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At Last! Apple Revitalizes the Mac

Now that the notorious Antennagate scandal has apparently died down, the tech media can return to talking about Apple’s “other” product lineup — the Mac. Yes, there’s finally news that disproves the unfounded rumor that Macs are playing second fiddle these days, which is why they allegedly don’t receive regular upgrades.

After ongoing rumors of reduced availability of the iMac and Mac Pro, Apple finally met expectations and revised both Tuesday. Although the basic form factors remain essentially identical to the previous versions, there’s more horsepower under the hood and, typical for Apple, the prices are essentially unchanged.

The key here is that, despite claims that Apple is ignoring the latest chips from Intel, it does appear that they are embracing many of them for these speed bumps. The aging Core 2 Duo is gone from the low-end iMacs at long last, replaced by Intel’s Core i3, accompanied by discrete graphics from ATI. That decision is a response to the fact that Apple cannot use NVIDIA’S powerful integrated graphics with Intel’s current processors due to an ongoing contract dispute.

One other notable change is the ability to add a second internal drive, a solid state device, which now brings the iMac ever closer in capability to the Mac Pro.

As far as the Mac Pro is concerned, that update still incorporates Intel’s older Nehalem chips in the less expensive configurations, and relies on the new Westmere six-core processors for the super-expensive customized versions, beginning at a price just shy of $5,000. But don’t expect one on your doorstep quite yet. The new Mac Pros will ship in August.

While there’s little to offer in these products beyond enhanced number crunching capability, Apple did introduce two other products that have long been anticipated. Come September, the aging Apple display lineup will be updated with a $999 27-inch LED model, offering the pretty much the same image quality as the larger iMac for those who already have, say, a Mac mini or a Mac Pro. The 24-inch and 30-inch models will be history as soon as stocks are depleted.

There are a few extras in the new display, such as an ambient light sensor that behaves in a similar fashion to the one on an Apple note-book, adjusting brightness based on available lighting, and even a MagSafe connector to function as a convenient recharging station and somewhat reduce your cable clutter.

In addition, a recent patent filing from Apple has paid off in a real shipping product, the Magic Trackpad, which is, at $69, basically an 80% larger version of the one you find on a Mac Pro, but tilted to match Apple’s current lineup of aluminum keyboards.

This product may be the most intriguing, since it further integrates the feel of input devices on both desktop and portable Macs. As most of you have come to realize moving from Apple’s keyboard to the ones on the MacBook and MacBook Pro, they already act very much the same in most keyboard entry situations.

Indeed, this may be one of Apple’s most significant, if unheralded, innovations, because it smoothes the transition from one Mac to another; that is, assuming you aren’t using a third-party input device with either. I know that I’ve always had to spend a few moments adapting from desktop to portable and back again, and some of you never succeed.

Compare that to the widely different keyboard actions on various Windows-based desktops and note-books, because, frankly, this is not an issue those manufacturers ever consider. Unless you opt for a special keyboard, the ones you get on most desktop PCs are junk, and note-book keyboards and trackpads are seldom crafted for comfort and speed. That’s particularly true with the compressed keyboard on a netbook.

Sure, the touch keyboard on an Apple mobile device is decidedly different and clearly less suited for extended typing sessions, but an external keyboard can remedy at least some of the known shortcomings if you are willing to give up portability and travel convenience. Or just confine your text entry to more limited functions and consider a dictation program for everything else. That way, you don’t have to fret about keyboard feel.

There is yet one more new product, a $29 “eco-friendly” battery charger that can handle up to six AA cells and keep them fully charged for your battery-powered Apple input devices. Six long-life rechargeable batteries are included, and Apple boasts you can, with regular recharging, use them for up to ten years. Of course that will be long after your Macs have been replaced by something far more advanced in terms of power management. But the promise is at least intriguing.

All told, this would appear to be pretty much the end of the anticipated Mac upgrades for the year, except for one thing. The fate of the MacBook Air remains uncertain. It is the only product in Apple’s personal computer lineup that has been left untouched so far this year. But it’s also not a large seller, and some feel that people who want a really thin and light portable computer might opt for the iPad instead.

As far as software is concerned, there are still unproven reports about a forthcoming iLife ’11 upgrade with some mysterious added app, and you have to wonder when we might see the first glimmers of a substantial rumor about Snow Leopard’s successor, Mac OS X 10.7.