PowerBook G4 Diary: The Final Analysis

I was originally going to title this entry, "A funny thing happened on the way to the rating." It's been weeks since I posted my last diary, and I know many of you have become restless with anticipation.

And, believe me, I've got plenty of good excuses why it took so long -- we've been really busy at Macworld getting the next issue of the print magazine out (yeah, that's my other job). I wrote the cover story for that issue, and, of course, the always reliable excuse: the dog ate my benchmarks.

But, the real reason is, I'm a lazy sod. The forum contributors came up with so many things we needed to check on before we could issue a rating -- from DVD drive ejection problems to cases that conduct electricity -- I got a bit overwhelmed. I throw myself on the mercy of our readers and hope this thoughtful analysis might in some small way repay your patience. That, and this little bit of bribery: our wonderful designers pulled out all the stops in creating the cover image for the May issue. If you're a big Titanium PowerBook G4 ( compare prices ) fan, I think you'll like it. And if enough of you do, let us know on the forums and I'll look into making that cover into a poster. No promises, mind you, but I'll see what I can do. Sometimes , it's good to be the editor in chief.

And now, on to the final analysis.

Design

The Titanium PowerBook G4 doesn't just look different than any PowerBook that's come before, it feels different. For those who have received your Titanium PowerBooks, you'll know immediately what I'm talking about. For those who haven't, you'll just have to use your imagination.

The thinness, the lighter weight, the rigidness of the case, or the feel of cool metal against your palms, lifting a PowerBook G4 from its Styrofoam packing is reminiscent of sliding the mirror-smooth blade of a master-crafted Katana out of its scabbard. I've said it before: when it comes to portable devices, the user interface goes well beyond the screen. A notebook's tactile user interface is just as important to ease-of-use as anything that appears on the display.

In this respect, the Titanium PowerBook G4 not only scores high points but also moves the bar higher than any portable that has come before -- PC or Mac. The cool gray exterior, clean lines, enormous screen, and inch-thin chassis inspires lust in all who see it. I have friends who are PC bigots, tried and true, and have yet to see a Mac they couldn't find fault in. These same friends have expressed unbridled avarice toward the Titanium portable, and the few who've bought one will never go back.

This latest Apple portable is a missionary clothed as an ambassador, and provides strong evidence that if Apple wants to convert the masses of PC users to the Mac, the company must create designs so compelling and so elegant that the Windows world will overcome their inbred distrust of the Mac OS to own one of these designs. In this way, the Titanium PowerBook G4 is the best-designed Mac Apple has ever shipped.

For the PowerBook user, the PowerBook G4 design scores in many more subtle ways: the wide format screen increases usable real estate in the all-important horizontal axis without increasing eye strain. The shorter depth of the portable means cramping in coach class should be reduced; I hope to test this in the next couple of weeks when I take a trip overseas. Improved rigidity improves handling the machine, lower weight means lower strain on people who frequently travel with their PowerBooks, and retaining all the key peripheral ports will be music to road warriors' ears. And speaking of music, despite eliminating almost all the usable airspace inside the portable, the Titanium PowerBook G4's speakers produce remarkably good sound. And, yes -- the headphone jack is back on the left side, where it belongs.

The expansion bays will be missed by some and might even prevent them from migrating to the new design. But I'm not one of those users. Even if Apple could have added bays to the Titanium PowerBook G4 and not increased the unit's size and weight, I'm glad to see them go. Expansion bays make a portable inherently more complex: there's more stuff that could break, and the bays ruin the integrated feel of the machine. Moving the battery bay underneath the portable eliminates the chances of accidental ejection of the power pack, a real problem with the old G3 portables. My Titanium PowerBook G4 feels like a solid block of aluminum because, in many respects, it is one.

I've since received a couple of portable FireWire hard drives and CD-RW drives to test, and they work just fine. It doesn't bother me to carry around these small, lightweight drives when I need them, and so I, for one, do not miss the expansion bays (watch for a bonus diary installment on my favorite Titanium PowerBook G4 toys).

This brings us to the use of titanium as a primary component of the chassis. On this front, I must admit to having split feelings. On the one hand, I know titanium was a key material in removing weight and thickness from the product. On the other hand, it's much more malleable than the polycarbonite shells Apple used to employ in their portables. This becomes a problem if you remove the bottom cover to install the AirPort card or a new hard drive. Like a piece of muslin removed from the wooden frame that makes it rigid, the cover is easily bent. The case is also easily scratched and dented. My poor portable, while it still performs flawlessly, is now embossed with several battle scars from testing -- and those scars do not give the portable character.

I couldn't determine if there was any real threat from electrical conductivity in the metal, nor did I ever see the problem of trapped discs in the DVD drive or dead pixels on the screen in any of our test units, but I can now attest that the Titanium PowerBook G4 does scratch way too easiliy.

Usability

While we're on the subject of design, I'd be remiss if I didn't comment on the ease of access for upgrading purposes. Here, the Titanium PowerBook G4 gets both thumbs up and thumbs down.

First, the good stuff: upgrading RAM is so easy in the Titanium PowerBook G4, I can't understand why anyone would ever pay a dealer -- or the ridiculously over-priced Apple online store -- to install RAM. Buy a PowerBook G4, and then find the best price online for RAM that you can. Getting to the RAM slot doesn't even require a screwdriver.

Now, the bad stuff: there is no reason I can see why you shouldn't be able to install an AirPort card from the top, under the easily removed keyboard. Instead, you're required to remove several tiny, stiffly mounted screws and remove the cranky, too easily bent bottom cover. While we're on the subject, here's a message for Apple: Mac users like to upgrade their hard drives. Get over it, and stop putting impediments like Torx screws in the hard drive mount.

