Apple hears price concerns

Before I get to the news of the week, I need to wrap up some old business. As I had hoped, Apple opened its OS X x86 system-level code on the first day of its Worldwide Developers Conference. That's a courageous decision. It was accompanied by the opening of the source code for Apple's iCal calendaring server, Bonjour zero-config networking, and the launchd services manager.

Now, on to new business. Apple was throwing confetti over the completion of its PowerPC-to-Intel transition. I didn't notice. What I saw were competitively priced, extremely powerful quad-core Core Microarchitecture Xeon workstations and servers. I was most excited about the Mac Pro workstation. That started shipping on Aug. 7, WWDC's opening day, and it landed in the market as a leading-edge product. The most expensive Mac Pro has two dual-core Intel Woodcrest 64-bit Xeon CPUs running at 3GHz, four 500GB SATA drives with cable-free tray connections, 16GB of 667MHz DDR2 memory mounted on mainframe-style card modules, a beastly dual-slot NVidia Quadro FX 4500 graphics card with 512MB of GDDR3 memory, two SuperDrive dual-layer DVD burners, Bluetooth 2.0 and 802.11a/b/g wireless, and OS X Tiger. This box, one Mac Pro with everything, costs US$12,228.

Another stereotypically overpriced Mac? If it strikes you that way, you haven't been in the market for a workstation lately.

But if five digits is too rich for your blood, you can consider the baseline configuration: 1GB of 667MHz DDR2 RAM, a pair of 2.66GHz Woodcrest CPUs, one 250GB SATA drive, an NVidia GeForce 7300 GT 3-D accelerator with 256MB of GDDR3 memory, one dual-layer SuperDrive DVD burner, and OS X Tiger for ... wait for it ... US$2,499. If you're strapped, you can step down to a pair of 2GHz Woodcrest CPUs and a 160GB SATA drive and the price comes down to US$2,124.

Apple's pricing on Mac Pro isn't the whole story, of course, but it changes Apple's position in the market dramatically. That US$2,499 Mac Pro base model I described is a rough match for Apple's other workstation, the Power Mac G5 Quad. Quad is not shabby by any measure, with two 2.5GHz dual-core 64-bit PowerPC CPUs. But in a nearly matching configuration, Mac Pro costs US$1,000 less than Power Mac G5 Quad.

I expected Apple's Intel workstation to roll out at Power Mac-level pricing. If it had, I'd have been more inclined to plumb the minute differences in performance between IBM and Intel architectures; which is the better choice for the dollar? All other things being equal, I might still favor Quad, but equality doesn't enter the picture. Apart from the US$1,000 difference in price, Mac Pro's simpler cooling system seems much quieter than Quad's, although I didn't get a chance to push one to the absolute red line.

There's more to the picture, but the point is that Apple hears the market's concerns about price. The cost of entry for Intel-based machines at all levels -- notebooks, desktops, workstations, and, come October, servers -- are markedly lower than their PowerPC predecessors, despite being considerably faster. What's more, you can now take models in each system class to greater levels of performance and capacity.

Those saying, "If only the Mac wasn't so overpriced," will now have to find a different reason to stick with Windows or Linux PCs.

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