Apple polishes iBook, PowerBook lines

New features of the lines include gigabit Ethernet capabilities and, on two models, completely integrated wireless networking.

5 min read
Apple Computer, as expected, updated its iBook and PowerBook G4 portable lines Tuesday, beefing up features and holding to recent price cuts.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based company has added significant brawn to the Titanium PowerBook. New features include gigabit Ethernet capabilities and, on two models, completely integrated wireless networking. Apple also cranked up processor power to 667MHz and hard drive size to 48GB on the top-of-the-line model. Consumer iBook upgrades were more modest.

Typically Apple waits for showcase events, such as Mac trade shows, to make big product enhancements or announcements, so the unceremonious upgrades--coming one day before the company's fiscal fourth-quarter earnings announcement--seemed a welcome change of pace.

"It's great for Apple that it's getting new products out in a more speedy time frame when the market is demanding them, instead of waiting for a trade show," said NPD Intelect analyst Stephen Baker.

The processor boost and other enhancements could be especially important for the PowerBook line, which Apple has not upgraded in about 10 months.

Sales of professional systems--PowerBooks and Power Macs--fell 14 percent and 21 percent, respectively, year over year during Apple's third fiscal quarter. New Power Macs unveiled in July are expected to boost the company's fourth-quarter professional desktop sales.

Apple also held fast to recent PowerBook price cuts, the first significant ones permanently affecting notebooks in some time. The Mac maker usually reduces prices to clear out old inventory for new models, but raises them to previous levels after releasing the new goods. Keeping the current reduced pricing works out to as much as a $700 price drop on some new models.

"The PC market, given the condition that it's in, requires some competitive pricing," said Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal. "Apple charges a premium for its products. It needs to continue to add functionality, while responding with pricing."

In an Apple Store promotion, the company sweetened the lower prices with double memory for free, or 512MB total on the midrange and top-end models.

Other changes: Apple revved the system bus to 133MHz from 100MHz on two models, boosted video memory to 16MB from 8MB, ramped video to 4X AGP from 2X, and kicked up Ethernet bandwidth to 1 gigabit per second from 10/100mbps. Apple was the first computer maker to offer gigabit Ethernet as standard fare on professional systems, in its Power Mac G4. Adding gigabit Ethernet to professional portables raises the bar again and could be important in some educational markets, where Internet2 and faster networking demand greater bandwidth.

"We've seen this gradual move to making the PowerBook more appealing to a broader sort of corporate customer," Deal said. "Now with Mac OS X 10.1, there is broader compatibility with other networks, such as Unix and Windows NT 4 and 2000. It makes sense to enhance these features with gigabit Ethernet capability."

Unwire me
Apple was the first computer manufacturer to make 802.11b wireless networking standard across all its systems. But as with PC makers offering integrated wireless, an extra-cost component had been required to fully enable the wireless networking. With the top two PowerBook models, Apple now includes that component--the AirPort card--for free, working out to a hidden price cut of $99.

"Again, we're talking about networking and making this product more desirable for the corporate customer," Deal said.

Recently, Apple quietly enhanced the security of AirPort cards, raising encryption to 128 bits from 40 bits. The new cards support the higher standard, enabling them to more securely connect to wireless networks available in some airports, hotels and coffee shops.

In a surprise move, Apple did not introduce a combo CD-rewritable/DVD drive as expected, nor did it make CD-RW standard on any of the models. Both options are available on lower-cost iBooks. DVD is standard across the PowerBook line, with CD-RW a $100-extra configure-to-order option.

Lack of a combo CD-RW/DVD drive could put Apple at a disadvantage in competing with PC notebooks, many of which in the PowerBook's price range offer the components as standard fare.

"We're seeing more and more notebooks go out with combo drives on the PC side," Baker said. "Seeing what people are doing with notebooks, both watching movies and burning CDs, that would seem to demand combo drives."

NPD Intelect estimates that since March, the percentage of retail notebooks with combo drives has tripled.

Apple will offer three PowerBook G4s: The entry-level model, at $2,199, sports a 550MHz PowerPC G4 processor, 128MB of RAM, 16MB of video memory, a 20GB hard drive, a slot-loading DVD drive, a 56kbps modem, gigabit Ethernet, one FireWire port and two USB ports.

The midrange and higher-end models boost processing speed to 667MHz, memory to 256MB,and hard drive size to either 30GB or 48GB. The two models, which sell for $2,999 and $3,299, also come with fully enabled integrated wireless. All three models, each 1 inch thick, pack 15.2-inch displays.

iBook upgrades
Upgrades to Apple's hot-selling iBook, sales of which are expected to be a bright spot in fiscal fourth-quarter earnings, were more modest than those made to the PowerBook line.

Apple boosted the processor speed to 600MHz on three models, but kept the entry-level iBook at 500MHz.

Apple did not discontinue the entry-level CD-ROM model, as expected, but neither did the company significantly boost performance. The starter model, at $1,300, now comes with a 15GB hard drive vs. the old 10GB drive, but little else is changed.

But Apple more substantially beefed up the other three iBook models, although not as much as its professional portable line. The two middle-tier models come with larger 15GB hard drives, and the higher-end iBook comes with a 20GB drive, all up from 10GB. This could be particularly important for people looking to use iBook's movie software and built-in FireWire ports for video editing.

"The 10GB drives were just too small to really take advantage of the movie stuff," said ARS analyst Matt Sargent.

The entry-level iBook comes with a 500MHz PowerPC G3 processor, 128MB of RAM, 8MB of video memory, a 15GB hard drive, a CD-ROM drive, a 56kbps modem, 10/100 networking, one FireWire port and two USB ports.

The midrange models boost processor power to 600MHz from 500MHz and hard drive size to 15GB from 10GB. The lower-cost model, at $1,499, comes with a DVD drive, while for $100 more the other iBook packs a CD-RW drive. The high-end model costs $1,699 and packs a combo CD-RW/DVD drive.

All three models come with a 12.1-inch display and integrated wireless networking antenna, but the AirPort card is $99 extra. Apple does not offer the double-memory promotion on the new iBooks.

The upgrades are the first major changes to the portables since their introduction. Apple unveiled the current iBook on May 1 and the Titanium PowerBook in early January.

Other than Apple's online store, availability of new Mac notebooks appears to be spotty. Product inquiries made with a random sampling of Apple's retail stores and Mac dealers turned up no new PowerBooks.

Apple stores in Albany, N.Y., and Vienna, Va., had received new iBooks, though the latter outlet had gotten only the combo-drive model. Apple stores in Tampa, Fla., and Peabody, Mass., expect new models Thursday.

By contrast, several Mac dealers said privately they don't expect to get new iBooks and PowerBooks for sale any sooner than five days.