Apple's desktop refresh 'underwhelms'

Apple's updates are 'more stuff for the same price' -- a disappointment to more cost-conscious buyers, according to analyst

Apple updated its consumer desktop line Tuesday, refreshing the iMac and Mac Mini with faster processors, more memory and storage, and more capable graphics.

For the most part, prices have not changed, although the least-expensive iMac with a 24-inch screen has been reduced $300, to $1,499, a price point previously occupied by a now-eliminated second 20-inch model.

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"No surprises," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "This is exactly what you'd expect from Apple, more stuff for the same price. But for anyone expecting them to be a little more price-conscious, it's underwhelming."

The iMac, which continues to be available in both 20- and 24-inch models, boasts twice the amount of RAM found in yesterday's models: 2GB for the 20-inch and 4GB for the 24-inch. Apple also doubled hard drive space in the 24-inch models -- from 320GB and 500GB to 640GB and 1TB -- and increased storage on the smaller 20-inch iMac from 250GB to 320GB.

Apple equipped the new iMacs with faster processors as well to put the low end at a 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo rather than a 2.4GHz chip, although the top end remains a 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo.

Prices range from $1,199 for the 20-inch iMac to $1,499, $1,799, and $2,199 for the three configurations of the 24-inch system.

"Another thing they've done across the entire line is to equip it with fairly hefty graphics," noted Gottheil. "They did that not only to be competitive, but also because when Snow Leopard launches, there will be the opportunity to make a bunch of applications run much faster."

Snow Leopard, the name given to Apple's next operating system upgrade, Mac OS X 10.6, will support technologies that let some software offload part of the processing from the computer's CPU to the graphics processing unit, or GPU. Apple has not set a timeline for Snow Leopard's launch, but in June 2008 said it was shooting for a release in about a year, which would put it on the street in three months.

With Tuesday's refresh, Apple has dropped Advanced Micro Device's ATI graphics chip sets from its standard configurations, swapping them out for ones built by Nvidia, a shift it began last October when it moved the MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops to Nvidia graphics hardware.

In fact, the two lower-end iMacs -- the $1,199 20-inch and the $1,499 24-inch -- use the same Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics chip set as the MacBook and MacBook Air. The upper half of the iMac line, however, retains the discrete graphics of their predecessors: the $1,799 model offers a GeForce GT 120 with 256MB of memory, while the $2,199 system runs a GeForce GT 130 with 512MB of RAM.

Apple also revamped the Mac Mini, its lowest-priced system that sells sans monitor and keyboard. The two new models feature faster processors, larger hard drivers, and in the case of the more expensive unit, more memory. They are, however, still priced at $599 and $799.

"The Mac mini has always seemed like a real oddball product," said Gottheil, who quizzed Apple earlier today on its strategy. "They say people use it for all kinds of things, in vehicles, as an embedded system and to drive their TVs. In a certain sense, I agree. It's not a key product, and in some ways is almost a peripheral and not a computer."

As with the iMac, Apple moved the Mac Mini to Nvidia's graphics, specifically the same GeForce 9400M integrated chip set found in some other models. The $599 Mac Mini features 128MB of shared memory for graphics, while the $799 includes 256MB of shared memory. And for the first time, the Mini includes two video ports, allowing it to drive not just a single monitor like before, but dual-screen setups.

Apple trumpeted the environmental credentials of the Mac mini today, claiming that its power usage at idle -- under 13W -- "makes Mac mini the most energy-efficient desktop computer in the world."

"The iMacs and Mac Minis now have all kinds of energy [efficiency] certification," said Gottheil. "That might have been one of the driving causes for the delay in getting them out."

Gottheil was referring to the long stretch since Apple refreshed its desktop system, a factor many analysts have cited as one reason why iMac sales have plummeted during the last two quarters. "This does seem like a long wait for a set of not-really-newsworthy upgrades," he said. "But at the same time, desktops are so yesterday. If the market is moving to notebooks, the market is moving to notebooks, and nothing Apple can do will change that."

Finally, Apple also brushed up its professional desktop, the Mac Pro, with Intel's quad-core Nehalem processors, Nvidia GeForce 120 graphics cards with 512MB of memory, more RAM and larger hard drives. It also dropped the price of the least-expensive model $300, to $2,499. For $3,299, the higher-priced configuration offers two Nehalem CPUs to create an eight-core system; it also packs 6GB of memory, double the entry-level Mac Pro's.

Apple also updated the Mac Pro's interior layout for easier upgrading. The box now includes four direct-attach cable-free hard drive carriers that can accommodate a total of 4TB of internal storage.

"I don't think Apple is getting the price thing," concluded Gottheil when asked for his overall impression of the refresh. "Underwhelming, that's how I'd put it."

Computerworld is an InfoWorld affiliate.

This story, "Apple's desktop refresh 'underwhelms'" was originally published by Computerworld .

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