Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) and Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) are anomalies.
They're both absolutely massive tech companies ($150 billion and $225 billion in market cap, respectively) yet they still have serious growth prospects. And not just by cheating via acquisitions.
At today's prices, I could easily make the argument that each is a good investment and I could easily make the argument that each is a bad investment.
To attack the problem from a different angle, I asked some of our top analysts to choose between the companies. I asked them this question.
Which is the better buy at today's prices: Google or Apple?
Eric Jhonsa, Fool contributor
I'll go with Apple ... by a hair.
Google has several things going for it: a reasonable valuation, a natural monopoly in search, a big growth opportunity in mobile advertising, and continuing market share gains for Internet advertising at the expense of other media. But it's also very dependent on a global economy that I think will remain choppy for a while longer.
The easy money has been made in Apple, and I think the company's blown its chance to dominate the high-end smartphone space. But the iPhone can still gain a lot of share at the expense of less powerful devices from the likes of Research in Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) and Nokia (NYSE: NOK ) . Meanwhile, the iPad is as popular as advertised, and shouldn't have serious competition over the near term.
Apple will also suffer if the global economy remains shaky, but consumers have already proven willing to lap up its innovative goods even when times are tough. This gives it a margin of safety that Google doesn't have.
Tim Beyers, Fool contributor and Rule Breakers analyst
Subscribers to our Motley Fool Rule Breakers service won't be surprised to see me argue in favor of Google for this roundtable; I've twice recommended the stock for our scorecard.
And yet I own shares of both Google and Apple. At these levels and long term, I like Google more. It occupies the larger position in my portfolio. Why? Much as I love the quality of Apple's products, I've become more of a Google user than Apple user in recent years. The Web has changed me, as it has so many others.
The Web -- or, "cloud," as it were -- is the new operating system, and no one is creating more and better software for the Web than Google.
Consider Google Apps. I've complained about the headaches inherent with migrating to Google Apps not because the software itself is flawed. Quite the opposite; I badly want to upgrade to Google Apps. I won't so long as the cost of doing so is losing the workflow that organizes my data.
Apple's mobile opportunity is large, but its competitors are tough and many. Outside of Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) , Google doesn't face the same problem. It'll have an easier time growing earnings as a result.
Alex Dumortier, CFA, Fool contributor
As I began comparing Apple and Google, I was struck at how similar their numbers look, in terms of expected growth (consensus estimate for long-term earnings-per-share growth: 16.5% for Apple vs. 18.5% for Google), valuation (forward price-to-earnings multiple: 16.1 vs. 15.1), net cash position ($23.2 billion vs. $26.5 billion), and profitability (net income margin: 21.1% vs. 28.3%).
Which company has the higher quality business and is most likely to fulfill or exceed the expectations implied in its valuation? That's where things get trickier. I think that Google's competitive advantage is more durable than Apple's (Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B ) vice chairman Charlie Munger remarked of the former in 2009 that he'd "probably never seen such a wide moat"). However, Apple has been able to reinvent itself and expand into new markets in a way that Google hasn't (so far). There is no company today that exemplifies the promise of the Holy Grail of "digital convergence" like Apple.
In the end analysis, both stocks look reasonably attractive at current levels, although I wouldn't be comfortable investing in either one right now. In technology, I prefer looking at lower-risk names, some of which could end up winners in the current tech M&A cycle.
Rick Munarriz, Fool contributor and Rule Breakers analyst
I love Google, but Apple is the real prize. They're both trading at next year earnings multiples in the teens, but Apple's the one growing faster these days. It's hard to resist a company that can sell a product at a premium to rival alternatives yet still command long lines at every rollout.
Ultimately, I have to go with my "three year check" test. Come 2013, I can definitely see more iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks in the wild. I don't know if Google will still be cornering the market. Its recent retreat in China may have opened the door wider for Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU ) , but it ultimately shows us its global limitations.
Matt Koppenheffer, Fool contributor
I'm going with Google because I hate good news.
OK, actually I like good news, but I get worried when investors start to look at a company as if it can do no wrong -- and that's Apple right now. Google meanwhile has lost some of the taking-over-the-world sheen that it once had, despite the fact that it still appears to be working hard to do exactly that.
Though Google's not charging for its Android platform, the fact that Android phones have grabbed a huge share of the market is a big plus in Google's column. And while I'm not sure that Google Apps will take down Microsoft's Office suite, it looks like it will be a worthy competitor. And that's all on top of the big G's continued dominance in search.
You're not going to catch me saying that either company's stock looks cheap right now, but I think Apple has a lot more room to disappoint investors.
Our analysts seem deadlocked on this one. My tally is 2.5 votes for Google and 2.5 votes for Apple. Break the tie in our Motley Poll and then share your thoughts in our comments section lower on the page.
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Which is the better buy at today's prices: Google or Apple?