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iMac sales slow in April

Apple's computer drops out of the top-five best selling computers in retail last month as customers continue to flock to low-priced machines.

For the iMac, April is indeed the cruelest month.

Apple's popular computer dropped out of the top-five retail sellers as customers continued to flock to low-priced machines, according to a study.

In general, PC sales in retail computer stores were robust last month, according to new data from market research firm PC Data, growing 20.6 percent over the same month the year before.

Lower prices continued to be a dominant theme in customer-buying patterns. Despite the solid unit growth, PC makers' overall revenue was down 2 percent, according to Stephen Baker, an analyst at PC Data.

The average price of a so-called Wintel machine--one running on an Intel-based processor and Microsoft operating system--dropped to $928, down from $987 in March, he said. Inexpensive computers based on Intel's Celeron or AMD processors also outsold high-end Pentium III systems despite a high-profile campaign touting the new chip.

PCs from Compaq Computer and Hewlett-Packard dominated the list, with models from those two companies accounting for all five of the top-selling systems. The $669 Compaq Presario 5070 with an AMD 350-MHz processor was the top seller last month. The most expensive machine in the top five sold for $950.

One of the mainstays of the list, the iMac, was noticeably lower. Except for one other month until now, some flavor of the iMac has been in the top five every month since its August 1998 debut. In at least one month, the iMac was the best-selling PC at retail. But in April, Apple was trying to finish the transition from 266-MHz computers to the 333-MHz ones, Baker said, explaining why Apple was missing from the top of the list.

"There are always issues when you switch over. It's tough," he said. "It's one of the tricky things about supplying these products--how do you transition from one product to the next?"

The iMacs are also more expensive than many of the other hot-selling PCs in retail. The original iMac--the one with the 233-MHz PowerPC processor and the "Bondi Blue" case--was the seventh best-selling computer last month. It sells for $899, which is more than four of the top five best sellers.

The newer, "fruit-flavored" iMacs, which contain 266-MHz or 333-MHz Power PC processors and come in five different colors, ranked 11th on the list when combined. These machines, which continue to be outsold by older iMac models, start at around $1,199. Blueberry and grape are still the best selling flavors, with tangerine still the least popular iMac color, Baker said.

HP and its Pavilion consumer PCs accounted for three of the top five spots, Baker said. "HP had a very good month," he said. "Three of the top five were AMD systems, while the other two were both Celeron. That's probably the new battle ground."

The AMD-Celeron battle also means that fancier Pentium III computers are not having much of an impact on blunting long-term PC pricing trends.

"For the pricing and the part of the market they're targeted at, [Pentium III computers]have done pretty well," he said. "On the one hand, Intel's spending all this money [on marketing], so you would think they would fly off the shelves. But on the other hand, they didn't come out at $899," he said, explaining that PCs priced above $1,200 are making up less and less of total PC sales.