Mercury Week: Audio (Part II in a Series)

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Date: Monday, February 1st, 1999, 00:00
Category: Archive

For today’s installment of Mercury Week we are going to take a look under the hood at the audio system in the new PowerBook G4. Obviously nothing is final until the production model specifications are announced at Macworld Expo SF 2001 [09-12 January 2001].


PowerBooks have always been cursed with poor audio performance, but it isn’t something that you can fault the machine for – it simply boils down to physics. The PowerBook cabinet is already cramped and small – it can barely fit the pair of three quarter inch round speakers that sit above the keyboard now. Imagine shaving one-half inch from the thickness and about 2 pounds of weight from the new design. Now that is an engineering challenge.

Audio is an important direction for Apple and lots of information on the company’s engineering priorities can be gleaned from the Worldwide Developers Conference that happens each May in beautiful San Jose. This year’s WWDC was no exception, and if you were attentive you probably noticed an emphasis on audio at the show.

Apple is re-committed to establishing the Mac as the king of the multimedia hill. With the battle long over in business and education losing ground each day, Apple has to focus on its last remaining strongholds and establish itself as the leader in these areas. One large remaining Mac fortress is multimedia and content creation.

At this spring’s WWDC standards such as Dolby 5.1 and peripherals such as Creative Labs’ Sound Blaster were big topics with several mentions in Phil Shiller’s hardware directions presentation and some conference sessions devoted exclusively to audio. Take from it what you will, but if history is any guide a trip to WWDC is analagous to looking into Apple’s crystal ball.

That said, Mercury will ship with an entirely new audio system that is compatible with the Dolby 5.1 standard. Rumors elsewhere have suggested that Apple is working closely with Creative Labs on a SoundBlaster implementation for desktop Macs but we have not been able to confirm that Creative has their paws in the Mercury project.

What we do know is that the new speakers in Mercury are a significant improvement over the tinny sounding models in the current Pismo model and that they are being handmade so that there is enough on hand for launch. The two stereo speakers “got it goin’ on, but lack depth” according to one source, but what did you expect? It’s still a portable.

The big surprise with audio will be Apple’s removal of the eigth-inch (mini jack) audio input port present on almost every PowerBook – ala iBook. The company took a lot of heat for this omission when iBook was released but responded by saying that audio-in could always be done via USB. Apparantly it isn’t a matter of cost savings (how much could the little connector cost?) but rather an opportunity for third party developers to make more USB and FireWire products with a “Macintosh compatible” on the box.

One good thing: if you are like most users you use the audio output port (for headphones, speakers) on a daily basis whereas you probably use the audio input port (for audio capture, ViaVoice, etc.) far less. There was a point where Apple was toying with the idea of removing both the audio input AND output mini jacks, but they appear to have decided to keep the output port for Mercury.

Tomorrow on Mercury Week: The Display

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