The Year in Macs, Part One

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[ Editor’s Note: First of two parts. ]

Steve Jobs famously kicked off 2003 by declaring it “The Year of the Laptop.” The Apple CEO never made a similar declaration about 2004, but there’s little doubt as to which Apple-made portable device dominated the last 12 months.

For Apple, 2004 was the Year of the iPod.

iPod photo
From the beginning of the year, which saw the introduction of the iPod mini, to the final months, which brought the introduction of the iPod photo and the iPod U2 Special Edition, Apple’s music player grabbed more than its share of headlines. In fact, the iPod has become so critical to Apple’s fortunes that the company reorganized its corporate structure into separate iPod and Macintosh divisions. The iPod division is led by Apple Senior Vice President Hardware Engineering, Jon Rubinstein, while Apple’s Macintosh efforts will be led by Executive Vice President Worldwide Sales and Operations Tim Cook. In its fiscal fourth quarter alone, Apple sold 2 million iPods, leading the way to a $106 million quarterly profit and a $276 million profit for 2004.

Apple’s significant chunk of the hard-disk drive MP3 player market—at one point, the company had to delay worldwide shipments of the iPod mini so that it could catch up to demand—has not gone unnoticed. By the end of the year Creative Technology Chief Executive Officer Sim Wong Hoo “declared war” on the iPod. ( Playlist Magazine’s Christopher Breen offers a further look at the iPod’s dominant 2004 in his review of the year in digital music.)

The iPod may have been the top story in 2004, but it was hardly the only story to come out of Cupertino. Apple made news throughout the year with updates and releases touching its entire product line.

Flat City

iMac G5
After the iPod, the makeover performed on the iMac was probably Apple’s most significant release in 2004. The redesigned all-in-one desktop— unveiled at the Apple Expo Paris in September —featured a faster processor and a significant facelift. It retained the flat screen introduced in the second-generation iMac, but the actual computer components moved from the dome at the base of the computer to the back of the display.

On the inside, the new iMac arrived with either a 1.6GHz or 1.8GHz G5 processor as well as a Front Side Bus architecture and support for 400MHz DDR RAM. Like its Power Mac G5 counterpart, the iMac also sports Serial ATA-based internal storage. The new machine comes with a 17- or 20-inch screen, with the high-end model featuring a DVD-burning SuperDrive.

The Impact: Unlike other PCs that attempted a similar design only to wind up with a bulky finished product, the revamped iMac retained the sleek look of its predecessor. And analysts hailed the iMac’s combination of looks and power, saying the new model showed that Apple remains serious about its Macintosh products.

No 3-Peat

When Steve Jobs introduced the first Power Mac G5 2GHz model at the Worldwide Developers Conference in the summer of 2003 he made a bold guarantee— Apple would release a 3GHz model within a year. Unfortunately for Apple—and for Mac users awaiting the landmark clock rating—that didn’t happen in 2004.

What did happen was a Power Mac G5 revision that boosted the Power Mac’s top speed to 2.5GHz. The reason for the lack of a 3GHz model? Apple executives explained that moving to the new 90 nanometer processor technology needed for a 3GHz machine was more complicated than anyone originally expected.

Analysts agreed with Apple, saying the entire industry hit a wall when it came to the 90 nanometer technology. Peter Kastner, executive vice president and chief research officer of the Aberdeen Research Group, commended IBM for getting as much speed out of the chip as it did, comparing the Power PC’s speed increase to what Intel has been able to get out of its 90 nanometer chip.

The Impact: Does a 3GHz Power Mac await Mac users in 2005? That’s the question many Mac users are asking heading into the new year. Apple, as always, remains tight-lipped, with the last word on the subject coming Apple Director of Power Mac Product Marketing Tom Boger in June 2004 when he cautioned about expect a 3GHz machine “any time soon.” But that was six months ago. And Apple executives know as well as anyone that expectation could rise as 2005 goes on.

The Laptop Life

Compared to the iMac overhaul, Apple’s portable line saw more modest changes in 2004. But the laptops weren’t ignored—the professional-level PowerBook G4 finished the year with a top speed of 1.5GHz, while the consumer-targeted iBook reached 1.33GHz.

Besides increases to processor speed, the PowerBooks also made AirPort Extreme wireless networking and an internal Bluetooth module standard issue. The 15-inch and 17-inch models added an ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 graphics chip for improved graphics performance.

The iBook line underwent several revisions culminating in the release of 1.33GHz model in mid-October. The iBooks feature an available SuperDrive DVD burner and built-in AirPort Extreme across the product line. That same revision also introduced a 12-inch 1.2GHz iBook G4 that, with its $999 price tag, gave Apple a laptop that sold for less than $,1000.

The Impact: Apple’s self-proclaimed Year of the Laptop may have ended, but portable computers remain an important part of Apple’s business. The company sold 1,665,000 laptops in its 2004 fiscal year—slightly more than the 1,625,000 iMacs and Power Macs it sold.

Express Yourself

It might look like a laptop power brick, but AirPort Express, introduced in June, acted as a portable 802.11g base station for mobile Mac users. The palm-sized base station had other uses, too—at home, users could use it to connect their home stereos to their iTunes Music Library.

AirPort Express
The one drawback that many picked up quickly was that the new device had no interface, which was fine if you were using your computer close to the home stereo, but a hassle if your computer was far away. Several companies have since come out with software and hardware devices to help users control their music and Airport Express—notably, Rogue Amoeba’s Slipstream, Shirt Pocket’s netTunes, and Keyspan’s Express Remote.

The Impact: Drawbacks aside, AirPort Express pushed Apple’s wireless networking offerings into an exciting new area. The device’s impact will be felt long after 2004 is a distant memory.

Xserve Makes its Mark

Apple’s Xserve 1U rackmount server made its mark in 2004 with an upgrade at January’s Macworld Expo that added a G5 processor. The Xserve’s companion product, Xserve RAID, underwent several updates throughout the year, culminating with it reaching a total capacity of 5.6 terabytes.

The Xserve received much of its fame from projects like Virginia Tech’s massive deployment of machines. But the accolades didn’t stop with academia. In early December, Oracle revealed that it was so impressed with the Xserve RAID that it had deployed the solution internally.

The Impact: Home users’ eyes may glaze over whenever talk turns to the Xserve. But Apple’s upgrades are allowing its server products to compete with Intel boxes in the high-end enterprise market.

The Big Picture

Apple revamped its displays, adopting a thin aluminum bezel to match the look of the Power Mac and PowerBook. The ADC connection also disappeared; instead, the new monitors feature a single cable breaking out into DVI, USB, FireWire, and power connections. However, the most eye-catching addition to the display line was Apple’s massive 30-inch Apple Cinema Display HD. Capable of 2,560-by-1,600-pixel resolution, the monitor requires its own graphics chip—the Nvidia GeForce 6800 Ultra DDL card—since no existing graphics card had enough power to drive it.

The Impact: Unless you edit high-definition video, the most significant impact you’d feel from the 30-inch Apple Cinema Display HD would happen if it fell over on you. More significant is the switch from ADC to DVI—it allows PowerBook users and users of older Macs to hook up to the new 20- and 23-inch displays right out of the box, without the need for a bulky and expensive DVI-to-ADC converter.

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