Have You Noticed? Apple Saved the Desktop Computer

December 29th, 2009

Up until October of this year, the conventional wisdom such as it is had it that note-books would soon supplant desktops in most homes and offices. The easy portability and the flexibility of having one computer that does virtually everything represents an extremely attractive proposition for everyone.

Indeed there have been theories, some I’ve expressed myself, that the entire desktop market would be restricted to content creators for whom no portable can provide the speed and expandability they need. That is the reason why Apple will likely include a Mac Pro in its lineup for a fair number of years, although I wouldn’t be surprised if the form factor was slimmed down substantially over the next few years.

I mean, do you really need all that extra bulk to house four hard drives, eight memory slots, and additional expansion slots? I’m certain Apple is busy devising ways to use the newer generations of Intel chips with reduced power and cooling needs to their best advantage in making it possible to actually carry a Mac Pro without suffering a back ache.

However, the quiet introduction of an updated Mac mini and iMac in October certainly took lots of people by surprise. Yes, there were the expected minor speed bumps, memory boosts and larger hard drives. But the iMac proved a revelation, particularly the 27-inch model that’s in a class by itself.

Indeed, a lot of former Mac Pro owners, including your humble editor, gave up their minitowers and embraced that new iMac, so much so that Apple was still quoting two-week shipping delays after the Christmas rush.

Up until now, the iMac was a basic all-in-one consumer computer, a descendant of the original 1984 compact Mac in terms of packaging. From the original Bondi blue model introduced in 1998, up till very recently, you didn’t buy an iMac to get state-of-the-art performance. Indeed, most of these products used mobile-class parts, essentially the same components Apple was using in its portables. This certainly helped keep the costs down, since Apple would simply buy more of the same parts, and it also made for lower power requirements and easy, flexible cooling.

While the iMac over the years became more powerful, you didn’t expect content creators or anyone requiring massive computing power to buy one, except perhaps as a home computer for the rest of the family. Or maybe to serve as a backup system.

However, Apple threw a monkey wrench into the process by delivering a 27-inch iMac with quad-core processors. Not a Xeon, but incorporating the latest tricks from Intel’s Nehalem processor family, including the ability to boost the speed of one core substantially when more number crunching power was needed, and the other cores weren’t being stressed. The Core i7 adds Hyper-Threading, which lets you run up to eight threads in parallel on a quad-core chip, said to deliver eight core performance under certain circumstances.

As you might expect, the benchmarks for the quad-core iMacs reveal performance levels that rival the Mac Pro. Since most of the applications Mac users are apt to use, even under Snow Leopard, don’t really stress multiple cores anyway, how many of them really need to spend all that extra cash on a Mac Pro?

Preliminary retail sales reports show that hundreds of thousands of iMacs reached the homes and offices of customers since October. Even though the potential sales impact was likely blunted somewhat because of the delays in delivering the 27-inch models, evidently enough of them are out there to count significantly towards Apple’s total sales figures for the current quarter.

Now I don’t know where the final numbers might lie. That won’t be known until January. Even though Apple doesn’t traditionally break down unit sales beyond the basic desktop and note-book categories, any huge jump in desktop sales can likely be attributed to the iMac. The Mac Pro only accounts for a small part of the sales picture, although the Mac mini appears to continue to do surprisingly well, more so now that there’s a special Server version for small businesses and educational institutions.

As the owner of a 27-inch iMac with the optional Core i7 CPU, I can tell you that it is every bit as fast if not faster in any respect I can measure compared to the Early 2008 Mac Pro that it replaced. Moving the 27-inch screen somewhat closer on my desktop results in a perceived size very close to that of the 30-inch display that was connected to its predecessor.

Yes, I know some of you are upset that Apple doesn’t offer a non-glossy screen. I tend to think they are catering to the 98 percentile here. If a reasonable demand existed, you’d have another option, just as you do with the MacBook Pro.

In 2010, all eyes will be focused on the expected arrival of a tablet computer, which will, of course, be another portable device. But Apple has demonstrated that there’s a whole lot of life left in desktops, and you can expect even further refinements to the iMac, although the chances for any all-new desktop form factors are slim to none.

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6 Responses to “Have You Noticed? Apple Saved the Desktop Computer”

  1. Darwin says:

    My i7 arrived here in phoenix today. Stunning.

  2. Joel Hall says:

    I’ve had my i7 for just over two weeks now, and I continue to be amazed by its speed. I check on the RAM prices several times a day, waiting for that 8GB kit to add to the 4 GB with which it came.

