Mac Upgrades: Small but Solid Steps Forward

The semiannual Macworld Expo took place in New York last week, and I'm glad I stayed home. The pre-Expo rumor mill was manic with predictions of dramatic new machines, but in his opening keynote address, Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs announced relatively modest improvements to the Mac line. A disappointed fan on one online discussion board suggested a new Apple slogan: Think nothing different.

We Mac users can get spoiled. If Jobs doesn't make the earth move by unveiling something completely different, we pout like a kid who didn't get his dream present on Christmas morning. Rumors predicted new iMacs with flat-panel displays and new Power Macs with a redesigned internal architecture. Instead, Jobs announced speed boosts and color tweaks for the existing iMac and G4 lines. Rumors also predicted a major upgrade to the Mac OS X operating system. Jobs announced one, but it won't ship until September.

Now before you cross your arms and frown, ponder what Apple has delivered since January: the best laptop computers in the industry, new iMacs and Power Macs, a new operating system, a new flat-panel display, new software for burning CDs and DVDs, new versions of the QuickTime and Final Cut Pro software and new retail stores. And all this during an economic slowdown that has pummeled the personal computer industry.

So maybe we didn't get what we wanted. What we did get are solid improvements that Apple can deliver economically.

The new iMacs are faster and provide more storage. A $999 model contains a 500-megahertz G3 processor, 128 megabytes of memory and a 20-gigabyte hard drive. A $1,299 model runs at 600 MHz and includes 256 MB of memory and a 40-GB drive. Next month, Apple will ship a $1,499 model that runs at 700 MHz and has a 60-GB drive. All three include a built-in CD burner. The previous low-end iMac lacked one.

For the color conscious, the low-end iMac ships in blue or white, and the other two come in white or graphite. Apple has axed the garish patterns that debuted in February: Flower Power has wilted, and Blue Dalmatian has been put to sleep.

In the Power Mac G4 line, the changes are more significant. Yesterday's fastest G4 is today's slowest: the new low-end G4 runs at the same 733-MHz speed as the previous high-end model--and costs half as much. The new G4 is $1,699 and includes 128 MB of memory and a 40-GB drive. A new $2,499 G4 runs at 867 MHz and includes 256 MB of memory and a 60-GB drive.

Next month, Apple will ship a $3,499 model containing two 800-MHz processors and an 80-GB drive. This model also will pack a new video card that's capable of driving two monitors. It should be a dream machine for video producers and graphic artists.

The entry-level G4 contains a conventional CD burner, and the others include Apple's SuperDrive, which burns CDs and DVDs.

Apple also announced enhancements to the Mac's new operating system. The awkwardly named Mac OS X version 10.1 is faster and adds interface improvements and the ability to play and burn DVDs. It ships in September and will be a $20 upgrade. Jobs also showed iDVD 2, a new version of Apple's free DVD burning software. Available in September, it's faster and provides more design options--and will be the first Apple program to require Mac OS X.

At Jobs' keynote, representatives from 10 software titans, including Microsoft, Adobe and Quark, demonstrated OS X versions of their wares. But only a few of the programs demonstrated are shipping now. The flood of native programs that Apple predicted would hit at this Expo won't arrive until later this year, partly because OS X is in flux.

No, the newest Macs aren't completely different. But the iMac remains an outstanding mass-market computer, even if it is graying at the temples. And the new G4s, while not a quantum leap forward, are faster and cost less. When yesterday's high-end machine becomes today's low end, that's nothing to pout about.


Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine.


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