Cheap options at a high price

Tech Life

Just a few days ago, I was musing about which path to follow for my next (Apple) hardware upgrade:

All things taken into account, the rational decision is to consider two Macs as possible candidates:

  • The (hopefully forthcoming) smaller iMac with retina display.
  • The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, the mid-tier model with 256 GB flash storage ($1499/€1649).

A 21.5-inch iMac with retina display wouldn’t be a bad desktop choice. I could attach to it the current 23-inch external monitor I use with the MacBook Pro. It wouldn’t have the same resolution and density of the iMac’s screen, of course, but I could use it as a secondary screen for applications and information I only need to glance at every now and then, or for palettes and toolbars when using graphics applications. I expect the price to be slightly higher than the current non-retina 21.5 iMac, so maybe something around $1400/€1600 — which would be in the same league as the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro above.

Now the 21.5-inch 4K retina iMac has shipped (all the iMac line has been refreshed, by the way), and apart from the obviously gorgeous retina display, there are aspects of this new iMac I find underwhelming. Mostly two, and it’s difficult to talk about them sequentially, for they are rather interconnected from my point of view. The best summary is perhaps the title I chose for this article: Cheap options at a high price.

I will primarily focus on the base model of the retina 21.5-inch iMac. For $1,499, you get:

  • CPU: 3.1GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz)
  • RAM: 8 GB
  • Storage: 1 TB 5400rpm hard drive

You can read the rest of the technical specifications on Apple’s site. Let’s assume I’m interested in this Mac as a possible candidate for upgrading my current workstation, a mid-2009 15-inch MacBook Pro. The CPU, despite not being the latest Intel generation of processors, is definitely enough for my somewhat modest needs, and future-proof enough that such an iMac should last me several years. The amount of RAM is adequate, but I’d certainly take the option to upgrade it to 16 GB sooner rather than later. A quick check on the Web, and thanks to iMore I learn that Unfortunately, you can’t change that post-purchase, so make sure you configure your maximum RAM during purchase.

Bummer. No, wait. The true bummer is that 5400rpm hard drive. Seriously, in late 2015, you introduce a new computer with an internal component that is essentially the same technology you could have in a PowerBook G4 more than ten years ago (to my knowledge, the DVI Titanium PowerBook G4, introduced in April 2002, was the first with the option for a 5400rpm hard drive — of a much smaller capacity, sure, but a 5400rpm hard drive nonetheless.)

That’s sufficiently bothersome as it is, but what makes it particularly annoying is the fact that, outside the U.S., the same base model of the new 21.5-inch retina iMac is much more expensive. Here’s the pricing in some European countries, with the dollar equivalent in parentheses (exchange rates updated October 13):

  • Ireland, Portugal: €1,749 ($1,991)
  • Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium: €1,729 ($1,968)
  • France, Germany: €1,699 ($1,935)
  • United Kingdom: £1,199 ($1,823)
  • Sweden: 16,495 SEK ($2,025)
  • Czech Republic: 46,990 CZK ($1,972)
  • Denmark: 12,999 DKK ($1,983)

I know there are tax-related reasons behind the different pricing, but the end result is that the same exact machine acquires a price that makes it jump to a higher tier and gives it a value that feels quite different than a $1,499 machine, if you know what I mean. If you look at the list above, you’ll see that in Europe, a base model 21.5-inch 4K iMac essentially ends up costing much like the mid-level 27-inch 5K iMac ($1,999). Taxes or not, I think it’s rather unfair. And frankly, a base model 21.5-inch 4K iMac at that price, with an outdated 5400rpm hard drive as default option, stings even more — it almost feel disrespectful towards the customer.

And what about that 1 TB Fusion Drive option? Certainly better than a lousy hard drive, but it turns out it’s another ‘cheap trick.’ From the Ars Technica review:

The good news is that entry-level 1TB Fusion Drives are now a $100 add-on, though that comes with caveats. 1TB Fusion Drives now pair just 24GB of flash storage with a 1TB hard drive, not 128GB as in previous generations. This is going to be enough to speed up boot times as well as launch times for built-in apps and some frequently-loaded apps and files, though you may notice the system hitting the hard drive more often than it would with a 128GB SSD.

The next step in this awful downward spiral of price differences, has been simulating a purchase of the base model 21.5-inch retina iMac by adding the options I would prefer so as to have a speedier, more future-proof Mac. Starting at a base price of €1,729 and simply choosing:

  • 16 GB of RAM (+ €240)
  • 256 GB of Flash storage (+ €240)

The result is €2,209, which is slightly more than $2,500. Doing the same in the U.S. online Apple Store, I’d spend $1,899. The most striking difference in the customisation options during purchase, price-wise, is the 512 GB Flash storage: $300 versus €600. (As Peter Emery suggested on, at this point it’s cheaper to buy an external Thunderbolt SSD and run the iMac from there.)

Such price differences are simply unjustifiable. Offering a plain old 5400rpm hard drive in such a Mac is inexcusable. You’re just driving customers towards pricier choices rather blatantly. My friend Fabrizio Rinaldi said on Twitter that it’s the equivalent of the 16 GB iPhone option. I’m inclined to think it’s even worse than that. It’s like not equipping the older iPhone 6 Plus with enough RAM.

Putting a hard drive in an otherwise fast Mac is like driving around in a sports car with the handbrake on. It’s a performance dampener. My MacBook Pro, which has a 5400rpm hard drive, takes about four minutes to boot up. Current MacBook Pros with SSD drives or Flash storage, boot up in 30 seconds or less. That’s a very telling, real-world benchmark.

Quoting again Andrew Cunningham from Ars Technica:

The 2010 MacBook Air made SSDs the default storage option five (!) years ago, but all of the iMacs still ship with 5400RPM rotating hard drives by default. I’ve been using the base model iMac as my primary desktop for a few days now. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve gotten used to my 2012 iMac’s Fusion Drive over the last three years or if El Capitan is just better optimized for SSDs than HDDs, but it. Is. Excruciating.

Buying a Fusion Drive or SSD for a new iMac in 2015 should not be considered an optional upgrade, especially since it’s so difficult to add your own after the fact. Not everyone will notice the move from a dual-core to quad-core CPU. Not everyone will notice the move from 8GB to 16GB of RAM. But everyone, no matter how they use their computer, will benefit from having some solid-state storage in their computers.

I’ll reiterate: in a ‘base model’ iMac that costs €1,729 without any add-on, I’d expect at least the low-price 1 TB Fusion Drive option as the default, not old hard drive technology.

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