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Wednesday, March 30, 2005, 07:00 pm PT (10:00 pm ET)

Apple readying updates to consumer hardware offerings

Beginning next month, Apple Computer will introduce new versions of all of its consumer Macintosh hardware offerings, sources have confirmed to AppleInsider..

The product upgrades are being targeted at the upcoming educational buying season and will span the iMac G5, iBook G4 and eMac G4 product lines.

iMac Rumors

For the iMac, sources say Apple will bump the low-end configuration from 1.6GHz to 1.8GHz, while the higher-end configurations will receive 2.0GHz processors. The all-in-one desktop computers may also sport improved SuperDrives and more standard memory, according to reports.

Meanwhile, rumors of an iMac HD mode abound. However, after an extensive investigation into the reports, AppleInsider was unable to confirm that Apple will release such an iMac.

According to the reports—which date back to January—Apple has been dropping hints that it may release an iMac G5 equipped with a high-definition display (22-23 inches), and quietly gathering feedback on the subject from certain market sectors.

In support of this rumor, sources cite the recent introduction of iMovie HD and Final Cut Express, two consumer-oriented applications for creating high-definition video. "If consumers are using iMovie HD on their iMacs to create HD video, wouldn't it be nice if the iMac offered a display capable of displaying this content in high-definition?," one insider remarked. Sources also recall a statement made by Apple chief executive, Steve Jobs, at the recent Macworld Expo, which promised that 2005 would be the "year of high definition video editing."

But analysts AppleInsider spoke to found it difficult to see the rationale behind an iMac with a 23-inch display if it would not include a TV Tuner card, or other means of accessing HD media content.

"From a consumer standpoint I would question Apple's integration of HD technology in the iMac if the company was not going to leverage HD TV content," said Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal, who believes Apple is late to market with a consumer desktop with similar home entertainment features.

Joe Wilcox, a senior analyst for JupiterResearch, offered similar sentiments, pointing out that HD video cameras retail for around $3000.

In general, the analysts failed to see a current market for an iMac HD, which would likely retail for around US$2500. However, Deal said Apple could potentially release an iMac HD to demonstrate its support for new DVD standards, such as HD DVD, in an effort to showcase emerging standards.

eMac Rumors

In addition to the new iMacs, which sources said have been awaiting manufacturing since late February, updated eMac models are also on tap for next month.

The fate of the eMac product line has been a subject of debate among analysts and Apple enthusiasts ever since the company unveiled its sub-$500 Mac mini computer last January. Some speculate that the low-cost mini would serve as a replacement for the eMac, which Apple has historically targeted towards universities and other educational customers.

But insiders disagree, saying the Mac mini isn't capable of cannibalizing eMac sales because it does not present the "complete solution" offered via the eMac's all-in-one enclosure and built in display. As a result, sources said Apple will continue to prolong the life of the eMac, introducing new models with slightly faster processors and improved video capabilities. While flat-panel prices are dropping, the CRT offering allows Apple to be much more aggressive with pricing.

For the most part, sources believe that the new eMacs will sport few differences from the current offerings, despite rumors that Apple was developing a new eMac enclosure to accompany a G5 processor. If anything, Apple may be working to reduce the cost of manufacturing the all-in-one eMac, which sources claim is a little bit more expensive than they want it to be, due to the cost of some eMac specific parts.

With the release of the new eMacs, sources say Apple will begin to extend its Do-It-Yourself Repair and Upgrade program to the product line. First introduced alongside the release of the iMac G5, the program offers consumers instructions and videos to upgrade their Mac, or perform certain repairs such as memory upgrades and internal battery replacements.

iBook Rumors

Also slated to make an appearance this spring are speed-bumped versions of Apple's iBook consumer laptops, though sources warned they may not surface until slightly later in the season.

Sources say Apple will boost the 12-inch iBook from a 1.2GHz to 1.33GHz G4 processor, while the 14-inch models will likely obtain a 1.5GHz processor. Both models are also expected to adopt an improved ATI Mobility Radeon graphics processor.

What remains largely uncertain is the TrackPad solution Apple will choose for the updated iBooks. In February Apple abandoned Synaptics, its long-term supplier of TrackPads for the PowerBook G4, in favor of an in-house solution dubbed the "Scrolling TrackPad."

It would seem likely that iBooks would adopt the Scrolling TrackPad, but erratic behavior of new TrackPads on the recently released PowerBooks has escalated into significant quality concerns, which have been widely documented on the Internet.

In recent weeks, Apple has begun to pull a significant number of its 12-inch PowerBooks from the market because of the issue. In some cases, consumers have been waiting up to six weeks for their 12-inch PowerBook order to ship. The issue also extends to some 15- and 17-inch models as well.