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  • The Apple Hardware Report: Make it Better, Not Cheaper!

    October 20th, 2009

    Confounding once again the frequent speculation about additional price cuts for Apple gear, the latest Mac refresh keeps prices pretty much the same as the previous models. But that’s where the resemblance ends.

    All right, the $599 and $799 Mac mini receive at best modest speed bumps. However, one of the seldom-mentioned uses for this diminutive computer is in the server industry. Apple has finally accepted that reality, by offering a $999 model equipped with two 500GB hard drives and Mac OS X Server. No, we’re not switching yet, since our server has dual quad-core Xeons, but certainly there are lots of applications for cheap servers, and the Mac mini is actually more powerful than many of the boxes Web hosts routinely deploy even now, and putting a bunch of them in a server room might be a great way to save money for some businesses and educational institutions.

    The MacBook is still white and the price remains $999, but that’s pretty much where the resemblance ends. The slimmer polycarbonate unibody form factor follows the tradition of the MacBook Pro. It also sports an LED backlit display and a built-in battery that’s rated up to seven hours between charges.

    Apple has added a non-skid bottom surface and shaved the weight to just 4.7 pounds, putting it to within a pound or so of some of those so-called “thin and light” portables. It might have been better to see a lower price, but certainly the improvements add $100 to $200 in the value equation.

    The skeptics, naturally, will suggest that economically challenged customers might still prefer a $699 PC note-book, and perhaps some will. But when you compare Mac versus PC pricing, you have to consider the actual features, not just the dollars and cents. The latter is where Microsoft’s Laptop Hunter ads fail miserably.

    Moving up the ladder, the entry-level iMac is still $1,199, but again there’s a whole lot more bang for the buck. Instead of offering 20-inch and 24-inch models, for example, they’re now up to 21.5 and 27 inches. Oh well, not the cherished 30-inch display some of us had hoped for, but surely it’s close enough not to be significant for most of you, particularly considering that the larger model begins at $1,699.

    In addition to the usual spate of speedier processors, there are now four memory slots, meaning you can add up to 16GB of RAM based on the existing maximum density of 4GB for each module. Of course, those suckers are expensive, so most of you will stick with the standard total of 4GB for now until the third-party memory houses bring the costs down to a sensible level.

    In addition to greater memory capacity, those who craved for a bridge between the Mac mini and Mac Pro have it in the form of the 2.66GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor, which is standard on the $1,999 27-inch configuration. A $200 upgrade gets you the 2.8GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 version. I wonder how long it’ll take before a MacBook Pro configuration offers a quad-core configuration, assuming it doesn’t degrade battery life seriously.

    You see, when it comes to energy conservation, it does appear Apple is more concerned than the PC makers who will put anyone into a note-book chassis so long as there’s a waiting customer, regardless of the tradeoffs. Besides, it’ll still be a while before a decent number of applications supporting Snow Leopard’s Grand Central Dispatch feature, for improved multicore support, are available. So going from two to four cores right now will have, at best, minimal impact, and it’s probably not worth the money.

    Other than the lack of a lower price, the rumor sites weren’t far off the mark. They also had the fundamentals down with the replacement for Apple’s pathetic Mighty Mouse. The new, ultra-slim Bluetooth Magic Mouse comes standard on the iMac, and will also be available as a standalone product for $69.

    The Magic Mouse’s stock in trade is support for Multi-Touch, which will reportedly allow you to use gestures to scroll through long documents and images, in the same fashion as the enhanced trackpad on the latest Apple note-books. Don’t sell this capability short, because I have come to depend heavily on finger scrolling on my 17-inch MacBook Pro, and that’s actually one of the Early 2008 models. It’s even better on the glass touchpads featured on the current product line.

    Keeping with the “quiet upgrade” tradition, Apple’s Wi-Fi products, the AirPort Express and Time Capsule, were reinvigorated with speedier Wi-Fi capability, and the latter supposedly offers improved performance with Time Capsule backups. This comes at a peculiar time for me, as I just spent 30 days evaluating the older 2TB TIme Capsule, so now I have to get a replacement unit from Apple before I do the writeup.

    The Apple Remote was also replaced with an upgraded, slimline aluminum form factor somewhat reminiscent of the iPod nano. But it’s still not standard on any Mac and it’s still $19 if you care.

    All in all, there’s probably nothing earth shattering in all these product revisions. I was hoping for some price cuts, but since you get a whole lot more for what you do spend, maybe that’ll make the difference for the holiday season. Certainly Apple’s projections for reduced profit margins this quarter do, in part, reflect the fact that they are paying more for this gear even if you’re not.

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