When the necessary expenses of ownership are added in, Windows computers can be bad bargains.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
Windows PCs have hidden costs

Sept. 16, 2007

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, The Post-Standard

   Quick. How much does a tire cost?
   The answer, as any good shopper knows, depends on more than just the initial price. The real cost includes incidental expenses -- who pays if you get a flat tire? -- and how fast the tire wears out. A $40 tire that lasts 20,000 miles actually costs more than a $50 tire that lasts 30,000 miles.
   This is simple arithmetic to millions of consumers. But the same buyers who balk at purchasing cheaply made tires that wear out quickly might be missing the point of another comparison -- the real cost of home computers. The nominal cost for some models might seem much lower than for others, but when the necessary expenses of ownership are added in, cheap computers can be bad bargains.
   This is especially true for Windows computers, which generally cost less to buy but more to run than Apple's Mac computers. When you tote up the cost of running a Windows PC, you have to factor in what Windows experts call "anti-malware suites" -- software designed to fight the five big threats to Windows. They're viruses, spyware, zombie infections, browser infiltrators and Internet break-ins.
   These are unique threats, affecting only Windows PCs. Here's a quick description of each.
   VIruses: Programs that attack the computer's operating system. They spread through contaminated e-mail and instant messages, infected Web sites, direct invasion across the Internet and intentionally infected downloads.
   Spyware: Programs that take over some of the functions of the operating system. They can alter links on Web pages (so you will be fooled into opening infected pages, for example) or perform other malicious operations, such as forcing pop-up windows to appear, telling you your PC is infected. (Well, of course it is!)
   Zombie infections: Worldwide, millions of Windows PCs (the total is hard to figure exactly) have been turned into zombies by virus-like invaders that take over the PC in the middle of the night to relay spam, send more zombie infections around and execute remote commands. At least 84 percent of all spam is delivered this way.
   Browser infiltrators: Most Windows owners use Microsoft Internet Explorer as their Web browser. Because of severe design flaws, Internet Explorer allows Web sites to insert rogue programs into a Windows PC. These malware programs can do literally anything to the computer. Identity theft and personal data theft are common.
   Internet breakins: Windows is poorly protected against infiltration from across the Internet. As a test, I directed a non-Windows PC to log into a series of university networks (all running on Windows servers) and roamed freely through Windows computers used by students. I had full access to everything on those PCs.
   These flaws in Windows require protection. What does that cost? My own conservative estimates, based on Consumers Union studies and my own experience, range from $300 to $500 a year. (In all cases, I'm counting the cost of protective software and the expense of cleaning up or replacing PCs that become irremediably infected.) I didn't try to include the expense of recovering from ID theft or the cost of clearing up bad credit after your card numbers are stolen and sold on the Internet.
   Remember, Apple's Macs are immune to these flaws. (There's not even a single virus "in the wild," despite research into how someone would make a real Mac virus.) So the cost of an Apple Mac ends up being the selling price, spread out over the years of ownership -- and Macs traditionally last about twice as long as Windows PCs.
   But, as you can see, the cost of that "cheap" Windows PC isn't what it seems. The next time you're tempted to fall for that cheap-PC ad, think of the real cost of a tire. The real expense isn't visible until after you've made the purchase.