A Mac That’s Too Cheap?

June 19th, 2014

Hardly a day passes where I don’t see a dumb headline about Apple. As you regular readers know, putting Apple in a headline is often guaranteed to generate traffic. Even users of products built by other companies can’t resist Apple, so if you want to build up that hit count, and beef up your monthly payment from Google for its AdSense service, that’s the way to do it. I suppose. What’s more it doesn’t matter whether the content is worth a second look. The magic headline is enough.

So this week, as rumored for a while, Apple introduced a cheaper iMac, the first one listing for $1,099 in a couple of years. While that may still seem a tad expensive compared to those PC boxes you can get at the local discount store, as all-in-ones go, it’s quite favorably priced. But one online commentator wants to suggest that maybe it’s a little too cheap.

In any case, to cut $200 from the price, Apple “decontented” the cheapest 21.5-inch iMac. Instead of the 2.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, you get the 1.4GHz dual-core low-power variant already used in the latest MacBook Air. Hard drive capacity drops from 1TB to 500GB. That’s still enough for most, and if your budget is tight, this may be the perfect personal computer for you. But remember that RAM cannot be upgraded, though 8GB ought to be sufficient to run most apps with pretty good performance. Remember that multiple cores doesn’t count for much except for a few apps that are more suited to a Mac Pro.

So this seems to be a pretty decent deal, same for the $899 MacBook Air. It may also entice more customers to try a Mac, particularly at a time when Microsoft is turning off customers right and left with Windows 8.1.

What’s more, I think that a lot of customers would accept the tradeoffs, considering the junk that passes for a cheap PC these days. While spending upwards of $1,000 is still fairly high, it’s not that Apple has had any problems beating the PC market in growing sales of new Macs.

There appears to be another reason why Apple has opted for tiny upgrades, or lesser content to reduce the price of new Macs and keep sales moving. It’s also a possible reason why speculation about Apple switching to ARM chips — however improbable — has arisen again. Evidently Intel is having trouble finishing development of the next generation chips, code-named Broadwell.

After a number of delays, the latest promise is that the new CPUs will be available before the end of the year. But it may not be early enough to deliver them in sufficient quantities to refresh new Macs. I would also expect that it’s possible delivery dates will slip to 2015, and Apple is a cautious beast.

Left without a new chip family, Apple is taking the best way out. It’s possible there will be more Mac refreshes later this year, but they won’t be substantial. If not a price reduction, slightly faster chips will be used, although performance changes will be barely measurable except with a stop watch.

Perhaps the lone exception is the oft-rumored MacBook Air with Retina display. That will also depend on Apple getting enough displays and keeping costs down so it won’t get too expensive. Such a move would also keep Macs current, more or less, so someone won’t feel slighted by buying a model with a “2013” label in late 2014.

Makes sense.

Besides, other than improved graphics, the performance boosts of new Macs in recent years hasn’t been terribly significant. When I read reviews citing a 5-10% improvement in benchmarks, it’s ho-hum. Well, there’s always that Fusion drive or a full SSD, which does make an iMac or Mac mini seem a whole lot faster, since drive speed is a huge factor in enhancing performance.

But when someone wonders whether a Mac is too cheap, I’m sure most of you would suggest Macs aren’t cheap enough. Certainly Apple has moved more aggressively on price, and the PC race to the bottom seems to have stalled. But if you could buy a new Mac and be reasonably assured it will run just fine five years from now — and that you’ll still be able to install the latest OS X — that makes it a great long-term value.

How many new $399 PCs will be functioning just fine in 2019? Or would you be on your fourth computer by then, assuming you’re still using a PC?

Just one more thing: I am sure Apple isn’t happy that Intel is hitting roadblocks developing and delivering faster or at least lower powered chips. I suppose there is a temptation to consider an ARM switch. But there are barriers to entry. First is boosting performance to a level that’s matches or exceeds Intel. Otherwise why make the switch? If a few dollars are saved, maybe Macs could become cheaper, but there’s still the issue of running Intel-based software. Apple could build an Intel-to-ARM translator, maybe make it chip-cased for maximum efficiency.

