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Apple replants its eMac orchard

The Mac maker freshens its line of computers for the education market, increasing their processing power and graphics performance, and offering a new low-end model.

Apple Computer refreshed its line of eMac computers on Tuesday, upgrading their processing power and graphics performance, and offering a new low-end model.

Apple also added support for 802.11g wireless, or what the company calls AirPort Extreme. The "g" class transfers data at 54 megabits per second--fast enough to move video over the air--compared with 802.11b's maximum transfer rate of 11mbps.

The revamped eMacs mark Apple's second move of an entire product line to AirPort Extreme. New Power Macs launched in late January also support AirPort Extreme across the line. Apple debuted the technology in January on new PowerBooks and added it to flat-panel iMacs in February, but the faster wireless is not available on all models.

Greg Joswiak, Apple's vice president of hardware product marketing, said that AirPort Extreme will become "more common" on Macs, "but not everywhere." He described the reasons as "architectural," adding that "we'll be making the transition over the next year or so."

AirPort Extreme is a $99 option on all new eMacs.

The eMac, which is designed for the education market, is Apple's last computer built around a cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitor. Apple's other Mac lines use slimmer, flat-panel monitors. In March, Apple pulled the plug on the original iMac, the company's other computer built around a CRT.

Prices remain unchanged for the two basic eMac models. The $999 eMac comes with a 1GHz PowerPC G4 processor, 128MB of SDRAM, a 60GB hard drive, a CD-rewritable/DVD combo drive, a 32MB ATI Technologies' 7500 graphics accelerator, 56kbps modem, 10/100 networking USB 1.1 and FireWire ports, and Mac OS X 10.2.4. The computer also features Apple's iLife digital media suite, Quicken 2003 and Word Book 2003.

The older $999 model came with a 700MHz PowerPC G4 chip and a 32MB Nvidia GeForce2 MX graphics accelerator.

The $1,299 model offers a 1GHz chip, 256MB of memory, 80GB of storage and a 4X DVD recording drive. The high-end model previously came with an 800MHz chip and the 32MB Nvidia GeForce2 MX graphics accelerator.

Joswiak described the new eMacs as Apple's "most affordable G4 (systems) ever" and an "ideal entry point for today's digital lifestyle."

As part of the revamp, Apple added a third, lower-cost model to fill a void left by the original eMac. The move is important because the $799 price tag gives Apple a low-cost alternative to PCs that use Microsoft's Windows XP operating system. The average selling price of XP-based PCs at retail is around $720, according to NPD Techworld.

But analysts questioned whether the new, low-end eMac packs enough features to effectively compete in the $700 to $800 price range.

The $799 eMac comes with an 800MHz PowerPC G4 processor, 128MB of SDRAM, a 40GB hard drive, a CD-ROM drive, a 32MB ATI 7500 graphics accelerator, 56kbps modem, 10/100 networking USB 1.1 and FireWire ports, and Mac OS X 10.2.4.

By comparison, Hewlett-Packard's $899 Pavilion 735n comes with a 2.13GHz Athlon XP 2600+ processor from Advanced Micro Devices, 512MB of DDR SDRAM, a 80GB hard drive, a DVD+R/RW drive, a 48X CD-ROM drive, an Nvidia GeForce4 MX graphics accelerator and Windows XP Home. That price does not include a monitor.

But the problems with the underpowered entry-level model are more than just about competitors. Mac OS X 10.2.4's basic requirements demand a minimum 128MB of memory, making a memory upgrade almost a necessity for many eMac buyers. The $999 model faces the same issue.

"If you're a Macophile consumer, this configuration is probably just a little underpowered," said IDC analyst Roger Kay. "I think the lack of sufficient memory is potentially problem."

The low-end model also features only a CD-ROM, which bumps up against Apple's own digital music strategy. On April 28, Apple launched the iTunes Music Store, which sells downloadable songs for 99 cents a piece. On Monday, the Cupertino, Calif.-based company reported more than 1 million songs sold during the service's first week of operation.

But, Joswiak said, "$799 has been a pretty good price for us. It's part of trying to attract the value customer." He noted that in many cases, Mac buyers are "adding a second computer" and "may not need every capability."

At the same time, the CD-ROM model is potentially appealing the schools, which might not want to give children the ability to burn CDs or DVDs.

Kay agreed. "The education application is not that demanding," he said. "It's not like you're burning a lot of CDs in a classroom. If someone in education wants a Mac, the price is good."

Apple debuted the eMac, which is built around a 17-inch CRT monitor, for the education market in April 2002. "That's the market it was designed for," Joswiak said.

In January, Apple made Mac OS X the only option on most Macs. Previously, Macs could boot into either Mac OS X or the older Mac OS 9. Now Mac OS 9 is only available from within OS X's "Classic" compatibility mode. But the entry-level and midrange eMac models will still be able to boot into Mac OS 9. Apple made the concession for the benefit of schools, many of which still run the older operating system.