    I’ve avoided glossy screens until this iMac. But the screen is so bright I rarely notice the reflections. And when a different lighting situation in my office does create reflections, I just make sure I’m wearing a dark shirt and the reflections are unnoticeable.

    I’ve been a notebook kind of guy (all Macs) since 1995, although I did have a Rev. B iMac I bought in 1998, and wondered if I’d ever again have a computer I couldn’t fit in my backpack. But when I saw “quad core” mentioned with this one, I knew it was going to be an awesome tool for my creative adventures.

  3. dfs says:

    I’m not sure whether the advent of the i7 iMac means that Apple is going to phase out the Mac Pro, or whether they are planning on putting out such a killer Mac Pro in the near future that they don’t mind letting the i7 27-incher upstage it for a little while. That said, let me repeat what I’ve said before about the glossy screen, because it’s important. So listen up, you hesitant potential purchasers. When you see an iMac in an Apple Store, the display model invariably has the Aurora desktop with all that black background, which is stupid because it shows the reflectivity problem at its very worst. And don’t get me started on the lighting design of Apple Stores I’ve been in! Change the background to something more neutral and pastel and, trust me, half the problem goes away immediately. Now, I can see why a reflective screen can be a bad idea on a laptop, because a road warrior is going to use it in all sorts of situation where he can’t control the lighting. But with a desktop you can set the screen’s angle and adjust your room’s lighting to minimize the problem. Also, as Gene pointed out when he got his, it also helps to dim your screen (which is a good idea anyway, if you run a new iMac at full brightness your eyes are going to get snakebit in no time at all, it’s so bright). By the time you’ve done all these things, I can guarantee by personal experience that the reflectivity factor drops to somewhere in the general range of zero. (As I write this I’m wearing a very light blue shirt and I can’t see it at all). On an iMac reflectivity simply isn’t a problem. This shouldn’t scare anybody away from buying one of these great machines.

  4. The core i7 is indeed a revelation. I replaced a dual G5 tower with it, and have been nothing short of astonished by its relative performance. Converting an hour of Hi-Def video from AVCHD to an editable form on the old machine used to take roughly 24 hours; it takes slightly less than ten on the new one (and I don’t need to take up a USB port to transfer the raw file from the camcorder either.)

    The screen is as good as everyone says it is, and Snow Leopard has been flawless. I should also mention that transferring the entire contents of the G5 to the new machine via target disk mode took less than 75 minutes, and the few applications I had which were PPC-only not only run faster than they did on the G5, the iMac even offered to activate Rosetta for me when it detected them. The only real frustration was the lack of audio-only export from QT 10, and Apple’s seemingly careful hiding of the information on how to install QT 7 to cope with the missing feature.

    Such minor annoyances aside, and there were only two or three of them (the missing magic mouse driver update on the out-of-the-box machine being another one) I’ve never had such a pleasant surprise in setting up a new computer. Everything from opening the box to doing actual work on it has been a completely happy experience.

    If this is Apple’s answer to the death of the desktop, I’d say that the desktop will be around for a long time to come. A wireless keyboard, mouse and and even a 27-inch screen will fit just about anywhere, and with MobileMe, or a third-party alternative. keeping it in sync with an iPhone or MacBook is a no brainer. Considering what the combination of a desktop and a portable will do for you, owning both isn’t prohibitively expensive. If you’re worried about the cost, you can always scrap your landline phone and your cable TV. These days you don’t really need either one as much as you do two computers.

  5. Roger says:

    I have owned quite a few Macs since 1993 on. The expandability is what makes Mac towers a bargain. I never bought the fastest and sometimes bought the slowest tower available. I have Mac laptops but can seldom do real content work on them. iMacs are very nice but speed was never the reason I bought Macs or didn’t buy iMacs. I have managed to keep Mac towers useful for years and iMacs do not lend themselves to this. Having said this I also realize that most people do not want to keep computers that long. IF you plan on getting a new iMac every couple of years and do not need the highest production power you can get on with iMacs in content creation.

    I am a guy that finds portability to be generally over rated. I often leave my cel phone and laptop at home and I have never Tweeted anything. What I like about email is that I can get to it at my own choosing.

    On the issue of glossy screens I weight in with Joel Hall that the brightness of the new LED screens overcome the reflection issues. And these old eyes love the crisp clean LEDs.

    Thanks Gene
    I wish I had money to send to get you through the tough spot.

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