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Will refreshed iMacs be enough to spur Apple¿s desktop sales?

The long-awaited refresh of Apple's desktop Macs arrived Tuesday with a thud.

Given how long it's been – April 2008 for the iMac, January 2008 for the Mac Pro and August 2007 for the Mac Mini – one might have expected more dramatic improvements than what we got Tuesday.

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Only the Mac Pro got a new processor chip, the Intel Xeon "Nehalem." The other Macs just got speed-bumped versions of the currently used Intel Core 2 Duo.

Nor did Apple significantly change any of the Mac case designs.

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And Apple didn't budge on pricing, either – which will no doubt disappoint Wall Street analysts.

One could argue that today's computers are already so powerful, big leaps in capabilities are no longer required. But if Apple can't wow us with snazzy new hardware and droolworthy specs, it should sweeten the deal by nudging down prices -- particularly in these dark economic times.

While Apple seriously needed to refresh its Mac line, I'm not sure the new models will do much to revive its slumping desktop sales. The affordability factor will likely continue to trump other considerations (e.g, the Mac's superior overall value), at least for the near term.

The unequivocal good news is that Apple boosted hard drive capacity and base memory in every model but the $599 Mac Mini.

Apple also has upgraded the graphics capabilities in its desktops, although I find the trend toward integrated graphics in the low-end iMacs disturbing.

Integrated graphics chipsets don't have their own memory, but share the memory used by the rest of the system. Such chipsets became common in laptops because they're cheaper and consume less power than dedicated graphics cards.

However, you trade off price for performance. Although charts on Apple's Web site indicate the new NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics in the Mini and low-end iMacs is faster than the ATI Radeon HD 2400XT card the previous 20-inch iMac model used, that's an older, low-end card.

Any current graphics card, even a low-end one, would deliver better performance particularly on systems with less system memory.

What puzzles me about this is that we are only months away from the launch of the next version of Mac OS X, Snow Leopard, which Apple promises will harness the graphics chips in your Mac to boost overall computing speed. It seems like an odd time to remove the dedicated graphics cards from any members of your flagship desktop line.

The Mac Mini always had integrated graphics, so the new NVIDIA graphics should be a hefty improvement over the long in the tooth Intel GMA 950 graphics used in the previous Mini.

One change that may irk veteran Mac users with legacy FireWire devices is the replacement of FireWire 400 ports with FireWire 800 ports on all models. After Apple did the same with its laptop line – and eliminated FireWire entirely from the MacBook Air and new aluminum MacBooks – the move is not a surprise.

But the transition may be an inconvenience for some. Unlike USB 1.1 and USB 2.0, the FireWire 800 ports are not the same shape as FireWire 400 ports. So users will need an adapter to connect older FireWire peripherals such as video cameras, scanners and external hard drives.

One other common change, also introduced on the aluminum MacBooks, is the adoption of the Mini DisplayPort. Like the FireWire 800 issue, this may mean the purchase of adapters for some users.

Apple is also promoting its new desktops as more environmentally friendly than ever, as they all comply with the new, stricter Energy Star 5.0 standards.

A closer look at the new Macs model by model:

Mac Mini: Not much changed. The $599 Mini gets a tiny speed boost and no extra base RAM; the $799 model gets double the base RAM but no speed boost. The Mini does use a faster type of RAM, and is now expandable to 4GB (up from 2GB).

Both models get substantially larger hard drives and a fifth USB port. The $599 gets upgraded from a combo drive (can burn CDs but only read DVDs) to a SuperDrive (can read and burn both CDs and DVDs).

iMac: Where are the quad-core iMacs? Many expected a quad core version at the top of the iMac line for this refresh. It have made sense, since another of Snow Leopard's features will be to better capitalize on multiple processing cores. Maybe next time, eh?

The iMacs, like the Minis, benefit from a faster type of RAM. And Apple has increased the maximum RAM possible from 4 GB to 8 GB. But the 8x SuperDrives appear to be the same as those in the previous generation.

The biggest change here is to the middle-of the-line $1,499 model, which gets the larger 24-inch display and double the RAM and hard drive capacity. However, it's saddled with the NVIDIA integrated graphics rather than the GeForce GT 120 card bestowed on the $1,799 model. And no speed bump whatsoever.

At least the entry-level 20-inch $1,199 iMac gets a tiny speed bump, although it too receives the downgrade to integrated graphics.

The $1,799 iMac's dedicated graphics card and tiny speed boost combined with the doubled RAM and hard drive specs make it the most-improved iMac of the lot, and possibly the best deal.

In addition, Apple now offers a 3.06 GHz base variation (you could buy one before as a build-to-order option). This top-end iMac gets a better graphics card than the $1,799 model as well as the doubled RAM and hard-drive capacity, but whether it's worth $400 more than its closest sibling is questionable.

Mac Pro: "The Mac Pro is a significant upgrade and starts at $300 less than before," Apple Senior Vice President of Worldwide Product Marketing Phil Schiller boasts in the press release. Phil, I love you buddy, but aren't you being just a bit disingenuous here? That $2,499 Mac Pro to which you refer is a quad core, but you're comparing it to the price of the early 2008 8-core Mac Pro, which came in just one base configuration. Dropping that model down to a quad-core – the equivalent of the new quad model -- gave you a $2,399 Mac Pro. Shame on you, Phil.

Other than that, the new Nehalem chips are an excellent upgrade. It's hard to say how much faster they'll be than the Harpertowns in real world situations, but the benchmark charts on Apple's Web site look promising.

The new Mac Pro also gets a slightly faster SuperDrive (18x, up from 16x), better RAM (1066 MHz DDR3, up from 800 MHz DDR2) and two more PCI Express 2.0 slots than its predecessor. Unfortunately, the base 8-core model also gets a $500 higher price tag. That's crazy.

The quad model is much more reasonably priced -- $900 less than the 8-core -- but with one drawback. It has only four RAM slots, so is expandable only up to 8 GB (the 8-core can handle 32 GB in its 8 slots, just like the previous model). Otherwise its specs and architecture appear to match its pricier brother's.

One final nit on the Mac Pros: Apple puts six 1 GB modules in the 8 core and three 1 GB modules in the quad, which leaves the users only two open slots in the 8-core and just one in the quad. So expanding RAM significantly will require the user to toss out some of those 1 GB modules. Why not put larger RAM modules in the Pros to retain more open slots?

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