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Apple updates iMacs with Sandy Bridge processors and Thunderbolt

Apple updates iMacs with Sandy Bridge processors and Thunderbolt

New faster iMacs likely to bump desktop sales for a short-time

The new Apple iMac

The new Apple iMac

Apple today refreshed its iMac desktop line, which now sport Intel's second-generation quad-core processors and the new Thunderbolt connectivity technology that debuted in February on the company's MacBook Pro laptops.

The update was anticipated, with rumours swirling over the last week that Apple would upgrade the iMac, which was last refreshed in July 2010.

"It's really, really hard to be splashy with desktops," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, essentially reprising his take last February, when he called the MacBook Pro update "ho-hum."

Prices start at $1399 for the smaller 21.5-inch iMac while and the least-expensive 27-inch desktop sells for $1949.

All iMacs now come standard with an Intel's Core i5 quad-core processors - Apple has ditched the low-end Core i3 dual-core processor found in 2010's systems - although buyers can upgrade to a faster Core i7 quad-core chip for $200 extra. This is the first time that Apple's offered processors from Intel's Sandy Bridge architecture in its iMac line.

Apple's 21.5-inch iMacs are powered by a 2.5GHz or 2.7GHz Core i5, come with 4GB of memory standard, and feature a 500GB or 1TB hard drive. The lower-priced model ships with a Radeon HD 6750M graphics processor from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), while the $1698 system relies on a Radeon HD 6770M GPU.

The 27-inch iMacs boast a 2.7GHz or 3.1GHz Core i5, 4GB of memory, a 1TB drive, and the Radeon HD 6770M graphics processor.

Apple also added Thunderbolt, the I/O (input/output) technology developed by Intel, matching the move of late February when it unveiled the faster connectivity hardware in the MacBook Pro.

Thunderbolt offers direct bi-directional connections to high-speed peripherals such as data drives, and using optional adapters, to other technologies, including FireWire, USB, Gigabit Ethernet and Apple's DisplayPort.

Apple's desktop sales have accounted for between 26 per cent and 39 per cent of all Mac sales in the last two-and-a-half years.

In the first three months of 2011, Apple sold just over 1 million desktops, which accounted for only 27 per cent of its computer sales for the quarter. That's the lowest percentage since the July-September quarter of 2009. During the final quarter of 2010, Apple sold 1.23 million desktops, which represented 30 per cent of the company's total system sales.

In those two prior quarters, Apple's desktop sales dropped one per cent and 12 per cent, respectively, compared to the same period the year before.

But the iMac refresh should result in a short-lived bump in desktop sales, an analyst with retail research firm NPD Group, Stephen Baker, said.

"They almost always get a bump, but the size of it depends on the time of year," he said. "Over the last couple of bumps, desktop sales have gone from negative year-over-year to positive for a couple of months."

Desktop sales bumps typically aren't as long-lasting as Apple's updates to its notebook line, Baker observed.

"In desktops, it's a very short bump cycle," he said. "There should be a big increase this May over last year's May, and in June it will be pretty close to the trend levels. By July, it will be back to the negative year-over-year."

But both Gottheil and Baker believe that desktops still have their place.

"They definitely remain an important part of the computing ecosystem," Baker said. "They're the most expandable, they generally have the fastest parts."

Most households have walked away from having multiple desktops, but the larger machines are still the communal computer, he said.

"Notebooks are personal, tablets are personal, phones are personal, but desktops are the computing device that everybody can share," Baker said.

He noted that all-in-one Windows desktops - the configurations that mimic the iMac in may respects - have been posting solid gains, in part because some of them support touch, something that Apple does not.

"Touch just doesn't work on a vertical screen," Gottheil said. "HP has solved that with a screen that moves to a nearly flat position."

Gottheil doesn't expect Apple to copy HP's TouchSmart design.

"A touchscreen is for a different user base, at a different time and place," he said.

Last October, Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, dismissed touch on desktops. "Touch surfaces don't want to be vertical," Jobs said. "It gives great demo but after a short period of time, you start to fatigue and after an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off. It doesn't work... It's ergonomically terrible."

The new iMacs are available immediately at Apple's retail stores, some authorised resellers and via the company's online store. On the latter, the new desktops will ship within 24 hours of ordering.


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