Apple Feels the Need for Speed

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Apple unveiled new laptop computers Tuesday with faster processors, faster bus speeds, and, in the case of its PowerBook line, faster graphics cards. Now the computer maker hopes the portables will move just as quickly off retail shelves.

Apple's portable models have sold well for the company at a time when most computer makers are struggling. For the six months ended June 30, Apple sold an estimated 240,000 Titanium PowerBook G4s. It sold 190,000 of the slimmer, lighter iBooks in the June quarter alone. Now, both laptop models are getting faster processors, beefed-up storage capacity, and a slew of other changes.

Inside the PowerBook

From the outside, the new PowerBook G4 looks no different from its predecessors. But inside are serious speed improvements, particularly on the new high-end model. Powered by a 667MHz G4 processor and a 133MHz system bus, it's one of the fastest Macs--desktop or laptop--Apple has ever built. An often-overlooked part of a Mac's subsystem, the system bus is what connects a Mac's processor to its RAM; the faster the system bus, the faster the processor can work.

The other model, powered by a 550MHz processor, uses the same 100MHz system bus built into previous PowerBook G4 models. Both variations offer 256K of on-chip Level 2 cache, a drop from the 1MB of cache in the original PowerBook G4. However, that cache now runs at the speed of the processor, not the half-speed of previous models.

Hard-drive capacity has also been boosted in these two models, to 20GB in the 550MHz PowerBook and 30GB in its 667MHz counterpart. A built-to-order option on Apple's web site will give space-hungry users the ability to buy a 48GB drive instead. In addition, users who would prefer a writable optical drive instead of DVD playback now have that choice: Apple will offer a slot-loading CD-RW drive as a built-to-order option as well.

The video subsystem of the PowerBooks has also been markedly improved. Gone is the ATI Rage Mobility 128 graphics processor that's been around since the days of the PowerBook G3. Instead, these new PowerBooks come with ATI's Mobility Radeon AGP 4X graphics system and 16MB of Double Data Rate video memory. The ATI graphics processor features a number of enhancements that should allow for improved DVD playback and faster graphics on some 3-D games and applications.

Both new PowerBook configurations offer built-in Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000BaseT), an improvement over the 10/100BaseT Ethernet support in the original Titanium PowerBook. Like their predecessor, the updated laptop models include built-in AirPort support for wireless networking. The 667MHz model carries that one step further by shipping with a pre-installed AirPort card.

Other aspects of the PowerBook--including its silvery look and thin, light design--remain unchanged. The 550MHz laptop comes with 128MB of RAM, while the 667MHz model features 256MB; both versions can boost memory to 1GB. Like other Apple computers, the PowerBook now ships with both Mac OS 9.2.1 and OS X installed.

The 550MHz PowerBook G4 sells for $2,199--$400 less than the 400MHz configuration introduced in January. Apple also cut the price on its top-of-the-line PowerBook. The 667MHz model sells for $2,999, compared to $3,499 for the 500MHz PowerBook G4 unveiled earlier this year.

iBook, Take Two

Like the PowerBook, little has changed on the surface of the consumer-friendly iBook. It sports the same 4.9-pound, 1.3-inch-thick casing that made the laptop such a hit when it was introduced in May.

Instead, it's the iBook's insides that have seen more sweeping alterations. While, Apple still offers an iBook configuration with a 500MHz G3 processor, the company has added two new models with 600MHz CPUs to the mix. In addition, the 600MHz iBook includes a 100MHz system bus, as opposed to the 66MHz bus in other models.

Memory and storage space have both been bumped in this iBook update. All iBook models now come with 128MB of installed RAM (and the capability of expanding to 640MB). It's no secret why Apple would boost the installed memory--the company recommends 128MB of RAM for running OS X.

Hard-drive capacity jumps from 10GB to 15GB or 20GB depending on which model you order. The 500MHz iBook ships with 15GB of storage and a CD-ROM drive; it sells for $1,299. A 600MHz laptop with 15GB of storage and a DVD-ROM drive costs $1,499. A second 600MHz model offers a 20GB hard drive and a combination DVD-ROM/CD-RW optical drive for $1,699. That's $100 less than the comparable iBook model Apple rolled out in May.

Other features remain unchanged. The iBook still ships with an ATI Rage Mobility 128 graphics controller with 8MB of graphics RAM. The laptops are also AirPort-Ready and come with the pre-existing array of iBook ports--USB, FireWire, VGA and composite video out, 10/100BaseT Ethernet and a 56K modem. As with the PowerBook, OS X is preinstalled alongise Mac OS 9.2.1.

It's All in the Timing

One of the most noticeable aspects of Tuesday's product announcements was its timing. Most of the time, Apple waits for one of the two Macworld Expo trade shows to unveil new products. Failing that, it holds a special press conference at its Cupertino headquarters. The company announced the latest updates via press release.

The changes to the iBook and PowerBook lines come one day before Apple is expected to announce its fourth quarter earnings for the 2001 fiscal year. While analysts expect the company to turn a profit, CFO Fred Anderson lowered Apple's sales forecast for 2001. Clearly, Tuesday's product updates are the company's attempt to spur sales as it heads into the crucial holiday season.

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