The Cheap Mac Equation Revisited

September 16th, 2009

Now that the new iPods, iTunes 9 and iPhone 3.1 are in the wild, speculation is mounting about the next great Mac product introduction. But it doesn’t take rocket science to fathom what Apple might be up to when it comes to a product upgrade. You just look at the models that are getting long in the tooth and you’ll find some worthy contenders.

None of this depends on the supposedly sage prognostications from so-called industry analysts or some unshredded papers a rumor site might have pulled from a trash bin outside of Apple headquarters.

That takes us to the iMac and the MacBook. Both have form factors that haven’t been updated in a while. The MacBook is particularly old fashioned compared to the rest of the product offerings, as it’s primarily a relic of a previous design that was evidently kept in the lineup to give Apple both breathing space and a chance to boast they actually had a note-book that sells for less than $1,000 U.S.

Now as you well know, you can buy a decent PC note-book for a few hundred dollars less. Sure, the standard equipment and software won’t exactly match the MacBook, but Microsoft’s price comparisons don’t want customers to actually demonstrate intelligence in making comparisons. The apparent ongoing success of netbooks has to have some impact as well.

But Apple is between a rock and a hard place here. They do not want to sell junk and have said so many times. Certainly the jury is out whether a $200 netbook will last very long, and the entry-level full size note-books do seem cheesy and cheap, and may get short shrift when it comes to getting full support from the manufacturer.

So just how low can Apple price an upgraded MacBook, retain the quality and make a decent profit? That is a question the critics won’t answer, but a little logic might come into play. One is that a price cut can often fuel sales that would, in terms of volume and reduced production costs, more than make up for what’s being given up. That’s certainly true when it comes to the MacBook Pro lineup, where few would suggest Apple is suffering.

So a MacBook starting at, say, $799, would seem mighty cheap for a genuine Mac. What Apple would have to do to carve $200 off the retail price is way beyond my pay grade, however. I don’t know what they pay for raw materials, and what sort of standard equipment they’d deem suitable. Certainly the software is a non-issue, since it doesn’t cost them any extra to burn an updated disk image.

On the other hand, it seems a perfectly reasonable price point and if Apple can pack a camcorder, FM radio and pedometer into an iPod nano without raising the price, surely they can build a less-expensive MacBook with pretty much the same standard equipment as the current model. If anything, a $999 version from an anticipated new model would provide a decent jump in standard equipment, such as a speedier processor, additional RAM and a bigger hard drive. Yes, the usual enhancements you might expect.

When it comes to the iMac, the last upgrade put the cheapest 24-inch model at the same price point as the previous 20-inch. Starting at $1,199, the remaining 20-inch iMac isn’t expensive for an all-in-one desktop computer, but you wonder if Apple can’t do better. After all, there have been $999 iMacs in the past, and with desktop computers losing sales right and left across the industry, that should certainly be a target price for an updated design, and $899 doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Indeed, Apple doesn’t really have to change the case or much else, except to take advantage of faster processors and bigger hard drives. The basic equipment is otherwise pretty decent.

Except for one more thing.

There is a segment of the Mac user base and potential Windows switchers — maybe not a large segment, but decently sized I’d venture — that would just love a bit more expandability. This is the core of the occasional request for a Mac minitower that sits between the Mac mini and the Mac Pro in the lineup.

Beyond extra RAM slots, the most likely contender would be the ability to add a second hard drive. I don’t see any problems for Apple in carving out some additional space within the existing form factor. Certainly logic boards and other components are getting smaller all the time.

The super-expandable iMac, should it appear, ought to make it easy for you to crack open at least a portion of the case and, in the tradition of the Mac Pro, add or remove a hard drive with minimal effort. I don’t see this costing a whole lot from the standpoint of raw materials. The basic models would still have a single drive. You could add one via the customize option or just buy one yourself and install it.

When it comes to the graphics chips, the ones in the iMac are plenty good as it is. I see no crying need to provide better graphics beyond the normal upgrades that you might expect from the chip makers themselves.

So there you have it. Notice I haven’t included a revitalized Apple TV or a tablet computer, not that I feel the compelling need to buy either. But I’ll get to them soon.

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12 Responses to “The Cheap Mac Equation Revisited”

  1. Hoovenson Haw says:

    For staters, Apple can ditch the optical drive. Maybe that’ll give them enough room in the logic board to use cheaper and larger components (eg, capacitors, diodes,etc) that are few cents cheaper.

    Apple can also exclude the stickers, saving even more pennies.

  2. Andrew says:

    A 4GB RAM MacBook Air with the new touchpad would be nice.

  3. Dave Barnes says:

    I just want a 28-inch hi-res iMac.

