Thoughts On eMacs, iMacs, iBooks, & Education Options

As the administrator of the System Shootouts, after Appleis flurry of new product introductions in January & February, I was able to take a long-needed break during the past several months. This came to an end a few weeks ago, with the introduction of a significant announcement by Intel (the new "Centrino," a.k.a. "Banias," a.k.a. "Pentium M" processor) and a not-so-significant announcement by Apple (the newest lightly-tweaked iBooks).  Then last Tuesday, in the midst of all the iPod/iTunes Music Store hoopla over the past week, Apple introduced several revamped eMac models, which in addition to being sorely overdue, fill a gap at the low end (read: sub-$800) of the companyis desktop lineup.

As a result of all of the above, Iive been scrambling to keep up, but the new mobile processor system from Intel also caused me to revamp and expand the Processor Performance Comparison Chart. The new chart -- with a fourth column -- finally corrects a long-standing error on my part: namely that there is a significant difference between the performance of Intelis desktop Pentium 4 and their "mobility" Pentium 4-M. Itis impossible to boil "overall" performance down to a simple, single number, but the new chart does a considerably better job (and hey, Intel has successfully used a "single number" in its marketing campaigns for years, so it seems fair to do the same in kind!)

In any event, with these latest revisions in hand, Iive matched Appleis latest offerings against same-priced, major-brand-name x86/Windows systems at the US$800, $1,000 and $1,300 levels on the desktop and the $1,000 and $1,300 levels in laptops. In addition, teachers and school administrators may want to take note of the completely-updated Educational Desktop Shootouts ($700 & $1,000, which pit the two new eMac models against same-priced Dell Dimensions (using Institutional Educational pricing for each). Iive also added a printable PDF version of the educational comparisons for your convenience.

Finally, Iive updated the complete spec breakdown of Appleis entire Desktop and Laptop lineup, with printable PDFs of each (this has more to do with choosing which Mac to get, as opposed to comparing them with other brands).

Analysis of Latest Shootouts: 5/8/03 (best read after checking out the latest comparisons)

(NOTE: Unlike the shootouts themselves, which use actual, objective data, the following analysis is my own, personal opinion only.)

$800 Desktops: Bottom line, as perfect an entry-level computer as the eMac is, and as great as it is to see a replacement for the now-defunct US$799 iMac G3, the new entry-level model really should have included either a DVD-ROM or CD-RW, when compared to the competition. Aside from this, the new models actually hold up nicely -- the entry-level model now has the best video card of the US$800 batch, and holds its own in quite a few other hardware fields. Add this to the usual areas where the all-in-one excels (compactness, energy savings, ease-of-use) and those where all Macs excel (the extensive software bundle), and you have a solid performer. The software bundle, in particular, knocks the stuffing out of the competition.

$1,000 Desktops: The $999 Combo Drive eMac goes one better -- Sony is the only other model with a decent software bundle, and the faster CD-RW/DVD combo drive in the eMac is finally in the same zone as its competitors. The biggest complaint here is the anemic 128 MB of included RAM.

$1,300 Desktops: At the $1,300 level, the 1 GHz SuperDrive eMac gets a much-needed beef-up; the higher specs are nice, and for the most part itis a great everything-you-want system, but would it have killed Apple to put a 7200 rpm hard drive in this model? For burning DVDs, you need the fastest transfer speeds possible in every area. Otherwise, however, itis a huge improvement over its predecessor. Recommendation to Apple: Any desktop system costing over $1,000 should have a 7200 rpm hard drive (which this doesnit) and at least 256 MB of RAM (which it does). Any desktop system over $1,500 should have 512 MB RAM included.

Another point worth noting: If you check out the revised Apple Desktop Lineup, youill note that the latest updates to the eMacs have made for an awkward marketing problem for the 15" flat-panel iMac; the $1,299 eMac now boasts numerous feature advantages over the $1,299 iMac, including a faster processor (1 GHz G4 vs. 800 MHz); a faster bus speed (133 MHz vs. 100); a larger hard drive (80 GB vs. 60); a SuperDrive vs. a Combo Drive; a better video card (Radeon 7500 / GeForce2 MX); an optional S-video and composite-video adapter; a slightly higher native resolution (1280x960 res. vs. 1024x768); and a faster Wi-Fi networking option (Airport Extreme vs. Airport).  

In other words, the *sole* advantage that the 15" iMac now has is having an LCD (lighter/less bulk/adjustable) vs. a CRT. Thereis always been a troubling feature overlap between the eMac and flat-panel iMac, mostly due to the confusion over CRT vs. LCD screen sizes/resolutions, and this just highlights the issue.

$1,000 Laptops: Meanwhile, the $999 iBook continues to kick butt in size, weight, battery life and especially software -- but is feeling the heat, big time, from a flood of Combo Drive (CD-RW/DVD-ROM) sub-$1,000 PC laptops. I really think Apple should have added either a DVD or a CD-RW (if not both) to the $999 model -- or, conversely, dropped it by another $100 to $899 if they were gonna keep it a CD-ROM only.

$1,300 Laptops: On the other hand, the $1,299 iBook Combo Drive is still the one to beat; it retains all the advantages of the $999 model over its competitors, while adding the key elements of a CD-RW and DVD, while oddly, its PC brethren didnit seem to add a whole lot on top of their less-expensive models. However, the new Intel Centrino/Banias Pentium M system has livened things up a bit -- it brings Dellsi laptop battery life within range of the iBook while outperforming higher-clockspeed Intel offerings dramatically. In other words, Intel has finally admitted what both Apple and AMD have known for years: clockspeed isnit everything. The new Pentium M -- not to be confused with the Pentium 4-M, or the Pentium 4 -- actually has a lower clockspeed (from around 1.3 -1.6 GHz) than anything Intel has released in awhile.

Educational Shootouts ($700 desktops and $1,000 desktops) Apple vs. Dell:  With all of the fuss & bother made of late about Apple losing the educational sales wars, I decided to see just what Dell has to offer that has enticed so many school administrators to abandon the Mac. After comparing the latest & greatest from both Apple and Dell at both the $700 and $1,000 price points, Iive concluded that one of two things -- or both -- is going on here:

A) Those school administrators switching to Windows havenit actually compared all of the features that the eMac has to offer (including a killer software bundle which wipes the floor with Dellis offerings), and/or;

B) The official prices listed on Dellis educational/institutional online store bear absolutely no relation to the actual prices theyire charging behind closed doors. Granted, the same could be said of Apple -- I suspect they took a hefty loss on the Maine 7th/8th-grader deal  in return for the publicity & future sales -- but since Iim not privy to the actual back room dealings between school districts and either computer maker, I have to go with what I have access to. Based on the officially-offered systems & prices, I canit fathom any logical reason why a school administrator would choose Dell over Apple, and yet they apparently are doing so in great numbers.

Charles Gaba is the administrator of the TMO System Shootouts, which began life at the AAPLTalk Web site.