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Apple refreshes Power Mac line

New systems sport faster memory and speedier system architecture, and mark a return to dual-processor systems. The eMac, meanwhile, gets a DVD upgrade.

    Apple Computer on Tuesday unveiled souped-up Power Macs, in the first major upgrade to the professional system in about a year and half.

    Earlier upgrades focused on incremental increases in processing power, but the new Power Macs sport faster memory and speedier system architecture. Apple also reintroduced dual-processor systems across the line, mimicking a similar move made two summers ago. Processor speeds range from 867MHz to 1.25GHz.

    "This is the big (upgrade) for us," said Greg Joswiak, Apple's senior director of worldwide hardware product marketing.

    "This is the Xserve architecture coming to Power Mac," Joswiak said, referring to Apple's line of servers introduced in May. "This is more than a speed bump of faster processors. This is the Xserve chipset optimized for Power Mac. It's a major step up in the architecture."

    Graphic artists and content creators are among the more typical buyers of Power Macs, although the systems have been attracting Unix workstation users. Some aspects of Apple's Tuesday announcement could also appeal to general consumers and to students returning to school.

    The Cupertino, Calif.-based company also threw down the gauntlet on DVD recording, adding the technology to eMac, its all-in-one computer built around a 17-inch cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor. At $1,499, the new eMac model is one of the most affordable DVD recording computers available, although some PC makers may not need to cut prices much to match Apple.

    In addition, Apple lowered prices on its entry-level and midlevel flat-panel iMacs to their original levels, $1,299 and $1,499 respectively. The price cuts come thanks to increased LCD (liquid crystal display) production and subsequent panel price reductions.

    Changes to the Power Macs, and their increased distance from the consumer iMacs, address a longstanding problem for Apple: lack of product differentiation.

    "I think Apple now has a very well differentiated line that covers most of the price and feature points they need to be at," said NPD TechWorld analyst Stephen Baker. "For a long time, you couldn't see enough advantage buying a Power Mac over the high-end iMac. Coming back to the original prices for iMac could appeal to PC switchers, too."

    Software wherewithal
    The new Power Macs may be the big news for Apple and the large number of professional customers who have refused to switch from the company's older operating system to Mac OS X, which debuted about a year and a half ago. Many analysts had expected Power Mac sales to surge once Apple moved to the 1GHz PowerPC G4 processors and above, and again after Adobe released the long-anticipated Mac OS X version of Photoshop.

    But those sales never materialized. During Apple's fiscal third quarter, ended June 30, Power Mac sales plummeted 26 percent year over year in units and 31 percent in dollars. From the second quarter to the third, unit shipments dropped 21 percent, and dollar sales declined 26 percent.

    "Just getting a native version of Photoshop is not enough," said Mark Choi, Pittsburgh, Penn.-based computer consultant and longtime Mac user.

    Many potential upgraders are hampered by the unavailability of Photoshop plug-ins and filters and software drivers for high-end printers. "Once these are out, there is a much greater incentive for these people, an important part of the Mac user base, to switch," Choi said.

    Power Mac's aging system architecture, including its 133MHz system bus, may also have been a contributing factor. The two new systems come with a 167MHz system bus, which sends signals between the CPU and other components of the computer, though that's still well behind a 533MHz front-side setup for the fastest Pentium 4 systems.

    But Joswiak defended what apparently is a small increase in the system bus.

    "Our architecture is tough to compare to a PC bus, because we don't run everything off the same bus the way a PC does," he said. "A PC may have a 533MHz bus, but it's putting everything through that bus--whereas, we put everything on its own dedicated bus."

    The changes, which also include a move to 266MHz double data rate (DDR) SRAM, could be crucial to getting Power Mac fence-sitters to make the upgrade, which would further the adoption of Mac OS X. Apple plans to release Mac OS X 10.2, code-named Jaguar, on Aug. 24, but the new Power Macs will come with the operating system upgrade preinstalled.

    "I do believe that the Macintosh sales will increase with the introduction of the new Power Macs," said David Forgash, a Mac user from Green Bay, Wisc. "The OS X 10.2 system is really fast, smooth and beautiful on a dual-processor machine. There is no reason now for people in and outside the Mac world not to upgrade."

