Rewriting the Book

Whenever Apple wants to make a splash with a hardware announcement, it does one of two things: announce a newer, faster processor or unveil a radical new design.

With Tuesday's announcement of the new Titanium PowerBook G4, Steve Jobs did both.

K0erBook sports a faster-running PowerPC G4 processor, a slot-loading DVD drive, and longer battery life than its predecessor, the PowerBook G3. The latest PowerBook also features a new design; gone is the heavy, black plastic of the past three PowerBook models in favor of a sleek, silvery titanium case -- "like the spy planes," Jobs said Tuesday. Just an inch thick, the PowerBook G4 also includes a 15.2-inch widescreen format display -- by far, the largest display ever seen on an Apple portable.

The PowerBook G4 comes in two standard configurations. The 400MHz model ships with 128MB of memory and 10GB of hard-drive space. It sells for $2,599. The 500MHz model, which sells for $3,499, features 256MB of RAM and a 20GB hard-drive. Both configurations feature 1MB of backside Level 2 cache, a 100MHz system bus, 8MB of graphics RAM, and an ATI Rage Mobility 128 chip. They also have two USB ports, a FireWire port, and support for AirPort. Apple expects the two PowerBook models to ship by the end of January.

Both new models boost the built-in memory offered in comparable PowerBook G3s, while maintaining the hard drive capacities introduced by Apple last September. More important, the G4 processor comes equipped with Velocity Engine, allowing it to process data with an expanded instruction set. The result? A G4 processor can render, encode, and calculate faster than a G3 can -- provided, of course, you're running an application that's been modified to take advantage of Velocity Engine. Jobs contends the PowerBook G4 runs 60 percent faster than its predecessor.

Other differences between the older PowerBooks and the newer ones are visible at a glance. The PowerBook G4 weighs in at 5.3 pounds, nearly a full pound lighter than its G3 counterpart. The latest models are wider than the old versions, but thinner -- 1 inch versus 1.7 inches thick -- making the new portables more . . . well, portable. And in a minor move sure to please aesthetes, the company flipped its logo on the PowerBook cover so that when you open the case, the Apple logo will be right-side up.

But the PowerBook G4 represents more than just an upgrade to Apple's venerable PowerBook line. The product is a shot across the bow of makers of subnotebooks -- those tiny laptop computers that lack the functionality of a full-bodied portable. With the PowerBook G4, Apple seems to be saying you can have a slim laptop without sacrificing optical drives, wireless connectivity, and other features.

Jobs took great pains in Tuesday's keynote to contrast the PowerBook G4 with the Sony Vaio Z505 (so chosen since its $2,549 price tag is in the same ballpark as the 400MHz PowerBook G4's). Ticking down the differences between the two machines, Jobs noted that the Vaio had a smaller display than the PowerBook (12.1 inches versus 15.2 inches), a thicker frame (1.15 inches versus 1 inch), and a magnesium alloy casing as opposed to the PowerBook's 99.5 percent pure grade CP1 titanium design. Jobs didn't mention that the Vaio weighs much less than the new PowerBook -- a svelte 3.75 pounds -- and offers USB and FireWire ports just like the Apple machine. But Jobs's point still stands: the new PowerBook places a full-performance computer into a sleek, slender package that rivals the look and feel of any sub-notebook on the market.

"Some people think (the Vaio) is the sexiest portable around," Jobs said. "We don't anymore."

Whether consumers agree is just one question facing the new laptop. A big hurdle to putting a G4 chip inside a PowerBook was making sure the laptop didn't overheat. Presumably, Apple has that issue worked out -- just how well will be seen as the new units are put to the test. A model handled by Macworld editors on the show floor at Macworld Expo was extremely hot to the touch -- here's hoping that Apple isn't expecting to solve the heat problem by throwing a couple of oven mitts in with each PowerBook G4 it sells.It's also unclear how users will respond to some of the sacrifices Apple made to keep the PowerBook G4 a reasonable size -- like one less FireWire port, for example. And while the new laptop sports an impressive design that made a big splash during Tuesday's keynote, the same could have been said about the Power Mac G4 Cube when it debuted last July. That machine's disappointing sales is just one of the reasons Apple found itself under pressure to make a big splash with Tuesday's product announcements.

Still, Apple can take pride in the PowerBook G4's debut. The company introduced a much-anticipated and badly needed upgrade to its PowerBook line. It produced a more powerful machine in a more portable case. And it served notice that it's still a force to be reckoned with in the world of portable hardware.

The New PowerBook G4: Standard Configurations

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