Apple's long had the reputation as a company that sells expensive computers. You could have Apple stuff, and the question of value was always a key consideration, but it would always cost you a premium in line with Apple's perception of itself as a premium brand.
Recent years have arguably seen Apple paying more attention to the entry level, bottom line systems its sells, and prices there have tumbled year on year. Today's announcement of cheap Macbook Air models further muddies the water in the entry level space, making it tougher than ever to pick which Apple solution to buy.
For the sake of argument, if you had around a thousand dollars or so to spend on Apple gear, which should you buy? I've broken down each model by its points of appeal - and weak points - as well as pondering the question myself below.
Specifications: 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB memory, 64GB flash storage, NVIDIA GeForce 320M
Reasons To Buy: This is as close to a netbook as Apple's ever going to get. It's light, portable and still relatively powerful for most truly mobile computing tasks. Presuming Apple hasn't cut corners on build quality from the previous Air generations, it'll also be a fair bit more sturdy than most netbooks. Unlike the iOS options, you're also getting full file access and a full system keyboard along with touch controls.
Reasons Not To Buy: Only two USB ports - and they're only USB 2.0 to boot. The inclusion of USB 3.0 would have given some speedy expansion options on the storage front, although that presumably would have run contrary to Apple's "solid state or cloud only" aspirations with the Air.
Specifications: 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2GB DDR3 memory, 250GB hard drive, 8x double-layer SuperDrive, NVIDIA GeForce 320M
Reasons To Buy: The polycarbonate Macbook has more ports and accessibility than the Air -- and far more than the iPad or iPhone. Like the Air, you're getting a full operating system and full keyboard.
Reasons Not To Buy: The Macbook is the previous generation's "entry level" system, but it's now priced the same as the Air, a system with most of the same features and less than half the carrying weight. As portable systems go, you'd arguably be better served with either the Air or spending a little more on the entry level Macbook Pro.
Specifications: 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2GB memory, 320GB hard drive, 8x double-layer SuperDrive, NVIDIA GeForce 320M
Reasons To Buy: If you're after a desktop Mac at low price, the Mac Mini is it -- at least as far as Apple's concerned. It's a little cheaper than the other Mac options, which is nice. If you've already got a display screen and keyboard, it may be worth considering.
Reasons Not To Buy: For not much more money you could buy the Air or the Macbook, get a fully portable system, and still plug it into the same external display or input device(s).
iPad WiFi+3G 64GB
Specifications: 1GHz Apple A4, 64GB Storage
Reasons To Buy: If you're not a touch typist and want a general purpose, mostly consumption-centric machine, the iPad is nicely portable and offers some decent-but-not-spectacular productivity applications. And Angry Birds. To date, the pricing on competing tablet solutions actually makes the iPad look quite affordable.
Reasons Not To Buy: The storage isn't expandable, and without jailbreaking it's hard to access the underlying file system. It's also a keyboard free zone out of the box.
iPhone 4 32GB
RRP:$999 (outright purchase price)
Specifications: Apple A4 Processor (speed not stated), 32GB storage
Reasons To Buy: Like the iPad, the iOS running on the iPhone is amongst the best touch interfaces out there, and there's a hefty mix of applications whether you're after light productivity or entertainment. It's also the only unit here that will fit into your pocket, as distinct from your bag. It's also the only unit that's a phone, but that's perhaps a little too obvious an observation.
Reasons Not To Buy: It's only really of use for very light computing tasks, if only because of the very small display screen.
What would I buy?
I've been using an iPad as my mobile system of choice for a couple of months, well aware of its limitations in multitasking and file shifting. The fact that Apple's dropped the pricing on the Air so sharply does make them a good option for those wanting an Apple system with portability, so if I was changing from the Pad, that's the way I'd go. The Macbook will need either a price cut or a specifications upgrade sharply to remain relevant - and the same is true of the Mac Mini, for what that's worth.