But would it make any sense?

I suppose Apple might also consider building a combo chip that’s both ARM and Intel compatible, so developers have time to make the transition. But wouldn’t that require a license from Intel? Unless Intel were tasked with building the new chips, of course, in which case they could be assured of continued business from Apple regardless of what chip goes inside your new Mac.

But I don’t believe in the possibility of an ARM-based Mac. Well, at least not for a while. But it’s nice to see cheaper Macs available.

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6 Responses to “A Mac That’s Too Cheap?”

  1. janey says:

    The 1.4ghz chip can “speed boost” to 2.7, I think.

    This was oddly timed, and it does seem sort of underpowered. I think this just gave way too much ammo to the “Macs cost too much, my PC is ubersweetamazing, blah blah blah” trolls. But you’re right.. Windows 8 is turning a lot of people off.

    I would have preferred a $999 price point. Big mental hurdle for a lot of people.

  2. Kaleberg says:

    Given that Apple already has already done the design work for the MacBook Air and for the iMac, this new iMac was probably very cheap to produce. Using a vintage 2011 MacBook Air, I find its performance to be excellent. If you look at what most people do, web browsing, text processing, simple image processing, ebook reading, the MacBook Air has power to spare. Javascript isn’t the bottleneck anymore thanks to just in time compilers. The usual bottlenecks these days are internet speed and disk I/O speed. Moving from a hard drive to an SSD eliminates the latter problem and clever caching and prefetching strategies ameliorate, but don’t eliminate, the former.

    In some ways this is comforting. Fewer and fewer people are using desktops. Laptops can do an awful lot nowadays, and tablets and phones have picked up the slack. For those who want or need desktop computing the new iMac means that Apple is serious about providing it and not abandoning the format despite its turning into a niche market. (The MacPro is another niche, but in ten years, we’ll have tablets that can outdo the 2014 MacPro, so Apple needs the Pro to understand where computing is going.)

  3. Mark says:

    I’m surprised that no one seemingly sees this as simply the ugly compare play – a well known marketing tactic.

    Make an ugly – in terms of specs, performance, etc – bottom priced product. Make it an obvious poor value compared to the slightly more expensive and much better performing middle tier – that you really want to sell. You draw the value buyers in with the price and then they buy the higher priced product because the perceived value is so much higher for just a little more coin.

    They already did this to great effect with the iPhone 5C – possibly not on purpose but it worked nonetheless.

  4. Chet says:

    It’s not like when PowerPC chips couldn’t keep up with Intel. Apple doesn’t have that incentive to switch processors, because Windows machine makers are held hostage by the same Intel delays. Now, if there were another chip with *advantages* over Intel…

  5. John says:

    I think it’s a bummer. I’ve been a mac geek since 1984, and apple before that. This one will be counted as one of the mistakes.
    There’s no reason in the world to make it so it can’t be upgraded. The longevity of a computer is very much tied to how much RAM it can hold, by doing this, it unnecessarily limits the machine. Since PC machines have no such limitations, it’s not likely to appeal to “switchers” and a real Mac user understands that this means he or she will be hitting a ceiling sooner than they may want.. almost certainly 10.11 will require more than 8GB of RAM to run well.

    Jobs, and then Cook, have both stated that they wouldn’t make a “cheap” machine because it wasn’t in apple’s DNA to build something unless it was excellent. This smacks of the same sorts of attempts to make “cheap” macs that we saw in the days of the Performas: a horribly limited machine that only detracts from the excellence of the others, and lends credence to the PC naysayer’s constant cries of how Macs are incapable and slow.

    one of Jobs’ biggest mistakes with the original Mac was the desire to make it an appliance and not upgradable. That’s acceptable in a tablet or a phone, but I don’t think it will go over as well in a full-blown computer.

    I could be wrong. I’ve been many times before, but I expect this one will be right there with Performas, LCIIIs, and the Cube.

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