Is There Room for a Really Cheap Mac?

by Chris Seibold May 25, 2006

If you’re a fan of cheap computing, you’ve probably seen the pictures of the MIT $100 laptop. For the denizens of cash-strapped countries, the laptop computer will undoubtedly be a welcome addition. There is a bright side for Mac fans as well, they can finally say that there is a laptop that looks goofier than the original iBook. The existence of a $100 laptop does give rise to the thought, should Apple make a very low-end laptop?

The usual objection at this point is the existence of the new MacBook. There is no doubt that the MacBook is an impressive machine looking at the specs, factor in the price and you’ve got an absolute steal. Well, a steal if you compare it spec for spec with the equivalent laptop from Dell, but not such a great deal if you compare it to the very cheapest Dell available.

The cheapest Dell you can get, without digging about, is the Inspiron B130 for a mere $504 (On sale, regularly $649). Sure, most people will tell you the machine is a piece of junk, but sometimes, perhaps the majority of the time, people prefer cheap over capable. If you need further evidence of the cheap at all costs mentality, cast your mind back to the Christmas fracas that occurred when Wal-Mart was trading laptops for a meager four C-notes.

It could be the case that the consumers of the low-end Dells and $300 Wal Mart laptops sat down, carefully analyzed their computing needs and compared said needs to the specs of the computers, then, using advanced cost benefit and amortization tools, the consumers realized that the value-priced laptop was the ideal trade off between out-of-pocket expense and performance. Either that or they just wanted a cheap laptop.

Apple doesn’t have a dog in the cheap laptop arena. As great as the MacBook is, it just doesn’t qualify as a cheap laptop. As alluded to earlier, the Macbook qualifies as an exceptional value, as an outstanding machine and a decent mirror for applying makeup. While those are admirable traits, they are not what a cheap laptop is all about. Apple should seriously, very seriously, consider offering a truly cheap laptop.

What kind of specs might one expect from a really low-end Apple laptop? 12.1 screen, 1024 by 768, 30GB hard drive, and the much-maligned Intel Celeron (1.5 GHz) with the weakest integrated video support imaginable. Since Apple doesn’t seem to be on much of a roll with names lately (MacBook, iPod Hifi) we’ll just call the machine: MacBook Lame.

A machine like that, what with the processor that people love to hate, the anemic video support and the tiny screen would be little more than an Apple branded clamshell Palm Pilot. Or at best last year’s iBook. People are bound to complain about the specs and note that Apple wishes to provide a truly superior computing experience out of the box. These objections scream for more investigation.

Bring on the MacBook Lame

Let us begin with the notion that the MacBook Lame would be underpowered for OS X. The chip running the machine would be a Celeron so anyone who actually purchases a MacBook lame will be in for a rude awakening. Yet, Tiger runs acceptably fast on a single processor 1 GHz G4 with 1 GB of RAM operating on a 100 MHz FSB. It is no speed demon to be sure but for the internet, e-mail and most iLife Apps the performance is more than acceptable.

Of course, elite users think they have to the most modern hardware possible, particularly people who visits sites like Apple Matters. They instinctively shun machines powered by yesterday’s chips. The truth is that they aren’t average users. You can find G4 mini owners who made entire movies on the mini, designers who create incredibly complex works of digital art in Photoshop on the mini. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who simply have to have the latest and greatest regardless of actual need (Apple calls these people “profit,” Dell calls them “gamers”).

So, the MacBook lame will be more than capable for the needs of most users. The real questions, and the one Apple asks when thinking of things like this is: What is in it for Apple’s bottom line? There is a very real fear of the machine cannibalizing Apple’s other laptops, but that effect can be minimized. Let us set the MacBook Lame’s price at $697.32. Think of it like the car you see advertised at the impossibly low price in the newspaper.

The price gets people interested in the machine, but it lacks a CD burner. The CD burner upgrade is $50 dollars. Who is going to pass that up, everyone burns CDs. The hard drive size is claustrophobic at only 30 GB, no problem 80 GB is just $75 away. The machine features the iBook style keyboard, not very good, for an extra $30 you can get the new MacBook keyboard. Only one slot for memory, you know you need a GB, don’t void that warranty, have Apple install it for $150. You want the nifty built in iSight, it is an option, a mere $100. Hey, that black MacBook is looking like a really good deal isn’t it?

