Speed, song highlight Apple product announcements

SAN FRANCISCO -- Apple CEO Steve Jobs opened the annual Macworld Expo this week by unveiling innovative systems and software intended to answer some of the company's critics and to get the computer maker out of its recent slump.

Addressing a crowd of about 5,000 Mac enthusiasts at the event's opening, Jobs took the wraps off faster Power Mac G4s; a thin, lightweight, Titanium PowerBook G4; and iTunes and iDVD media software. He also announced new features and a ship date for the Mac OS X: It will go on sale for $129 on March 24.

A slow speedup for G4

Like other PC makers, Apple has suffered from slowing late-year sales. Apple in December warned that first-quarter earnings and revenue (for the period ended Dec. 30) would be well below its previous expectations. The company expects to miss revenue targets for the first time in three years and has issued a number of rebates on its G4 Cubes.

Jobs admitted Apple has fallen behind in the gigahertz-plus race that has generated great attention for Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

"We've been coasting at 500 MHz for 18 months, which is far too long," Jobs said. "Today, we're taking it up to 733 MHz."

Apple hopes the faster speeds of the G4s will boost sales and attract corporate customers along with its multimedia mainstays. Apple officials say lower-than-expected sales of its PowerMac G4 Cubes account for more than $90 million in missed revenue for the quarter.

New: Built-in CD-RW

The four new PowerMac G4 models all include built-in CD-RW drives, which Apple has not previously offered and for which it has been criticized.

"We're late to the [CD-RW drive] party, but we're here," Jobs said.

Beyond CD capacity, Mac's top-end 733-MHz system offers what Apple calls a SuperDrive: a combination CD-RW/DVD-R drive developed by Pioneer.

Pricing starts at $1,399 for the 466-MHz system and runs to $3,499 for the 733-MHz system.

Claiming speed with single CPU

One surprise: The new models are all single-processor, going against Apple's efforts to make OS X and Mac applications support dual-processor G4 systems.

"We wanted to get them to you as fast as we could," Jobs explained. "To make enough chips for dual-processor systems, you'd have had to wait until April."

Although 733 MHz is an improvement, many analysts say Macs need to hit the gigahertz mark in order to compete. But, according to Jobs, "Comparing megahertz across processor families is like comparing apples to oranges."

In a test, Apple raced a PowerMac G4 733-MHz system and a 1.5-GHz Pentium 4 running a series of commands in Adobe Photoshop 6. The G4 finished in 24 seconds, while the Pentium took 36.

A thin PowerBook

Apple also made an effort to catch up in the thin subnotebook market with its new Titanium PowerBook G4.

Although only an inch thick and weighing 5.3 lb., the new Titanium PowerBook has an impressive 15.2-in. display. It also has a slot-load DVD-drive, full-size keyboard and 8MB Rage 128 Mobility graphics. It's due this month in two configurations: a 400-MHz G4 processor with a 10GB hard drive for $2,499 and a 500-MHz G4 with a 20GB drive for $3,499.

Apple turns up the music

Besides new hardware to support digital media, Apple made some of its most impressive updates with its new iTunes and iDVD software.

Like iMovie, Apple's consumer digital video editing tool, iTunes is a digital audio tool with Macintosh-style ease of use.

"Music jukeboxes are too complex and have too many restrictions that throttle encoding and burning speeds or don't let you rip in MP3," Jobs said.

Besides the lack of CD-RW drives, Apple has been slow to release digital audio support; most third-party jukebox software doesn't support the Mac platform.

"We're late to the party but we're about to do a leapfrog," Jobs said.

Available for free download today, iTunes does have one initial drawback: the CD burning works only with Macintosh built-in CD-RW drives. Apple plans to release plug-ins for popular third-party CD-RW drives in the coming weeks, Jobs said.

OS X on its way

Jobs also demonstrated updates made to OS X, Apple's next-generation operating system since its September beta release, saying many of the improvements came at the suggestion of users and beta testers. Built on an open-source Darwin kernel, OS X promises to be more stable and supports preemptive multitasking.

New features include a new Apple menu with access to shutdown, log-off and sleep functions; a new pop-up menu that lets you see files and folders within any item in the dock; smaller, customizable tool bars; and the ability to revert to the old Finder.

Although OS X will support OS 9 applications, Jobs said new applications that take full advantage of the new OS will start rolling out this spring, with 350 or so due by fall.

Ashlee Vance of the IDG News Service contributed to this report.

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