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  • A Mac That’s Too Cheap?

    June 19th, 2014

    Hardly a day passes where I don’t see a dumb headline about Apple. As you regular readers know, putting Apple in a headline is often guaranteed to generate traffic. Even users of products built by other companies can’t resist Apple, so if you want to build up that hit count, and beef up your monthly payment from Google for its AdSense service, that’s the way to do it. I suppose. What’s more it doesn’t matter whether the content is worth a second look. The magic headline is enough.

    So this week, as rumored for a while, Apple introduced a cheaper iMac, the first one listing for $1,099 in a couple of years. While that may still seem a tad expensive compared to those PC boxes you can get at the local discount store, as all-in-ones go, it’s quite favorably priced. But one online commentator wants to suggest that maybe it’s a little too cheap.

    In any case, to cut $200 from the price, Apple “decontented” the cheapest 21.5-inch iMac. Instead of the 2.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, you get the 1.4GHz dual-core low-power variant already used in the latest MacBook Air. Hard drive capacity drops from 1TB to 500GB. That’s still enough for most, and if your budget is tight, this may be the perfect personal computer for you. But remember that RAM cannot be upgraded, though 8GB ought to be sufficient to run most apps with pretty good performance. Remember that multiple cores doesn’t count for much except for a few apps that are more suited to a Mac Pro.

    So this seems to be a pretty decent deal, same for the $899 MacBook Air. It may also entice more customers to try a Mac, particularly at a time when Microsoft is turning off customers right and left with Windows 8.1.

    What’s more, I think that a lot of customers would accept the tradeoffs, considering the junk that passes for a cheap PC these days. While spending upwards of $1,000 is still fairly high, it’s not that Apple has had any problems beating the PC market in growing sales of new Macs.

    There appears to be another reason why Apple has opted for tiny upgrades, or lesser content to reduce the price of new Macs and keep sales moving. It’s also a possible reason why speculation about Apple switching to ARM chips — however improbable — has arisen again. Evidently Intel is having trouble finishing development of the next generation chips, code-named Broadwell.

    After a number of delays, the latest promise is that the new CPUs will be available before the end of the year. But it may not be early enough to deliver them in sufficient quantities to refresh new Macs. I would also expect that it’s possible delivery dates will slip to 2015, and Apple is a cautious beast.

    Left without a new chip family, Apple is taking the best way out. It’s possible there will be more Mac refreshes later this year, but they won’t be substantial. If not a price reduction, slightly faster chips will be used, although performance changes will be barely measurable except with a stop watch.

    Perhaps the lone exception is the oft-rumored MacBook Air with Retina display. That will also depend on Apple getting enough displays and keeping costs down so it won’t get too expensive. Such a move would also keep Macs current, more or less, so someone won’t feel slighted by buying a model with a “2013” label in late 2014.

    Makes sense.

    Besides, other than improved graphics, the performance boosts of new Macs in recent years hasn’t been terribly significant. When I read reviews citing a 5-10% improvement in benchmarks, it’s ho-hum. Well, there’s always that Fusion drive or a full SSD, which does make an iMac or Mac mini seem a whole lot faster, since drive speed is a huge factor in enhancing performance.

    But when someone wonders whether a Mac is too cheap, I’m sure most of you would suggest Macs aren’t cheap enough. Certainly Apple has moved more aggressively on price, and the PC race to the bottom seems to have stalled. But if you could buy a new Mac and be reasonably assured it will run just fine five years from now — and that you’ll still be able to install the latest OS X — that makes it a great long-term value.

    How many new $399 PCs will be functioning just fine in 2019? Or would you be on your fourth computer by then, assuming you’re still using a PC?

    Just one more thing: I am sure Apple isn’t happy that Intel is hitting roadblocks developing and delivering faster or at least lower powered chips. I suppose there is a temptation to consider an ARM switch. But there are barriers to entry. First is boosting performance to a level that’s matches or exceeds Intel. Otherwise why make the switch? If a few dollars are saved, maybe Macs could become cheaper, but there’s still the issue of running Intel-based software. Apple could build an Intel-to-ARM translator, maybe make it chip-cased for maximum efficiency.

    But would it make any sense?

    I suppose Apple might also consider building a combo chip that’s both ARM and Intel compatible, so developers have time to make the transition. But wouldn’t that require a license from Intel? Unless Intel were tasked with building the new chips, of course, in which case they could be assured of continued business from Apple regardless of what chip goes inside your new Mac.

    But I don’t believe in the possibility of an ARM-based Mac. Well, at least not for a while. But it’s nice to see cheaper Macs available.



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