PowerBook G3s

As most portable users will tell you, the three most important considerations in a notebook computer are size, size, and size. Luckily for Mac road warriors, Apple's latest PowerBook line offers major improvements in all three. Apple's PowerBook G3 notebooks have distinguished themselves as performance leaders among laptop computers. But users have paid a heavy price for that power–literally–as they lugged the bulky 8-pound portables through airports and hotel lobbies. No more. With the latest Mac laptops, Apple has engineered out some two pounds of bulk while adding more features, boosting speed, and extending battery life.


From the moment you pick up one of the "bronze" PowerBooks (the nickname comes from the translucent bronze keyboard), you can tell that Apple has given–and taken away. The design generally resembles that of the previous PowerBook models, with a sleek black chassis; smooth, rounded corners; and a pair of expansion bays for storage devices and batteries. But it's just 1.7 inches thick–about a third of an inch thinner than its predecessor–and weighs in at 5.9 pounds with CD-ROM drive and battery.

Thanks to its crash diet, the new PowerBook is light and easy to handle, but it still has a solid and resilient feel. However, with the slimmer expansion bay, storage devices and batteries designed for Apple's previous PowerBooks won't fit in the new one. Aside from VST Technologies' Zip and SuperDisk drives, there are few products available at press time that work with the new bay.

Macworld Lab tested standard configurations of both new PowerBook models. One model features a 400MHz G3 CPU, and the other a 333MHz chip. Both models include 64MB of RAM, an ATI Rage LT Pro graphics controller with 8MB of video memory, a 14.1-inch active-matrix display, a 10/100BaseT Ethernet connection, and a 56-Kbps modem. The 400MHz model also features a 1MB L2 cache, a 6GB hard drive, and a DVD-ROM drive. The 333MHz model sports a 512K L2 cache, a 4GB hard drive, and a 24 x CD-ROM drive.

At press time, you couldn't order the 333MHz model with a DVD drive. Apple says it will offer DVD as a build-to-order option for the 333MHz model, but you won't be able to upgrade to DVD after you've purchased the machine.

As you can see in the benchmark, "Bronze PowerBooks," the 400MHz PowerBook G3 far outpaced the 300MHz reference system in processor performance and also earned the top scores in our Disk and Graphics tests. The 333MHz model was less impressive, lagging slightly behind the reference system in processor performance, slightly ahead in graphics performance, and about even in disk performance. The likely culprit for the low Processor score is the model's smaller L2 cache. But keep these numbers in perspective: this is still a wicked-fast laptop.


Thanks to the lower power consumption of the latest G3 chips, along with new power-management features in Mac OS 8.6, Apple claims that you can run these laptops up to five hours on a single battery, or ten hours when using two batteries. To achieve such long battery life, you need to step down the CPU speed, using the Energy Saver control panel. When testing at full speed, we found that the 400MHz model lasted for three hours running a standard suite of business-application tasks; the 333MHz version kept its charge about a half hour longer. When we ran this same suite on the previous-generation 300MHz PowerBook G3, also at full speed, we got three hours of battery life under Mac OS 8.6 and 2 hours, 50 minutes under Mac OS 8.5.1.

Apple says that you can watch a DVD feature movie (namely, Austin Powers) twice on a single battery's power. Again, this claim is based on running the CPU at a slower speed. At full speed, we ran out of power with about 30 minutes left to the end of the second showing. Fortunately, running at the slower CPU speed has no effect on DVD performance.

Our conclusion? While the bronze PowerBooks offer a modest improvement in battery life, the 400MHz unit also offers considerably greater speed, making the aggregate a good step forward in battery life versus CPU performance.


Portable users cannot live by battery life alone. And here, the new PowerBooks offer some nice improvements.

These are the first PowerBooks to include built-in USB ports (two) and FireWire connectivity, although the latter is available only through Newer Technology's FireWire2Go PC Card. And unlike Apple's desktop models, which have done away with older hardware interfaces, the new PowerBooks still include a SCSI port as well as a 4-Mbps IrDA port. However, the ADB port is gone and you get only one PC Card slot instead of the traditional two. The new PowerBooks also return a feature missing from the previous generation of Apple laptops: the ability to drive the internal display and an external monitor simultaneously. Earlier G3 models required a separate graphics adapter to do this.

Along with these major additions, the new models offer a host of small-but-useful improvements. It is now easier to remove the keyboard if you want to access internal components. Before, you had to remove any devices in the expansion bays; now you simply release two latches and remove a keyboard-locking screw. Apple also improved the design of the expansion-bay latches, making it more difficult to accidentally eject a drive or battery.

The keyboard's translucence, while adding a nice design flair, occasionally tricked us into thinking the caps lock key was engaged. And if you use PC-emulation software, you may lament the loss of dedicated Delete, Insert, Print Scrn, Scroll Lock, and Pause/Break keys, previously available through the PowerBook's function keys. Also missing are dedicated controls for ejecting PC Cards and controlling mute, volume, and contrast, although the latter three controls are available through function keys.

The biggest problem we encountered in our testing related to the PowerBooks' USB implementation. The USB drivers that shipped with the laptops don't seem to recognize the PowerBook Sleep function, so putting the machines to sleep with an attached, unpowered USB device (such as a keyboard or mouse) caused a variety of minor problems, including the occasional system crash. We expect that Apple and peripheral developers will provide updated drivers that address this problem.


Despite the $1,000 price difference, we recommend the 400MHz PowerBook G3 over the 333MHz model due to the G3/400's built-in DVD-ROM drive and impressive performance numbers. However, the slower model still delivers plenty of laptop power for a mere $2,499. Either PowerBook will satisfy those hankering for a light load but unwilling to give up features–or the Mac OS–to achieve it.


RATING:

4.5 mice
PROS: Respectable battery life; good value. CONS: Must order DVD at time of purchase; possible stability problems related to USB. COMPANY: Apple Computer (800/795-1000, http://www.powerbook.apple.com ).
COMPANY'S ESTIMATED PRICE: $2,499.


RATING:

5.0 mice
PROS: Fast; DVD built-in. CONS: May have some stability problems related to USB. COMPANY: Apple Computer (800/795-1000, http://www.powerbook.apple.com ). COMPANY'S ESTIMATED PRICE: $3,499.

September 1999 page: 34

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