Hands on with Apple's new hardware

News analysis: The Mac maker answered critics and fans alike with its latest hardware offerings at this week's Macworld Expo in New York
Written by Jason D. O'Grady, Contributor

While Apple Computer chief executive Steve Jobs focused exclusively on the company's OS moves at January's Macworld Expo in San Francisco, hardware took centre stage at this week's Macworld Expo in New York.

At Wednesday's opening event, Jobs was uncharacteristically direct in cutting right to the meat of his presentation: no financial results, no fluff, just hardware. The eager, capacity crowd of 6,000 didn't seem to have a problem with the direct approach, either.

Jobs started with a small but contentious part of Apple's hardware arsenal: the keyboard and mouse. The peripherals that have shipped with new desktop systems since the original iMac have come under fire from customers, who complained that both were too small and cramped.

While they received mixed reviews from consumers who bought the first iMacs, the keyboard and mouse have been a special sore spot with Mac professionals since Apple unveiled the first blue-and-white G3 enclosure at Macworld Expo in San Francisco in 1999.

Apple answered its critics on Wednesday with a new Universal Serial Bus mouse that it calls "buttonless" -- the mouse is actually one large button -- and a larger USB keyboard. The new Pro mouse is based on an optical mechanism, so users can easily navigate almost any surface without having to use a mouse pad or worry about getting the roller-ball mechanism dirty.

The new Pro keyboard features full-size function keys (including F13-F15, PageUp, PageDown, Help and Home keys), new volume control and disc eject keys, and two USB ports.

The new USB peripherals are shipping with all new desktop Macs and are available for $59 from Apple's online store.

Apple also announced several other, more significant pieces of hardware in an overhaul of its desktop lineup.

In the pro desktop arena, the company announced a dual-processor Power Macintosh G4 that will effectively double the performance of the two top-of-the-line models and added features such as Gigabit Ethernet and larger hard drives across all three systems -- all, amazingly, for the same prices as their single-processor predecessors.

Meanwhile, Apple polished the high and low ends of its iMac line with new colours, a new version of its iMovie editing software bundled with its DV consumer desktops and a new entry price: $799.

In the most dramatic announcement of the keynote, Jobs added a fifth product line to the four-square matrix he announced two years ago: the Power Mac G4 Cube, a brand-new enclosure for the desktop G4 platform that pushes the design envelope -- even for Apple.

The G4 Cube is a minimalist Graphite and Lucite box that measures only 8 inches along each side. The stunning industrial design looks more like a funky Bose CD player than a computer, and more than one showgoer in the Apple booth mistook it for an external hard drive.

The G4 Cube ships with a 450MHz or 500MHz PowerPC G4 processor, 64MB of RAM (expandable to 1.5GB), a 20GB hard drive, and a slot-loading DVD that is ingeniously located in the top of the Cube.

I/O ports are located on the bottom of the Cube: two FireWire ports, two USB ports, a 10/100BaseT Ethernet port and a 56K-bps V.90 modem. For users who want to get under the hood, the entire core of the Cube lifts out via a pop-up handle that's also at the bottom of the unit.

The Cube is due to ship next month for $1,799 or $2,299, including Apple's new optical mouse and pro keyboard and a pair of Apple-designed Harman/Kardon speakers.

The G4 Cube "marries the Pentium-crushing performance of the Power Mac G4 with the miniaturisation, silent operation and elegant desktop design of the iMac," Jobs said. Accordingly, several Expo visitors I spoke to at Apple's booth wondered where the product would be positioned.

Showgoer Moe Comeau remarked: "I mean, a G4 with no expansion slots? I don't know who would want that."

Apple G4 Cube product manager Stan Ng said the G4 Cube is aimed at "that customer looking for a little more than an iMac". He also suggested that the Cube was ideal for customers who were "doing publishing, but at home".

"Its quietness, gaming, sound and DVD make the G4 Cube perfect for the home," Ng said. "It combines the power of the G4 with the simplicity of the iMac."

The Cube was easily the most coveted piece of hardware in the Apple booth, with throngs of first-day attendees flocking to the displays to take pictures, smile or just stare at it in awe. "Everything is about the Cube," quipped Bart Hirst of Pennsylvania. Adina Revitz seemed overwhelmed when she saw the G4 Cube with the new 15-inch flat-panel display and speakers: "It's so beautiful -- the whole system."

Christine Lorenz, technology director at St. Matthew's Parish School, said she thought the new hardware was "awesome" but that she "can't justify it just yet".

The consensus? Everyone wanted a G4 Cube, but not everyone could afford it. Nevertheless, Apple's latest hardware seemed to raise the foot traffic in the booths and the buzz at the show higher than at any Macworld Expo in previous memory.

See the Cube at the Macworld Expo in New York

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