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Apple adds pages to iBook

The Mac maker speeds up its consumer line of portable laptops and increases the size of the hard drives. But can the new iBooks stack up to PC notebooks?

Apple Computer on Tuesday announced it has sped up its consumer line of iBooks and increased the size of the hard drives.

The new portable laptop models come as Apple prepares for a Monday media event that is expected to kick off a new online music service, presumably targeted at consumers.

The update of the consumer iBook is the first since November; both announcements are further indication that Apple no longer saves new products for Macworld trade shows, analysts said.

"It's been a while since Apple has done an update to the iBook line; this type of bump helps keep them competitive," Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg said. "It also shows how Apple is moving away from the twice-a-year Macworld shows to introduce new products."

But the new iBooks may not be competitive enough with PC notebooks, which continue to offer more features for lower prices.

The entry-level iBook comes with an 800MHz PowerPC G3 processor, a 12.1-inch display, 128MB of SDRAM, a 30GB hard drive, a CD-ROM drive, 32MB ATI Radeon graphics, a 56kbps modem, 10/100 networking and Mac OS X for $999.

Gateway sells the 400SP Plus notebook for $999, with a 2GHz Pentium Celeron processor, a 15-inch display, 256MB of Double Data Rate (DDR) SDRAM, a 30GB hard drive, a CD-RW/DVD combo drive, a 6-in-1 media reader, a 56kbps modem, 10/100 networking and Windows XP Home.

"The Gateway is fully media-ready for that price," IDC analyst Roger Kay said. "Apple is a company that sets itself out in the area of multimedia, but the iBook is missing a multimedia drive and the capacity to handle streaming memory easily."

Still, Apple has carved out an important niche with iBook that could appeal to consumers looking for thin and light notebooks. Most PC notebooks with 12.1-inch displays are targeted at businesses, and these models cost significantly more than the iBook. The Sony Vaio PCG-V505AC1 with a 1.8GHz Pentium 4 processor, a 12.1-inch display, 256MB of DDR SDRAM, a 30GB hard drive, a CD-RW/DVD combo drive, a 56kbps modem, 10/100 networking and Windows XP Home sells for $1,639 through online retailer PC Connection.

"By having a 'thin and light' at a good price Apple can appeal to increasingly mobile consumers," Kay said.

The midrange iBook comes with a 900MHz PowerPC G3 processor, a 12.1-inch display, 128MB of SDRAM, a 40GB hard drive, a CD-RW/DVD combo drive, 32MB ATI Radeon graphics, a 56kbps modem, 10/100 networking and Mac OS X for $1,299. The high-end model ratchets the display up to 14.1 inches and memory to 256MB.

Some analysts faulted Apple for not beefing up memory or swapping the CD-ROM drive on the low-end iBook for a CD-RW drive. Mac OS X requires a minimum 128MB, making the installed memory on two of the three iBooks inadequate for many computer tasks.

"That's not that great a deal--a CD-ROM drive on a model for $1,000," Kay said. "They're not going to win many adherents that way."

Apple increased the clock speed by 100MHz on each of the iBook models compared with those released in November, bumping storage by 10GB each.

Sales of the iBook took a hit in Apple's 2003 fiscal second quarter. Unit sales dropped 6 percent year over year and 16 percent as measured in revenue.

Apple Store's new look
New iBooks were not the only change from Apple on Tuesday. The company also served up a redesigned Apple Store online. The new design demonstrates Apple's increased emphasis on software, analysts said.

"It seems that Apple has made the online experience match closely with their retail stores as a place to not only buy computers but the entire life cycle associated with them," Jupiter's Gartenberg said.

While typically known for computers, Apple has been using software as a key differentiator between Macs and PCs. Under the three-column redesign, Apple Store online customers are greeted with a rotating image selling different items such as the new iBook. Below that image comes Apple's top-selling hardware--notebooks and the iPod music player--followed by another row with Macs.

But software gets stronger placement on the page--two rows showing box shots of Mac OS X 10.2, the iLife digital media suite and Final Cut Express. The redesign also places more emphasis on peripherals and third-party software.

"The greater emphasis on peripherals and software helps focus the Apple experience as a one-stop shop for the digital lifestyle," Gartenberg said.

Down the right-hand column, Apple lists top sellers, new items and staff favorites. Apple estimates that more than 40 percent of sales come through its online store.