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New Spring Lineup

March 9, 2009
By Dave Hecei,
Just in time for spring, Apple has updated its entire desktop line of Macintosh computers. On March 3, Apple announced a new updated Mac mini, iMac, and Mac Pro tower. While some of these updates are minor processor speed boosts, the Mac mini now has the same video chip as the MacBook and the Mac Pro has an entirely new processor chip inside. The Mac mini is Apple’s entry-level Mac with a price starting at $599. This new mini doesn’t look any different from the front, but from the back you will find some newer ports. The original Intel Mac mini had a standard DVI video port, a single Firewire 400 port, and four USB 2.0 ports. The new mini has one Firewire 800 port (backward compatible with Firewire 400), both a mini-DVI and a mini-DisplayPort, and five USB 2.0 ports. The mini still has the same analog/digital in and out port for audio. I have not been able to confirm if both ports can be used at the same time, which would give you dual-monitor support, something that was lacking in the old mini. The new mini uses the Intel Core 2 Duo processor running at 2.0 GHz. More importantly, the new mini uses the same nVidia GeForce 9400M video chip as the MacBook and MacBook Air. This chip performs 3-D tasks up to five times faster than the previous Intel based video. Also, all minis come with a dual-layer DVD-R/RW SuperDrive as standard. The $599 mini has a 120 GB hard drive and 1 GB of RAM. For $799 you get 2 GB of RAM and a 320 GB hard drive. You can also do a build-to-order on the Apple Store Web site. While this new mini is not a huge leap in performance, not enough to junk your old mini for one of these, but anyone looking at getting into a Mac will get more for their dollar, especially with the improved video performance. Remember, games are not the only thing that uses the GPU (Graphics Processor Unit — the video chip) these days. Software like iLife, Final Cut (Express and Studio), iWork, and even OS X are starting to rely on the GPU to help speed things along. Also released was an updated iMac. The style of the iMac has not changed at all, why mess with perfection, but there have been a few changes inside the chassis. There is now just one 20-inch model with a 2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 GB of RAM (running at a faster bus speed 1066 MHz), a 320 GB hard drive, and the new nVidia GeForce 9400M graphics chip. While the previous 20-inch model had a dedicated video system, the ATI Radeon HD2400 or HD2600, the nVidia is considered an ‘‘‘integrated’’ graphics chip and shares its memory with the system. We’ll have to wait for some benchmarks of these new systems to see if this chip is better or worse than the ATI with dedicated VRAM. Since there is only one 20-inch model, there are now three 24-inch models to choose from. In an interesting move, Apple has priced the base 24-inch model quite low, only $1,499. At that price you get a huge, and gorgeous, 24-inch glossy LCD screen, a 2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 4 GB RAM (1066MHz), 640 GB hard drive, Dual-Layer DVD-R/W SuperDrive, and nVidia GeForce 9400M graphics. This is a lot of Mac for that price. For $1799 you get a 2.93 GHz processor, and a better video card, the GeForce GT 120 with 256MB of dedicated VRAM. For $2,199 you get the 3.06 GHz processor, a 1 TB hard drive, and the GeForce GT 130 with 512MB of VRAM. Of course there are plenty of built-to-order configurations, including the ATI Radeon HD 4850 video card, for even better video performance and 3-D gaming. All the new iMacs have a beautiful glossy LED backlit LCD screen with built-in iSight Web camera. The ports have stayed the same except for the new DisplayPort. This is the new standard that Apple is using on all there systems. The DisplayPort is new and is an open standard, an unusual move for Apple to follow a standard, that is similar to DVI and HDMI. The last Mac in the lineup is the behemoth Mac Pro. The tower has not changed, it’s still the aluminum chassis weighing in at over 40 pounds with a height of over 20 inches. This is definitely a workstation class Mac and priced accordingly. Surprisingly, the Mac Pro has not had any major update in quite some time. The new Mac Pro is the first personal computer on the market to use the new Intel Xeon ‘‘Nehalem’’ chips. This is the Xeon version of Intel’s Core i7 processor, which has been shipping in desktop PCs for a little while now. Xeon chips are Intel’s server and workstation class processor chips. These chips run faster and have larger built-in caches. As with the previous Mac Pros, the new models have dual quad-core chips giving you an 8-processor machine. What makes this new chip even more impressive is that it is hyper-threaded. This essentially allows the computer to process up to 16-threads at a time, instead of the 8 in the previous Mac Pro (of course the software has to be written to take advantage of this feature). Along with all these cores and threads, the new Xeon chip has power management and memory controllers built-in. The new Xeon chip can also use the new faster triple channel RAM running at 1066MHz. With triple channel RAM you need to install RAM in sets of three to get the best performance. When you have triple channel RAM running, the processor can access all three RAM slots at the same time. This allows the processor to read and write to RAM faster. While all this is way over most Mac user’s head, mine included, it just shows you that Apple is keeping up with technology in this high-end ‘‘professional’’ Mac Pro. The only place where they have fallen down is with the video cards. While Apple has finally realized the importance of the GPU in their mid- an low-end machine, desktop or laptop, they really don’t have the truly professional level graphics cards available for the Mac Pro. Workstations from HP, Dell, Boxx, and others have high end ATI FireGL or nVidia Quadro cards, not really an option yet on the Mac Pros. For anyone who has been waiting to get a new Mac, those who were hoping that Apple would show new Mac at last January’s MacWorld Expo, they have arrived. The mini is still alive and kicking. The base model is the same $599 and has a slightly faster processor, bigger hard drive, DVD burning SuperDrive, and the new GeForce 9400M video. The base 24-inch iMac is a steal at $1,499, as long as the GeForce 9400M is as good as the ATI video it replaced. The Mac Pro, well, we sometime have to dream big. All in all, a pretty good spring lineup for Apple.

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