The new 1.67GHz PowerBook: A solid 17-in. value

OK, I can admit it. I'm a sucker for Apple Computer's 17-inch PowerBook line. I had one of the first of those that came out in March 2003, snagging one at a local Apple Store when the first shipment rolled in. Later that year, I upgraded to the 1.33GHz model and last year, I couldn't resist popping for the then-new 1.5-GHz version.

Friends like it when Apple releases new hardware, too, because it generally means I can pass on, at a nominal discount, what I've been using. Co-workers jokingly refer to "Ken's Gently Used Electronics" store.

So when Apple updated its PowerBook line again last week -- finally, after nine months -- I managed to get an order in two hours after the new laptops were available. Lucky me. Mine shipped out last week and arrived Monday. Other road warriors who ordered PowerBooks that day are still waiting. The same is true for the popular midrange 15-inch models, although some have now shown up and are in happy buyers' hands.

Given the paucity of the speed increase -- we're only talking about an 11 percent boost in processor speed -- what makes this one stand out from earlier versions comes down to four main things: a lower price, twice the RAM, a better backlit keyboard and a new trackpad that allows you to scroll around documents, Web pages and photos by using two fingers instead of one.

The trackpad for day-to-day use looks to be the best improvement.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm as much a speed demon as the next geek, and a G5 processor in Apple's PowerBooks would have been a wonderful thing. But that doesn't mean the 1.67GHz chip used in the new models is a slouch. And the nice thing about buying what is now the fourth revision of the "Lapzilla" or "lunch tray" PowerBooks is that this version is the most solid one yet. Build quality, on first blush, is outstanding. No bad pixels. No flaky latches. Battery life and heat are on par with the previous generations, and I've yet to notice the fans coming on. Temperature Monitor shows the "processor bottomside" holding at 129 degrees after hours of light use.

The latest 17-inch PowerBook looks the same as earlier models. Having said that, if you bought a PowerBook last year, there's little reason to upgrade. In fact, if you have the second iteration of the 17-inch model, the one released in late 2003, you might want to hold off as well. The changes in speed and features probably don't justify running out and getting the new one.

But if you're been using the 17-inch model that first came out in 2003, or if you've never had one of these true desktop replacements before and were waiting for the mythical PowerBook G5, now is a good time to buy. Here's why: The G4 processor is 67 percent faster than the first version, and the PowerBook G5 remains just that -- a myth for the foreseeable future.

Regarding speed, the new PowerBook offers about what you'd expect: a slight bump over the previous-generation PowerBook. Using XBench, a benchmarking utility for Macs, I came up with a score of 135. By comparison, the 1.5GHz model -- similarly equipped with a 5,400-rpm hard drive and 128MB of video RAM -- came in at 125, and a 1.33GHz model in which I had installed a 7,200-rpm hard drive clocked in at 123.

All of the 17-inch models now come with a 100GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive and 128MB of video RAM, and they can drive one of Apple's 30-inch monster LCDs. They also feature faster 8X SuperDrives, Bluetooth 2.0, 802.11g wireless cards and Apple's new "Sudden Motion Sensor" That technology senses if the laptop has been dropped and theoretically preserves data on the hard drive. (I'm not planning to test that feature.)

For all those added features, you pay less. Two years ago, Apple's top-end PowerBook sold for $3,299. It now goes for $2,699, down $100 from its predecessor. Apple made similar price adjustments to its smaller laptops, and the 12-inch entry-level variety with a combo drive that burns CDs and plays DVDs starts at $1,499.

Even as it was trimming the price tag, Apple was doing something it should have done a couple of years ago: doubling the base amount of memory. The 17-inch model always came with a 512MB RAM chip. But the others usually came with just 256MB, not really enough to use Mac OS X as it should be used. That means you don't have to run out and buy more memory after plunking down serious money on a PowerBook -- though you might want to anyway. I did, adding 1GB of RAM for 1.5GB in total.

The most obvious improvement is to the backlit keyboard. Apple wowed customers when it introduced the feature two years ago. While the innovation was a good one, the implementation turned out to be only so-so. More often than not, I found myself turning it off. The backlighting gave off just enough light to make the keys unreadable, since the letters were about the same value as the silver keys.

That is a problem no more. Apple said the new backlighting is up to 10 times brighter than the old one. I believe it. When I fired up the PowerBook at home in a dimly lit living room, the keys positively glowed. You need no longer be in a darkened room or on a nighttime flight with the lights turned down to actually be able to use the keyboard lighting.

For me, though, the most useful upgrade in the new models is the change in how the trackpad works. And I say this as a fan of SideTrack, a $15 shareware program that allows you to use edges of the trackpad for scrolling, and to set it up so that a click of the button serves as a left-button click, and a tap of the pad is a right-button click. I used SideTrack regularly, but it won't work on the new hardware in the PowerBooks.

What does work well is the two-finger scrolling. In an interview last week (see story), Dave Russell, senior director for portables and wireless at Apple, said he's already gotten used to using it. I can understand why. Scrolling Web pages, moving through lengthy Word documents or panning around large images is wickedly easy. Just put two fingers on the pad, and scroll away.

Even better for someone like me, who spends a lot of time poring over Web pages and sites online, if you two-finger scroll to the left, you get a "back" function that takes you to the previous page you viewed. Scrolling to the right takes you forward. I only wish it offered a way to do the trackpad-tap-as-right-mouse-click function.

I can live without that for now, given the all-around tweaks offered in this latest update. Apple upgraded what could easily be improved -- the processor speed, memory, video RAM, hard drive, keyboard, trackpad and Bluetooth. And it did so while offering the new hardware at a price that's lower than the previous generation.

It looks like, for now, Ken's Gently Used Electronics store is closed.

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