Mac G4 line revved -- downward

Summary:Apple downgrades the processors -- but not the prices -- of its desktop Power Mac G4.

Better, faster, cheaper is the traditional cry as new computer models are introduced, but Apple Wednesday announced it will downgrade the processors of its desktop Power Mac G4 configurations.

According to an Apple press release, this change was enacted in order to "better match demand with chip availability from Motorola." Confirming an earlier MacWEEK report that production of 500MHz G4 processors has been delayed because of technical issues, Apple (Nasdaq:AAPL) said that "500MHz G4 processor will not be available until the first calendar quarter of next year."

The model breakdown (listed on the Apple Store Web page as "Fast," "Faster," "Fastest" and "Ultimate") will remain the same, with specifications -- except for the processor speeds -- and prices unchanged. However, the G4 chips powering the models will range from 350MHz to 450MHz, instead of the previously advertised 400MHz to 500MHz.

The low-end Power Mac G4 configuration, which the Apple Store advertises at $1,599, originally featured a 400MHz G4 processor but will now ship with a 350MHz chip. The price, as well as other specs such as included RAM and hard disk size, also remains unchanged. This configuration will still be built on the Yikes! motherboard, which includes a PCI graphics slot and an Ultra ATA/33 hard drive.

The $2,499 "Faster" model, based on the new Sawtooth motherboard, receives a 400MHz processor in place of the original 450MHz chip. All other specifications remain unchanged.

The previous "Fastest" configuration, which was to have featured the delayed 500MHz G4 processor, is now slated for a 450MHz chip. The price stays at $3,499, but according to the Apple Store Web page, an additional 128MB of RAM is included, bringing the total up to 256MB.

Analyst: 'Still pretty peppy'
"I think there will be some uproar, but mostly from a vocal minority," said Lou Mazzucchelli, analyst at the New York business research firm Gerard Klauer Mattison. The changes might affect sales of the Power Mac G4 line, he said, "but it'd be hard to measure -- even a 350MHz G4 is still pretty peppy."

Mazzucchelli said he thought "Apple should have offered at least a symbolic price cut" to avoid negative public perceptions. However, he speculated that a propitiatory move such as adding RAM to models could cause "other perturbations in manufacturing" which would delay delivery of the computers -- the very thing the reconfiguration was meant to avoid.

Overall, Mazzucchelli said, "Apple's made the best of a bad situation." He noted that Apple's first fiscal quarter of 2000 will be "all about iMacs and iBooks" and added that by the next quarter, Apple will most likely ship 500MHz Power Mac G4 models.

Tim Bajarin, analyst at Campbell, Calif.-based Creative Strategies, said Apple "will get flak" for changing the model specifications without adjusting prices. "At the low end, it might not be such a problem, but at the high end it might be," he said. Bajarin said even the reconfigured models are attractive in the current market, though -- "these are still screaming machines."

MacZone: 'This is weak'
Retailers may not be quite so sanguine, however. "I've got a lot of customers who aren't going to be too happy," said Lance LaPrarie, account manager for corporate sales at MacZone, an online Macintosh retailer based in Renton, Wash. He said that the reconfiguration will compel him to contact all customers who preordered Power Mac G4 models and offer them the choice of either a slower or more-expensive machine.

"I'm going to be at a total loss, but there's not much I can do," LaPrarie said. He added that he'd already shipped out 50 of the previous 450MHz, $2,499 configurations.

LaPrarie said he had gotten no advance notice from Apple about the reconfiguration; he received an e-mail detailing the changes while speaking to MacWEEK immediately after Apple's announcement.

"This is weak," he said.

It's even less certain where this new move leaves customers. Though there are a considerable number preorders for Power Mac G4 models (Apple executives said in a conference call today that there are currently 86,000 outstanding orders for G4 desktops), what these buyers will receive is not yet clear.

Creative Strategies' Bajarin speculated that all retailers, distributors and even Apple itself will have to call customers to explain the situation. He said that although the total number of customers is large, preorders have been sufficiently dispersed among sources that individual communications -- while time-consuming -- will be possible.

An Apple spokeswoman said she was unable to comment on preorder policy at the time.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Processors

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