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Apple Hardware Strategy: Alluring PowerBooks and iMac

Steve Jobs breathed fire into the Macintosh world last week by announcing new computers that have enthralled Mac users and press alike. The first announcement concerned the new PowerBooks G3 series (not to be confused with the short-lived PowerBook G3 that shared the 3400’s frame), whose rumored features and form factor tantalized Mac aficionados for months. The other announcement caught everyone by surprise: the iMac, a stylish all-in-one Internet computer shrouded in secrecy for ten months, heralds Apple’s return to the consumer marketplace.

The new PowerBook G3 and the iMac fill two of the four slots in Apple’s new hardware strategy. Apple plans to sell desktop and portable entries for the consumer and professional markets. The Power Mac G3s and the PowerBook G3s satisfy those slots for the professional market, and the iMac fills the slot for consumers wanting a desktop machine. The remaining slot is waiting for a portable Mac aimed at consumers, and at WWDC today Jobs hinted that Apple would fill it in 1999 with a computer based on the now-defunct eMate.

The Sleek Shall Inherit the Earth — Volkswagen is advertising its new Beetle as being reverse-engineered from UFOs, but it may have to give up that claim in the face of Apple’s new PowerBook G3 line. The sleek portables are available in a variety of prices and configurations from Apple’s online store and online vendors such as TidBITS sponsors Cyberian Outpost and Small Dog Electronics (see the sponsors area at the top of the issue for details). These PowerBooks are the speediest the company has produced, featuring PowerPC 750 processors at 250 MHz and 292 MHz, and a 233 MHz PowerPC 740 chip (the 740 lacks the Level 2 backside cache of the 750, which lowers both performance and price). Buyers can choose from three displays: a 12.1-inch passive matrix screen capable of displaying thousands of colors, and active-matrix screens measuring 13.3 inches and 14.1 inches (diagonal) that display millions of colors; external monitors of up to 20 inches can also display millions of colors, though video mirroring is unfortunately the only multi-screen option.



The new PowerBook G3 series also features an S-Video out port on models with the two larger displays, built-in 10Base-T Ethernet, two expansion bays that can hold a floppy drive, a battery (or two batteries using both bays), and a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive. (The floppy drive is offered as optional equipment on the least expensive models.) Another major change is the keyboard: a new Function key (marked "fn") makes the full range of 105 keys available, and the arrow keys are now placed in an inverted-T layout as on the PowerBook 2400. The new machines also sport a few surprises, such as full support for hot-swapping ADB devices (long a source of Macintosh voodoo that could possibly fry important internal components).

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Apple has packaged this overall boost in features and power in a curvaceous case design: although the width and length are slightly larger than the 3400 (but still weighing the same 7.7 pounds), the unit is only two inches high when closed. Unfortunately, the G3 series has lost its feet; like the PowerBook 1400, the back cannot be raised to provide a slanted keyboard surface. Still, the new PowerBooks are, we dare say, rather sexy in a field of flat rectangles.

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Welcome, iMac! Steve Jobs last week also presented what is in many ways the first interesting new Macintosh in quite some time, the consumer- and Internet-oriented iMac. What’s fascinating about the iMac is its combination of hardware features, low price, and unique translucent industrial design. The iMac features a 233 MHz PowerPC G3 processor with a 66 MHz bus, 512K of backside level 2 cache, 32 MB RAM (expandable to 128 MB), 4 GB IDE hard disk, 24x CD-ROM, built-in 15-inch monitor capable of 1024 by 768 pixels of resolution, built-in 10/100Base-T Ethernet, built-in 33.6 Kbps modem, two 12 Mbps Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports, 4 Mbps infrared port (IrDA), built-in stereo speakers, Apple USB keyboard, and an Apple USB mouse. Not mentioned were a floppy drive, SCSI port, LocalTalk port, ADB port, or PCI slots. The price is slated to be $1,299 when the iMac ships in August. Bundled software includes at least Mac OS 8.1, Quicken 98 Deluxe, AppleWorks (previously ClarisWorks), FileMaker Pro, and Microsoft Internet Explorer 4, although Jobs indicated that more might be added, especially games.


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The lack of a SCSI port, LocalTalk port, and floppy drive has prompted some discussion on TidBITS Talk about how one would back up an iMac. Network-based backup is of course a possibility for those on networks, and a few Internet-based backup services could conceivably work for small amounts of important data. However, real backup and file transfer will have to come in the form of new devices that use the iMac’s Universal Serial Bus (USB) connectors. For storage devices, 12 Mbps is plenty of throughput, and Imation and Panasonic have already announced a USB-based SuperDisk, which supports 1.4 MB and 720K floppy disks, plus proprietary 120 MB disks. It’s not hard to imagine Iomega and SyQuest adding USB versions of their popular removable drives as well.


We’ve seen too few interesting industrial designs of late, though the 20th Anniversary Mac was a breath of fresh air. The new iMac resembles no other machine and appears to presage a new attitude from Apple toward the price and image conscious consumer market. It’s cheap, it’s neat, and it’s designed to connect to the Internet from the start. No word yet on whether buyers can order different-colored translucent cases, but Jobs’s reference to the importance of Macintosh "fashion" at this week’s World Wide Developer Conference would suggest possible options to avoid clashing with one’s surroundings. We reserve the right to change our minds once we use one, but the iMac currently looks like a winner.


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