Updated Mac desktops arrive March 24, as does a "pleasant surprise"

Chicago (IL) – Steve Jobs may not be around the office each day, but it’s still business as usual at Apple.
The newest rumor has Apple hosting a special media event on March 24 to
bring Mac desktops into full view. And
, if we may add, it’s about the time!
Both iMac and Mac Pro are 14 months old now, while Mac mini hasn’t seen
any hardware update in nearly 20 months. If you believe the rumor-mill,
minor but long overdue updates to the Mac mini and iMac are just three
weeks away, along with a major Mac Pro refresh that brings Intel’s Nehalem CPU and ATI Radeon GPUs
to the table. There’s also a “pleasant surprise” that we think may mean a new version
of Apple TV — though some are keeping their fingers crossed for a Mac
netbook.


According to the World of Apple and My Apple Guide,
both citing unnamed industry source, Apple is about to unveil new Mac
desktops at a special media event scheduled for March 24. If you
believe these Mac-enthusiast websites, Apple will update the entire Mac
desktop line with cool new goodies, affecting the miniature Mac mini,
the all-in-one iMac and of course the meaty Mac Pro. Japanese site Kodawarisan claims
(via Google Translate) that new Macs are coming as early as tomorrow.
Whatever the case, don’t expect anything truly Earth-shattering.

If
recent unibody MacBooks and the 24-inch LED-backlit Cinema Display are
any indication, Apple will slightly tweak and modernize Mac desktops
design and include expected under-the-hood improvements like the latest CPUs and Nvidia’sGPUs, along with the DisplayPort interconnect with HDCP copy-protection technology. This doesn’t mean Apple doesn’t have a wildcard
up its sleeve. On the contrary, sources mention a “pleasant surprise”
and our gut feeling tells us it could be a major Apple TV
update (see our previous “wish list” for Apple TV).

Mac mini: Greater expandability

Some recent spyshots
(and a video) of the next-gen Mac mini suggest a faster front-side bus
and DDR3 memory support, enabling faster raw performance. Nvidia graphics is also said to replace the built-in Intel GMA 950
that is no longer produced, bring GPU horsepower to the mini line as well. The system may also pimp expansion ports,
including up to five USB ports, a FireWire 800 interface and both the
Mini DisplayPort and Mini DVI monitor ports for forward and backward compatibility. Whispered price drop might
bring the new Mac mini in the sub-$500 category, bucking Apple’s historic trend. And, if you ask us, Apple’s
repeated claims that it isn’t interested in entering the netbook market
are probably true. We wouldn’t be surprised at all if Apple pitched
the new Mac mini as a netbook replacement for people on a budget. [Though one of the greatest benefits of a netbook are extreme lightweight and solid portability in a conventional operating system like Windows XP or Vista. -Editor]

 


NEXT-GEN MAC MINI: DISPLAYPORT + MINI DVI
The Mac
mini may see a minor hardware update that will bring a faster FSB and Intel’s Core 2 Duo CPU and DDR3 memory. It should also offer five
USB ports, up from four currently, a FireWire 800 interface and both
Mini DisplayPort and Mini DVI interfaces along with Nvidia graphics.


iMac: A tweaked design and new top-of-line 28-inch model

The iMac, which is based on Apple’s mobile architecture, is expected to adopt
the same CPUs that power unibody MacBooks — think another special-run
of the latest Intel Core 2 Duo that consumes less power and comes in a
smaller packaging, along with discreet or integrated Nvidia GPUs found in MacBooks today. Since Apple launched its 24-inch LED-backlit Cinema Display, and recently killed the 20-inch Cinema Display, some believe the company will put forth a new 28-inch dispay
that will kill the 30-inch model making room for even larger model.

Apple
might also entirely abandon the 20-inch Cinema Display in favor of the new
24-inch LED-backlit Cinema Display as the entry-level model. Some think
the addition of a new 28-inch Cinema Display calls for a 28-inch
top-of-the-line iMac model that will cater to creative professionals
who deem Mac Pros too pricey, but at the same time need more screen real
estate than current 24-inch top-of-the-line iMac allows.

Mac Pro: A major architectural change

While the Mac mini and iMac updates file as minor bumps, Mac Pro is
due for major engineering changes as Apple moves its meaty desktop to
Intel’s Nehalem (Core i7) CPUs. Not surprisingly, Intel is about to launch Nehalem versions suitable for use in the Mac Pro by the end of this month. Apple Insider reported the latest developer seeds of the upcoming Mac OS X 10.5.7 software update already feature support for Nehalem,
suggesting the hardware refresh will come in concert with the 10.5.7 update. The
software also includes deep ATI Radeon HD 4000 support, lending its GPU power to the
Core Image and Quartz Extreme acceleration technologies of OS X.


MAC PRO TO ADOPT INTEL’S NEHALEM CPU
Apple’s meaty Mac Pro desktop will allegedly be powered by Intel’s Nehalem
(Core i7) CPU and the new ATI Radeon GPU, in addition to the
DisplayPort interconnect. The rumor-mill also expects a slightly revised
design of its aluminum casing and more slots added for greater
expandability, as shown in this concept rendering courtesy of
the MacBlogz.


