Apple today quietly refreshed its iMac desktop computer line with Intel's newest quad-core "Haswell" processor, faster solid-state storage options and support for the 802.11ac wireless standard.
Unlike last year, when Apple introduced new iMac designs but then had virtually no systems to sell for months, the new iMacs were available immediately through Apple's online store. Three of the four stock configurations were listed as ready to ship within 24 hours, while the fourth was backordered two to three weeks.
Last year's iMac supply debacle contributed to a 22% downturn in Mac sales in 2012's fourth quarter.
Today, Apple kept iMac prices stable: The 21.5-in. iMac starts at $1,299, while the larger 27-in. model begins at $1,799.
Rather than raise or lower prices, Apple tends to refresh Macs with faster processors, more memory or storage space and support for new standards.
The 27-in. iMac is now powered by the newest Intel Core i5, a quad-core processor running at 3.2GHz or 3.4GHz. The same-size machines in 2012 came with quad-core CPUs running at 2.9GHz or 3.2GHz.
Apple also swapped out the Nvidia GeForce GTX 660M or 675MX graphics cards from last year's 27-in. iMacs for the same vendor's GT 755M or GT 775M cards, and boosted the onboard graphics memory. The lowest-priced 21.5-in iMac, meanwhile, uses an Intel Iris Pro graphics chipset rather than last year's Nvidia GeForce GT 640M.
The new iMacs support the faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard to bring them in line with Apple's MacBook Air line of ultra-lights.
Apple also changed the Fusion Drive -- a hybrid technology that combines the high performance of flash memory with the storage capacity of a traditional platter-based hard disk drive -- and the SSD (solid-state drive) options to support faster PCIe-based flash memory, a move the company claimed boosts performance over SATA III flash-based models by 50%.
The MacBook Air got PCIe flash in a June relaunch.
The Fusion Drive options cost $200 when configured with a 1TB hard drive, $350 with a 3TB drive.
While Apple no longer reports sales of desktops -- it stopped breaking those out of the total a year ago -- the iMacs' portion of the company's Mac sales have dropped. According to Brian Marshall, a financial analyst with ISI Group, desktops will account for about 18% of all Mac sales in the third and fourth quarters of 2013, with the rest credited to portables.
Marshall's forecast for the quarter ending Sept. 30 included 752,000 desktops out of a total of 4.1 million Macs. If accurate, that would represent a 22% drop in desktop Mac sales from a year ago, and a decline of about two percentage points in the desktop's share of all Mac sales compared to the same period the year before.
Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said that desktops were in decline across the board, not just at Apple, but that the company would continue making the iMac.
"It's a viable, profitable business long term," said Gottheil in an interview today. "Although for a lot of applications, portable is a better solution, there are situations and work environments where a desktop is just a better platform."
Even if consumers largely eschewed desktops, Apple would stick with the business, Gottheil said. "If nothing else, desktops are a developers' platform, and if it's important to them, it's important to Apple," he said.
The new iMacs ship with OS X Mountain Lion, also known as OS X 10.8. Mountain Lion, however, will be superseded next month by OS X Mavericks -- or 10.9 -- as most expect Apple to roll out the upgrade in late October.
Apple has not announced a launch date for Mavericks or talked about a free upgrade program for those who buy a Mac in the weeks or days preceding that launch. In the past, Apple has offered upgrades free of charge to those who buy a new Mac desktop or notebook between the time when it announced the new OS's release date and when the upgrade officially shipped.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is email@example.com.