Shiny And Affordable New Apples

Shortages. Plunging earnings. The Windows 95 advertising tsunami. Life has been tough lately for Apple Computer Inc. But for the few, the brave--the 10% of computer users who, like me, are still devoted to the Macintosh--things aren't nearly so bleak. In fact, there's lots to cheer about. You can get the vaunted Mac design harmony in powerful, speedy machines and the best performance bargains in years.

You want to talk specs? You want to talk price? Thanks to an across-the-board price chop in mid-October, consumers can pick up a very competitive 5200 Performa system for about $1,900. This sleek desktop number includes a PowerPC chip that is equivalent in speed to the Pentium 90, an 800-megabyte hard drive, a 14.4-kilobit-per-second modem, and a bucketload of software. There are packages for education, "home productivity" (word processing and financial planning), online cruising, and Internet access.

CLICK, CLICK. The Performa line provides the "complete solution" approach--an everyperson's machine, with everything you need to get started in a single box. But Apple also has a full menu of a la carte offerings. There is a wide selection of high-powered Macintoshes that can be configured for your specific needs. A graphic artist working from home, for example, might order additional memory and an extra-large monitor.

On the other end of Apple's lineup, however, you may want to steer clear of the entry-level Performas, the "three-digit" lines such as the 630. These machines are based on the old Motorola Inc. 68000 series microprocessor. Although they're attractively priced--several models sell for less than $1,000--these are machines that have no future. Forthcoming software from Apple and independent software developers will require systems with the speedier PowerPC chip.

When it comes to making the computer a part of your family, the Mac "out-of-box" experience still gives Apple an edge over Intel-based PC rivals. The computer's integrated hardware and software design shorten the setup time. And after a decade of standardization among makers of Mac products, it's the same experience for all the boxes you open thereafter--to add software, printers, and other accessories. On a PC, adding a graphics card or loading a complex application can be a real chore. On a Mac, clicking on an "installer" icon usually does the job in a flash. Likewise, because Apple bundles a Web browser through its eWorld online service, a Mac buyer avoids the often tedious and difficult software configuration that PC users must perform to get on the Internet. A couple of clicks, and you're there.

This year's home Macs are adept multimedia machines. All come with CD-ROM drives, and the 5200, 5300, and 6200 Performa series feature a virtually invisible built-in microphone and a nifty little software program called Megaphone. Together, they turn the computer into a speakerphone and answering machine. If you're a bit more adventurous, the $99 QuickCam from Connectix can be hooked up to all this and used to create cheap and simple desktop videoconferencing. Similar options can be added to a PC clone--but not so easily. "The Mac OS is still the best," at bringing these various functions to consumers in a straightforward, elegant way, says Ed Correia, director of retail sales at Computer Attic Supercenter in Redwood City, Calif.

Apple is focusing its home-PC push on two market segments: education and work-at-home. With more than 60% of the K-12 market, Macs remain the educational platform of choice. "I see people wanting to duplicate the computers their children have in school," says Apple watcher Jack Karp of Affinity Research Corp. To make that easier, Performas come with such popular packages as Kid Works 2 and Thinkin' Things as well as a CD-ROM that lets kids test-drive and then order other titles. Parents who want to bone up on their favorite pastimes can pick up CD-ROM study aids such as Microsoft's multimedia Wine Guide.

The standard home Macintosh is also ready to go to work. Every Performa comes equipped with Claris Works--a collection of programs that includes a spreadsheet and database--and the popular Quicken home-finance software. And for work or play, most of the PowerPC lines can accept add-on cards that allow you to bring live television to the computer screen for about $250. They'll also take a $279 MPEG card that will enable full-screen video from CD-ROMs, a feature that is popping up in certain educational and entertainment software.

CHECK THE ADS. Shopping for software for your new Mac can be a little disconcerting. Retailers only set aside a tiny amount of shelf space for Mac software, while Windows titles are ubiquitous. Although the majority of best-selling software is available in both Mac and PC formats, it may not seem so in stores. That's because 30% of Mac software is sold through mail order, explains Pieter Hartsook, editor of The Hartsook Letter.

Apple is vowing to change that this Christmas season with lots more in-store promotions. Meanwhile, you can plug into the mail-order channel by picking up any Mac magazine and cruising the ads. While you're at it, consider treating yourself to a game. The Mac's reputation as a good game platform is improving, and most of the best-sellers such as Doom, Myst, and Rebel Assault shine on the Apple system. Given that one of Apple's biggest woes is keeping up with demand, it's clear that the Mac is still tops in the home PC game.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.