The new PowerBook G4 -- gaming on the go

Following our analysis yesterday of the Power Mac G4 from a gamer's perspective, we present to you the same look at the new PowerBook G4, unveiled at Macworld Expo in San Francisco last week.

Low, wide and fast

Its short height, titanium chassis and wide screen certainly make it visually striking, but how does the PowerBook G4 stack up against past offerings when it comes to playing games? The previous generation of "Pismo" PowerBook G3's were surprisingly adept game machines, and the PowerBook G4 is even better. While some gamers may not find the PowerBook G4 to be the perfect balance between price, power and portability, it certainly comes further than any previous model.

The heart of the PowerBook G4 is the PowerPC G4 processor, operating at 400 or 500MHz. Outside of some technology demos, game developers have been slow to take advantage of the benefits of the "Velocity Engine" architecture which makes the PowerPC G4 chips special -- the technology is also known by it its Motorola-dubbed nomenclature, "Altivec."

Recently Quake 3 Arena developer Id Software's Graeme Devine has indicated that he's readying the release of a Velocity Engine-optimized version of Quake 3 Arena (which should be out soon), and Devine is certain enough of the G4's capabilities that he's said Id plans to make future builds of Quake 3 Arena for OS X and other new products for G4-equipped machines only. If Devine and company can show that there's an appreciable performance benefit by optimizing code for G4s, it's possible that other developers may follow. Should that happen, the PowerBook G4 would be the only game in town for Mac gamers looking for bleeding-edge games that push the hardware's limitations.

Uncompromising laptop video

The PowerBook G4 comes equipped with ATI's RAGE 128 Mobility chip, configured with 8MB of SDRAM video memory on a 2x AGP interface -- this aspect of the PowerBook's design is unchanged from the previous iteration. PowerBooks generally render 3D graphics in games slower than their desktop counterparts, resulting in lower frame rates -- but as laptop systems go, the PowerBook is damn nice. And the frame rates can usually be tweaked a bit by the user through adjusting in-game detail and quality settings.

The RAGE 128 Mobility chip is a proven design that offers terrific 3D performance for a laptop configuration. The RAGE 128 Mobility offers playable performance for 3D games at lower resolutions, and should be able to handle just about any game without a problem. Alas, ATI's next-generation mobile graphics solution based on its Radeon chip is not yet ready for production.

The PowerBook G4's 15.2-inch screen sports a native widescreen resolution of 1152 x 768 pixels, and snaps to other lower resolutions without incident. The 1152 x 768 is a 3:2 aspect ratio, wider than the average screen, which sports a 4:3 aspect ratio. This is great for running palette-heavy image editing software, but when the PowerBook displays graphics in a conventional aspect ratio (as it would for games), the screen displays rather jarring black borders on either side of the image. Regardless, very few of us play games all day long. It's hard to argue when it's time to work, that 15.2 display is a thing of beauty. And the PowerBook G4 sports S-Video and VGA output, if you want to display your game on a large screen instead.

Full-featured

The PowerBook G4 incorporates a 100MHz system bus; up to 30GB of storage space; up to 1GB of installable RAM; built-in 10/100baseT and support for wireless networking; USB; FireWire; 5-hour battery; and DVD support. While some of these specs are similar to the "Pismo" PowerBook model this titanium PowerBook replaces, it all adds up to a powerful combination.

The PowerBook G4 also sports a stereo mini-jack output for external speakers or a set of headphones -- new USB-based headphones will work too. If you don't want to carry a good set of headphones (although we'd recommend it, especially for 3D games), the unit comes equipped with a pair of built-in stereo speakers. They're not loud enough to fill a room, but they sound pretty decent in a fairly quiet space.

The trackpad and button of the new PowerBook G4 are beautiful compared to the squishy, indistinct trackpads of older models, but hardcore gamers will still want to opt for an external multi-button mouse, probably with a scrollwheel. Take your pick -- any HID-compliant USB mouse will work fine with the built-in 12Mbps USB interfaces, either using Mac OS 9's InputSprocket or Apple's forthcoming Mac OS X.

Constructive Criticism

One has different concerns when buying a laptop than buying a desktop machine, so some of the suggestions we offered for the Power Mac G4 don't necessarily apply to the PowerBook G4. 3D surround sound, for example, isn't exactly convenient to create for a portable system. Still, there are a few areas that we think might make the PowerBook G4 an even better gaming machine.

  • Games bundle -- How many times have you seen a Windows laptop user in an airport or sidewalk cafe, idly playing a solitaire game or a round of a minesweeper clone? Even if Apple doesn't bundle a killer gaming app on its PowerBook G4, it should at least provide some form of entertainment for businesspeople and travelers. Ideally, Apple could license a small package of best-of-class Mac shareware titles for distribution on the PowerBook G4 -- perhaps a card game from Freeverse, an arcade title from Ambrosia Software, and an offering from Monkey Byte Software -- just to give PowerBook users something to play when they're sipping their lattes at Starbucks or waiting for a connecting flight at O'Hare. A killer Mac-first 3D game, like the Pangea Software titles Cro-Mag Rally or Bugdom wouldn't hurt either (Bugdom is included on iMacs and iBooks) -- those have drawn crowds before when we fire them up on our PowerBook G3. They're a great promotion for the platform.
  • More RAM -- Sure, the standard issue 128MB RAM on the 400MHz model should be fine for a laptop, but this is a Mac we're talking about, and RAM is always a premium resource for Mac games, productivity software and creative applications alike. We've certainly hit the ceiling on a PowerBook G3 equipped with 128MB, and would love to see 256MB become standard issue on the low-end PowerBook G4 as well.
  • GeForce2 Go -- Some gamers are disappointed that Apple didn't opt for Nvidia's GeForce2 Go graphics chip, Nvidia's first offering to the mobile computing market. Based on the GeForce2 MX chip (which has made its debut Mac appearance in the new Power Mac G4), the GeForce2 Go is Mac-compatible. This chipset is still to be proven on the Mac platform, so we can't yet say if it's a better or worse choice for the PowerBook than the RAGE 128 Mobility, but we know the Nvidia name brand is a hot-button issue for many gamers. At the very least, we're sure that Apple will evaluate the GeForce2 Go for its next PowerBook upgrade.
  • Wrap it up, I'll take one

    Is the PowerBook G4 a substitute for a GameBoy Color? No, of course not -- it's gobs more expensive than a portable gaming system. It's infinitely more capable, too. Laptop systems are also inherently more expensive and not as expandable as desktop systems. So when push comes to shove, it's doubtful that many PowerBook G4 users would be buying their systems for the game playing potential alone.

    Apple certainly has done nothing to diminish the PowerBook line as a powerful game-playing platform with the new iteration. Instead, the company has incorporated some nice features that are sure to add some tangible benefits to the game playing experience. But as a full-featured portable workstation that plays awesome games, the PowerBook G4 is elegant, powerful and full-featured -- a portable combination that's hard to beat.

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