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Roundup: Macworld Expo 2004

A look at news and events from this year's big Mac show By Dave Nagel
Macworld San Francisco is one of the few great expos left to technology enthusiasts, a show packed--especially this year--with throngs of enthusiastic attendees just thrilled to be there, let alone afforded the opportunity to meet and shake hands with their favorite developers, to unload some cash on new technologies and to get a glimpse of The Man Himself as he delivers his annual opening benediction. But I travel to the Macworld convention every year with pretty low expectations because the company around which the show revolves--Apple--invariably fails to deliver on expectations leading up to the event, especially for the professional creative market, which is, after all, not just the core but the bulk of the Mac user base. This year was no exception. However, once again, it was third-party developers to the rescue with just a vast amount of wildly significant and sometimes surprising announcements for professionals and semi-professionals alike.

An anodized future
First to Apple itself, the centerpiece of the Macworld convention. It's probable that most of you reading this watched or read about the keynote address by Apple CEO Steve Jobs Tuesday morning, so I'll try not to rehash too much of it. In short, Apple's big opening statement for the new year concerned, primarily, the new suite of iLife applications and pink, anodized music players, neither of which is likely to strike anybody as the culmination of human technological achievement. Nevertheless, there were a few tidbits in Jobs's address worth noting. The first was the uncharacteristic hint that 2004 would be a significant year for the G5, with major new developments coming up seemingly in the near, rather than undefined, future. The reason these hints were significant is that Apple never treats the Macworld Expo as if it were a trade show for professionals, and so the company always reserves its more significant announcements for a slightly later date, sometimes mere weeks after Macworld--say, perhaps, the NAMM show next week in Anaheim--sometimes a couple of months, using an event like the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in April as a launching point for major new hardware advances and pro application developments. So, with the hints in place, I believe we can look forward to some major new strides in G5 technologies in the coming weeks or months--unless, of course, Jobs was just hinting at delivering pink and blue anodized G5 cases, which may very well fall into his definition of "major."

In the meantime, the only things I considered to be even relatively major to come from Apple at Macworld Jobs glossed over as if he weren't even interested. The first of these is the new G5-based Xserve line, something that I think was long overdue, a mere catching up with the desktop line. The new G5-based Xserve line now includes a dual 2 GHz G5 and a single 2 GHz G5 model, as well as a dual 2 GHz 5 Xserve "computing node." The new models, which will ship in February, include a new system controller with support for up to 8 GB PC3200 ECC memory, three hot-plug Serial ATA drive modules with support for up to 750 GB of storage, dual 133 MHz PCI-X slots and a slot-load optical media bay.

Jobs also announced new version of the Xserve RAID line, now qualified for use with a variety of third-party hardware and operating systems. The new versions are 3U models with 14 independent ATA/100 drive channels. It also adds RAID set slicing for using the storage systems with up to 16 servers. The new versions start at $5,999 for the 1 TB model and run up to $10,999 for the 3.5 TB model.

For software, Jobs introduced Final Cut Express 2, a major revision to this pro/semi-pro video editing system and probably Apple's most important and least emphasized announcement at the show. The new version 2.0 supports up to five DV streams in real time, with an increased number of real-time effects via the adoption of RT Extreme technology carried over from Final Cut Pro 4. It also offers an enhanced user interface, with customizable buttons, dynamic windows (position and resizing) and a new, user-adjustable timeline. It also gets improvements in the audio department, with real-time, multi-track audio support, real-time volume and filter adjustments and other new features. It's available now for $299 for the full version, $99 for upgrades from the previous release.

I won't harp on the consumer-level stuff, except to mention iDVD and GarageBand. iDVD is one of those tools that crosses genres and is used by professionals and hobbyists alike. The new version 4 adds new templates, new menu transitions, a DVD map for viewing the DVD's structure and new slideshow functionality. And GarageBand was also introduced, a consumer-level app designed to function as a music production studio in a box. It includes MIDI functionality and audio recording and looping capabilities with technologies carried over from SoundTrack, offering more than 50 software instruments, more than 200 effects, more than 1,000 audio loops and a variety of amp styles for processing live instruments directly on the Mac. I don't expect any audio professionals out there to dump their Logic or Pro Tools systems in favor of GarageBand, but the software may very well prove useful for other kinds of professionals out there, say the kind who use iDVD for client work, for presentations and the like. More info:

So, while Apple's presence at Macworld wasn't exactly overwhelming, it was notable in some limited regards.

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