• New Apple Hardware: Are There Downsides?

    March 4th, 2006

    Before I get to the point, let me say that I’m encouraged that Apple has managed its transition to Intel processors so rapidly. So far, the number of glitches with the new hardware appears to be small, fundamental compatibility is good, and the number of Universal applications continues to increase rapidly. Apple’s own product guide lists over 1,000.

    When it comes to design, the new products look very much like the PowerPC versions they replace, although the MacBook Pro is thinner. Those who were expecting drastic changes might be disappointed, but it does show continuity and that might be a psychological advantage. They still look like Macs and operate like Macs, regardless of the under-the-hood changes.

    With the Mac mini, Apple has gone one step further to bring its internal workings closer to the traditional PC world, and that is to use an Intel graphics chip, one that shares system memory. Now understand that many Mac writers have, over the years, put down cheap PC’s for that reason, among many. On paper, though, the Intel GMA950 is no slouch, and appears to have far more pixel-generating power than the discrete ATI Radeon 9200 graphics chip that it replaced. Using an Intel integrated chipset also reduces production costs, so maybe you can forgive the fact that the specs call for 80MB of RAM allocated for the purpose, which means that the 512MB computer becomes a 432MB computer.

    Update: However, that ought to be enough for all but extremely memory-demanding tasks, and the new mini addresses one key problem that existed with the original by having two RAM slots. Both are occupied, however, but you can install up to 2GB, in matching pairs. You will want to add extra RAM if you feel that the shared graphics memory might yield a performance penalty, or you plan to run lots of PowerPC applications, requiring Rosetta emulation. As I’ve reported in the past, emulation exacts a 50% RAM overhead above what a program normally requires.

    As with other new Macs, there’s no longer a built-in modem, but you had to expect that. After the last minor revision, only the basic mini had one, but it’s optional if you need it. What’s more, there will be all those inevitable comparisons with an entry-level PC, and has the Mac mini suddenly become, with a $100 price increase, less competitive? After all, doesn’t Apple usually keep prices pretty much the same when it comes out with a superior model?

    Well, in this case, the Mac mini adds enough value to compensate. Assuming that benchmarks of the integrated graphics chip yield results superior to the old one, there’s also the support for gigabit ethernet, standard AirPort and Bluetooth, the Apple Remote, optical audio ports, and a pair of additional USB 2.0 ports. Hard drive capacity is boosted to 60GB. Yes, folks, FireWire is still present. Add to that iLife ’06 and suddenly you can understand the reasoning behind the price boost. You’re getting a lot more stuff with the new mini, although the high-end (so to speak) $799 version may well be the sweet spot in this lineup, because of the addition of a Core Duo processor, 80GB drive and a SuperDrive.

    The Intel transition picture looks quite encouraging. That, of course, leaves the iBook, Power Mac and Xserve in the upgrade pile, and hopes for 12-inch and 17-inch versions of the MacBook Pro. The tech media and Mac commentators in general expect the first, newly dubbed as MacBook, to appear within the next few weeks.

    Now as to that iPod Hi-Fi: On the one hand, it looks like an iPod speaker system done right, and the properties of the speakers show far more attention to detail than you expect for a mere $349. But this is no compact product. With batteries, it tips the scales at 16.7 pounds, and that’s no misprint. Physically, it measures 6.6 inches high, 17 inches wide, and 6.9 inches deep. This is a fair amount larger than the famous Bose Wave Radio, leaving room to contain bigger speakers and the need for fewer tricks to make them sound decent.

    The two smaller speakers are sealed, using the acoustic suspension technique. The woofer uses a ported bass reflect design to give the low end more oomph. Note that Apple doesn’t call it a subwoofer, as some companies do, and it provides some real specs for the system, something lacking in competing products. So do you call it a boombox? Well, it’s big enough. But the real question is just how the iPod accessory makers will react to Apple’s new foray into their turf. To be sure, pretty much all the other iPod speaker assemblies are compact. Apple went in the other direction, and, with an input port for other audio devices, it could become an excellent choice for setting up a low-cost music system.

    That is, if the sound quality matches the hype, and that remains to be seen.

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