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APPLE BOOSTS PERFORMANCE, BUT NOT PRICE, OF LAPTOPS

Apple Computer called 2001 the Year of the Portable, and the company seems determined to end the year in style -- by boosting performance, but not prices.

Updated versions of the iBook consumer laptop and the Titanium PowerBook G4 professional laptop should reach store shelves any day, the company said. Both laptop lines get a performance boost (PowerBook G4s now top out at 667MHz and iBook G3s at 600MHz), a new power adapter design, bigger hard drives, and Mac OS 10.1. The PowerBook line gets loads of memory, gigabit Ethernet, and a CD-burning option.

Let's start with the iBooks. Three additions to the iBook line have 600 megahertz G3 processors with a 100MHz system bus (up from 66MHz), which Apple said should result in a performance boost of more than 10 percent on all tasks. The system bus is the road data takes to and from the memory, and it has a big influence over the apparent speed of a computer.

You might recall that when the iBook first arrived, we were critical of the narrow system bus, and suggested Apple would upgrade it to 100MHz in a few months. Here you go. The iBook is now about as powerful as the last PowerBook G3 -- and that machine went out of style only a year ago.

All new iBook models come with 128 megabytes of RAM. All have 15-gigabyte hard drives configurable up to 20GB, except for the high-end model ($1,700), which comes with 20GB. The low-end CD-ROM model ($1,300) has the old 500MHz processor with a 66MHz system bus.

A note for Apple fans: This is a good sign for the health of both Apple's product line and its manufacturing operation. Financial analysts say iBooks are selling so well that Apple didn't need to update it. Apple apparently feels confident that it can manage inventories through the holiday season, and still have enough surprises left to wow the crowds at Macworld in January.

Now on to the Titanium PowerBook G4s, which did need an update.

Apple is throwing in a few nice extras here, while keeping prices reasonable. The new 667MHz models (starting at $3,000) have a 133MHz system bus. And at least for now, the whole line gets a truckload of memory. By a truckload, I mean that the low-end 550MHz model ($2,200) comes with 256MB, and the 667MHz models come with 512MB. This memory promotion, which Apple calls "Double for Nothing," runs through the end of the year.

The PowerBooks now have an ATI Mobility Radeon graphics processor with 16MB of video memory. And the 667MHz models have pre-installed AirPort cards for 802.11b wireless networking (another move we suggested earlier this year). So right out of the box, high-end PowerBook G4s are ready to get onto a wireless network.

Apple is making its laptop computers very attractive compared with its desktops. The company has lowered laptop prices and set new standards for combining portability, power, and wireless networking.

Case in point: A 733MHz PowerMac G4 with 256MB of RAM, a 40GB hard drive, a CD-RW drive, an AirPort card and a 15-inch flat panel monitor costs $2,400. A 667MHz PowerBook G4 with 512MB of RAM, a 30GB hard drive, a CD-RW drive and a 15.2-inch screen, is $3,100.

Sure, the PowerMac has PCI cards slots, a different graphics processor, and a few other differences; and high-end PowerMacs do much better with video and audio editing.

But the laptops just keep looking better.

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