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With dearth of major chip upgrades from Intel, Apple opts for cheaper Macs in 2014

Apple fans hoping for significant Mac upgrades have been disappointed thus far in 2014, thanks in part to a lack of next-generation chips from Intel. That trend continued on Wednesday with the launch of a new low-end iMac that's focused on price rather than specs.

The new $1,099 iMac does feature a newer Intel chip: The dual-core i5-4260U, which debuted in the second quarter of 2014. But it also has half the cores and clocks in at 1.3 gigahertz slower than the $1,299 model, while the remaining iMacs remain unchanged, both in terms of price and specifications.

Lower pricing was also the focus in April, when Apple boosted the processors on its MacBook Air lineup by just 100 megahertz. The real selling point of those refreshed models is the price, with a new $899 starting cost positioning the latest MacBook Airs as the most affordable mass-market notebooks Apple has ever sold.

Apple's new $1,099 iMac doesn't quite reach those all-time-low levels for the company's all-in-one desktop lineup. But it does continue a trend of more affordable Macs that thus far has represented Apple's approach for selling new Macs in 2014.

It's possible that Apple's hand may have been forced.

In reality, the company is unlikely to introduce the kind of sweeping changes that dedicated fans desire until more powerful next-generation processors are available. Namely, the MacBook Air is expected to be updated to a new look with a high-resolution Retina display later this year, while iMac holdouts are hoping for a 4K-caliber resolution panel on future desktops.

To power those pixel-packing screens, Apple needs horsepower. And its sole Mac chipmaking partner, Intel, has yet to deliver in that category this year.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich shows concept devices running new Quark CPUs. Image via ABC News.

The holdup is in Intel's next-generation chips, dubbed "Broadwell," which have seen numerous delays. Intel has promised that the first Broadwell CPUs will hit the market before the end of the year, but it remains unknown whether any of them will appear in time to power any of Apple's 2014 Mac lineup.

Broadwell is the codename used to refer to a 14-nanometer die shrink of Intel's existing 22-nanometer Haswell architecture. Intel says its new, smaller designs will bring a 30 percent reduction in power consumption while offering the same horsepower.

Apple's rumored MacBook Air with Retina display would be a prime candidate for Intel's more efficient Broadwell chips. The notebook is rumored to pack a high-resolution panel into an all-new 12-inch design that would be offered alongside the current 11- and 13-inch MacBook Airs with standard resolution screens.

The 12-inch Retina MacBook Air is also rumored to sport a fan-less design, which would require cooler and more efficient CPUs. Apple is also expected to achieve an exceptionally thin design with a new click-less trackpad and fewer inputs and outputs.

Another potential Broadwell candidate in 2014 would be Apple's high-end MacBook Pro lineup. Little has been said about that anticipated refresh, but if Broadwell chips were to be available in time, it's likely that Apple could offer greater performance with enhanced battery life.