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Apple to update iBook, PowerBook

The company is making no major design changes to either notebook, opting instead to boost the processing speed, memory and hard drive, sources say.

Apple Computer on Tuesday will refresh its line of iBook consumer laptops and Titanium PowerBook G4 notebooks aimed at professionals, sources say.

The upgrades will come a day before Apple announces it fiscal fourth-quarter results.

Apple is making no major design changes to either portable, opting instead to boost the processing speed, memory and hard drive, sources said. Some of those changes could be important for the iBook, which is expected to emerge as one of Apple's biggest-selling products in its fourth quarter, which ended Sept. 30.

According to Morgan Stanley analysts Gillian Munson and Stirling Levy, iBook sales are so strong that Apple wouldn't even have to upgrade that line right now.

"Our channel contacts throughout the U.S. and Europe continue to report that iBook demand is better than expected and that it is not in need of a refresh," the analysts wrote in a research note Friday.

The PowerBook is another story. "Our channel contacts report that while PowerBook demand remains OK, a refresh is needed to keep demand healthy," Levy wrote.

The updated Titanium PowerBook models are expected to sport new graphics chips from ATI Technologies, larger hard drives and faster processors. Sources said to look for 667MHz and perhaps 550MHz models. Apple currently offers the Titanium PowerBook at clock speeds of 400MHz and 500MHz. The Cupertino, Calif.-based company is also expected to offer models with CD-rewritable drives and, at least optionally, combination CD-RW/DVD drives.

Keeping iBook competitive
The changes to the hot-selling iBook could be more significant than those for the PowerBook. Although Apple promotes the iBook's FireWire port for connecting digital camcorders and iMovie 2 software, analysts say the portable's current 10GB drive is inadequate for serious video editing.

"If you're going to use FireWire, you're going to want to have a lot of built-in disk space," ARS analyst Matt Sargent said.

The new iBooks are expected to have 15GB or 20GB hard drives, depending on the model, sources said. Memory will start at 128MB.

"The thing with the iBooks now is they are 10GB straight through the line," Sargent said. "The variation in the hard drive size is very important. You have different needs for that low-end, middle-tier and high-end user."

The increase in hard drive sizes could also help keep iBook competitive with Windows-based notebooks, particularly those from Sony.

Apple spokeswoman Nathalie Welch declined to comment about future products, which is company policy.

Apple also plans to boost the iBook processor speed from 500MHz to 600MHz, sources said. The company may also dump its low-end CD-ROM model, which sells for around $1,300. The company will continue to offer three separate models with DVD, CD-RW and combo CD-RW/DVD drives.

"The CD-ROM is there to grab the low end of the market," Sargent said. "I would say that's not a great choice for them (to drop it) because it's good having that CD-ROM model out there to grab the low end and pull them in."

But Apple is expected to lower the price of at least one iBook, which could more than make up for retiring the CD-ROM model.

"Notebooks have been doing OK the last few months compared to desktops" in terms of sales, said NPD Intelect analyst Stephen Baker. "There have been a lot of things going on with components; everything is coming down in price. And if you don't get out some new configurations, you're going to be in a bad spot. This is a good move for Apple."

Out with the old
Signs of new notebooks coming have been evident for weeks, with Apple telling some dealers in late September to hold off ordering Titanium PowerBooks.

"How do we know when they have new products?" Munson and Levy asked. "They clear the channel--and it's happening in PowerBook and iBooks."

Baker agreed. "When the inventory dries up that typically means new things are coming," he said. "It's especially likely when you manage your inventory closely the way Apple does."

Apple typically discounts remaining old models when introducing new ones, which sources said is expected soon after Tuesday's announcements. Apple cut PowerBook prices by 15 percent in August.

Apple unveiled the current iBook on May 1 and the Titanium PowerBook in early January.