Analysis: Timing Isn't Right for G5 PowerBook

It didn’t take an Amazing Kreskin to see imminent new PowerBooks. Until last week’s announcement that its PowerBooks would see a modest speed bump and other improvements, Apple hadn’t updated the product line since April 2004. And nine months is pushing the outer edge of “healthy” in Apple’s CPU upgrade cycle.

It also didn’t take psychic powers to know that, despite the “friendly” rumor-mongers applying pressure, this round would not introduce the PowerBook G5. For its part, Apple has repeatedly said that putting the PowerPC G5 in a PowerBook is incredibly difficult, or as Tim Cook, Apple executive vice president of wolrdwide sales and operations, put it during the company’s recent earnings call, it’s “the mother of all thermal challenges.”

The truth is, as much as professionals want G5 power in a notebook, the chip was not designed to run in a box as thin as a PowerBook case. The Freescale ( née Motorola) PowerPC G3 and G4 chips were designed as low-power, high-performance processors suitable for everything from Power Macintosh systems to automobile engines and network routers—and that’s why they still haven’t reached 2GHz, much less cleared it.

IBM followed Intel’s route in using high-power, heat-spewing parts to get maximum performance, and it worked—for desktop systems. The days when Apple’s fastest PowerBook could match the processor speed of its fastest Power Mac are gone, and they’re not coming back anytime soon.

Today, there’s little market for a PowerBook G5 anyway, except among the set that always wants the latest toys immediately. The PowerPC G5’s main strengths are 64-bit processing, larger memory address spaces, and raw processing power. The address space isn’t an issue—no PowerBook to date can hold 4GB of RAM, much less enough RAM beyond 4GB for individual applications to run into problems. The 64-bit address spaces are mostly useful in scientific computing right now, and we’ve seen no evidence that the market is clamoring for a 64-bit notebook computer.

That leaves raw processing speed and 64-bit number crunching power, both features that appeal primarily to multimedia professionals. But even for Final Cut Pro HD experts, a dual-processor Power Macintosh G5 will always smoke a single-processor PowerBook in video encoding, applying real-time audio or video effects, and other tasks of non-linear editing or performance.

Even when Apple gets a PowerPC G5 into a PowerBook-size case, chances are at least 50-50 that the supporting bus won’t run at half the processor’s speed, like most Power Macintosh G5 systems, because the necessary support chips would take too much power and generate too much heat, just like today’s G5 processors do.

The semiconductor industry has faced problems this difficult before and resolved them, and we have faith it will do so again. For now, though, road warriors have a choice of new PowerBook G4 machines aimed at making the mobile life a little bit better—hard disk protection if you drop the computer, better scrolling without a mouse, and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR. The entry fee for PowerBook ownership dropped from $1,599 to $1,499 for the 12-inch model, and the dues for the ultra PowerBook dropped from $2,799 to $2,699. The other models dropped in price as well, except for the new entry-level 1.5GHz 15-inch PowerBook G4. It costs as much as the previous entry-level 1.33GHz 15-inch model, but it’s 13 percent faster with the nifty new hardware features for the same $1,999 retail price.

Today’s analysis is simple. If you need PowerPC G5 performance, buy a Power Mac G5 or, at the very least, an iMac G5. If mobility is more important than having 8GB of RAM or encoding MPEG-2 video as fast as possible, the new PowerBook G4 speed bumps are worth a look. Buy what you need, not what the rumor sites can imagine. If you need to stay mobile but want the fastest G4 performance Apple has ever delivered—faster than any other G4 systems the company has ever shipped—then these PowerBooks could be for you.

Excerpted with permission from the February 1 issue of MDJ, published by MacJournals.com. Copyright 2005, GCSF Incorporated. For a free trial to MDJ, visit www.macjournals.com.

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