Apple's New Products – Fall 2012

Apple held its “A Little More to Show You” event yesterday and with it introduced five new and updated products – an updated Mac mini, a brand new iMac, a 13″ version of the Retina MacBook Pro, an updated iPad, and the much rumored iPad mini.

The Mac mini

The mini receives basically a hardware update with faster CPUs (dual core i5 in the low-end, quad-core i7 in the high-end), larger 1 and 2 TB hard drive options, improved integrated graphics (Intel HD 4000), USB 3.0, and an optional Fusion Drive (discussed later). It also includes a higher official memory ceiling of 16 GB when purchased through the Apple Store. The same amount of memory could already be installed after purchase in the previous generation; Apple just made it available pre-installed (and at a premium). The optional discrete graphics chip with its own dedicated memory is no longer available.

Apple hasn’t updated the mini in over a year so this was quite overdue. According to Apple’s website, it is about 2x faster than its predecessor  while maintaining the same price points – $599 for the low-end and $799 for the high-end. Still no optical drive – they’re gone for good.

The 13″ Retina MacBook Pro

The 15″ version of the Retina MacBook Pro was introduced in June and combines the power and performance of the MacBook Pro line with the portability of the MacBook Air.  Apple removed the optical drive, replaced the hard drive with flash memory, retooled the interior of the case, and added a double-resolution Retina display. In the process they shaved 20% of the weight and 25% of the thickness off of the 15″ non-retina MacBook Pro. Inside are pro-level CPU options, a dedicated GPU (in addition to an integrated one), and sufficient memory. The main feature is its beautiful Retina display that provides crisp, beautiful images just like the iPad 3.  All of this comes at a price premium of about $400.

Apple introduced a 13″ version today that is much the same story, just smaller. Double resolution Retina display. Check. Thinner (20%), lighter (20%). Check. High performance CPUs. Check. Dedicated GPU. No, but the 13″ non-Retina model doesn’t have one either. Price premium. Check, about $500 more for this one. No major surprises here, just a smaller version of what they released before. Still a stunning machine, but at a high price.

What’s interesting is that Apple has now positioned itself to discontinue the non-Retina Pro line. Right now there is a price premium, but in a year or maybe two the technology cost will have come down enough that Apple can drop the prices of the Retina models to the current levels of the non-Retina models. It will continue to maintain the two families for the time being but it will be interesting to see if it continues to update both in the future or if it starts to allow the non-Retina line to languish. In two year’s time the only MacBook Pro available will include a Retina display and lack an optical drive.

The iMac

The iMac, which has used the same design since late 2009, received both a dramatic and non-dramatic update today. Taken from the front, the new iMac looks almost identical to its predecessor. It has the same widescreen display with edge-to-edge glass and built-in FaceTime HD camera, the same strip of aluminum on the bottom under the display, and the same glossy black Apple logo in the middle. When taken from the side, it is extremely different, with an edge that is only 5 mm thick. Turn it a bit more and you’ll see that it tapers dramatically towards the middle, which is where it hides most of its components. Its design is deceiving because the edges are ultra thin while the center is not. Still, it takes up 40% less volume than its predecessor and cuts out almost a third of the weight while still including high performance CPUs, abundant storage, and discrete GPUs.

In addition to its new slender form, Apple also made a big deal about its screen. Similar to the screen on the iPhone 5, the LCD is bonded directly to the cover glass which eliminates internal space and brings the image closer to the surface of the screen. The result is a more realistic image that almost resembles print. It is not Retina, but it is still very good. This is something that I’ve been waiting for Apple to do for the iMac for years. There has always been a just barely perceptible space between the glass and the display that I’ve noticed when using mine, especially at an angle, that was not present with my non-glossy 24″ iMac. Fusing the two together not only reduces eye strain but also reduces glare. Apple also added an additional anti-reflective coating to it that, combined with the fused display, is supposed to reduce total glare by 75%. Apple also touted its color calibration techniques during manufacturing to ensure that the display is as accurate as possible.

In addition to bringing faster CPUs, GPUs, and USB 3 to the iMac, Apple also introduced its new Fusion Drive option, which combines a 128 GB SSD with either a 1 TB or 3 TB hard drive. It is intended to bring together the speed of an SSD and the capacity of a standard hard drive. The OS automatically moves frequently used applications and documents to the SSD for fast access, leaving less-frequently used items on the hard drive. That way you can still store all of your files but will have quick access to the stuff you use all the time. The 1 TB version costs a $250 premium over the standard drive. The 3 TB version is currently not available.

