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ISSUE 564: The high-tech office- Aug 15 2000

ALAN ZISMAN

Apple's most recent splash more show than substance

The annual summer MacWorld convention is one of the times when Apple's Steve Jobs likes to make a splash with new product announcements. This year's New York City show was no exception.

Last year at this time, Jobs an nounced the company's low-cost iBook notebook. This year, he focused on the desktop computer lineup.

Besides replacing the much-criticized mouse and keyboard designs, Jobs announced new versions of the popular iMac series, new use of dual processors for the high-end G4 towers, and an all-new in-between model sporting a back-to-Jobs'-future cube design. But while Jobs always gives a good show (you can view it online at www.apple.com/quicktime), this time around there may have been less than meets the eye.

Take the iMac revision. The base model remains much the same 350 Mhz computer as last January's model, though its blue shade is now "Indigo" in place of "Blueberry" and its price drops to $1,199. The other fruit colours introduced 18 months ago are also, in Jobs' words, "collectors' items," replaced by ruby-red, sage-green and ice-white. The higher-end models sport larger hard drives and slightly faster processors than the previous generation, topping out with a 500 Mhz G3, for the same prices as the models they replaced, ranging from $1,499 to $2,299. All new colours, only modest improvements.

With the tongue-in-cheek slogan "Two heads are better than one," Jobs showed off a G4-tower Mac with dual processors, putting it head-to-head with a 1 Ghz Pentium III running a complex Photoshop task. The Mac finished in about a minute, taking just over half the time of the Intel-powered computer, even though the Macs' processors run at a slow-sounding 500 Mhz.

At the same price as previous models with a single processor and slower networking, these new G4 Macs, with dual processors and gigabit Ethernet networking built-in, offer good value for powerful computing. But it's important to be aware of the fine print:

* The low-end model ($2,399), with its 400 Mhz processor, remains a single-processor model, though it does gain the faster networking.

* The 450 Mhz and 500 Mhz models ($3,799 and $5,299) both come with the pair of processors. However, the current Mac operating system and most Mac software does not use the second processor. Photoshop jockeys will benefit; most of the rest of us won't.

* To get full benefit from the dual processors, we'll need to wait for the release of Apple's next-generation operating system, OS X, sometime next year. Mac fans who were hoping that Jobs would release a preview beta of OS X at MacWorld were disappointed.

* While the G3 and G4 processors are more efficient than Intel models, Intel (and competitor AMD) have been continually able to pump up the speed of their CPUs. While 700 MHz G4s have been demoed, Apple's computers have been stuck at the same 400_500 Mhz speeds for the past year or so.

While the iMac and Power Mac G4 towers offered new takes on existing models, Jobs also showed off something all new: a Power Mac G4 Cube. And a cube is what it is, eight inches to a side, taking up about as much desktop space as a toaster, but powered with a 450 Mhz G4 processor (for $2,699, or $3,499 for a 500 Mhz model) in a transparent fanless case. Downsizing (and quieting) the desktop computer is a good idea. But, again, it's much less earthshaking than it may at first look.

There may be more to the cube design than meets the eye, however. Jobs was forced out of Apple, the company he cofounded, in 1985. At his next start-up, NeXT, Jobs offered a stylish and innovative computer that lacked a floppy drive, was shaped like a cube and ran on a new, NeXT-Step operating system. Few NeXT cubes were sold and the company bled through several hundred million dollars of investors' money until Apple purchased it in late 1996.

Now, Jobs is back in charge, NeXT-Step forms the basis of the upcoming OS X, Apple's models all lack floppy drives and the company releases a cube-shaped computer. Revenge is sweet.



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan