Mac Musings

The New Mac Value Equation

Daniel Knight - 2003.10.22

Today marks the end of the G3 processor in the Apple line, a CPU introduced with the beige G3 and PowerBook G3 in November 1997.

With the introduction of the iBook G4, available in 12" and 14" versions, the last remaining G3 models have been replaced. At the same time, Apple elimintated the 800 MHz eMac and reduced prices on the 1 GHz models.

That means it's time once again to look at the Mac value equation.

iBook G4

In addition to adopting the G4 processor, the new iBooks support AirPort Extreme, have room for internal Bluetooth, include USB 2.0, use 133 MHz memory, and run ATI's Mobility Radeon 9200 graphics. Base memory on all models is now 256 MB, which is the least you want for OS X, and the G4 iBooks ship with Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther) installed.

As before, 128 MB of memory is on the motherboard. The extra 128 MB is in the memory socket, and Apple officially supports modules as large as 512 MB, which will bring these iBooks to 640 MB total RAM. (Remember when Bill Gates wondered who would ever need more than 640 KB of memory?)

12" iBook G4

Along with abandoning the G3, Apple has discontinued CD-ROM drives, making Combo drives a standard feature on iBooks - even the 12" 800 MHz model. Although this boosts the price to US$1,099 (vs. $999 for the 800 MHz G3 iBook with CD-ROM), the ability to burn CDs is important, since it enables users to back up their data in the field.

Looking at the 900 MHz G3 iBook, the 12" model has a slower clock speed, better video, and sells for $200 less. Since OS X is optimized for the G4, performance of the iBook G4/800 should surpass that of the G3/900 model in most situations.

It's a shame that Apple doesn't have a US$999 iBook though. That's a psychological barrier for some, so offering a CD-ROM version at $999 might be a good thing for Apple to consider in the future - and especially for the education market. That said, standardizing on the same drive in all iBooks simplifies things for Apple. [UPDATE: Apple does have a CD-ROM version available only to the education market. It would be nice if they let everyone buy it.]

In terms of value, for those who can afford it, the 12" iBook G4 is an excellent buy. For those unable or unwilling to spend US$1,099 on a portable, look for deals on the discontinued G3 iBooks.

14" iBook G4

For the first time since introducing a 14" iBook, the smaller iBook only ships at one speed while the larger iBook is available in two speeds. Not only that, but both versions of the 14" iBook G4 are faster than the 12" iBook G4. In the past, the 14" iBook ran at the same speed as the top-end 12" iBook.

Change is good. For those who want a larger screen (the bifocals and trifocals crowd, which I've recently joined), the 14" model also offers 16.7% and 25% speed boosts compared with the 12" model.

The 14" iBook G4/933 sells for US$1,299, 18% more than the 12" iBook G4/800. Between the larger screen and extra speed, it's an impressive value. The 1 GHz model retails for US$1,499 (just like the 14" iBook G3/900). Although 1 GHz sounds impressive, it's only a 7% performance gain compared with the 933 MHz model - but at a 15% price premium.

Among the G4 iBooks, the 14" 933 MHz and 12" 800 MHz models offer roughly the same value. If small size or the lowest price are important factors, I'm sure the iBook G4/800 won't disappoint. If you want/need the larger display or a bit more horsepower, the iBook G4/933 offers it at a small jump in price.

The eMac

Apple phased out the 800 MHz CD-ROM eMac today and reduced prices on the 1 GHz models by US$200. At $799, the Combo drive eMac is the best value Apple has ever offered in terms of computing power for the dollar. We're very happy with a 700 MHz eMac at Low End Mac headquarters, and unless you need to burn DVDs, we can't think of a reason not to buy a Combo drive eMac for most desktop uses. (Yes, power users should look at the Power Mac G5, but for the rest of us, the eMac should suffice.)

The only real drawback is that the Combo drive eMac only comes with 128 MB of RAM, which is simply not enough for decent performance under OS X. I'd suggest immediately adding a 256 MB or 512 MB module if you buy this model - and don't buy it from Apple, since they charge about twice the open market rate for RAM.

For those who want to edit videos and burn DVDs, the SuperDrive 1 GHz eMac now sells for US$1,099, making it the least expensive Mac ever for those who want or need a SuperDrive. For the extra $400, you get 256 MB of RAM and an 80 GB hard drive - and the 4x SuperDrive. That's a good value if you need to burn DVDs, but the Combo drive model is definitely the better buy for anyone who doesn't need to burn DVDs.

The remaining inventory of 800 MHz eMacs haven't been marked down on any of the websites I've visited this morning. At their original price of $799 with a CD-ROM, avoid them at all costs. Not only is this 20% slower then the 1 GHz Combo drive eMac at $799, but you can't even burn CDs.

I'm guessing Apple will price protect dealers so they can offer this old inventory at a lower price. If that price is $650 or lower and you don't need to burn CDs, these would be an excellent value. If that price is closer to $700, the additional cost for the Combo drive and faster CPU makes the entry-level 1 GHz model the better buy.

The iMac

What about the iMac? Frankly, I think Apple made a huge mistake giving the flat panel G4 iMac the same name as the more consumer-oriented G3 iMac. The eMac is the true successor to the low priced CRT iMac, not the flat panel G4 iMac. It's a more upscale machine, and it has apparently not been the kind of huge hit Apple anticipated. (Not as bad as the Cube, mind you, but it's simply not the hot seller the CRT iMac was.)

The 15" iMac G4 sells for US$1,299 with a 1 GHz G4 processor, a Combo drive, and a flat panel display. Compared with the 17" eMac at $799 with the same CPU and Combo drive - but with a traditional CRT display - the value of the eMac is obvious. The 15" iMac is simply overpriced.

The 17" iMac G4 sells for US$1,799 with a 1.25 GHz processor, a SuperDrive, and a widescreen flat panel display. Compared with the $1,099 SuperDrive eMac, it has a 25% faster processor and a larger display. Still, $700 for 25% more horsepower and a flat panel display seems pretty steep. Unless that cinema-ratio flat screen display is important to you, it's overpriced.

The PowerBook G4

The sweetheart of the current PowerBook line is the 12" PowerBook G4. It's a bit smaller than the 12" iBook, has a 1 GHz G4 processor, and has aluminum skin. The 12" PowerBook sells for US$1,599, a $500 premium compared to the 12" iBook. For the price you get a 25% faster CPU and an aluminum shell. I don't think Apple is going to sell a lot of these unless they slash the price. The 12" iBook offers 80% the performance at less than 70% the price.

If Apple were to drop the price to $1,399, the 12" PowerBook G4 would offer sufficient value to compete with the 12" iBook. The only other point in the PowerBook's favor is the keyboard, which is vastly superior to that of the iBook.

The 15" PowerBook G4 is going to be an even harder sell against the 14" iBook G4. The 1 GHz PowerBook sells for US$1,999, $500 more than the 14" 1 GHz iBook G4. It does have a larger screen (1280 x 854 pixels vs. 1024 x 768), aluminum skin, and a superior keyboard, but otherwise the features are quite comparable between the two models.

If Apple were to reduce retail on the 15" PowerBook G4/1 GHz to $1,799, the larger display, better keyboard, and durability of aluminum might tempt users away from the 14" iBook G4/1 GHz. Any more than that and the value equation definitely comes down on the side of the 14" iBook.

The Headless Mac

The only "pro" Macintosh without a parallel in the consumer line is the Power Mac G5. Yes, there are some blowout deals on G4 Power Macs, but they're really not designed for the consumer market - and even at blowout prices, they sell for well over $1,000.

What Apple really should do is offer a low-end desktop model that doesn't include a display, an entry-level machine for those who already have a monitor or want a display size that Apple doesn't offer.

Take the eMac, remove the display and the circuitry that powers it, create a 4-5" tall white box with a media drive and speaker in the front, a bunch of ports on the side, and a strong flat top that can support a 19" monitor. Sell it for $599 and the world will beat a path to Apple's door.

Or maybe "the computer for the rest of us" really does mean the elite, as Windows users often claim, instead of those who don't want to follow the Microsoft way.