The point is that the add-ons add up quickly, sure the base price is low but by the time anyone who wants more than a cheap laptop is done with it they’re better off buying a MacBook. For those that go with the base model, and there will always those that do, it is still a win for Apple. Not only will they know they have the least capable Mac available they will be exposed to OS X. The tactic has worked for Apple in the past, the Mac Classic was a horrible machine if you knew anything about Macs but Apple sold a ton of them. When users wanted to do more they went back and bought another Mac.

There are a lot of reasons you won’t be seeing a MacBook Lame tomorrow, but no convincing reasons why you shouldn’t see one someday. Right now the Apple engineers are likely overwhelmed, once the Intel transition is complete they can get back to making products that shock the world, products like the MacBook lame.


  • The MacBook Lame does sound like a clever idea for those who unfortunately can’t afford the ‘top’ hardware out today, but could Apple really do that?  They’re seen as a company who provide people with high quality, good looking products.  Is Apple capable of producing another high quality machine with good looks for a much lower price?  Wouldn’t it hamper their reputation?  I don’t think it’s possible to match good quality with low price in the IT world, is it?

    Aaron Wright had this to say on May 25, 2006 Posts: 104
  • If someone wants to buy a “cheap” laptop from Apple but still have a “quality” machine, they should buy a refurbished or used laptop. They still run fine, will last for years, and can be several hundred dollars less than a new one, depending on the model. I’m still using a 500mhz Titanium G4 PowerBook, maxed RAM, running Panther, Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.,  very effectively.

    cloudwall had this to say on May 25, 2006 Posts: 21
  • Up to a year ago I was running an old Pismo, bought new in 2000, them upgraded over the years with more RAM, bigger HDs and even a processor upgrade to a 550mhz G4 (but that got a little warm). I went thru the gamut of OS 9.22, 10.0.0 beta, 10.1, etc., etc. Ran Photoshop, DreamWeaver, the works. Went clear up thru Panther, but with Leopard I figured it was time for a change, and finally traded up to a later-model G4-1.5. We’ll see how much I can get out of it; but I had to hand the Pismo its chops. It was a workhorse - haven’t had one like that since the Mac IIci I had at the office in 1993.

    tao51nyc had this to say on May 25, 2006 Posts: 45
  • The problem with the MacBook Lame is a problem that Asus ran into a few years ago. 

    Asus was known as being one of the top motherboard producers in the business.  Everything they made in the MB dept was top notch, and had few rivals in terms of performance (ala Apple).  They decided that, with so many people deciding that a cheap computer was more desirable than a capable one, they would enter the low-end MB market, which put a huge tarnish on their brand (tarnish which has never been fully buffed out) because of the idea that Asus was now making inferior products.

    Apple will not risk that kind of tarnishing of their name in the market.  If Apple was smart, they would do what Asus did when confronted with this situation.  Open up a new company, owned by Asus, which is dedicated to making the low-end products (AsusRock BTW) so that their original brand, Asus, can disassociate itself from low-end products and realign themselves with top (and only top) quality hardware.

    Imagine ‘AppleSkin’ or ‘AppleCore,’ maker of these MacBook Lame computers (plug-in new name here) and the only 3rd party manufacturer to be licensed to use OS X which is owned by Apple (in the same way that Disney owns ABC).  Everyone wins this way.  People who choose low price over performance can now have access to OS X (couldn’t call it a Mac because it’s not from Apple) and Apple doesn’t get tarnished because it’s making crap hardware.

    e:leaf had this to say on May 25, 2006 Posts: 32
  • The trend to a mobile computing will continue and [if it isn’t already] notebooks and other small-profile PCs and Macs will exceed the shipment of desktop/tower varieties.

    It is only smart business sense to capitalize on this trend. After all, Apple and its executives are well known for their smart executions.

    We might think the Macbook line is the low-end of the Big-A’s notebook products but it isn’t. Priced over a grand and several Coronas…well, it doesn’t qualify as “low end”. Macbooks are positioned in the mid-range and for its packed features should push these babies flying off shelves.

