It's more than halfway through 2014, and we're still waiting for the flood of new gadgets that Apple CEO Tim Cook promised, and senior vice president Eddy Cue called "the best product pipeline I've seen in 25 years." But even though the first brand-new hardware from Apple is expected to be a new iPhone sometime in September, a good number of hardware product updates have quietly slipped out the past few months.
Apple's Mac lineup of laptop and desktop computers has seen several changes that, while small on paper, can have a potentially big impact on shoppers. In April, the 13-inch and 11-inch MacBook Air models got upgraded base model CPUs, as well as $100 price cuts (UK buyers were treated to £100 cuts).
In June, the 21.5-inch iMac all-in-one desktop added a new entry-level model that cost $200 less than the previous starting point. And at the end of July, the high-end MacBook Pro line received CPU and RAM boosts, but the only price cuts came in the higher-end 15-inch model, now $2,499/£1,999/AU$2,999 instead of $2,599/£2,199/AU$3,199. The still-kicking 13-inch non-Retina model was cut too, down to $1,099, £899, or AU$1,349.
Both new MacBooks, two versions of the entry-level 21.5-inch iMac, and the least expensive 15-inch MacBook Pro configuration have now been benchmarked, tested, and reviewed by CNET Labs. In general, lower starting prices are a big positive for cost-conscious buyers, particularly students. The hardware changes are not quite as significant, but we still saw differences worth keeping in mind when compared with the 2013 versions of these systems.
Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (15-inch, 2014): $1,999, £1,599, AU$2,499
The small speed bump and added RAM make this a modest improvement over the 2013 version, but it's essentially the same machine. As that Retina MacBook Pro received a very strong recommendation as an excellent all-around premium powerhouse, this updated version does, too, even if we were hoping for something that felt a bit more "new."
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, April 2014): $999, £849, AU$1,199
The new CPU resulted in a small bump to application performance, as well as a decent battery bump (although which of several possible SSD brands you get may affect that). More important is the price cut, which means the cost of the base model has come down under $1,000, £850, and AU$1,200 in just two years.
Apple MacBook Air (11-inch, April 2014): $899, £749, AU$1,099
With the same CPU as the 13-inch version, but costing less (small-screen discount?), your choice between the two MacBook Air sizes comes down to portability versus viewability. A dozen-plus hours of battery life is great, but it's also hard to justify paying $899, £749, or AU$1,099 for a 1,366x768-pixel-resolution screen. Still, the 11-inch Air is one of the most usable ultraportable laptops we've ever tested.
Apple iMac (21.5-inch, 2014): $1,099, £899, AU$1,349
How is the new entry-level iMac so much less expensive than the previous low-end model? It's because this is essentially a MacBook Air in desktop form, with a slower CPU and smaller hard drive than other iMacs. But, if that level of laptop-like performance is enough for you (and for most mainstream tasks, it is), here's a chance to get the exceptional iMac industrial design and build quality for less.
We also tested a model with a $250/£200/AU$300 add-on 1TB plus 128GB Fusion Drive. But the simple step-up middle model ($1,299, £1,049, AU$1,599), with a quad-core CPU and better graphics, seems like a better all-around upgrade.
That leaves us with the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and iMac lines having received updates thus far in 2014. If you go back a little further, the high-end Mac Pro desktop was introduced in December 2013, which makes it a nearly new system as well.
Looking forward, there may be further updates (for example, to the Mac Mini), or even new Mac products, during the final third of 2014, perhaps including the long-rumored 12-inch high-res MacBook.