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Apple's iMac Upgrade Plays It Very Safe With Hardware Tweaks (Again)

Yes, the company's signature desktop PC has a speedier set of guts and the new Thunderbolt connector. But has Steve Jobs's absence forced Apple to scale back on innovation?

iMacApple just upgraded its iMac signature desktop PC with a speedier set of guts and the new Thunderbolt connector. In the light of other hardware improvements, it seems Apple is playing things very safe in 2011.

Apple's new iMacs are up to 70% faster than the previous generation, and they now include the fast multi-purpose Thunderbolt connector. It also has the iSight cameras upgraded to new FaceTime HD standard—with up to 2560 by 1600 pixels of high-def video available on an external monitor—ready for high-quality video calls to other Macs or iPhones.

The upgrade brings new Intel "Sandy Bridge" CPUs into the machines, with quad-core i5 processors as a standard fit (2.5 GHz on the entry level 21-inch machine, 3.1 GHz on the top-end 27-inch unit) and an optional Core i7 processor up to 3.4 GHz speeds. There's also a refreshed range of AMD Radeon HD graphics units, from the HD 6750M on the entry machine (with 512MB of on-board RAM) up to the 6970M on the top-end machine which sports 1GB of RAM on board. The 21-inch devices have one Thunderbolt port, the 27-inch machines have two—and Apple adds a bit of PR-spin by noting they're the first desktop machines on the market with the tech at all.

But almost everything else about the iMacs stays the same. They're still 45.1 cm by 52.8 cm by 18.85 cm, for the 21-inch units (and the 27-inch stays the same too) with the same display resolution, same IPS LCD screens, wireless tech and audio options. There's still a platter-based spinning hard drive in every one as standard, and there's still a slot on the right hand side for the DVD-writing SuperDrive. As Apple's Phil Schiller is quoted as saying in the press release, "Our customers love the iMac’s aluminum enclosure, gorgeous display and all-in-one design." They must really love it (and sales figures do seem to suggest this)—because Apple's playing the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it card.

The iMac was last upgraded in July 2010, and Apple took a similar route by merely boosting the iMac's guts. So we have to ask: Where's the a new slimmer body, inspired by design lessons learned from the MacBook Air and iPad? Where's the solid-state drive as standard? Why's there still a DVD drive there (because who uses these things any more)? Where's the NFC login-panel and touchscreen input? Okay, that last question is a little speculative, or perhaps just a year ahead of time, but it does highlight that these machines are essentially unchanged in design for several years.

Apple used almost exactly the same strategy when it recently upgraded its MacBook Pro line of laptops. And one leading theory for the iPhone 5 is that its design will be very similar to the iPhone 4, with perhaps only one or two changes/improvements in format like a larger screen and a metal/other material rear face. The company seems to be playing things very safe indeed in its hardware upgrades this year, with the exception of the new iPad 2. Even the shiny new white iPhone 4 is really just a white iPhone 4, with very minor internal tweaks.

Is this because Steve Jobs is absent? Is it a sensible move, letting Apple control its R&D spending and staff time wisely on hugely key products like OS X Lion? Maybe Apple will arrive with another "late 2011" upgrade to its Macs and other devices—perhaps when Jobs is back in the hot seat—all in a flurry, ready to stir up a huge buying spree during the key 2011 holiday spending season. For now, we are left with more questions than answers.

[Image via Flickr, khurt]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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