    So, Apple does not have a low-end portable Mac [yet]. A low-end price point of $600-700 should be a good starting point since it would only be $100-200 more than the cheapest Mac mini configuration.

    In this configuration, forget dual-core CPUs, top-rate LCD panels, firewire ports, and other perks found on the mid-range Macbook. Although, these can be omitted, the user-experience (meaning OSX feel) must not be sacrificed. So, cutbacks in minimum acceptable memory is unacceptable.

    Some might have a “heave-ho” seeing such incarnations of the Macbook but let us not forget these will be targeted at Mac newbies, K-12 schools and students, or like myself, people with small budgets curious enough for something better than a GQ laptop from Fry’s or WalMart.

    That said, I believe Apple will come with a “real” low-end portable after all the dust has settled in the Intel transition. Then, Apple can manage Intel’s volume capacity better at all points of its product lines.

    Robomac had this to say on May 25, 2006 Posts: 846
  • Macbook Lame?  Its not 1 April in the USA is it?

    sydneystephen had this to say on May 25, 2006 Posts: 124
  • Robotech Infidel, I think you’re right. Despite its diminutive nature and price-point, the Macbook is a really highly specced machine. In some ways I quietly die a little inside when I realise that Apple is likely now merely selling generic, high-end hardware with proprietary software. It doesn’t seem particularly kind to humanity of them to reserve their superior engineering for only the particularly wealthy. Neither is it really good business sense, if they really are interested in expanding their market share as Jobs has claimed. If they aren’t going to open their OS for 3rd party hardware (and though I’m willing to eat these words: THEY’RE NOT) they might at least sell a lower end mac.

    I think John Siracusa has nailed one option that would cover a low-end mac.

    Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the xMac. My xMac. The Mac that I want to buy. Reduced to one sentence, it’s a completely configurable, headless Mac that trades expandability for reduced size and cost.

    Benji had this to say on May 25, 2006 Posts: 927
  • (PS I’m hopeful about all this touch-screen interface for something truly innovative too.)

    Benji had this to say on May 25, 2006 Posts: 927
  • Since we are in the subject of affordable, full-blown OSX portable. I have a gut feeling that Apple is devising a plan to “sneak” attack this market. And what’s more, it may not even be what we think it will be - true to Apple style. It will not be a “gutted” version of the Macbook. Oh no, that is too easy. Nor a new “cheap” design from Ive’s boys. That would be too ho-hum boring to Steve.

    Apple [Steve specifically] has a keen sense of milking a product that appeals to the masses - the iPod brand. He knows full well how the world’s young and hip population have become attached to this contraption.

    We further know that the iPod is another species of the feline family to Steve’s heart and bulging wallet. And yes, it has an embedded 32-bit computer deep within a media-centric outfit and a minimal OS for your listening pleasure. Whether the CPU is an ARM or PPC core is moot point. They are both capable architecture given a good system-level design.

    What eventually comes out will be a hybrid of the video iPod and a “concept” low-end notebook. To keep cost low, Apple can opt to keep much of the iPod’s design upward vice gutting the Macbook to fit the sub-$1000 market. Display panels will be limited from 5” to 9” diag. to have three price points for these gadgets.

    Many will ask, “Will it run my OSX apps?”. The answer to that is a big “No!”. Do you envision yourself running Photoshop on a 5” screen? What about writing your next novel with Mac Office? I doubt it. People will use it to what it is designed for - a media playing device whether audio or video content. It will have enough power for the ancillary PDA apps, mini games, and others such as the Nike jog log/counter app.

    Apple iOrigami, anyone?

    Robomac had this to say on May 25, 2006 Posts: 846
  • Shame the name “iMac” is already taken!

    Benji had this to say on May 25, 2006 Posts: 927
  • “Apple iOrigami, anyone?”

    The next iPod will be huge… ;-] It’s a super-secret Apple rumor…

    Seriously, of course, there is a room for a really cheap Mac, as there is a room for a really cheap iPod - the shuffle. Some people don’t need the “features”.
    Well, actually, many people don’t need “features” in certain situations. A small, rugged and bearably ugly laptop might be nice - maybe even as a second laptop, in addition to 17’ MBP, for example…

    Frosty Grin had this to say on May 25, 2006 Posts: 33
  • The short answer: no, there’s no ‘room’ for a really cheap Mac.

