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The Cheap Mac Equation Revisited

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.