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A Memo to People Who Don’t Like the Latest Mac Upgrades

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to discover that a fair number of people are described as underwhelmed by Apple’s desktop product refreshes this week. The objections cover a surprising range, from the pricing to the nature of the upgrades, but in all respects, they’re not happy.

Let’s look at the pricing first. True to Apple’s ongoing policy, they simply improved the product without changing the cost structure. Some analysts have been suggesting that Apple must cut prices in order to compete during a downward economic spiral, but they aren’t paying attention. Besides, Apple has roughly $28 billion hanging around, one expects in a solvent bank, so they are under little pressure to boost short-term sales at the expense of long-term profitability.

When it comes to the iMac, complaints about the cost of the new version just don’t make any sense. Consider that you can now get the entry-level 20-inch version for $1,199, and the configuration is quite close to the $1,499 model of the prior generation. For that price, you now get a 24-inch model.

To me, that’s a $300 price reduction, right? Now maybe my math skills aren’t what they should be, but Apple has said the very same thing. In a sense, they’ve moved the product line down one price level, with better options at the higher-end of the scale.

Now I suppose you could argue that Apple could have done more to beef up the iMac, particularly when it comes to having discrete graphics chips on the cheaper models. Certainly you have to consider that you are sacrificing at least 256MB of RAM for integrated graphics, but the NVIDIA 9400M chip does great work, and is apt to perform better than the ATI chips on the older iMac. That, to me, is an improvement.

When it comes to the Mac mini, what can I say? No, Apple didn’t invest in a new form factor, although they reworked the chassis with more green-friendly parts. The hardware is suitably upgraded, particularly in addressing the lame graphics capability of the last version, released in the summer of 2007. Has it been that long?

I’m also happy to see that Apple has demonstrated improved faith in the mini, which has been the orphan stepchild of the Mac desktop lineup for far too long. Maybe they’ll even pour a few dollars for direct promotion this time, and not just because it appeals to the environmental segment. I doubt very much if most people will buy one for that reason. It’ll be more the desire to get a faster computer for a relatively small amount of money. Indeed, the climate is such that the mini might really take off with the right presentation.

But then what do I know about marketing?

As far as the Mac Pro is concerned, it’s a natural refinement. The chassis is reworked somewhat to simplify the upgrade process, which was, to my way of thinking, pretty easy with the previous version.

The new Intel Nehalem Xeon chips might seem a harder sell. Faster performance, but a lower clock rate. But the gigahertz race is long ago and far away, and I trust customers realize now that these raw specs don’t tell the entire story about a personal computer’s performance potential. It’s still benchmarks. In saying that, the eight-core Nehalem upgrades are monumentally expensive, so souping up the new box isn’t going to be an inviting prospect. However, it’s nice to be able to upgrade the eight-core model from the standard 6GB RAM to 16GB for $500. That’s not a bad deal at all, and it’ll present a challenge to third-party memory suppliers.

Going to 32GB, for $6,100, is utter nonsense. I think 16GB is the sweet spot for the Mac Pro. That’s my current configuration, and our Web server, which uses a pair of quad-core AMD processors, has a similar memory complement.

In all, I think Apple refreshed their desktops in a way that makes perfect sense regardless of the economic situation. Being environmentally friendly is only a small part of what you get if you are ready to buy a new Mac.

Is there something missing? Well, I think that, with over 70% of Mac sales in the portable category, the hopes and dreams for the legendary “mythical midrange Mac minitower” will quite likely never be fulfilled. Although I think there’s a hole in the Mac lineup for a product of this sort, incorporating basically the guts of the iMac sans the display, with some added expandability, the market has left the gate. It just won’t get enough of an audience to make sense.

I would have also found it interesting to put a quad-core mobile processor in the high-end iMacs. That would have made them compelling alternatives for content creators who just can’t see their way clear to buy a fully-outfitted Mac Pro nowadays.

Sure such a product might cannibalize sales somewhat from the high-end, but I think Apple should be grateful for any sale at this point in time. Besides, users who want the ultimate Mac technology will still cherish a Mac Pro below their desks.

As far me, there’s nothing here that makes me want to toss out my existing hardware, even if I had the funds to make that investment right now, especially since I did all my upgrades last year. I think I’ll pass until 2010.