A “pleasant surprise”:  A Mac netbook or a networked Apple TV

Sources also mention a “pleasant surprise”, but what could it be? With
non-Mac desktop product lines like MacBooks, iPods and iPhones having all been
recently updated, the only thing that comes to mind is another iPhone update,
possibly with new 32GB iPhone and 64GB iPod touch models. We wouldn’t bet on
iPhone nano
because a high-profile WWDC introduction would make more sense — if such
product exists. Some analysts think the “pleasant surprise” means a Mac netbook, but such a product would require high-profile venue like WWDC and Steve
Jobs to announce it.

Instead, we’re putting our money on an Apple TV
update. As we recently reported,
Apple’s “hobby business” could get a digital TV tuner and receive free TV
programming when analog TV signals switch off this June. The set-top
box might also get into the networked TV area with premium TV channels
available for streaming from iTunes, along with full HD support, DVR
capabilities and other cool features.


UP NEXT FOR APPLE TV: NETWORKED TELEVISION
The quoted “pleasant surprise” may be a major revision to Apple’s set-top box, one that will bring more television into the “TV” part of it. Expect premium TV programming from iTunes, full HD support, DVR capabilities and possibly a new digital TV tuner allowing free over-the-air content when analog signals shut off in June, 2009.

Read on the next page:  Possible WWDC hardware updates, Overdue iMac and Mac Pro updates, Apple’s new annual product cycles, Conclusion

What about WWDC hardware updates?

Although multiple online sources have corroborated the March 24 date, readers
should take all of this information with a grain of salt. Apple could well
unveil new iMacs and Mac Pros at WWDC in July, along with OS X Snow
Leopard — maximizing the impact of both desktop Mac and Snow Leopard
releases, while at the same time allowing Apple to showcase Snow
Leopard on the latest and
greatest hardware — since it’s all about speed optimizations. If true, then we’re nearly three and a half
months away from any Mac desktop hardware revisions. This, in turn,
would extend the current gap between the last iMac or Mac Pro refreshes to a
whopping year and a half.

Also if
true, the move could likely hurt Mac sales in the period leading up to the
WWDC — since customers would postpone their Mac desktop purchases in
anticipation of new hardware. That’s exactly what happened with sales
of the original iPhone which essentially slowed to a halt between March
and July of last year due to heavy iPhone 3G buzz. If you ask us,
the current generation of Mac desktops is hardly competitive anymore and
Apple would be shooting itself in the foot were it to time these hardware refreshes
for WWDC.


NO NEW MACS FOR STEVE
If Apple saves the new Mac desktop refreshes for WWDC, Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs, who is on a six months medical leave, may return and unveil them. A March 24 update, on the other hand, and Jobs’ absence suggests only minor hardware revisions that don’t need Jobs’ showmanship.

 

What about WWDC hardware updates?

According to the MacRumor’s Mac Buyer’s Guide,
Apple’s all-in-one iMac was last updated 307 days ago (10 months), while it
has been 418 days (14 months) since Mac Pro’s hardware was last revised. That’s nothing compared with 572 days (over 19
months) since Mac mini last saw hardware bump. Although previous data
indicates that Apple updates Macs on an average every eight months or
so, this is about to change. Beginning with this year, Apple may be
inching towards yearly hardware updates.

Apple moves to annual product cycles

Phil Schiller told the NY Times
that the company pulling out from trade shows like the MacWorld is part of a
broader strategy that will see Apple transitioning to new annual
product update cycles. The holiday season in November, the educational
buying season in late summer, the October iPod refresh, June iPhone
cycle and software updates like iLife and iWork scheduled around March.
In other words, Q1 is for desktops, Q2 is for iPhone, Q3 is all about
iPods and Q4 is for MacBooks. Whether this trend is good or bad is up for debate. Apple has had lots of success updating its music player once a
year, and the same strategy appears to be working fine for the iPhone and iPod touch.

Apple followed the original iPhone release in June 2007 and
followed it with iPhone 3G one year later. Analysts believe we will
will see the next iPhone at the WWDC this July. Still, pundits could
note that annual Mac updates will backfire, pointing to the fact that
iMac and Mac Pro have typically managed to keep their technological
lead for couple of months until rest of the industry caught up.


DISPLAYPORT ON ALL MACS
The next Mac desktop update will bring DisplayPort interconnect with
HDCP copy-protection technology, first featured in unibody MacBooks,
across the entire Mac family line.


Conclusion: Annual updates will make Macs less competitive

With an eight month refresh period, Apple is already having
difficulties keeping Macs ahead of rivals before new models arrive.
While you could argue that Macs, iLife, OS X and its many savvy
applications keep Macs alive much longer than a typical PC system,
which practically gets old the moment it’s purchased, many would-be Mac
buyers are still focusing on specs and prices when comparing Mac
systems to PCs. With that in mind, moving from eight months to an
annual upgrade cycle puts Macs in an even more difficult position for direct side-by-side comparison with the latest ninja PCs.

Of
course, Phil Schiller could have meant Apple will unveil major
upgrades once a year, while chewing minor refreshes in between to keep
Macs in sync with the technological advances. One thing is certain
though, users should get used to annual product updates. For once, this
piece of information comes from a high-ranked Apple executive, and not the
rumor-mill.