    The longer answer: Apple is not a commodity vendor of computer products. They sell a quality user experience, and they charge a premium for that over the ‘really cheap’ products that are available from Dell, etc. The reason they do this is not only to protect their brand. Apple currently has 5% or so of marketshare, but it’s a very profitable 5%. There’s still a large group of folks that are gamers or other power users that Apple is trying to attract with Boot Camp and the like, and they could double their marketshare just picking up this group of people. Compare this to if they sold a ‘really cheap’ Mac (these aren’t real numbers, but they illustrate the reason why Apple doesn’t go down this road). Say Apple sells 5 million MacBooks in a year at 20% profit. How many ‘Really Cheap’ portables would they have to sell to match the amount of profit they are taking in? The MacBooks would bring in about 1.1 billion in profit ($1099 x 20% x 5 million). At your price point, at say 5% profit, Apple would have to sell over 31.5 million machines to make the same amount of profit.

    Then you have to figure in cannibalization of other products (like the MacBook and the Mac mini), loss of trust in the Apple brand, and my personal beef with ‘really cheap’ products, the fact that Apple would probably have to pour more resources into their support infrastructure than necessary. I guarantee you that the support cost for a lower cost product is higher than a high-end product, plus the customer is going to be less knowledgable and they will be less likely to buy profitable add-ons like AppleCare.

    So yeah, Apple *could* come out with a ‘really cheap’ Mac, but there isn’t a convincing reason for Apple to change their business model to do so.

    Joshua David had this to say on May 26, 2006 Posts: 2
  • and a decent mirror for applying makeup

    I’ve always considered the reflective screen to be a bug, not a feature. When I’m looking at the screen, I want to see the stuff on the screen, not me, or whatever’s behind me. I would understand if the reflective screen were a side-effect of some sort of durable, scratch-resistant coating, but that’s not the way it’s being marketed. It’s being marketed specifically as a reflective screen, not as scratch-resistant or anything like that. My preference in general is for an anti-reflective screen. I don’t understand why HP, Dell, Gateway and others put reflective screens on their laptops. Well, okay, because they’re stupid. But why is Apple introducing this feature—I mean, bug?

    Mac Photo had this to say on May 26, 2006 Posts: 1
  • Joshua David, I don’t think your arguments change the fact that not every user is catered for in the current mac line-up.

    With a really cheap mac, I agree with what you say. But a lower end, <700 dollar small notebook/subnotebook that didn’t put such an emphasis on state of the art processing power but ran OS X, even in a somewhat pared-down form, would only complement the current line-up and thereby attract more customers.

    Also, I’m confident that using less cutting edge components can allow similar profit margins even on cheaper computers, though not on super-duper cheap computers.

    Benji had this to say on May 26, 2006 Posts: 927
  • Dear sir, I dare to say that this ranting of yours are more than just silly, it’s also highly irrelevant.

    First I challenge your opinion that the Macbook is an exceptional value. What would create this exceptional value, the 6 pin Firewire connector that few will use, the bluetooth connectivity that even fewer will use? Or is it the DVD-burner that lack DL support? Or the lack of a card slot or card reader? Or maybe even the above average weight at 5.2lbs?

    I do claim that that Macbook carry a good value, but it’s far from outstanding. Doing such claims only show an extremly biased view.

    Other and more constructiv critic then. Of course Apple shouldn’t try to sell a really cheap laptop, they should sell a laptop with exceptional value for the average customer. Does Macbook carry this value for the average customer? Definitely not. A Core Solo (which run circles around a G4 anyway) would be more than enough for most users. Nor does most users use bluetooth which is therefore a useless inclusion, only adding weight, size and cost. A lot of people (50 percent?) do still use a modem to access the internet which would make it a welcome addition. What about optical audio in? Also completely useless for most, if not all, people.

    I don’t claim that a well-designed and sturdy laptop can be had for peanuts. But I do claim that Apple could easily sell a $800 laptop which still_would provide _a_better_experience_, not just better value, for the average customer.

    Calista had this to say on May 26, 2006 Posts: 3
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