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  • Is the Mac Pro on Life Support?

    October 22nd, 2009

    It had to happen. When Apple decided to add quad-core processors to some versions of the new iMac, and increase the number of RAM slots, they cannibalized a lot of potential Mac Pro sales. Indeed, the vast majority of people who buy the remaining Macintosh tower computer can probably do quite nicely, thank you, with the iMac.

    All right, I realize that breaking the expandable Mac habit is going to be hard. Ever since the original Mac II came out in the 1980s, Apple has always had products in the lineup with sufficient space to install lots of internal goodies. The latest Mac Pro is certainly an engineering tour de force that is closer in concept to a workstation than a personal computer. You can add tons of RAM, up to four hard drives and extra graphics boards or other expansion cards. If you’re engaged in heavy-duty content creation, including 3D rendering, there is probably no computer on the planet that’s better suited to your needs.

    In the scheme of things, the Mac Pro is actually surprisingly inexpensive compared to the competition from such top-drawer PC vendors as Dell and HP. Indeed, I once mentioned to someone from Dell that an identically configured Mac Pro cost almost $1,000 less than their Dell Precision Workstation. Their response was to express surprise and say they’d get back to me. Well, they never did, and even today you’ll find that Apple is quite often ahead of the curve on price.

    The real question is whether that model has become an anachronism except for a very small clientele. After all, current sales figures demonstrate that 74% of new Macs are portables. Sales of desktops are falling rapidly, and a similar situation holes true in the PC box market, where the biggest sales increase has actually been scored by note-books, which also means profits have been trimmed to the bone.

    The iMac and Mac mini upgrades may do no more than slow the pace of decline, but I doubt that desktop sales erosion will end. The industry is moving in a different direction, and most people want something that’s relatively small, and easy to lug around from room to room. After all, all Mac note-books can drive big external displays when the need arises.

    Of course, you have to wonder just how close an iMac will come to a Mac Pro in all-out performance. Certainly the quad-core Intel i5 and optional i7 are powerful chips, but there’s only one of either. As applications are updated to support Snow Leopard’s Grand Central Dispatch feature, they will still run faster on the Mac Pro, but the advantage will only be significant for a small minority of products. Most of you will never see the difference.

    In terms of RAM, going to 16GB on an iMac remains expensive. Yes, you can save a lot by going to a third-party RAM vendor rather than picking Apple’s brand, but the sweet spot for the iMac is 8GB. Apple charges $200 to double the memory. You can do better, of course, but either way it’s a win-win situation.

    But there is, of course, no space for a second drive. That would have been one of the features that would help deliver customers who crave double hard drives, and there are a fair number out there. Yes, you’ll get good performance with an external FireWire 800 device, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the ideal replacement.

    The other issue, of course, is that the iMac comes with an integrated display that you may not really need. You are paying lots extra for the privilege of having an all-in-one. Sure, the display may be nearly as great as Apple claims, and it may even be better suited for color calibration than other LCD panels. But if you’ve already invested in the display you want, as I have done, I can see where you’d prefer not to pay for an item you don’t need.

    Yes, the Mac mini is a pretty speedy devil, but it won’t match the fully-outfitted iMac. Moreover, there is probably no chance that Apple is going to add another expandable desktop to its lineup considering where the market is heading.

    Despite my concerns, the iMac appears destined for a reasonable level of success. As I write this article, it topped the charts at Apple’s online store, although that probably represents the initial demand rather than the new model’s long-term prospects.

    The fact that it seems able to also double as a small TV set is a real plus, so long as you have a cable and/or satellite set-top box at hand. Or an Elgato EyeTV. Maybe this is what Steve Jobs was really talking about all along when he spoke of the personal computer as the hub of your digital lifestyle. But I don’t anticipate a 52-inch iMac anytime soon to replace the family flat panel TV.

    As to the Mac Pro, it’ll likely remain in Apple’s lineup for quite a while yet, and continue to receive regular refreshes. But the number of buyers will continue to decrease and maybe, just maybe, it’ll become a relic of history in the next five years.

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