Ode to the 12-inch PowerBook G4, Apple's first desktop-quality laptop

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At its best, Apple has the ability to make stuff that reaches right around the rational, pragmatic part of your brain to grab your amygdala and squeeze it till the juice runs out. The 12-inch PowerBook G4 was such a machine. Hell, is such a machine.

It wasn’t a machine without compromise, as our review at the time made clear, but it felt like it was. Before it was announced in January 2003, anyone buying a laptop realistically had to decide between capability and portability, but with the 12-inch PowerBook G4, you felt for the first time like you could have both: a powerful machine easily able to be your main Mac, in a tiny, chuck-it-in-a-bag frame. Although not directly comparable, the fact that the first 12-inch PowerBook G4 had an 867MHz processor while the entry-level Power Mac G4 announced at the same time seemed to be only slightly faster at 1GHz meant that this was when laptops stopped looking like underpowered runts next to desktops.

And there was something just hugely cute about the little package all that G4 power was stuffed into. It felt chunky and dense, and the iBook-inspired soft, round edges gave it a friendliness as well. Above all, though, that aluminum shell—the first time Apple had used this material, which, for a decade or more since, its Macs have been hewn from—spoke of power, of fluency, of ability.

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It was the complete package, and even today all the pieces are in place; Bluetooth, AirPort Extreme, a SuperDrive, the ability to drive an external display up to 1600×1200. It was the first Mac that couldn’t boot into Mac OS 9, and even the first generation supports Mac OS X 10.5. In other words, though things will definitely be a bit slower, I suspect most people could swap their modern laptop for a 12-inch PowerBook G4 with minimal disruption, and for a computer that’s basically 12 years old, that’s quite something.

And oh my, I wanted one. It looked stunning, and was just so tremendously powerful. I had just started working at MacUser magazine in London when they finally shipped, much later in 2003, and my colleague and friend Kenny Hemphill succumbed. If I remember correctly, on the first day they were in the shops, he went down, slapped his credit card on the counter, and walked out with possibly the most desirable Mac that Apple had ever made—I was so jealous that he could do that.

I know you’ll join me in an empathetic gasp of horror when I tell you that just a few days later he pulled it from his bag only to discover that the big three-pronged UK plug had gouged a big thick track in the pristine lid. Breaks your heart, doesn’t it? We don’t mind too much if a machine gets a bit knocked up after it’s lived with us for a few years, but for those first few weeks most of us cosset and coo over it like it’s a newborn baby, and are just about as upset if any harm befalls it.

And actually, this new material, aluminum, was much more resilient than the titanium shell of the previous PowerBook G4. While all the second-hand “TiBooks” I see on eBay look like they’ve been through a war—since their silver color was just easily-chipped paint—the aluminum just wears its scars with pride.

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As Jason Snell observed in his review, rather than you lifting the keyboard up to get at the internals, the AirPort Extreme card slotted in beside the battery, and there was an access panel on the bottom under which you could fit more RAM.

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And, oh, that keyboard! It still feels fab today, thanks not least to its new-found rigidity, and like with the new MacBook it goes right from edge to edge.

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Indeed, the new MacBook is in some ways the spiritual successor to the 12-inch PowerBook G4. Sure, the comparisons with desktop power and the idea that it’s a no-compromise laptop don’t apply here, but the 12-inch PowerBook G4 so completely captured the hearts and minds of a generation of Apple users that we’ve been calling for it to be reinvented ever since. Something capable. Cute. Tiny. Something, in fact, that we just want.

That’s the Apple magic.

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