Briefly, On Apple’s March 2009 Mac Desktop Lineup
Published: Tuesday, March 3, 2009
I’ve been waiting for this day for two years. Yet I may be waiting a little bit longer.
As much as Apple has benefitted from its relationship with Intel, and it certainly has, it’s obvious that Apple would rather not have specs for its upcoming CPUs published a year or two in advance of their release. Intel does this as a matter of course, openly discussing its roadmaps and thereby giving the rest of the less-secretive-than-Apple world a way to know in advance most of what’s coming in CPU technology. This has an effect that Apple has made clear that it doesn’t like: it creates speculation-based purchasing delays. Why buy today’s iMac when you know that one that may be twice as powerful will be coming in six months? At least, if you know that Apple’s competitors will all have access to twice as powerful CPUs at that point, you can be sure that Apple will, too. Worse yet, what if you hold off on today’s purchase for a processor that gets delayed past its original target date?
On this topic, Apple is correct. Roadmaps and speculation do create purchasing delays, or “pent-up demand.” Reasonable people, including us, see this—consumer planning for the best way to spend limited cash—as a good thing. But even reasonable people can get screwed up by focusing on the roadmaps.
For the past two years, having sold my Power Mac G5 in anticipation of eventually buying the “right” Mac Pro as a replacement, I’ve been without the use of a true desktop machine. Though some have suggested that I should buy an iMac instead, that machine has never struck me as the right level of power and features for my personal needs—a glorified MacBook or Pro, sometimes better—so I’ve been using MacBooks and Pros with a 23” Cinema Display, planning to buy a Mac Pro when the features and pricing seemed right. That hasn’t happened: in fact, Intel’s roadmap made clear to me that buying a Mac Pro before today wouldn’t have been a great investment. Nehalem was announced in late March, 2007, and early benchmarks suggested that it would outperform Intel’s prior-gen chips by a very significant factor. As in, buy an 8-core Mac Pro last year, get similar power in a 4-core Mac Pro when Nehalem arrives. Or, wait for an 8-core Nehalem machine and get the equivalent of a 16-core 2008 Mac Pro. Or perhaps something close to that—this year’s 4-core is like 6 cores last year—depending on which benchmarks you believe.
The problem was in the waiting. It hasn’t been fun going for two years without a powerful desktop machine, dealing with only decent video, photo, and other editing speeds, while hoping every six months or so for an announcement of Nehalem availability. So today, when the Mac Pro lineup finally went completely Nehalem—bringing what Apple claims to be a “nearly 2X” speed boost over its predecessor, but may actually be more in the 40-60% range, depending on applications—my wallet was obviously at the ready. Yet I haven’t pulled the trigger on the purchase. Part of this is because something about today’s announcements feels incomplete; there’s still no 30” LED Cinema Display to finish my vision of the “perfect desktop” for my needs. And the pricing? Tough call: a $2,500 entry level 2.66GHz 4-core or an $3,300 entry level 2.26GHz 8-core may be separated by $800, but when you compare 4- and 8-core 2.66GHzs to one another, the difference is $2,200. Ouch. Add to that the more or less mandatory $249 AppleCare plan, and we’re talking about a very serious investment. At a time when very serious investments are, from a budgetary standpoint, even more serious than they were a year or two ago.
So, with economy still in the dumps, I may just wait a little while for the dust to settle. I’m not sure yet whether that “little while” will turn out to be whenever the 30” Cinema Display comes out, whenever Amazon has a sale on the Mac Pros, or whenever Apple releases Snow Leopard. All I know is that it doesn’t have to be right now—a very different feeling than I had when the new MacBook was announced last year, and I rushed to grab one. My guess is that Apple knew that it didn’t have any impulse buys ready when it made today’s announcements: it typically holds events or uses keynotes to announce big deal products, and if refreshing its entire desktop lineup in one day wasn’t event-worthy, I’d guess that there’s a bigger Mac desktop refresh coming later this year.
On second thought, it’s probably best not to dwell too much on that possibility. Who wants to wait another six months or year for a Nehalem machine? Not me. What about you?
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