Apple's Centris cheaper, but lacking in features


Apple Computer Inc. has introduced a family of powerful Macs under the name Centris, trying to close the gap between its Macintosh computers and the more popular and cheaper Windows-based PCs.

Compared with previous Macintoshes, the Centris models 610 and 650 offer impressive power at surprisingly low prices. But the lower prices were achieved in part by jettisoning features that are important for many business uses, especially in the case of the 610.

Both Centris models are built around versions of Motorola's 68040 microprocessor, which is roughly equivalent to Intel Corp.'s i486 chip used in the newest Windows computers.

Apple has previously offered the 68040 chip only in its Quadra family of Macintoshes, and Quadras are very expensive. With powerful Intel-based PCs widely available for less than $2,500, not many executives have been able to justify spending twice that amount for a Quadra.

"All of a sudden there's a way to get into the 68040 without spending $5,000," said Bob LeVitus, a writer who conducts seminars for businesses on how to take best advantage of the Macintosh.

"With the '040, you get more horsepower and better performance. There has always been a premium on Apple hardware, and thankfully the premium gap has shrunk a lot. It means many people can now afford to have the real thing, Windows being the fake thing."

Apple, which has no direct competitors for its Macintosh system, has been generally perceived to be years ahead of its DOS-Windows counterparts in terms of software, but years behind in hardware.

It scored a stunning reversal in portable computers with its PowerBook notebook models, now the best-selling portable computers of any type. But Apple still lags on the desktop, where Windows users have hundreds of different choices of i486-based hardware from dozens of companies, all stacked against just a few 68040 models from Apple.

And Apple's advantage in software is in peril because of recent advances in the Microsoft Corp.'s DOS-Windows operating system and the imminent arrival of such impressive Macintosh alternatives as Nextstep for Intel.

"Apple has to convince the market that they are in fact competitive with the Windows platform," said Marc C. Litvinoff, an analyst with the Gartner Group of Stamford, Conn.

"They do compete well on a price perspective, and they have better networking capabilities, but the Windows platform is catching up."

With the Centrises, Apple is finally offering its equivalent of i486 power at roughly comparable prices. The question now is whether Apple can persuade its loyal customers to embrace the 68040 as quickly as the Intel Corp. was able to win the hearts of business computer buyers with the i486.

Computer Intelligence, a market research company in La Jolla, Calif., estimates that the i486 went from 2 percent of all business PC purchases in 1991 to 25 percent in 1992 and an estimated 60 percent in 1993. In fact, major PC makers stopped designing computers based on the various 386 chips last year.

The entry-level 68040 machine from Apple is the Centris model 610, with a base price of $1,859, 4 megabytes of system memory, an 80-megabyte hard disk drive and 512 kilobytes of a special memory called video RAM that increases the quality of images shown on screen. The price does not include a monitor or a keyboard; although those from recent Macs will work fine.

When equipped as a potent business machine, with more memory, a bigger hard disk, a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, a network adapter and other add-ons, the total cost of the Centris 610 will probably be closer to $3,500.

At that price, the premium that customers have had to pay for Macintosh technology is substantially less than before, but the cost is still higher than one would pay for a comparably equipped Intel i486SX computer.

The Centris 610 does not appear to be a strong choice for mainstream business applications because of two serious drawbacks. One is its limited expansion ability.

The Centris 610 has but a single internal expansion slot, and the slot is incompatible with most of the expansion cards already used in Macintosh computers. What is more, it accepts only 7-inch cards, which are rare today although they will probably become more common. To add injury to insult, that single slot cannot be used without a special adapter that sells for $99.

Expansion slots are important to people who want to add Ethernet network adapters, big-screen monitors or other common features. The single slot means a user must choose one function and forgo the others. In larger offices, where a computer may be used by many different people over its life span, the lack of slots is a drawback.

(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau: [512] 328-8258.)

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