What About the Macs that Still Need an Upgrade?

August 15th, 2012

There was plenty of talk about the MacBook Pro with Retina display when it arrived. Apple changed the game again, keeping Macs way ahead of Windows boxes. These days, the PC makers are still trying to find a way to earn profits from those super slim Ultrabooks, even though they are doing as much as they can to copy the success of the MacBook Air, and despite getting incentives from Intel.

Now it’s true that three quarters of new Macs sold these days are note-books, so it made sense for Apple to upgrade them first, even though new Intel parts are also available for desktops. So the speculation continues about when there will be a new iMac and Mac mini.

But there was a sort of upgrade to the Mac Pro, with a slight change in processor specs, but the “real” upgrade has been promised for 2013 by no less than Tim Cook. So I’d take that as an admission that something really different is afoot. What form that might take is anyone’s guess, I suppose, but one possibility is a slimmer, lighter design. Rather than deal with an ugly 41 pound behemoth, Apple could make something with similar expansion capabilities, but weighing half as much.

That theory isn’t out of line. Consider the late 1980s and early 1990s when Apple sold a series of expandable compact desktops beginning with the Macintosh IIcx. Introduced in 1989, the IIcx had three expansion slots (it was NuBus in those days), and eight RAM slots. The chassis was easy to work on, and the unit weighed 13.6 pounds. All right, you had space for one hard drive and a floppy drive (which would be replaced with an optical drive these days). All told, I would find it hard to believe that Apple couldn’t pack a similar range of expansion possibilities, plus the ability to add up to four drives, in a compact box that weighed less than 20 pounds.

Assuming performance improved to the extent that Intel’s Xeon chips have improved, I would consider such a refreshed Mac Pro quite a buy indeed. It would be an even better one if Apple could deliver it for less money than the current version. But the largest expense, particularly the high-end configurations, depends on the choice of processors. That’s Intel’s problem, or perhaps the people who would buy a Mac Pro workstation wouldn’t worry about shelling out five figures for the most powerful systems.

Yes, I think putting the Mac Pro on a diet is a real possibility, but since it clearly won’t happen till next year, I’ll move on to something else.

The last iMac update, the Mid 2011 model, arrived some 15 months ago, and that’s an awful long time in the personal computing world. This is particularly true in light of the fact that Windows desktops are already using many of the parts expected for a 2012 iMac. So you have to wonder why Apple appears to be taking so long. Surely a simple product refresh could be handled in a relatively short time, so maybe Apple has a different game plan.

Some suggest a 27-inch iMac with Retina display, but that would be a costly luxury. Apple has only just caught up with supplying the 15-inch MacBook Pro version. You also tend to stay farther away from the screen of a desktop computer, particularly one that large, so the improvements of a retina display would be less drastic. This doesn’t mean one isn’t in Apple’s playbook, but this year doesn’t seem so certain.

Otherwise, Apple could, I suppose, slim down the iMac, and maybe provide an easier way to add or replace a hard drive, with convenient access to two drive bays. That solution alone could make the iMac more useful for content creators, particularly those who have given up waiting for a major Mac Pro upgrade. If Apple installs the fastest Intel i7 quad-core processors from the Ivy Bridge family, the attraction of the Mac Pro will be reduced for some. Of course, you will need an outboard expansion box on the Thunderbolt port to run your favorite PCI cards.

Sure, 12 cores running full-bore are better than four, but only a small number of apps take advantage of the theoretical extra level of number crunching power. But I’ll make no guesses about whether the next iMac will have an optical drive.

Then there’s the Mac mini, which is still a compelling product for many Mac users. Sure, you need a separate display, and keyboard and mouse are also optional. But even the basic performance level of the Mac mini is more than sufficient to satisfy many Mac users. Of course, when you add a 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt Display, suddenly you’re in iMac territory. But if you have an existing display around, and it meets your needs, a starting price of $599 makes the Mac mini quite a deal. It’s also suitable for server duty for a small business. Some Web hosts even use banks of Mac minis for hosting services, although I would be hesitant about running a computer without redundant parts — particularly the power supply — for mission critical applications.

So when will the next iMac and Mac mini arrive? Probably by fall, maybe even before the end of the current quarter, the better to boost Mac sales in a declining PC market.

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One Response to “What About the Macs that Still Need an Upgrade?”

  1. Andrew says:

    I think the Retina MacBook Pro was a pretty major engineering project, and likely kept Jon Ivy and his team quite busy for the last year or so. The rest of the lineup will follow in good time, with October likely for a new 13″ MacBook Pro Retina model and perhaps new iMacs.

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