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Have You Noticed? Apple Saved the Desktop Computer

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.