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PowerBook family grows, top and bottom

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Apple shareholders who might be dismayed by Merrill Lynch's "sell" evaluation today can take heart from the broker's distinguished track record.

Merrill paid $100 million in fines for hyping stocks it privately regarded - as "dog" and "piece of shit", and the analysts continue to beat up on successful R&D spenders like EMC and Sun Microsystems, who like Apple, all seem to be weathering the recession very well. (We discussed some of the analysts flawed logic here, and here. Eliot Spitzer's pursuit of the Wall Street swindlers has generated much interesting reader debate here, here and here).

Merrill's Michael Hillmeyer believes the new product pipeline looks "skimpy", but perhaps he hadn't been told about the new PowerBook range, which Apple aggressively revamped today.

It's quite a bold diversification, as the portable range was only refreshed late last fall.

In comes a 12" G4 PowerBook built to the same sturdy aesthetic as the iBook, for $1799, and an enormous 17" PowerBook that uses the 1440x900 pixel display from the current top-of-the-range iMac. Both models have Nvidia 4 series graphics, and built-in Bluetooth, with the 802.11g wireless networking integrated to the new 17" model and optional on the 12" model. The $3299 17" PowerBook has a backlit keyboard which adjusts itself according to the environment, a typical Apple touch. But in the tradition of the hockey puck mouse, and rear-located iMac ports, the new keyboard still doesn't have dedicated Page Up or Page Down keys on a keyboard that now looks as isolated as a desert island in the Pacific. (Apple's patent on environmentally moody computers might mean color adaptive models aren't too far behind.)

The low-end PowerBook answers many a prayer for a smaller G4 notebook. There are thinner and lighter Wintel equivalents, but these must necessarily sacrifice a built-in CD drive, giving the user more junk to carry around. The two-year old Titanium and its new 17" sibling are now differentiated by screen size and expandability: the latter sports a PCMCIA card and perhaps more importantly, as it's an X-only model, allows more memory to be added. And Apple has been listening. To answer criticism of terrible Airport reception on the TiBook, the new 17" model uses an aluminum casing and puts the antenna "where they belong", said Jobs: in the lid. Both new models will only boot into OS X.

Why so bold? Introducing an aggressive lower priced model always runs the risk of cannibalizing sales from the higher priced, and thus higher margin products. But it can also expand the market. And the move makes the portable range more attractive to buyers who might have plumped for a desktop model.

Apple knows its PowerMac line is in trouble, and braced its investors for further market share falls in its December SEC filing (tower sales already down 35 per cent and 18 per cent in respective years), and there's no immediate respite in sight. Worryingly, iMac sales remain stagnant, although if the company can give the iMac range a similarly aggressive and imaginative boost, while giving some consideration to the cost-sensitive education sector, then alarmism is misplaced. Given some of the details we've learned today - a new browser, no fees for iTunes or iPhoto (for new users - the "iLife" bundle of four is $49), an X server (not announced in the keynote, thanks to Finlay for the link), and even a discounted iTools (it's $69.95 for new users) - Apple appears to be listening to its users, something that's been elusive at times over the past year.

And that's probably the most encouraging sign of all. ®

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