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Apple’s Stealth Product Introductions Revisited

Now perhaps Steve Jobs didn’t want to stretch out the session any further, not wanting to bore the assembled reporters or those watching the online version. But several product announcements came in under the radar. In fact, they were so low-key, they didn’t even merit press releases.

Talk about getting a tepid send-off. It reminds me of the movies that aren’t previewed for critics, because the producers fear they will get bad reviews. They hope that they’ll make enough money on the first weekend to make up for poor word-of-mouth and scathing write-ups.

But there’s nothing about the upgraded Mac mini that should warrant disparaging remarks. Admittedly, it doesn’t take a lot of research and development to plug in faster processors, extra memory and larger hard drives. That’s the sort of upgrade pattern that can be repeated for several years without changing the basic product. Then again, don’t PC box makers do that as well?

Regardless of the fact that the Mac mini remains under the radar, I think it’s a damned good computer. I have several friends who bought them, actually upgrading from G4 minitowers. Sure, maybe the hard drive isn’t so fast, and the graphics aren’t quite game ready, but the mini excels at most of the tasks regular people perform. Besides, if you have a leftover set of input devices and a monitor that still use useful life, the Mac mini is the cheapest way to take advantage of the latest and greatest that Apple has to offer. Or at least if you’re not doing high definition video editing or 3D rendering, of course.

It’s also a convenient way for Mac switchers to join in on all the fun without having to pay an arm and a leg. Besides, how many cheap PCs come close to the Mac mini when it comes to good looks and a reasonably complete set of standard features? In fact, how many of those computers even offer 1GB of standard RAM?

The other upgrade that arrived without any fanfare involved the AirPort Extreme. When the “n” version debuted in January, the critics said that Apple had short-changed you by not including gigabit Ethernet ports. Now I don’t understand the logic there, unless the cost of chips were, at the time, too high to keep the price from going much above the $179 level.

Well, regardless of the reasoning — and we’ll never know unless Steve Jobs writes a tell-all book about his experiences at Apple after he retires — it’s a worthwhile improvement.

Now if you have the older version, you don’t need to throw it out. That is, unless your Internet connection exceeds 100 megabits, of course!

What I did was simply to link my AirPort Extreme to my existing Netgear eight-port gigabit Ethernet switch. That device cost me about $80 when I acquired it a couple of years ago, and I see no need to toss it and the AirPort in the trash heap. In fact, this may just be a simple upgrade path for you, since you’ll get extra ports in the process, except that Netgear has perfectly awful tech support. Just a word to the wise.

The third upgrade is a peripheral for the Mac Pro and Xserve, a new RAID card that lists for $999. Other than the speedy redundancy with multiple hard drives that such a card delivers, this one sports a 72-hour backup battery for the built-in cache.

All right, the Mac Pro RAID card isn’t a terribly sexy device, but it does demonstrate Apple’s strong commitment to improving its presence in the business marketplace. Another notable factor is the addition of FireWire 800 to all versions of the iMac, rather than just the 24-inch model, and the ability to custom order a 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Extreme processor. That’s a chip that was, as of this week at least, unavailable to other PC companies.

Indeed, I’m just wondering whether a fair number of folks who might have purchased Mac Pros are now considering the iMac instead. Really, if you don’t need to add peripheral cards, extra hard drives or swap out the graphics card, it may well be that the iMac is a suitable — and much cheaper — substitute for many business users.

You should surely expect really good performance with the standard array of graphics applications on a new iMac, such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. The standard range of number crunching software should also provide stellar performance, and only those who need cutting-edge rendering speeds will find much lacking in the iMac. This is particularly true if you’re planning to upgrade from a G4 or even most variants of the G5.

But perhaps the most important thing about Tuesday’s event came during the brief question and answer session. Steve Jobs remarked that Apple wouldn’t go toe-to-toe with cheap PC makers, because they won’t build and ship “junk.”

That’s not just a reflection of his reality distortion field, in my opinion. It is an expression of Apple’s DNA. They always seem to try their very best, even if they do mess up on occasion.