PowerBook G4 Diary, Day Two

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In Zen teachings it is said that enlightenment can only be achieved by extinguishing the self. Well, if that's true, when I'm testing products I must be one of the most enlightened people on Earth.

It all starts with losing awareness of my surroundings: The evening I embarked on testing the new PowerBook, my kids decided to do a miniature re-enactment of Ben-Hur. Their attention to detail was exacting: fitting our two small dogs with scale-model chariots was challenging enough, but when one of my kids asked if they could glue X-acto Knife blades to the wheels of our little black dog's chariot, I should have risen from my desk with all the righteous fury that being a parent working on deadline should have allowed me to muster.

Instead I just muttered, "uh-hmmm."

So while the Circus Maximus was coming to life around me, I labored away unaware of anything but the task before me.

The first task, of course, was to copy the various test applications, working files, and regalia of my daily computing life from the old PowerBook to the new. When I test a computer, I make it my computer until the test is done. It's the only way to get a sense for how that computer is going to work for someone who really is going to make it part of his or her daily life. Call it Method Reviewing.

While both the PowerBook G4 and my old PowerBook G3 have AirPort cards, I knew the sheer bulk of what I needed to copy called for a speedy, hardwired Ethernet connection. So I decided to test the Titanium PowerBook G4's new cable-sensing Ethernet port, which can sense when there's a hub on the other end of an Ethernet connection versus another computer, and act to accommodate it. This eliminates the need for an Ethernet crossover cable on computer-to-computer connections.

I'm happy to report the new connector works as advertised -- I borrowed the cable I normally use to connect my LaserJet printer to the household network and used it instead to connect the two PowerBooks. It worked like a dream.

What didn't work so well was getting the connector to slip easily into and out of the port. There's so little room on the back panel of the PowerBook G4 that you've got to insert the cable jack directly into the port; there's just not as much room around the port itself to allow for anything less than perfect alignment.

Then there was the trouble I had locating the port from the front of the machine. On the old PowerBook, the back door flipped out far enough that you could easily see the icons indicating the location and type of each port. No such luck with the new one.

After I finished copying files and getting the new PowerBook set up, I realized I had yet to do a real physical comparison of old and new Mac portables. The new PowerBook was thinner and much lighter, but it was also wider and less deep. How did they stack up?

From the back, it would seem only one thing differed -- a second FireWire port. And, before anyone asks, you don't really need that second port for anything except as a convenience. FireWire supports daisy-chaining and most FireWire drives come with two ports. So you can connect your camera to the hard drive and the hard drive to the PowerBook. Not only doesn't this affect performance (one or two ports, PowerBooks still only have one FireWire controller) but it might even improve it a bit -- your DV camcorder may even be able to download data directly to the external drive if that's the selected destination.

The headphone jack is no longer on the back, and as I mentioned in my first diary entry, I consider that a good thing. Of course, the microphone jack has disappeared altogether, meaning if you have a need to connect an external mike to the Titanium PowerBook, you'll have to get a USB microphone. There is still a built-in mike, hidden behind one of the speaker grilles.

It gets easier to see the difference in the two machine's real footprint from the top. The Titanium PowerBook G4 is clearly wider and less deep. This should make it easier to use on a plane -- the less depth a computer has, the less likely that goon in the seat in front of you is going to impale you on your PowerBook when he suddenly leans back.

Just for laughs, I put the old PowerBook on top of the new one to see exactly what the differences are. It's amazing how little it takes to make a big difference, isn't it?

Another important difference between old and new is the loss of the PowerBook G3's expansion bays. Let's face it: while we all might have slept a little more securely knowing our PowerBooks had expansion bays in them, how many of us really used them? I can think of no example of an internal PowerBook module you can't add with an external FireWire or USB-based device. Sure, it's a pain to lug that portable CD-RW drive around with you, but in the end, which would you rather have: a PowerBook that weighs five pounds and is an inch thick or a couple of expansion bays?

