Apple’s Prices Stay High…

Apple's new mini server
Apple's new mini-server. Note the lack of an optical media slot. Also note that Apple restrained itself from putting a BSOD on the Windows notebook -- Vista's default desktop is the new BSOD maybe?

My wife has been running Mac OS X Server on a Mac Mini for several years now, and it works beautifully. Lots of people — including server hosting companies — are doing the same, and Apple has acknowledged this by releasing a server version of the Mac Mini with no optical drive and two 500GB drives instead. (I wonder if there’ll be a cheaper version without Mac OS X Server bundled — who needs optical media these days?)

Apple has just released new iMacs, Mac Minis, and a unibody polycarbonate Macbook (identical in spec to the $1199 Macbook Pro except for the SD card slot, IR receiver, backlit keyboard, and firewire). Prices are basically unchanged, but you’re getting more bang for your buck — although not a whole lot more in most cases. Apple has added quad core Core i5 and i7 CPUs to the top-of-the-line iMac, filling the performance gap between the iMac and Mac Pro lines. (A gap that will reopen when the six core CPUs appear in the Mac Pro.) Apple has also released a subtly improved bluetooth keyboard (fewer batteries, better power management) and a really slick looking new “Magic” mouse whose entire upper surface — as widely rumored — is a multitouch surface. Very very cool (and possibly useful), and probably more gamer-friendly than the Mighty Apple Mouse.

The top-of-the-line 27″ (!) iMac can also function as a TV set and supports VESA mounts. (That’s great, but if I want a decent-sized TV, why can’t I get a headless top-of-the-line iMac to plug into it?)

What we don’t see here are any price reductions. So, whatever that low margin product is that Apple hinted at in its Earnings Call yesterday, either these are not they, or Apple will be slashing prices closer to Christmas. After all, what’s not to lust for in a 27″ iMac with a Core i7 and Radeon 487050? Sell it for $1599 and you’ll close the deal.

Apple’s New Models

It’s a strange time to be raising prices, but Apple has just done it. The new Mac Pros are priced at $2499 vs. $2699 for the older model, but the older model had 8 cores, while the model that “replaces” it has 4 cores. Apple’s website is conspicuously silent on the relative performance of the two obviously comparable model, preferring instead to show that the new top-end model is over twice as fast as the old top-end model. That’s nice, but the new base model is only a shade cheaper than the old mid-range model, and probably (we can’t tell) slower, while the old base model (which was $2199) is gone.

There is some good news. Apple has finally put the nVidia 9400M chipset into the Mac Mini, so the Mini is truly a headless MacBook. This means that the Mini’s performance for games should be, at least, acceptable, and makes the Mini surprisingly attractive.

The one thing that might explain the new Mac Pro pricing is if Apple is opening a space for the long-wished-for xMac. In terms of headless Macs, there’s the $599/799 Mac Mini then there’s nothing until you get to the $2499 Mac Pro. I might add that while the Mac Pro has the new “i7″ architecture chip (i.e. hyperthreading support, which treats each core as two virtual CPUs) none of the new Mac Minis and iMacs do.

In iMac land, things are somewhat, although less, strange. The base iMac used to feature an integrated CPU (I think it was the good old GMA 950), now the bottom two iMacs (20″ and 24” with 2.66GHz CPU) have the 9400M chipset (which is integrated but much better). It’s an interesting change where the $1499 price point has gone forwards in screen size and backwards in GPU quality. Or something.

So, in summary, the Mac Mini now seems like a very attractive machine. The base iMac offers some minor performance tweaks relative to the Mini, but (especially if you already have a monitor) the Mini is very close.

The Times Have Changed

It seems to me that Apple is running the risk of seriously alienating a lot of its customers with its continuing high price points. In a time when most of the computer manufacturers have moved from pushing $1000 configurations to $500 configurations, Apple persists in selling an entry level desktop for $1200. Because Macs have longer useful lives than PCs, many Apple customers who bought (then) reasonably priced Apple systems will soon be upgrading in a world where $1200 buys you a lot of PC but not very much Mac.

It’s worth noting that the pricing on Core i7 (“Nehalem”) CPUs seems to be an attempt by Intel to gouge early adopters which is merely being passed on by Apple (and Dell). I imagine that as CPU prices drop, Apple’s Mac Pro prices will fall (or its base model will gain a CPU) accordingly.