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Week in review: iPod rocks on

Steve Jobs brings U2 on stage for an iPod photo op, and Wall Street likes what it's hearing.

With all the splash and glitz of a Hollywood premiere, Apple Computer this week introduced the latest version of its popular iPod music player.

Apple's chief executive, Steve Jobs, had a few notable friends to help with the introduction--members of rock band U2.

The company added color to the latest iPods, as well as the capability to display digital photos on the gadget's screen or via a TV set.

The new iPods come with the capacity of holding 40GB and will sell for $499, or a larger 60GB version that is expected to retail for $599.

Where does U2 fit into all of this? Apple unveiled a special-edition U2-themed iPod. The black device features a red navigation dial and comes with a $50 coupon that can be used toward buying "The Complete U2" music collection from Apple's online music store, iTunes. The special-edition iPod features 20GB and will sell for $349.

The iPod Photo has begun shipping to stores and will be available soon, while the U2 iPod is due in mid-November.

Meanwhile, Gateway joined the band of computer makers selling hard-drive-based digital audio players, but its riff adds miniaturization and a color screen for displaying photos. The $249.99 Gateway MP3 Photo Jukebox player has a 4GB capacity, a 1.6-inch display and a rechargeable (and replaceable) battery.

And Sony has released the first of its digital audio players to support the popular MP3 format, marking a significant shift in its music strategy. As expected, the company announced the release in Europe of two flash memory-based devices, the Walkman NW-E99 and NW-E95, which can natively play songs in MP3 and Sony's own Atrac file format.

Sony has historically been a leader in the portable-device market, thanks to its Walkman line of tape players. But the company missed the boat with digital audio players, insisting that device owners convert MP3s to the proprietary Sony format.

Also on the media front, RealNetworks and Apple both issued security fixes for their Windows-based media players. RealNetworks issued a patch for its RealPlayer 10, RealPlayer 10.5 and RealOne Player software. The vulnerability could allow an attacker to run code on the victim's computer by presenting it as a graphics theme, or skin, for the player. Apple, meanwhile, released QuickTime 6.5.2 to plug two holes in its Windows-based Media Player.

Bird's eye view for Google
In its efforts to remain competitive in the hot search market, Google has turned to the heavens for help. The search giant acquired Keyhole, which develops software to allow people to view satellite images throughout the world. Geographic images are gathered by satellites and airplanes, and then reviewed by users, who can zoom from a space-level viewpoint to street level.

Users can also search for the locations of hotels, parks, ATMs and subways with the software, which also includes a feature to tilt and rotate images. With its acquisition of Keyhole, Google is widening its offerings beyond traditional search, as it seeks to remain competitive in a field that not only includes archrivals Yahoo but also small and new competitors.

The quest for speed
It's an anxious time for supercomputer makers, as a new list of the top machines is just about to be released. While they're waiting, the companies have been jockeying for position.

Silicon Graphics Inc., for instance, surpassed two speed records in a single day, giving new meaning to the term "all in a day's work."

SGI recently debuted its Columbia supercomputer, which it built for NASA. During the unveiling ceremony, the company touted the 42.7 trillion calculations per second Columbia performed using 16 of its 20 servers. That outpaced NEC's Earth Simulator and IBM's Blue Gene/L--two of the leaders on the list of the world's 500 fastest machines.

But that isn't all. It managed to run at 51.9 trillion calculations per second when Columbia used all of its 20 servers.

SGI isn't alone in putting the pedal to the metal. The fastest Mac supercomputer has gotten faster, thanks to an Xserve makeover.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University has tuned up its System X to operate at 12.25 teraflops, or 12 trillion calculations per second, up from 10.28 teraflops in its original incarnation, which used 1,100 Power Mac G5 towers. The performance boost comes in large part because Apple has made available to Virginia Tech custom 2.3GHz Xserve machines, which are faster than the 2GHz processors that power Apple's fastest machines. The school also added 50 additional servers, or nodes, to the system.

On to IBM: Big Blue has been quietly preparing a new twist on an older technology that will let it more directly compete with rivals such as Cray and NEC. IBM plans to bridge the divide between "vector" and "scalar" supercomputers by using a feature of its new Power5 processors. With a technology called Virtual Vector Architecture, or ViVA, the 16-processor cores of a scalar server such as IBM's Power5-based p5-570 can be yoked together to act like a single vector processor.

But IBM is trying to keep quiet about its ViVA effort. Its big publicity effort is devoted to Blue Gene/L, a scalar machine with which the company has staked a claim to top status in the supercomputer ranks.

From factory floor to finished gear
A recent trip by CNET editors and reporters to Dell's headquarters in Texas yielded a bonanza of information about the PC maker's plans and operations.

One of the chief questions in the PC market for the next couple of years will be whether Dell will take the AMD plunge and incorporate Opteron or Athlon chips from Advanced Micro Devices into its systems. Intel's release of chips that can provide a similar 32-bit/64-bit functionality--one of the key factors of Opteron's popularity--has likely tabled the issue for now, according to several analysts.

But there are other factors at work, too. AMD is gaining customers in the corporate world--20 of the Fortune 100 have installed Opteron servers. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company has also shown that its technology can equal and even best Intel's.

The chipmaker is even drawing praise from Dell executives. "AMD has been getting much better at turning out their technology, and their technology has improved," said Kevin Rollins, Dell's CEO.

Two thousand, three hundred fifty. That's the number of desktops Dell was trying to produce per hour in the Mort Topfer Manufacturing Center in Round Rock, Texas, earlier this month. Put another way, that's roughly one PC every 1.5 seconds, 40 a minute, or 23,500 per shift.

The company was initially vague about output figures, but they were written on a whiteboard at the entry to the factory floor. "I was hoping you wouldn't see that," laughed Steve Lawton, one of the engineers who helped design the facility and part-time tour guide.

For manufacturing and logistics fanatics, a tour of the Topfer facility is sort of like visiting Stonehenge or the Flatiron Building. Here is where direct fulfillment, just-in-time production, took flight. It's like safety goggle heaven.

The company plans to continue expanding its stable of consumer electronics products and services throughout the rest of the year, looking to the gear to help it generate new customers and ultimately to sell more PCs. On Thursday it unfolded a menu of expanded in-home service and support offerings for consumers' home PCs, networks and televisions, building on its recently expanded line of electronics devices.

Also this week, Dell became the last of the four major server sellers to , announcing on Wednesday a partnership that puts low prices front and center.

The computer maker elevated Novell, the second-ranked Linux seller, to the status of market leader Red Hat. Customers will be able to buy SuSE Linux Enterprise Server on Dell's dual-processor servers the same way they buy Red Hat Linux, Microsoft Windows or Novell NetWare.

Firefox gets ready to run
Firefox this week released the final test version of its 1.0 open-source browser, setting the stage for its expected launch on Nov. 9.

The browser's popularity has been gaining at a fast clip, with users downloading Firefox 0.8 slightly more than 3.3 million times within a four-month period; version 0.9 reaching 6.5 million downloads within three months, and the preview version of 1.0 reaching 5 million downloads in a month.

Supporters of the Firefox browser view it as an alternative to Microsoft's Internet Explorer. The open-source browser was developed by the Mozilla Foundation, which was spun off last year by Time Warner.