe -- if arrogance means knowing I made an educated purchase, and am able to explain from a position of knowledge WHY. Of course many of "them" also drive around in cars that cost far more than mine, and assume that I'm a snob. All this is just like my experiences with PCs and Macs experiences as well. Many PC users are just fine and understand why I made my decisions (like many knowledgable car people) -- many are just ignorant about the reasons, and so make incorrect assumptions.

Every debate with a PC advocate I've every had

An allegory to every debate I've had with a PC advocate could probably be summed up in a "car vs. car" comparison. Just like the car analogy, when you talk about your car (say like me and the BMW M3), and that BMW 3 is a good car, and does a better job at engineering than say Dodge.

I say, "Let's talk about performance and handling".
The Dodge advocates say "the Viper is fast".
I say, "Then let's talk about cost"
The Dodge advocates say "the Neon is cheap".
I say, "Let's talk about seating and cargo".
The Dodge advocates say "The Caravan seats more and has more room".
I say, "Let's talk about luxury and amenities".
The Dodge advocates say "The Intrepid has amenities".
I say, "What about styling"
The Dodge advocates say "The Prowler has styling".
I say, "What about balance of all these things".
The Dodge advocates say, "the Viper is fast"

The point is not that Dodge makes lousy cars -- they don't. I'm being unfair to Dodge since they are far better designed than PCs. Individual Dodge's do individual things well -- but trying to find the right balance and perfectly engineered car may be harder. BMW just puts design higher on the list of priorities that I care about, with obvious results -- in the sport-luxury category, Dodge just doesn't compete.

What really matters?

The interesting part is that despite all the numbers and specs and all that crap, the BMW M3 was cheaper than cars most cars in it's category. It is just that many silly people will keep comparing it to cars that are not in its category (like the Mustangs) -- it is like the Mac all over again.

When you talk to computer nuts (PC advocates) or car nuts, they use the same arguments. "My car has more horsepower", or "I can do 0 - 60 in 6 seconds" and so on... and I keep wondering if they get it. I like to drive my car. My car is more survivable in an accident, more comfortable, and within a few percent of any real world performance. In fact one of the best things about it that it is so generally good (not only good at one thing). They want to compare the one or two things that they are good at, and can't see the 10 or 20 that they are not so good at -- mine is good because it is good in EVERY category!

I'm not saying their cars are bad. You can get a nice Mustang, and upgrade it nicely (Saleen package) and spend the time, money and effort doing it, and end up with a car that is almost the BMW. You can probably save money if you waste enough time and effort doing it yourself (of course you have to think your time is valueless for that to be a monetary gain). In the end, I still don't think they will end up with as nice an all-around engineered car -- yet they will have a good car. They may enjoy tweaking and fixing and so on, and that is good for them -- but they are often foolish and assume that everyone else want's to tweak and repair and twiddle with their cars too.

Again, I'm not trying to insult Mustang owners, since personally I think the Mustang is a far better engineered car than the PCs and clones are good engineered computers -- but the points still hold. Certain the Suns, Compaq Alphas, IBM machines (RS/6000, AS/400, etc.), and many other machines are far better engineered than PCs. Even Amiga's, Atari's, Acorn's, and many other machines had a better focus and design goals. So there are lots of nicely engineered computers out there -- PC's are usable and cheap, the rocket-powered Yugo of the computer world. I advocate engineering and balance, and many only understand price or the time in the quarter mile.

The same for computers. You can slap Ethernet cards in, bolt on FireWire, put in a good graphics card -- and have something that is almost as good as a stock Mac. Of course most of them never factor in their costs and so think they got a bargain -- but the truth isn't always that clear. Of course either way they have a usable solution, and contrary to what some people seem to think, I don't think PCs are worthless -- they are just not the best engineered cars. What people ignore is that a Yugo will get you from point A to point B -- and a cheapo Pinto-PC with a V8 slapped in will get you there even faster -- but no matter how much they bolt on, weld, replace, upgrade, and tweak, they probably will still not end up with something as good as what is well engineered well in the first place!


For most rational people, the Car or Computer is a tool -- a means not an ends in and of itself. I don't have a computer to learn computers (I already know all about them) -- I have a computer to get things done. I don't have a car to fix cars -- I have a car to get me places.

The PC people always talk about what they can add, tweak or modify. "Well I can bolt on stiffer suspension, replace that exhaust and put in a supercharger". My response is usually, "I can too -- but I don't have to!". They forget that I can put a supercharger and tuning package and add 100 horsepower to my car too -- but why? I would much rather buy a car that does what I want out of the lot -- and not have to tweak and cajole it into doing what it is not good at. The car nuts claim, "well parts are more common for American cars -- and cost less"... my response, "Yes, but mine breaks less". And so on.

For me, I know I am making the right choices. I know that many others are making the right choices for themselves as well -- even when they are different than mine. The problem is that many of the car nuts, or computer nuts, have confused users into making the wrong choices for all the wrong reasons! It would be like Joe-commuter buying an alcohol burning nitro'd funny car, to get to and from work (in traffic). You may want to burn rubber for 100 feet straight (and get 500 miles on a pair of tires) -- but you are an idiot if you think everyone else wants that (above all other things) as well. Remember, buying the right car (or computer) is about finding the better balance of all things, not just the best in some worthless specification that you don't care about.

Created: 3/28/99
Updated: 11/09/02

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