But At What Cost?!

Thinking about cost vs value, and living in a world where computers are status symbols

One thing to know about the Vision Pro headset is that it’s very expensive. If you weren’t aware of that, I’m not sure exactly how, since people will remind you of it every possible chance they get. Even though it’s been several months since the initial announcement, and everyone’s had a chance to get over the initial shock, and everybody’s had time to decide whether or not it makes sense for them to buy one1And again: even as a fan of the device, I still say it doesn’t make sense for most people to buy one, it’s still near-impossible to see or hear anyone mention it without also mentioning the price. I’d been wondering whether Apple had maybe stealth-changed the name of the thing to “The $3500 Apple Vision Pro.”

And I’m not claiming it’s inexpensive; it’s objectively not. I’m a lifelong gadget hound who’s been obsessed with AR and VR to varying degrees over the past several years. When I first tried the headset, I felt like I’d been teleported a decade or so into the future. And even I had considerable difficulty spending that much money.

But what’s been confusing to me is why this product in particular is getting singled out as beyond the pale. Camera drones have gotten pretty popular, but I can’t recall ever seeing a comment to the effect of “Glad you paid $1200-$2100 for that video of your backyard, chief!” Cell phones crossed the $1000 barrier a while ago — and that’s not even mentioning paying $1500-$2000 for an Android phone if it’s got a folding screen on it — but I don’t hear a lot of, “Nice work, boss, you spent over a thousand bucks to send text messages!” I keep seeing recommendations for this video from The Verge about a popular fixed-focal-length, point-and-shoot camera that “won’t break the bank,” and I was stunned to see that it was $1600! And some of the people who most relentlessly kvetch about the price of the Vision Pro will often, in the next sentence, casually mention that they use an Apple Studio Display, which is an Apple-branded monitor that costs $1600.2At least Apple includes the stand with that one, as far as I can tell.

I’m proficient enough in arithmetic to recognize that the headset is more expensive than any one of those examples, but it’s also got a lot more stuff in it. It’s essentially an M2 iPad Pro with a secondary processor dedicated solely to passthrough, two displays with bleeding-edge pixel density, a couple of really good speakers, and an assload of sensors and cameras. (Not to mention the polishing cloth). If it were simply a case of dollar-per-component, the math doesn’t justify the outrage.

I didn’t really get it until just recently. I was watching a video on YouTube, and the Algorithm must’ve been so pleased with itself for choosing a video so specifically suited to me, because it was about a bougie gay couple going on a Disney cruise. As they were describing the boarding process, they showed their luggage, panning over a stack of suitcases. And right there at the top of it was the unmistakable white, puffy Vision Pro case from Apple, which retails at $199.3For the record: the case I bought for mine was $20 on Amazon.

And even as somebody who’s a fan of the device, who’s a strong believer in grown-ups being able to make their own decisions about what they spend their money on, and who was able to (after some effort) come up with a justification for buying one for myself, and who’s even considered taking it on a flight and Disney cruise in the near future, I had an immediate, visceral reaction to seeing that case:

“Man, what a douche.”

Of course, I’ve been aware for a long time that there is an inescapable aura of conspicuous consumption around Apple devices. Long before the Apple Watch fully embraced it, and even before the iPhone was a thing. The idea has always been that you spend a lot more money on Macs because you’re more concerned about having a status symbol than a practical computing device.

And I’ve always thought it was bunk. I spent several years building and occasionally buying computers driven primarily by cost per component, and when I first switched back to the Mac, it was indeed primarily for aesthetics and convenience. But the decision to keep buying Macs has been a purely pragmatic one. With few exceptions — mostly around the end of the Intel Mac — the Mac has been more dependable, more long-lasting, and had better resale value, than any comparable PC.

So it never even occurred to me that the Mac (or the iPhone, or the iPad) could be seriously considered ostentatious, because they’re just well-made, practical computers.

And I’m realizing now that it never occurred to me that they could be considered ostentatious because they’re computers. For all of my formative years, having a computer was something to be embarrassed about, or at best kept on the down-low. Certainly not anything you’d imagine showing off to friends and strangers.

But this isn’t the same world I grew up in. It’s not just that computing devices have become ubiquitous; they’ve become status symbols. Of course Apple’s marketing, going back to the iPod, is largely responsible for turning nerdy gadgets into must-haves. And it’s not as if I’m coming out of a cave and only just now seeing my first influencer video. But it’s been like the frog in the pot of boiling water, extremely slowly realizing that as I’ve been nerding out over things, it’s had a bunch of unexpected connotations. I’d been coming into it with the mindset of “Look at this stuff! Isn’t it neat?” and not considering that it’s often perceived as “Look at this thing that I bought!”

I’ve been in the mindset of the kid tinkering around with a Commodore 64 in his bedroom, without fully appreciating that I was now surrounded by people who drive Cybertrucks. Openly, in public, and not just without embarrassment, but as if it were something to be proud of!

Ultimately, a lot of the collective shit-fit over the Apple Vision Pro’s cost comes down to perceived lack of utility. Which is fair. As I’ve been using it for a while, I’ve repeatedly run into walls where my idea of what an Apple VR/AR headset should be doesn’t exactly line up with Apple’s idea of what it should be. I’d been hoping for a “superset” of the Vive and Quest, where it would do everything that those headsets do and also a bunch of general-computing stuff. But I keep feeling like Apple is really committed to the concept of an iPad for your face.

So I can better understand the complaints, even if I wish they didn’t take the form of “If I can’t see a reason to pay that much for that, then nobody should pay that much for that.” There’s so much genuinely novel technology involved that it seems like anybody who’s interested in tech should be looking at it as an idea of where personal technology is headed.

But then, I can’t be all that critical, since I had my own overly-judgmental outburst at the sight of a $200 case. I could try to make a feeble defense that I value what’s inside the case more than the case itself, but ultimately, it’s just being guilty of assuming that everyone else should value the same things I do.4I refuse to be so sanguine about the Cybertruck, though. That thing is just flat-out ridiculous, and an embarrassment.

  • 1
    And again: even as a fan of the device, I still say it doesn’t make sense for most people to buy one
  • 2
    At least Apple includes the stand with that one, as far as I can tell.
  • 3
    For the record: the case I bought for mine was $20 on Amazon.
  • 4
    I refuse to be so sanguine about the Cybertruck, though. That thing is just flat-out ridiculous, and an embarrassment.