By the way, those little slot-like things on either side of the Titanium PowerBook G4 are windows for the AirPort antennas. Because the new PowerBook's case is made entirely of steel and titanium, and those materials are not very conducive to wireless signals, Apple had to add access points for AirPort. Luckily, they seem to work well. The Titanium PowerBook G4 got some of the strongest signals I've ever observed with my home AirPort Base Station.

At 11 p.m., the Leper Colony scene from Ben-Hur is being staged on the coffee table next to my desk. A tiny spark of familial responsibility lights inside me, and I grunt "go to bed" at the kids. As always, my authority is absolute -- one kid continues to bend Judah Ben Hur into a pose of deep agony while the other moves the shuffling form of his mother and sister back into the Leper's cave. I briefly wonder at how expressive pipe cleaners can be when they're handled by experts.

Now that it's sufficiently dark in my office, I begin a close examination of the new screen. Once again, I'm amazed at how much difference an inch makes. The new PowerBook screen's native resolution is the same depth as the old one, but is wider by 128 pixels (1,152 by 768 pixels for the Titanium PowerBook G4 versus 1,024 by 768 pixels for the PBG3.) Those extra pixels allow you to place standard-size Web pages next to each other, or two standard-size print documents. While you might not have that much call to do this, for those of us who need to manage Photoshop's or Dreamweaver's myriad of palettes, that extra real estate is a godsend.

To see precisely what the difference is, I took a screen shot of the desktop of my PowerBook G3 and then installed it as the desktop picture on the Titanium PowerBook (see above).

The new PowerBook offers six screen resolutions: 640 by 480, 720 by 480, 800 by 600, 896 by 600, 1024 by 768, and 1152 by 768. When set to a resolution with fewer horizontal pixels, the PowerBook G4 places black bars on either side of the screen. I'm assuming this is primarily for compatibility with software that sets automatically to one of the 4:3 aspect ratio resolutions -- games, for instance.

According to Apple, with the exception of the additional width, the new PowerBook uses the same screen technology as the PowerBook G3. However, when you view the screens side by side, this becomes hard to believe. Not only is the new PowerBook screen wider it's also brighter and the individual pixels are more sharply focused. The overall color of the screen is bluer. Digital source images look much sharper and deeper on the new screen, giving it an appearance reminiscent of the Apple Cinema Display. None of this can be attributed to the graphics controller, which is the same ATI RAGE Mobility chip set used in the PowerBook G3. Instead, credit for smoother playback and zero pixelation of DV stream or DVD video must be given entirely to the G4 and its AltiVec/Velocity Engine subprocessor.

Speaking of DVD Video, the Titanium PowerBook comes with a new version of the Apple DVD Player, version 2.4. After extensive testing of the player, the only difference I was able to find was the inclusion of a new Fill Screen Wide option, which does a partial anamorphic rescaling of the image to fit the screen edge to edge.

Because the PowerBook G4 screen is not a true 16:9 aspect ratio, there's still a little black left on the top and bottom. Again, I tried to show the difference in the images above. (Unfortunately, you can't take screenshots of DVD video playback, as it bypasses the video subsystem.)

The Apple DVD Player still hesitates (freezes the video) whenever it changes mode -- such as the controller vanishes or you activate the menu bar. Still, users of Apple's Cinema Display would benefit a lot from the new Fill Screen Wide feature. Hopefully, Apple will offer version 2.4 of the player as an update for all systems.

At 2 a.m., the kids have long since shuffled off to bed. I think they pooped out somewhere around the Sermon on the Mount scene, but I could be wrong.

I close the PowerBook lid and think, "Tomorrow, I'm really going to get under the skin of this puppy."

Errata from my first diary entry: The Titanium PowerBook G4 power supply doesn't just have a smaller plug differentiating it from the G3 power supply, it also runs at a higher output. However, both use the same AC cord, so you can at least swap out that part of the power connection. Hey, that's why this is a diary, and not a final review!

Want to discuss the Titanium PowerBook G4 with Andrew Gore? You can do it now, in our "Titanium PowerBook Has Landed" message thread, or anywhere else in our Portable Macs Forum.

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