    Choi isn't convinced new Power Mac users will warm up to Mac OS X. "I have my doubts that it will have much of an effect beyond increasing the OS X penetration through fiat, due to the fact that the machines will default to the new OS."

    The dual-processor boost
    But Choi does see some potential sales benefit in Apple's return to dual-processor Power Macs, which could help counteract the perceived difference in clock speed between Power Macs and PCs. New Mac processors top out at 1.25GHz, compared to 2.53GHz for PCs.

    "Certainly it would be a good bragging point, with Apple once again on the bleeding edge of innovation, as opposed to playing catch-up," Choi said.

    Dual-processor systems also offer inherent advantages, such as helping an application shift some tasks to the second chip. This could prevent the Mac from bogging down when doing intensive computing tasks, such as rendering photos or videos.

    Apple will begin selling the dual 867MHz and 1GHz Power Macs this week. The dual-1.25GHz system won't be available until the second half of September.

    The 867MHz PowerPC G4 system, selling for $1,699, comes with 256MB of RAM, 32MB Nvidia GeForce 4MX graphics accelerator, CD-RW/DVD combo drive and 60GB hard drive. The 1GHz system, which replaces an existing dual 1GHz Power Mac, comes with an 80GB hard drive, DVD recording drive and 64MB ATI Radeon 9000 Pro graphics accelerator. The system sells for $2,499.

    The high-end 1.25GHz Power Mac is similarly configured to the 1GHz system, but with 512MB of RAM and 120GB hard drive. It's priced at $3,299.

    Apple also changed other things inside the box, such as support for a second optical drive and up to four hard drives, which could appeal to content creators or larger business customers. These factors, the dual processors and Unix-based Mac OS X could help boost sales to traditional Unix workstation users, Joswiak said.

    "For the Unix crowd, the idea of a dual-processor workstation starting at only $1,699 is unbelievable," he said. "We've had great success in that market, and this is really going to push them over (to Power Mac)."

    A switch hit?
    The changes to Apple's consumer lineup could be important in courting potential PC switchers, as the company continues its advertising campaign aimed at wooing PC users to the Mac. Analysts said the change to the faster system bus and dual processors on Power Macs has finally broadened Apple's product line to where it needs to be.

    Apple's new eMac model, due this month, features the same Pioneer Electronics DVD-R/RW drives found in the two high-end iMac and Power Mac computers. As with the more expensive systems, Apple will bundle in iDVD 2, the company's software for burning home movies to DVDs. The new "SuperDrive" eMac substantially lowers the price for Macs with DVD recording.

    One reason Apple chose to bring DVD recording to eMac was the high demand among flat-panel iMac buyers. "We found 50 percent of our iMac customers were buying up to SuperDrive," Joswiak said.

    "The eMac is a hidden gem sitting there," Baker said. "They have not done as good a job as they should with promoting this system. I think the $1,499 eMac is a pretty competitive product for switchers."

    The new eMac comes with an 800MHz Power PC G4 processor, 256MB of RAM, 32MB Nvidia GeForce MX2 graphics accelerator, DVD recording drive and 60GB hard drive.

    But some PC makers may not find it so hard to match eMac's price. Sony's Vaio RX752, which uses the same DVD recording drive as the eMac, is about $50 less than Apple's computer--but without a monitor. Sony's lowest-cost 17-inch CRT monitor would add $239 to the system price. That Vaio also comes with a 2GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of DDR SDRAM, 80GB hard drive, Corel WordPerfect 2002 and Windows XP Home. Like other 2GHz Pentium 4 PCs, it features a 400MHz front-side bus.

    Hewlett-Packard's Pavilion 772n serves up more power and faster system architecture for about the same as the Vaio--$1,449. The 2.26GHz Pentium 4 system, with a 533MHz front-side bus, uses competing DVD+R/RW recording technology. HP features the Pavilion MX70 CRT monitor with the DVD recording system. The monitor sells for about $200 after a $150 manufacturer's mail-in rebate.