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The more I think and learn about the curious pricing of the 27” iMac, the more bizarre and incredible it seems.

It has a resolution of 2560x1440, which no other monitor in the industry seems to have (that I can find). 30” LCDs are the same width but 1600 tall. Shrinking 2560-wide into a screen that’s 3” smaller diagonally yields an impressive pixel density, especially given the panel’s still-immense size.

It has an IPS panel. IPS is the best and most expensive LCD type, giving the best viewing angle and the least color- and brightness-shifting as the angle increases in any direction. Nearly every panel on the market, including every laptop panel, is the cheap TN type. (TN panels wash out as soon as you move your head slightly, especially vertically, which is why it’s so hard to find a good viewing angle for your laptop lid while watching a dark movie.) Other 27” TN panels exist (only at the lower 1920x1080 resolution), but I can’t find any other 27” IPS panels.

It’s also LED-backlit.

So it’s a very high-specced, brand new panel that’s apparently not being mass-produced yet (since no other monitors for sale are using it). That must be expensive. How much of the base 27” iMac’s $1700 retail cost does this represent?

The closest existing panel for comparison, spec-wise, is the 30” IPS panel that Apple uses in their Cinema Display. It has the ultra-high resolution and size, but doesn’t compete with the 27” iMac’s panel for brightness, contrast, power efficiency, or color range. It’s overpriced by today’s standards at $1800, but not by much — Dell’s original 30” monitor with the same panel is $1200, and a newer version with better specs (although still not as good as the new iMac’s) is $1700.

A standalone monitor with the new iMac’s panel would be perfectly reasonably priced at about $1500. From Dell. Apple’s only charging $200 more than that for theirs, and there’s an entire high-end computer stuck to the back of it.

When they mentioned on last week’s quarterly earnings call that they expected lower profit margins for a new product, I don’t think anyone expected a change of this magnitude. How are they making anything — or even not losing money — with the base-model 27” iMac?

My guess: a massively successful negotiation with the panel’s manufacturer (most likely LG) to get not only an incredible price on these panels, but also apparent exclusivity for a while. It’s a hell of an accomplishment, and presumably a hell of an effort, for a computer that isn’t Apple’s most-selling model (or even product line). That raises a more interesting question: Why?

Until we know why the panel is so cheap, I bet we’re going to see a lot of Mac Pro owners buying 27” monitors for $1700 and trying to figure out what to do with the free computer stuck to the back. For new-computer shopping, a lot of people are going to abandon whichever laptop or Mac Pro they were considering and get this instead.

That helps answer the “why” question: Maybe Apple wants to push more buyers away from today’s default system-type choice — laptops — and show them why they should consider getting a fast, spacious desktop instead. And, for the time being, it’s a desktop with absolutely no equivalent in the PC world.

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