The Vision Thing: G4 Shell Game

Hey, you know what? Bad things happen. And nowhere is that more true than in the computer business when all it takes to derail a multimillion-dollar product launch is, say, an earthquake in Taiwan or overly optimistic forecasts of G4 processor production. The real question buyers should be asking themselves is, if something unforeseen happens to impact production of the iBook or the availability of the 500-MHz G4, should they expect to pay the price? Apparently Apple believes the answer is "yes" for the Power Mac G4. Because hidden in today's reshuffling of the Power Mac lineup is the fact that Apple has effectively raised the price on its new desktop Macs.

Here's how it works: If you'd been lucky enough to get a 400-MHz Power Mac G4 before Wednesday's chip shuffle, you would have gotten a machine with 64MB of RAM, a 10GB hard drive and a 24x CD-ROM drive for $1,599 retail. After Wednesday that same configuration is available with a slower processor, 350 MHz to be exact, but Apple still expects you to pay the same price -- $1,599. All I can say is that if you were lucky enough to grab one of those first 400-MHz G4s to ship, you got a heck of a deal.

The same thing is true for the two higher-end machines. Now, instead of getting 450-MHz and 500-MHz configurations, you get 400-MHz and 450-MHz systems with the same goodies as their speedier precursors, but you're still going to pay the same price. That means the 450-MHz Power Mac G4 that came with 128MB of RAM, a 20GB hard drive, Zip drive and DVD-ROM drive for $2,499 now sports a 400-MHz processor for the same price. And that mythic 500-MHz G4 Power Mac with 256MB of RAM, 27MB hard drive, Zip and DVD-RAM drive for $3,499 has been replaced with a 450-MHz doppelganger.

Putting the financial issues aside, this processor switch will also serve to confuse consumers even more than they already are. In the original G4 lineup the 400-MHz machine was based on the same logic-board design as the Power Mac G3, while the 450-MHz and 500-MHz machines were based on a totally new design. That new design, code-named Sawtooth, offered such advances as 2x AGP graphics slot, AirPort slot and much faster bus speeds. Now, the 350-MHz machine has the old G3 logic board, while 400-MHz and 450-MHz machines have Sawtooth. Confused? I know I am.

I can understand Apple getting stuck and not being able to deliver 500-MHz G4 Power Macs -- they don't control the production of the chips. But having said that, I don't think Mac buyers should get stuck paying the same and getting less in the lower-end configurations. It's the 500-MHz G4 chip Apple can't get, not the 400-MHz or 450-MHz. By delivering slower systems for the same price, it look like Apple is attempting to profit from its supplier's mistake, instead of just being its victim.

It would have been better if Apple had left the 400-MHz and 450-MHz configurations alone and downgraded the processor speed in the 500-MHz configuration. That way the majority of Mac buyers would still have gotten the G4 machines Apple promised to deliver, instead of getting the empty husk in the G4 shell game.

Questions? Comments? E-mail them to Andy at visionthing@macworld.com.

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