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Apple’s New Core

Apple Computer is gradually replacing its entire Macintosh lineup. The cutting-edge company, which turned 30 in April, already makes the best-designed hardware, the best operating system and the most-secure machines in the consumer-PC market. Now it’s performing a brain transplant on the Mac.

Starting in January, six months earlier than promised, Apple began switching the Mac to the very latest Intel processors-allowing higher speeds at lower temperatures compared with the previous IBM chips. Apple’s sleek, slim computers can run faster without bulking up for extra fans or heat-dispersion space.

That change, in turn, enabled Apple to stun the world in April when it announced a free utility that permits the Intel-based Macs to run Windows as a complement to the Mac operating system. With this new software, called Boot Camp, a Mac user can start up the computer either as a Mac or as a Windows machine. That means people who resisted switching to the Mac because they need to run one or two programs available only in Windows can now convert without hesitation.

America’s slimmest brand-name desktop, the dazzling white iMac, now runs faster with Intel chips yet retains its slender form. So does the thin, aluminum-clad 15-inch MacBook Pro laptop, a renamed version of the PowerBook. Like its Mac siblings, the tiny Mac Mini desktop now includes an Intel processor that incorporates two “cores,” the equivalent of two processors in one.

These Intel models are Macs through and through because they still run Apple’s Mac OS X operating system, Tiger — which is so far ahead of Windows that it already contains the key features Microsoft is promising for its much-delayed new version of Windows, Vista, due in January.

But now Macs can run Windows as well. Apple’s other models should be converted to Intel by late 2006. They include the 17-inch-screen version of the MacBook Pro laptop, the thinnest and lightest portable available; the entry-level MacBook laptop, formerly called the iBook; and the top-of-the-line PowerMac towers.

The new Mac lineup doesn’t include some categories of computers offered by the likes of Dell and HP. For instance, Apple lacks an ultralight laptop like the 2.5- to 3.5-pound Windows models from Sony and Toshiba. It doesn’t offer gaming-specific desktop towers or big laptops, like those from Alienware and Dell. And it doesn’t offer models with built-in TV tuners and TiVo-like digital video recorders, like those available from most PC makers.

Also, while Macs now use standard ports and connectors, which can accommodate most any printer or scanner, they omit a couple of common features found on many Windows machines. They’re not equipped with readers for camera memory cards, and the laptops don’t have built-in receivers for the new, high-speed cell phone data networks. You can add both of these features as external add-ons, at extra cost.

On the other hand, Macs running the OS X operating system aren’t susceptible to the many thousands of viruses and spyware programs that plague Windows computers; most Mac users don’t bother to run antivirus and antispyware software.

Then there’s price. Years ago Macs cost much more than Windows PCs. That’s no longer true. The iMac is priced comparably to identically equipped Windows machines, though no similar Windows desktop is as slim. Mac laptops can run a few hundred dollars more than Windows models, though comparable Windows laptops tend to be thicker and heavier, with lower-quality screens.

But Apple has no offerings cheaper than its $599 base Mac Mini, which lacks a keyboard, monitor and mouse. It doesn’t play in the market’s bargain-basement segment, where Dell, HP and others have stripped-down models that sell for under $400.

Here’s a quick guide to the fresh Mac models, and to their new ability to run Windows.

DESKTOPS

The iMac. This is Apple’s flagship product, its main consumer desktop and, in my view, the best available consumer desktop. At first glance, it looks like just a sexy, white, flat-panel monitor. But there’s a powerful computer packed behind the screen, which can also run Windows. The iMac also has a built-in video and still camera, plus a special operating mode called Front Row that allows you to play music, videos, DVDs and photo slide shows from across a room, using an included remote control. The iMac starts at $1,299, complete with a built-in flat-panel screen.

The Mac Mini. The smallest desktop computer I’ve ever tested, at 6.5 inches square and 2 inches high. Yet it’s a full-fledged Mac, complete with the latest Intel chips, that can also run Windows. Starting at $599, the Mini includes Front Row with remote control and is often bought for connecting to a TV as a media hub.

The Power Mac. This is a heavy-duty tower, favored by graphic artists, musical composers, video producers and scientists. It has yet to be upgraded to Intel processors, but currently can be ordered with as many as four IBM G5 cores. For most consumers, it’s overkill. It starts at $1,999, without a monitor.

LAPTOPS

The MacBook Pro. Apple’s top laptop, a renamed, reengineered version of its famous PowerBook that looks and works pretty much the same-only faster. Though currently available only with a 15-inch screen, for $1,999, a 17-inch model may roll out. It’s not clear if the 12-inch PowerBook, which remains on sale at $1,499, will also be replaced.

The main difference between MacBook Pros and PowerBooks? The former use the new Intel processors, have built-in video cameras, and feature Front Row and the remote control. Oh, and they can run Windows. The MacBook.This is the rumored name for a new entry-level Intel-based laptop that will soon replace the iBook. It should be much faster and also be able to run Windows. Meanwhile, the iBook remains on sale, starting at $999. It uses the older IBM G4 processor.

WINDOWS ON A MAC

The new Intel-based Macs can run Windows via Boot Camp, a free Apple utility that overcomes some subtle hardware differences between the Intel-based Macs and standard Windows computers.

After you run Boot Camp, you simply buy a copy of Windows XP (Apple won’t sell or support Windows) and install it as you would on any regular Windows computer. You must use a full, nonupgrade copy of Windows that includes the update Microsoft calls “SP2.” These versions of Windows cost $200 to $300.

Once Windows is installed on a Mac, each time you start up you can choose whether to run the Mac OS or Windows. Only one operating system can be used at a time, and each controls its own walled-off section of the Mac’s hard disk.

In my tests, an Intel iMac running Windows performed like a fast, normal Windows computer and ran every Windows program and hardware device I threw at it.

Apple isn’t abandoning its operating system or switching to Windows. It’s making it easy to run Windows on a Mac in hopes of tempting potential switchers who would use the Mac OS most of the time, but need to shift to Windows periodically to run programs that don’t have Mac equivalents.

Macs aren’t for everyone. But they are superior computers, and with the new Intel chips and Windows capability, they are more attractive than ever.


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