Macworld 2006: Intel-based Macs, New iLife, No New iPods

Held less than a week after the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2006, Macworld 2006 proved to be less about consumer electronics and more about computers. More to the point, Apple Computer announced that it was ahead of schedule in its transition from PowerPC chips to Intel-based microprocessors. However, rather than release a Media Center-like Mac mini, as many had expected, Apple announced the immediate availability of a new Intel-based iMac and revealed that it would soon introduce an Intel-based replacement for its PowerBook G4 notebook, awkwardly dubbed MacBook Pro. And although Apple talked up its holiday 2005 iPod sales successes, the company presented no new iPod devices.

Apple's new iMac is physically identical to the previous-generation iMac G5. The differences are inside: Instead of a PowerPC processor, the new iMac is driven by Intel's new Core Duo processor, a 32-bit dual-core processor that runs at 1.83GHz or 2.0GHz per core, depending on the iMac model. According to Apple, the new iMac is two to three times faster than its predecessor, although I'll have to wait for my iMac to arrive before I can verify those claims. The new iMac runs a new Intel-based version of Mac OS X 10.4.4 and runs most PowerPC-based Mac software, albeit at slow speeds and with notable exceptions, including Microsoft Virtual PC. The Intel version of Mac OS X doesn't include the Classic environment, which provides compatibility for old Mac applications.

Curiously, Apple has chosen to make the transition to Intel chips seamless rather than exciting. That is, the new iMac doesn't feature any cool new features, such as an embedded media-card reader or a wireless Mighty Mouse. Instead, it's exactly like the model it's replacing—at least, on the outside. The new MacBook Pro is similarly designed. It comes only in a 15" widescreen model and closely resembles the 15" PowerBook that it will eventually replace, with an aluminum shell and the same cramped keyboard. Oddly, the MacBook Pro, which will ship in mid-February at the earliest, is actually missing some key features that the PowerBook G4 boasts, including S-video and composite video out, an 8X DVD writer with dual-layer DVD support (the MacBook Pro drive is only 4X and doesn't support dual-layer DVD), a modem, and a FireWire 800 port. Most alarming, Apple is going out of its way to hide the MacBook Pro's battery-life data, suggesting that the machine won't fare too well in this critical category. What's odd is that PC notebooks that utilize Intel's Core Duo chip get incredible battery life.

Both the new iMac and MacBook Pro feature a number of exciting digital-media features, including iLife '06 (described below), Apple's Media Center-like Front Row application with an included remote control, and an integrated iSight Webcam, which works with Apple's Photo Booth application and iChat. Both machines are also compatible with the 802.11a wireless-networking scheme, in addition to the more common 802.11g and 802.11b.

Apple also released iLife '06, a major update to its suite of digital-media applications. This version includes a dramatically improved iPhoto (with new one-click effects, calendar purchasing, and photocasting support, and more), a new iMovie HD (with animated themes, real-time effects, and more), a new iDVD (with widescreen menus, Magic iDVD, new themes, and more), a new Garageband with podcast support, and a brand-new application called iWeb that lets you share photos, movies, music, blogs, and other content on the Web. iLife '06 still costs $79, which is a bargain. I'll be reviewing it here in Connected Home Media soon.

Additionally, Apple shipped iWork '06, a horribly uninteresting productivity suite, which still includes just two applications, Pages (word processing and page layout) and Keynote (presentations). Apple also shipped small updates to iTunes and QuickTime Player, as well as a minor revision to Mac OS X 10.4.

As for the iPod, there were no new players, so Apple talked up its recent financial and sales results and introduced a single new hardware add-on. During the holiday 2005 quarter, Apple sold 14.5 million iPods, well ahead of analyst expectations. Additionally, the company has sold more than 42 million iPods to date, and more than 850 million songs at its iTunes online music store. Apple introduced a new hardware add-on for the iPod, the iPod Radio Remote. This $49 add-on combines a wired remote with FM radio tuning capabilities (but not radio recording). It's a decent solution if you need this kind of thing, but let's be honest here: An FM tuner should simply be built into all iPods.

In short, Apple's Macworld 2006 announcements lacked some of the excitement and glimpses of future trends that previous shows delivered. We already knew Apple was moving to Intel chips, and although it's great that the transition is ahead of schedule, the new models have precious few new features. And where are the Media Center and DVR products the rumor mills promised? And the new media deals for video content on the iTunes Music Store? Knowing Apple, many of these products and services will appear in the weeks and months ahead. But Macworld happens only once a year. The company might have been better served by going for broke and offering some real competition to the media blitz that accompanied CES less than a week earlier.

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