It's High Time for Quad Core iMacs

It's been a continuing source of annoyance -- the desktop iMac has the same processor as the portable MacBook line. That creates a technical dilemma, especially for those eager to replace an old PowerMac tower with a more powerful desktop. It's high time Apple stopped worrying about the Mac Pro cannibalization -- if it hasn't already -- and ship the iMac with a quad core CPU.

On Monday, analyst Shaw Wu with Kaufman Bros. surmised that Apple has been ready to ship a quad core iMac but that there are several considerations holding them back. The first, according to Mr. Wu, is concern about cannibalization of Mac Pro sales, the second is a cooling capacity issue for the current design and the third is the concurrent timing of Snow Leopard.

Apple iMac

In terms of the Mac Pro, it's hard to believe that Apple would seriously think that a consumer looks at just the number of cores as the discriminator between the two: Mac Pro and iMac. The Mac Pro is a monster: heavy, capable of heavy duty graphics work, thanks to its extra slots, and also has massive internal storage. Customers know this, and those who want to buy an iMac simply want the post powerful desktop they can get -- as they watch both Hewlett Packard and Dell move to quad core.

So for Apple to be concerned suggests either very poor marketing or other internal considerations that end up adversely affecting the average customer. Mr. Wu may be barking up the wrong tree here.

I don't believe that the timing for Snow Leopard really influences most users. If they have a quad core iMac now, they'll be happy to upgrade to Snow Leopard when it ships and take advantage of Grand Central and OpenCL later. The upgrade just reinforces the idea that the customer is getting a "whole new Mac," and we've seen Apple take that marketing approach before.

Also customers typically have a more urgent reason to upgrade their hardware than OS - an old system is typically failing. As for OS releases, they tend to take their time, relatively speaking. Snow Leopard could be delayed by last minute issues. Holding back on quad core hardware based on a self imposed, and possibly missed date for Snow Leopard is a questionable practice.

A delay is certainly justified if Apple can't figure out how to properly cool a quad core iMac in the current platform design. Then a more powerful Core 2 Duo (or i7) is justified -- as Shaw Wu suggested in his report. Even so, Apple is going to have to move to quad core on the desktop at some point. It's better for Apple to solve that heat problem now and compete with itself rather than allow someone else.

Apple has never been shy about dictating what it believes to be good technical choices. While current disk drives can't even exploit FW800 let alone FW S3200, and eSATA is a one-trick pony, there are mature technologies that Apple customers seem to get partitioned away from, for example, FW400 on the new MacBooks, Blu-ray, HDMI*, quad core iMacs, Wireless USB, storage media slots and 3G wireless built into notebooks. While Apple can't be all things to all people, it is reasonable to ask why Apple both demands a premium for a high end brand and simultaneously holds back some mature or maturing technologies for ideological reasons.

Quad core on the desktop is an idea whose time has come, for both technical and competitive reasons. I hope Apple makes that decision sooner rather than later.


* It's going to be expensive, at first, for Apple customers to convert DisplayPort to HDMI.