Education graduates to Intel

My magnum opus on the lack of garment-rending in Apple’s transition to Intel chips generated its share of feedback. But I was particularly struck by a comment sent via e-mail from reader who took issue with my statement that “every bit of Apple hardware, save for the Xserve and whatever pro desktop will replace the Power Mac, now runs on an Intel processor.” The rebuttal:

BZZZZZT! The eMac is still running a PowerPC processor. And don’t forget the entire iPod lineup—that’s Apple hardware too, and none of them use Intel processors.

Taking the second part of that feedback first, it’s true that iPods don’t run on Intel processors. (iPod guru extraordinaire tells me that the music devices are powered by PortalPlayer chips, though it appears Samsung’s about to get that contract in a decision that seems to be motivated largely by keeping manufacturing costs down.) However, since the article itself was talking about Macs and not music players, the reader’s iPod citation might qualify him for induction into the Nitpickers Hall of Fame on the first ballot. For that matter, hardware like the Apple Cinema Display, the iPod Hi-Fi, and the Apple mouse and keyboard don’t have Intel chips in them either—it’s kind of a non-issue.

As for the eMac, the omission there was purely intentional. Apple stopped selling the CRT-based all-in-one desktop to civilians last year. And when I did a cursory check of the company’s educational store last week, I couldn’t find the eMac there, either. Therefore, I reject the reader’s “BZZZZZT!” and respond with a game show-esque sound effect of my own.

Of course, given Wednesday’s announcement of an $899 iMac Core Duo aimed at the education market, the eMac’s absence from Apple’s educational offerings last week makes a whole lot more sense now. Apple has taken a machine sporting two outdated or out-of-favor technologies—the CRT monitor and the PowerPC chip—and replaced it with an all-in-one machine that features a flat-panel LCD display and a dual-core processor from the company’s chip-maker of choice.

I suspect this $899 iMac will attract some attention from students, thanks to the low price tag. But a glance at the specs indicates that this system really appears to be aimed at teachers, administrators, and the folks who make IT purchases for schools. Consider the two chief differences between this configuration and Apple’s other iMac offerings—there’s no built-in Bluetooth module, and, instead of a an ATI Radeon X1600 graphics card, you get an Intel GMA 950 processor that shares its memory with the main RAM.

Not having Bluetooth connectivity or a souped-up graphics card might be deal-killers if you’re an individual user. But in a school computer lab setting, those kind of compromises really aren’t hardships at all. For the classroom, Bluetooth is an unnecessary—and potentially distracting—feature. (Can’t have the kids futzing around with their Bluetooth-enabled cell phones when they should be paying attention in class, after all.) And as our testing on other Macs with the integrated Intel graphics indicates, the Intel GMA 950 is perfectly acceptable on everything but graphics-intensive games—which aren’t part of the curriculum at many schools unless the educational landscape has changed dramatically in the decade-and-a-half since I received my high school diploma.

Instead of forcing schools to pay up for features they didn’t want or need, Apple removed these unnecessary bells and whistles and downgraded a few other specifications (there’s less storage capacity than in standard iMac models and you get a CD-RW/DVD-ROM Combo drive instead of a DVD-burning SuperDrive) to deliver a still attractive system at a very attractive price. More important, it kept features that educators do need—AirPort Extreme wireless networking is built-in—in the type of all-in-one system that the education market prefers. On top of all that, this iMac gives Apple an Intel-based offering so that the company’s educational efforts keep up with the Intel transition across the rest of its product lines.

In other words, the release of this 1.83GHz iMac for education users is a smart move that should help Apple both in the short term and over the long haul. Figure the last remaining bits of PowerPC-based Apple hardware, the Power Mac and the Xserve, to make the leap to Intel chips later this year, perhaps as soon as August’s Developers Conference. And then, the Intel transition will, for all intents and purposes, be done.

Well… except for the iPod, as some readers might point out.

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