  4. Maddan says:

    The cry a for headless iMac in between the Mac Mini and Mac Pro isn’t just for being able to add a second full size hard drive. Some of us would like to be able to choose our own monitor. We’d also like a couple of expansion slots, one full speed PCIe slot suitable for a graphics card and second slot suitable for whatever. We don’t want a desktop that uses notebook parts (Mac Mini) and the Mac Pro is far beyond our needs. Apple’s refusal to fill that gaping hole between the Mac Mini and (expandable, headless desktop Mac goes here) Mac Pro makes me feel like I’m being shoved unwillingly towards a Windows 7 machine.

    • @Maddan, I agree with you that paying for the monitor you don’t really want or need can be upsetting. That is unless Apple provides a range of sizes and not just 20 and 24-inch. As to the extra slot, that depends on how many people want that too. I don’t see it being expensive to do, and I grant that there might be a need.


  5. David says:

    My biggest complaint is the increasingly large gap in performance between the iMac and desktop PCs. Snow Leopard should be able to take even greater advantage of multiple CPU and GPU cores than Windows does, but Apple continues to drag its feet, knowing that they make more money by focusing on form instead of function.

    Based on the minimal progress in the iMac since it went aluminum I estimate it will take until 2012 for the iMac to match the performance of an $800 PC bought today. Provided the hardware doesn’t fail, any PC bought today will therefore last 3 years longer than an iMac (based on raw performance only). Factor in the expansion/upgrade options in a typical desktop and you should be able to squeeze out another year. For someone who keeps their iMac for 4 years that’s a lifespan of 8 years for the PC.

    Apple didn’t get to be rich by offering computers people could hang onto for 8 years. They tried that back in the 1990’s and look where that got them.

    Apple needs customers to replace their computer every 1-4 years. To be brutally honest, they don’t want you as a customer if you won’t or can’t buy new hardware on that schedule.

    Therefore the iMac will never offer typical desktop performance or expansion. It will be just good enough to attract people on the basis of looks, OS and Apple’s reputation, but lousy enough that they’ll be selling it or giving it to their kids within 3 years.

    • @David, To properly match what you get for your money, you have to build a box with the same options, including screen size. All-in-ones on the Windows platform are often more expensive than iMacs, so you have to compare oranges with oranges here.

      As to the performance: The difference between the desktop and the mobile chip isn’t so vast, except at the high end. Macs are always competitive when you do the proper comparison. But I refer you to my previous articles on that subject.


  6. dfs says:

    Other reasons for wanting a headless Mac to fit in the lineup between the iMac and the Mac Pro: a.) gamers might want to add their own graphics cards; b.) it’s a whole lot cheaper to buy and install your own memory upgrades. What Apple charges for factory-installed extra memory is outrageous, and even if you have a local tech does it for you, that costs money and also down time.

  7. David says:

    I never meant to say an $800 PC is an equal match or suitable replacement for an iMac, only that performance far exceeding the iMac is available at a reasonable price once you’re willing to accept higher electricity consumption and heat output. That, of course, means abandoning the all-in-one form factor.

    I agree with you that accurately matching features can yield a PC/display combo that has a higher sticker price than an iMac.

    My point was longevity. Even if a desktop costs more up front, its higher performance will allow it to remain in front line use for years longer, thus giving it a lower cost per year of ownership. That is especially true today with the advent of technology like Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL that make use of every available CPU and GPU thread.

    Tomorrow’s software will make quad core desktop machines noticeably faster than the day they shipped, giving them greatly extended lifetimes. Apple’s mostly dual core mobile lineup will gain far less and soon look incredibly slow by comparison.

    Apple knew this day was coming and wisely (for them) refused to ship any computers under $2500 that would get that magic increase in lifespan.

    Meanwhile technically savvy Mac customers have been sitting on the sidelines in frustration knowing that Apple could have been selling quad core machines, but had chosen to hold back until the software caught up. Some got so frustrated that they bought powerful PCs and installed OS X.

    Today Intel has a wide variety of Core i5 and Core i7 processors available at aggressive prices for desktop customers. Their offerings for the mobile market are both more expensive and significantly slower. That means even today Apple cannot improve the performance of the iMac without changing the design to accommodate hotter chips. Rumors that the next iMac will be even thinner suggest Apple has no intention of ever using hotter chips.

    Next month Apple will revise their lineup. Those wanting a better price on the Mac experience are going to be pleased, but those wanting a machine that better takes advantage of Snow Leopard will continue to be frustrated.

    • @David, As with all things Apple, we don’t know what approach they plan to take. From a practical standpoint, only now do we see the potential of using the power of multicore processors on the Mac, so there’s more incentive for Apple to upgrade those models.

      With quad-core mobile chips out, remember that Apple gets the benefit of quantity purchasing here. If they buy a lot of like parts for both the iMac and MacBook Pro, they can sell both for less money.

      And don’t assume the rumored thinner form factor will mean it won’t support a hotter chip. Apple is pretty smart about cooling systems — well most of the time.


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