Flick to pages 171-173 of Macworld for the Buyers’ Guide. Here we line up all Apple’s Macs, from the diminutive mini to the towering Power Mac. One of the worries that people have when buying a computer is that a much better model could be released just days later, bristling with a faster processor, more RAM and larger hard drive – all for £100 less moolah. Despite their newly purchased PC being just as fast as it was the day they bought it, these embittered owners now regard their recently unboxed machine as nothing more than obsolete.

As the Macworld mailbag is often stuffed with such moans, we attempt to warn readers when the next upgrade is likely for each Mac model. Above each machine in the Buyers’ Guide we list the date it was last upgraded. Apple’s product cycle is between six and nine months. The iBook was updated on October 19, 2004.

Before then it was refreshed on April 19, 2004 – giving it a six-month product cycle. If you’d splashed out on the consumer laptop on April 18, you’d be banging your head on the keyboard the next day moaning that your 800MHz iBook cost £50 more than the 1GHz iBook available a day later.

In this issue we test Apple’s latest range of pro laptops that were announced on January 31 – a lengthy nine months since their previous incarnation. Anyone buying a PowerBook in December or early January was taking a risk that a new and likely cheaper laptop line-up was just around the corner. The most recent desktops are the Power Macs (October 2004) and the Mac mini (January 2005). The G5 iMac was released right at the end of August 2004 – six months ago – so we expect a processor speed bump in the next month or so.

But apparently forgotten in the update stakes is the eMac. Big ol’ whitey is a month away from a year since its last refresh. Motorola isn’t bothering to push its G4 processor much faster. And Apple’s too giggly with passion for the iMac and mini to care.

The eMac is a bit of an oddity. That ‘e’ is weird for starters. It was originally released as an education-only machine in April 2002 as a larger, faster, if less elegant replacement for the bubble-shaped G3 iMac. Public demand – and a shortage of flat-panel G4 iMacs – led Apple to release it to the rest of us a few months later. At its present starting price of £549 this 1.25GHz G4 computer is a bargain. In many ways it’s a better deal than the Mac mini, as you get a built-in 17-inch CRT display and keyboard and mouse for just £210 extra.

A year’s wait between refresh cycles isn’t good news for the eMac’s future prospects. Does Apple really need three consumer desktops? The mini – designed for iPod-carrying people who’ve heard great things about Macs but don’t want to spend a lot of money – is the entry-level product. The iMac is for people with more ready cash and desire for enhanced performance. Each has its own show-off flamboyance – the mini’s mininess and the iMac’s “Where’s the bloody computer?” thinness. The eMac is left looking rather plain, and ruddy enormous, in comparison – another reason I fear Apple may soon kill-off this inexpensive workhorse. The eMac is a great entry-level Mac OS X machine, and it would be a shame to see it go, but Apple isn’t too keen on ageing products spoiling its image as the industry’s premier innovator.

Browse its online store for Apple-branded software, and you’ll come across the latest versions of Mac OS X, iLife, Final Cut, Logic, DVD Studio Pro, Motion, and Remote Desktop. Apple has a good record of updating its software, too. One notable exception is the venerable AppleWorks, which last had a proper makeover in 2000 – and had previously been updated in 1997. As the company appears to be in no hurry to refresh this collection of simple business apps, it’s likely that the new iWork suite may eventually replace it when a spreadsheet and database are added.

But Apple’s cult of newness is further betrayed by a long scroll through the software section of the company’s online store. Sitting quietly unseen – like a silent child trying to stay up late without his parents noticing – is a little white box with the most extraordinary thing on it: a multicoloured Apple logo. It’s not Bondi Blue, Strawberry or Lime, and certainly not Graphite, Metallic or White. It’s green at the top, then a kinda straw colour, orange, red, violet, and blue at the bottom.

This is something you’d expect to see Michael Aspel cooing over on Antiques Roadshow. Grey-haired readers may recognize its name – QuickTime VR Authoring Studio. Nowadays, Apple likes to give its software pithy, punchy names – iLife, iCal, Shake and Pages, for example. Back in 1997, we laboured with software titles so long that you could install a program in less time than it took to say it.

We’ll call it QTVRAS, which looks like a Roman inscription – and indeed is nearly as ancient. It was possibly the first piece of Apple software to be released in the second, triumphant reign of Emperor Steve Jobs. It could run only on stone-coloured computers, because even the original iMac was still just a drawing in young Jonny Ive’s sketchbook. Its system requirements are almost laughable: 16MB of RAM; System 7.5; and 20MB of hard-disk space.

Apple has managed to bully even Quark into releasing an OS X-only version of its software. Yet here it is flogging a program that hasn’t been updated since October 1998. I don’t expect an OS X version, but surely its panoramic picture-stitching functiond could be built into iPhoto.

The Mac mini is turning up in cars, under TVs, and in server racks. The unglamorous eMac is going nowhere – Apple didn’t even bother giving it a handle. But the fact that it’s not very exciting to look is no reason to axe it. Unless it went multicoloured, there’s not much Apple can do to sex up the eMac, so why not celebrate its mammoth proportions and rename it the Mac Maxi? There’s life in the old elephant yet. MW