The unspoken truth about Apple

July 30, 2012: 7:43 AM ET

Despite its unparalleled cool factor -- and profits -- the Cupertino company's products aren't always the highest of the high-end.

By Don Reisinger, contributor

FORTUNE -- Apple has created a brand identity that, seemingly, no other company in the technology industry can match. And although the company's reputation is partly derived from its former charismatic leader, Steve Jobs, and a loyal fan base has always propped the iPhone maker up, Apple's products have become synonymous with high-quality, high-end devices that ooze high-tech "cool."

It's easy to see why. In the computing space, the company's aluminum-based Macs are the industry's beauty queens to Dell (DELL) and HP's (HPQ) black-box uglies. And in the smartphone and tablet markets, all other companies have tried desperately to mimic Apple's design philosophy with products that look awfully similar to their Cupertino-crafted counterparts. Apple's (AAPL) designs have proven so impressive that the company's design chief, Jonathan Ive, has won numerous design awards. He has even been knighted in the U.K. for his contributions to the industry.

Such sleek designs often convey a sense that Apple's products are of higher quality than their competitors. In fact, BrandIndex, an organization that measures consumer attitudes towards companies, found late last year that Apple's perception is exceedingly high, earning a score of 76 out of a possible 100. The company's iPod scored a 73, its iPad nabbed a 69, and the iPhone came in with a 65. The Mac followed with a 61.

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But is that really warranted? Is Apple really the company that delivers the highest of the high-end? Not a chance.

Of course, such a claim is nothing new to tech experts that have been following the industry for years. Corporate IT decision-makers have consistently said that they can get more bang for the buck out of a Windows-based PC. But an increasing number of so-called "mainstream" consumers are now moving to Macs, iPhones, and iPads. Their perception, apparently, is that Apple is delivering the very best in terms of quality and value.

Although quality and value are subjective measures, seeing what consumers are actually getting for their hard-earned cash isn't so difficult to quantify. Let's take the iMac, a popular, all-in-one computer Apple sells at a price starting at $1,199. For that sum, consumers are getting Mac OS X, which is a plus, as well as a 21.5-inch screen. A 2.5GHz quad-core processor and 500GB hard drive help round out the offering.

There's just one issue: Dell has it beat -- by a mile. For just $850, consumers can buy an all-in-one PC with a 23-inch screen and the same 2.5GHz quad-core processor. Add that to the 1TB hard drive and 1080p display, and it's clear customers are getting a better value from Dell.

It's a similar story on the notebook side, where Apple is selling a 15-inch MacBook Pro for as little as $1,799. At that price, customers are getting a 2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 4GB of memory, and a 500GB hard drive. Not bad, right?

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Well, HP is offering customers a way to save $500 with a notebook boasting a 15.6-inch full HD screen that comes with a 2.2.GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory, and a 750GB hard drive. And its design isn't so dissimilar to the MacBook Pro's.

Even Apple's mobile products shouldn't be considered high-end.The iPhone 4S is nice, but it doesn't have the quad-core processor found in the HTC One X nor the 4G LTE service available in Samsung's new Galaxy S III. Apple's new iPad has a smaller screen (9.7 inches) than many of its chief competitors, like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2, and its quad-core graphics are held back a bit by its dual-core processor. (Of course, the number of available apps is another matter...)

In terms of specs, therefore, it's hard to call Apple the highest of the high-end. The company has higher-end features, including the Retina display in its new MacBook Pro and mobile products. The truth is, however, that there are several companies delivering products with better components.

But quality components and value are two very different things.

Informed consumers know that they can buy cheaper products from Apple's competitors and get more powerful components, but the intangibles keep them coming back for iPhones and Macs. Apple's products look nicer, the company's store experience is more streamlined, and it's just "cooler" to be an Apple customer. One of the reasons many in the tech and design industries revere Jobs, of course, was his ability to know what to leave out of a product -- as much as what to put in, be it the most high-end or not.

So, maybe Apple doesn't need to be "high-end." Clearly, just being Apple is working out.

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