In all other respects, the Titanium PowerBook G4's usability is quite good. From the rigid, full-size keyboard to the generous amounts of space to rest your wrists, I was very pleased. I do have three minor quibbles: it's too hard to slip an Ethernet plug in and out of the port; it's too hard to read the icons showing where the plugs should go when you're looking over the portable from the front; and the little lip that runs along the edge of the portable is too easy to mistake for the mouse button.

As for battery performance, after a month and a half of regular usage, my 500MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 seems to get about the same battery runtimes as my old 500MHz (Pismo) G3. I know it did slightly better in the benchmarks, but that's a difference I haven't really noticed in day-to-day operation.

Functionality/Stability

As much as I loved all my G3 PowerBooks, they all had their issues. As much as Macs can be flakey, PowerBooks can be more so because there's more that can go wrong.

Batteries, remote access, ever-changing power conditions, connecting with strange networks while on the road, processor cycling -- any number of these unique aspects of portable design add to the complexity of portable products and increase the likelihood that you'll have a problem. This iss why I'm happy to report that after more than a month of nearly constant usage, the Titanium PowerBook G4 has proven to be the most stable PowerBook I've ever used.

It's not that the Titanium PowerBook G4 hasn't ever crashed, it's just that it crashes a lot less, and it exhibits fewer strange behaviors I notice most PowerBooks seem to develop after a while: painfully slow start-up times, a disappearing Control Strip, network operations that inexplicably freeze -- you know, the stuff that's just problematic enough to be annoying. It makes me hanker to try out Mac OS X on the machine, but I'm not sure I'm ready to make that commitment until Apple gets the I/O drivers fully working in the new OS (which it won't in the first commercial release of OS X).

The reason why this PowerBook is so stable, despite all appearances that it is a radical new design, is that little beneath that shiny metal skin has changed. The processor is different, but the ATI Rage Pro Mobility graphics chip and the speed of the memory bus are almost entirely the same as the last couple of generations of PowerBooks. This means Apple has had time to work out the kinks in this design center. It also means you get a PowerBook where performance really hasn't changed much, despite the bump to G4 status.

I can't help but be a little disappointed in the performance of the Titanium PowerBook G4. I know Apple had little choice but to ship with the ATI Rage Pro Mobility chip set, and that even if the Radeon Mobility chip set had been available in time for the January/February shipment window, it wouldn't have made much difference in 3-D performance. But in the day when desktop Macs get to enjoy beyond state-of-the-art graphics boards like the Nvidia GeForce3, I can't help but feel a little cheated getting stuck with the pokey old ATI Rage Pro Mobility controller.

Another thing I realize Apple can't control is that beyond a few optimized applications, the G4 really isn't much faster than a G3 of the same megahertz. Yes, if you're doing something that takes advantage of AltiVec, you get an enormous speed boost. But if you don't have AltiVec-savvy software, you're back to G3 speeds.

The one thing I can blame Apple for is the relatively slow speed of the logic board itself. The PC market has been able to ship portables with higher bus speeds and faster internal drives for some time now. As we all know, drives and bus speeds can be just as big a bottleneck as processor speed. There is no reason why this updated portable design couldn't have boosted subsystem performance.

So, a big thumbs up on stability, but when it comes to performance, there are very few new things in Apple's shiny new portable unless you happen to be running AltiVec-savvy software such as Adobe Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, or SoundJam MP.

However, I may change my opinion on the performance if I change my OS: all of OS X is Altivec-enabled at its foundation.

Value

Now comes the hard part. When you look at the benchmarks, it's true that even outside of AltiVec-enabled performance, the 500MHz machine edges out the 400MHz version, but not by a huge margin. Because you can actually get things such as an additional 128MB of RAM (or 256MB, for that matter) so much cheaper than Apple charges for it, it's clear that the better value of the two machines is the 400MHz. Even by factoring in the cost of installing your own RAM upgrade versus upgrading the drive through the Apple Store when you order your PowerBook, the Titanium PowerBook G4/400 ends up being several hundred dollars cheaper.

However, this is all based on Mac OS 9 performance. And as we all know, Mac OS 9 will become less of an issue during the life of this portable. By the next time you're ready to upgrade to a new PowerBook, that extra 100MHz may make the difference, and may delay that upgrade.

Personally, I'm going with the 500MHz version because I do enough Photoshop and DV editing that the extra speed will come in handy. But, if you're using your portable predominantly for e-mail, Web surfing, and memo writing (plus the ever-popular DVD movie playing), go for the 400MHz; it really is the better value.

The Envelope, Please

And now, for the moment you've all been waiting for: the mouse rating.

There are many things we take into consideration when giving a mouse rating: value, performance, design, applicability to task, how it compares to the competition, innovation. And while a product needs to be nearly flawless to earn five mice, we also realize there are no perfect products. Especially to professional nit-pickers like us, we can always find a flaw.

That's why we look at the overall gestalt of the product in addition to how it scores in individual areas before bestowing a rating. And, yes, we know no matter what rating we give a product, someone will find fault with that rating.

In the case of the Titanium PowerBook G4, because the product is a major leap ahead of both the PC and Mac standards in the areas that count most in mobile computing -- size, weight, functionality, stability, and design -- we have decided to award it five mice. That's right, after long deliberation, we have decided to award the Titanium PowerBook G4 that most coveted of Macworld ratings. Because, at the end of the day, this PowerBook moves the experience of being a Mac user forward more than any single product in its category has done in a long time.

Plus, if you'd asked us if Apple could deliver a portable with the features of the Titanium PowerBook G4 before it was introduced, we would have said it couldn't be done. But it has been done.

And what better definition could there be of a 5.0 mice product?

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