A real January surprise?

Steve Jobs kicks off the 'year of the notebook' with Macworld annoucements of powerful machines that have supplanted the once-almighty desktop

As Apple Computer Inc. Chief Executive Steve Jobs began yet another keynote speech Tuesday morning at the Macworld trade show at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, he told the assembled faithful that he had “enough for two Macworlds.”

Though prone to hyperbole, Jobs wasn’t far from the truth.

His speech had more to offer than any in recent memory: two new hardware offerings, upgrades to most of its renowned media software and two completely new applications.

Hardware

Jobs confounded the preshow prognosticators, who foresaw no new Mac hardware, by introducing a PowerBook G4 with a 17-inch screen -- the largest display to date on a notebook computer. (Rumors of a video-capable iPod proved false.)

This $3,299 professional laptop incorporates three new connection technologies: a port for the next-generation FireWire 800 technology, as well as two wireless technologies, AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth.

FireWire, which Apple invented, connects peripherals with such heavy data-transfer requirements as digital video cameras and hard drives -- and FireWire 800 can pump such data twice as fast as the original.

AirPort Extreme is Apple’s name for new wireless networking -- often called WiFi and officially named 802.11g. This technology is nearly five times as fast as the current standard, 802.11b, yet compatible with existing WiFi hardware.

Wireless networking rapidly is becoming the preferred method for connecting computers to each other and to the Internet, so Apple is trying to stay out in front by being the first to adopt 802.11g.

The only pitfall could be a competing WiFi standard, 802.11a, which Jobs said Apple rejected because it lacked compatiblilty with older WiFi equipment. If the rest of the PC industry adopts 802.11a, Apple may find itself on a technological limb.

Meanwhile, the 17-inch PowerBook includes the new AirPort Extreme card, but the AirPort Extreme base station must be purchased separately for $199.

At that price, it’s a bargain. The previous, slower AirPort base station cost $299 and didn’t have AirPort Extreme’s Universal Serial Bus port for networking printers. Nor did it have built-in bridging capability for extending networks over larger areas with multiple base stations.

Bluetooth is another type of wireless connection technology, but it operates at much slower speeds and shorter ranges, about 30 feet, than either version of AirPort.

But Bluetooth is ideal for linking keyboards, mice, cellular telephones, hand-held devices and printers. While products with Bluetooth recently have started to appear, Bluetooth is expected to become standard on Windows PCs this year. That should encourage more perpipheral manufacturers to add Bluetooth to their devices.

One other sharp feature on the 17-inch PowerBook deserves mention: its backlit keyboard. The device activates when the ambient light dims. It’s the type of exquisite touch that’s become a hallmark of Apple design.

Further enhancing its pro line of laptops, Jobs also unveiled a 12-inch PowerBook G4 -- which, at 4.6 pounds -- is several ounces lighter than the 12.1-inch consumer iBook.

The 12-inch PowerBook also includes Bluetooth and a slot for an AirPort Extreme card, but, oddly, no FireWire 800.

Missing from both new PowerBooks, however, is a USB 2.0 port, the twice-as-fast incarnation of a common PC method for connecting printers and scanners. Apple so far has resisted adopting the Intel Corp.-invented USB 2.0, apparently seeing it as a competitor with its FireWire technology, because the new USB can match FireWire 400 speeds (though it is still only half as fast as the FireWire 800 port on the new PowerBook).

With PC makers gradually making USB 2.0 a standard, the appearance of more USB 2.0 peripherals eventually will force Apple to upgrade from the USB 1.1 ports installed in current Macs.

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