Both models retain their current pricing – $1,299 or $1,499 for the 21.5″ model and $1,799 and $1,999 for the 27″ model. The 21.5″ model ships in November followed by the 27″ model in December. I bought my iMac in late 2010 and it is a fantastic machine. I think that the design of the new iMacs is stunning, however thinness and lightness are not necessities for a desktop. You aren’t going to move it around all the time so it is more form than function. While it does look stunning, Apple had to remove the optical drive in order to achieve the thinness that it was after. Another compromise Apple had to make was upgradability – the 21.5″ model does not provide any mechanism for the user to upgrade its memory without voiding the warranty. That means if you want to max it out to 16 GB of memory, you better custom order it that way and be prepared to pay Apple’s premium memory prices. The 27″ model still allows the user to access its four RAM slots via a pop-out panel in the back.

My biggest interest in the new iMacs is their improved displays. They look gorgeous online and in video so I’m sure I’ll fall in love with them in person. I’m curious about how well the new machines handle the heat while under load – my 27″ model gets very hot when playing 3D games and it has a lot more room for ventilation. The MacBook Air will actually shut off if it gets too hot. I’m not sure about the Retina MacBook Pros. Maybe the iMac performs similar. If it shuts off when it gets too hot, it won’t make much of a gaming machine, which would be a shame. Apple also says that despite the reduction in space, the new iMac has even better speakers than its predecessor. I’ll believe it when I hear it.

The iPad 4 a.k.a iPad with Retina Display

Apple has followed a consistent one-year upgrade schedule for the iPod, iPhone, and iPad since their respective inceptions, save for one minor adjustment made during the release of the iPhone 4s. In that case, a new model was released more than a year after its predecessor. Today Apple broke that tradition by releasing a new iPad a mere seven months after its predecessor. This is extremely out of character for Apple historically and it may set a new precedent for product updates in the future.

To be fair, the iPad gained new internals only – it includes a faster A6X CPU (the same CPU as the iPhone 5 but with more graphics power), giving it 2x the CPU and 2x the graphics performance; faster wireless, better 4G LTE support, a FaceTime HD camera on the front, and the new Lightning connector. It has the same case, same weight, same screen, same colors, same pricing, same size, and same capacities as before. There was a rumor floating around that the screen had been updated so that it was laminated to the display glass like the iPhone 5, but Apple made no mention of it, so it’s probably the same. Apple essentially updated the internals to match the level of the iPhone 5 and did it just before the holiday. Smart. It is a slightly tough pill for me to swallow since my seven month old iPad is now “obsolete”, but I don’t feel like it’s missing anything so I don’t really care.

To be honest, I was completely surprised when I heard rumors of this iPad refresh so soon after it was released. I didn’t believe that Apple would break with tradition until the last few weeks when photos of parts started showing up online. Maybe Apple is just trying to stay ahead of the competition, maybe it is starting to feel pressure, maybe it wants a holiday sales boost. I’m not sure, but this might be the new cadence for the iPad – a new design every year and new internals every six months. But then again, maybe this is just a fluke, a catch-up. Who knows.

 The iPad mini

It’s been rumored for years and even Steve Jobs himself said it wouldn’t happen: a 7″ iPad. The iPad mini is Apple’s entry into the “small” tablet category. Essentially a smaller version of the iPad 2, the iPad mini is built around a 7.9″ 1024 x 768 pixel display, which is the same resolution as the iPad 2 (sorry, no Retina here), has a dual core A5 CPU, front camera, rear camera, video recording, and comes in both WiFi only and WiFi + cellular models. Major differences from the iPad 2 are its smaller size, better cameras (FaceTime HD on the front, 5 MP iSight on the back), 1080p HD video recording (vs 720P), 4G LTE support (vs 3G), and Lightning connector. Capacities are the same at 16, 32, and 64 GB and pricing is $329/$429/$529 for the WiFi models, add an additional $130 for cellular.

From a design perspective, the mini looks more like a bigger iPhone than a smaller iPad. This is because its border is thinner along the sides of the display than it is at the top and bottom. This makes it fit slightly better in a pocket (though still not very well) and gives it a bit of its own identity. It includes thin silver or black metal bezel around its edge and has either silver or black anodized aluminum back (à la the iPhone 5). It runs the exact same applications as the iPad does so it can take advantage of the unique experiences already optimized for a tablet form factor.

The mini was rumored to cost under $300, so its $329 price is disappointing for some. From a technology perspective it does not introduce anything new, but neither did the iPod mini when it came out and it was very popular. Many look at the iPad mini as something that Apple had to do. I agree. Apple has had the luxury of being the majority player in the tablet market for the past few years while Android fumbled around trying to come up with something that was interesting. The platform has begun to hit its stride with the release of version 4.0 and 4.1 as well as the release of the $200 Nexus tablet. The sub $500 market is certainly one that Apple needs to play in, though it feels as if Android will relegate itself to the bottom end of that market while the iPad mini stays at the higher end. Despite its similarity to the iPad 2 and its higher-than-predicted price, I feel that the mini will sell.

You can find out more about Apple’s new products at www.apple.com.

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