Apple preps sub-$500 iMac - report

Low-cost, TiVo-like living room media computer, anyone?

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Apple is said to be preparing a return to the 'pizza box' casings last seen in its classic LC and Performa Macs in the mid-1990s, but at this stage it's not entirely clear who the machine will be aimed at.

According to Think Secret's scoop, which cites "highly reliable sources", Apple will use Macworld Expo to launch the box, based on a 1.25GHz G4-class processor. The unit will retail for $499, the site claims.

It describes the box as a "bare bones" system, a term usually used to indicate a system unit without graphics, hard drive, memory and often even processor. However, the unit appears only to lack a display. The machine, codenamed Q88, is said to contain 256MB of memory, offer USB 2.0 and Firewire 400 ports, and provide 10/100Mbps Ethernet, 802.11b/g wireless and 56Kbps modem connectivity.

Packed into its small, 1.73in thick box, the machine, codenamed Q88, is said to sport iMac branding and will be pitched at Windows users looking for a second computer, though it would presumably also appeal to Mac owners in a similar situation.

Apple's interest, however, is clearly the budget PC market, an arena it has thus far skirted around but never entered. Sources are reported to have said that the machine arose as a way of appealing to Windows users whose purchase of an iPod has brought them closer to considering a Mac purchase but are put off by the price. However, with a number of reports suggesting the PC market is going to get rather tougher in the coming years, Apple may well be moving to widen its product line to ensure it's a player in a part of the market that is going to be increasingly become the business' key segment.

The risk, of course, is cannibalising sales of its pricier iMacs and eMacs, but given their sales pattern to date Apple should be confident that there are sufficient buyers out there willing to spend a little more for a better-looking box. The new machine may well attract folks with the same attitude but a lower pricing threshold.

One other thought occurs to us. While the reports of the new machine are pitching the box as a low-end personal computer, we recall recent Wall Street analyst suggestions that Apple is well placed to capitalise on the emerging 'living room PC' market. A Mac sold without a display would make a good candidate for connection to a TV, particularly if it comes in a slim, DVD player-style casing. Apple is expected to promote the new machine more for its software and functionality than performance. What if it's got media streaming via Wi-Fi and TiVo-like PVR features? All for half the price of a Media Center PC - and with Apple's stylish, more living room-friendly looks...

Maybe it's time to put our project to case-mod an ancient Mac LC III box into a high capacity media PC on hold for a while... ®

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