Apple shifts to newest Intel CPUs in iMac refresh

Dumps aging Core 2 Duo, drops Nvidia graphics from the line

Apple today refreshed its iMac line for the first time since October 2009 by adopting Intel's Core i3, i5 and i7 processors across the board and abandoning NVidia's integrated graphics chipset for ATI-branded graphics processors.

The revamp should boost desktops sales, which have been lagging of late.

"The last few refreshes, the iMac has done surprisingly well, and has driven some decent growth numbers for Apple," said Stephen Baker, a retail analyst with the NPD Group. "Apple usually gets some really nice [sales] bumps when they do this."

In the second quarter of 2010, Apple sold 1 million desktops worldwide, down from 1.15 million the quarter before, and also off from the 1.23 million it sold in the final three months of 2009, the quarter when it last revised the iMac.

During a conference call with Wall Street analysts last week to discuss its second-quarter earnings, Apple said that the slower desktop sales were due to the long interval since the last refresh, as well as the continued move toward laptops.

As is Apple's custom, the company did not lower prices for any of today's new iMac models.

Unlike in October 2009, when it bumped up the iMac screens to 21.5-in. and 27-in. -- Apple did not revamp the exterior design today. Instead, it swapped faster, beefier components for slower and less capable parts.

Among the most significant moves was Apple's dropping of Intel's Core Duo dual-core architecture.

The Core Duo, and the follow-on Core Duo 2, have been the foundation of the iMac since Apple introduced the Intel platform to the line in 2006 . Today, however, the company dumped the Core 2 Duo for Intel's Core i3 on the three-lowest priced models, with speed bumps on two of the three new configurations. The higher-priced of the two 21.5-in. iMacs, for instance, now sports a 3.2GHz i3 rather than a 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo.

Both the higher-priced 21.5-in. and the lower-priced 27-in. iMac can be upgraded to a 3.6GHz i5 dual-core processor for $200.

The top-end 27-in. comes with a 2.8GHz Intel Core i5 quad-core processor, a slightly faster version of last year's chip; a $200 upgrade to a 2.93GHz i7 quad-core is also available. The highest priced iMac remains the only model that can be equipped with a quad-core processor.

Apple also tossed the last Nvidia graphics chipset from the iMac line, replacing it on the lower-priced 21.5-in. model with an ATI-labeled discrete graphics processor from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD).

All four iMac models now boast ATI graphics processors, running from an HD 4760 with 256MB of memory on the low end to the HD 5750 with 1GB of graphics RAM on the high.

Nvidia remains an Apple supplier, however: All the company's laptops, as well as its compact Mac Mini, sport graphics chipsets from the Santa Clara, Calif. company.

Storage space has remained static in the new models. The $1,199 iMac comes with a 500GB hard drive, while the other three models come with a 1TB drive as standard. Options on the 27-in. iMac include a bump to a 2TB drive or a swap for a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD). The former runs an extra $150, while the latter adds $600 to the price, well within the $400 to $700 cost of a 256GB SSD at retail.

All iMacs include 4GB of RAM, with options to increase that to 8GB -- and on the 27-in. models, to a maximum of 16GB.

Prices start at $1,199 for the low-end 21.5-inch iMac, progressing to $1,499 for the upper-end 21.5-inch, and $1,699 and $1,999 for the two configurations of the 27-inch system.

Each iMac comes with a wireless keyboard and Apple's no-longer-new wireless Magic Mouse. A new option, however, is the $69 Magic Trackpad, a larger, standalone version of the trackpad built into Apple's notebooks. The new device links to an iMac via Bluetooth, and supports the same gestures as the Mac Pro notebook's pad, including two-fingered swipes within a browser for moving back or forward.

The new models show that Apple believes there's still money to be made in desktops, a category that has been left behind by the rush to mobility, whether that means notebooks, netbooks , smartphones or tablets, said Baker.

"I don't think desktops are going [to disappear]," Baker said. "In a lot of households, there's a centralized desktop used by everyone, and then individual notebooks. Apple would have a gaping hole if they didn't have a desktop of some kind."

Apple also announced a retooling of the tower-style Mac Pro desktop, the first refresh of that machine since March 2009. The new Mac Pros, which won't debut until next month, will come in configurations packed with as many as 12 processor cores. Top price for a Mac Pro with a dozen cores: $4,999.

Also today, Apple unveiled a new 27-inch LED display to replace the 24-in. model. The new screen sports a native resolution of 2560-by-1440 pixels in a 16:9 aspect ratio, and will sell for $999 when it goes on sale in September.

The new iMacs are available immediately at Apple's retail stores, and through its online store , where all four currently show that Apple will ship within 24 hours of ordering.

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