The Mac on a Roll Report

August 4th, 2010

After all the speculation that Apple was consigning the Mac to the afterthought category, it’s fascinating to see how, in fact, the platform continues to survive and prosper.

After one industry survey opted to merge iPad and Mac sales figures, Apple’s portable PC market share on that survey soared to number three behind Dell and HP, and that approach appears to be catching on.

It doesn’t matter that they have different operating systems, or that the iPad may have sharply-reduced functionality compared to a Mac. Many of the chores for which a PC is generally used can be ably performed with both, particularly for home users who largely use their computers for consumption, such as Web surfing, reading e-books, playing games, listening to music and watching movies.

This doesn’t mean that Apple is going to abandon the Mac anytime soon, particularly since every model update is followed by an uptick in sales. The new iMacs are garnering rave reviews, particularly in light of the improved gaming benchmarks. There’s also loads of promise for the forthcoming Mac Pros, although getting those six-core Intel chips will raise the purchase price beyond the stratosphere. But I suppose that doesn’t matter for content creators who will justify the investment as business expenses, and can benefit from improved productivity.

Another positive development appears to be that Apple may no longer be delivering tepid support for gaming on a Mac. The stellar success of the iPhone and iPod touch — and very likely the iPad — as mobile gaming devices, might be the key factor.

So you already see more powerful graphics across the board on the latest Macs. More to the point, the forthcoming Mac Pro will incorporate higher-end ATI graphic cards, even as standard issue, which are nearly identical to the Windows counterparts except for minor tweaks from Apple, which may help attract some buyers who buy expensive gaming PCs such as Alienware.

Certainly the reports that some 15% to 20% of new game sales made under the Valve Steam application go to Mac users clearly indicates the demand is there. It’s also true, unfortunately, that frame rates for Mac games are a fraction of what comparable Windows boxes deliver. Yes, they are quite playable under Mac OS X, but if you want higher pixel settings, all the shading goodies and other features, it may not be enough.

Some of that might be due to the fact that Mac drivers haven’t been optimized for gaming. There’s also better support in those games for Microsoft’s DirectX graphics features, and the Mac graphics hardware has almost always been notoriously underpowered, because Apple has relied on lower power chips.

Now Apple has certainly remedied the latter to some extent with the latest updates, though it would be nice to see top-of-the-line chips available on all the consumer models as options. But enhancing the software is another matter entirely, and it would probably require an intense commitment on the part of Apple and their graphics chip suppliers — ATI and NVIDIA — to boost performance seriously.

Of course, nothing stops the devoted gamer from using Apple’s Boot Camp, where the native Windows games will run far better for a given level of hardware. But if gaming is a large part of your computing diet, it may not make a whole lot of sense to buy a Mac until they get their acts together in the native Mac OS X environment.

On the whole, though, Apple’s clear commitment to the Mac is again raising expectations for Snow Leopard’s successor. Sure, Apple pretty much ignored the Mac at this year’s WWDC, except for developer workshops. But it’s also true that it really doesn’t make sense to deliver a new version of Mac OS X every single year. It’s not as if there’s any evidence that people aren’t buying Macs because of an outdated operating system.

Sure, Microsoft is apparently doing well with Windows 7. But I suspect a large portion of the higher sales are to companies who held off upgrading to Vista. The hardware upgrade cycle, and the apparent end to the economic downturn, has fueled more orders for new PCs. Those PCs come with Windows 7 preloaded, and there’s less incentive to downgrade to XP.

To Microsoft’s credit, yes, many of the worst performance ills and other defects in Vista have been minimized. More and more software is compatible with Windows 7, so there’s a real incentive not to downgrade to a nine-year-old operating system.

At the same time, Apple doesn’t need to rush 10.7. It will arrive when it’s ready, possibly in the middle or latter part of 2011. You’ve already seen reports that Apple is hiring software engineers to help deliver on the promise of incredible new features. But that also may be part of the hype, since Apple knows that those want ads are seen by the media, and are thus quoted in order to keep the buzz going.

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