Apple cuts MacBook Pro, Air prices as much as 15%

Hopes to give sales a kick in the pants, says analyst

Apple today dropped prices of its Retina-equipped 13-in. MacBook Pro by as much as $300, and lowered the price of its top-end MacBook Air by $100.

Some models of the company's laptop line also received processor speed increases, with the 13-in. MacBook Pro with Retina now sporting a 2.6GHz Intel Core i5. The two stock 15-in. MacBook Pro with Retina notebooks also got a performance boost.

Apple rarely lowers prices, but instead typically keeps them static while swapping out CPUs for faster silicon, or beefing up other components, such as memory or storage space.

"They've got slow growth in PC sales like everyone, and lower prices help," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, who also cited efficiencies in Retina screen production and processor price cuts as likely contributors to Apple's decision.

The 13-in. MacBook Pro with the higher-resolution Retina display received the largest cuts, with the lower-priced of the two stock configurations falling $200 to $1,499 and the more expensive of the pair dropping $300 to $1,699. Those decreases represented cuts of 12% and 15%, respectively.

Apple also cut the price of the top-end 13-in. MacBook Air, the model with 256GB of flash storage space, by $100 to $1,399, a 7% reduction.

The last time that Apple made price cuts of this size on already-existing models was in mid-2009, during the depths of a major recession, when it dropped MacBook Pro prices as much as 15%.

Apple also cut prices of the revamped MacBook Air line a year later when it introduced a sub-$1,000 11-in. ultra-thin notebook.

Like all personal computer makers -- dubbed "OEMs" for "original equipment manufacturers" -- Apple has struggled to maintain sales growth in the face of continued economic woes in some regions, and competition from tablets and smartphones. Apple has also had been haunted by supply problems in its revamped all-in-one iMac desktop line for nearly four months.

During 2012's fourth quarter, Mac sales plummeted 22% compared to the same quarter the year before. Last month during an earnings call with Wall Street, CEO Tim Cook credited part of the Mac's poor performance to cannibalization by tablets such as its own iPad.

"I think Apple made this move [because] it had seen disappointing results because of the high [Mac] prices," said Gottheil.

But Gottheil declined to spotlight poor past sales as the sole reason why Apple slashed prices today. "I always thought the 13-in. MacBook Pro with Retina was not as sweet and balanced a design as the 15-in.," he said. "It overmatched the display with the computational power."

By reducing the "step-up" differences -- the gaps between entry-level models and higher-priced "upgrades" -- Apple should be able to sell more of the latter, increase overall revenue and boost the ASP, or average selling price, of its notebooks.

"There are three price bands for Apple's products," said Gottheil. "The 'got to just get something that works,' the performance-price medium, and the 'what the hell' band." Decreasing the difference between the first and second, he argued, could make more buyers opt for the higher-priced middle band.

Along with the price reductions, Apple also dropped the most expensive standard configuration of the 15-in. MacBook Pro -- a Retina-less notebook -- from its online store. That model, which sold for $2,199, can be duplicated by modifying the one remaining stock MacBook Pro, a $1,799 2.3GHz quad-core notebook with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard disk drive.

The updated laptops are available starting today at the new prices via Apple's e-store and retail outlets, as well as at some authorized resellers.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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