The year 2003, which Steve Jobs dubbed "the Year of the Notebook," brought big changes to Apple's PowerBook line -- the introduction of a 12-inch version, the transition from titanium to aluminum, and the addition of AirPort Extreme, built-in Bluetooth, FireWire 800 (in some models), and USB 2.0, among other enhancements.
In contrast, 2004 is shaping up as a year of incremental improvements, at least judging by the first round of PowerBook updates. Instead of new designs or breakthrough technologies, Apple has delivered modest improvements in performance, made AirPort Extreme standard in all configurations, and trimmed prices at the upper end of the line. And it appears -- knock on wood -- that the company has resolved the quality problems (with screens and latches) that marred many of last year's mobile Macs.
The biggest changes are in the smallest and newest member of the PowerBook G4 family, the model with a 12-inch display. As before, it's available in two standard configurations: a $1,599 version with a Combo (CD-RW/DVD-ROM) optical drive and a $1,799 version with a SuperDrive (DVD-R/CD-RW). While we tested only the latter, both versions now have noticeably faster G4 processors (1.33GHz, up from 1GHz) and 50 percent more hard-drive capacity (60GB versus 40GB). While the amount of built-in memory hasn't changed (it's still 256MB standard), the bus it sits on is now faster (167MHz versus 133MHz). Video RAM has grown from 32MB to 64MB. And the SuperDrive can now burn DVDs at 4x, twice as fast as before.
Most important, Apple's AirPort Extreme (802.11g) wireless-networking card -- previously a $99 option in the 12-inch configurations -- is now standard equipment, along with Bluetooth.
The smallest PowerBook still lacks some of its bigger siblings' advanced features -- FireWire 800, Gigabit Ethernet, a backlit keyboard, and a PC Card expansion slot. It also has an older, slower graphics chip (Nvidia's GeForce FX Go5200), and with only one DIMM slot, maximum memory is limited to 1.25GB, compared with 2GB in the larger models. The 12-inch, traditionally proportioned screen obviously doesn't provide as much workspace as the wide-screen displays on the bigger models, and cramming in 1,024 by 768 pixels makes everything look a little small.
But if none of that bothers you -- and for the average business traveler or student there's no reason it should -- there's a lot to like about the new 12-inch PowerBook. When Apple introduced the first one, more than a year ago, it was noticeably slower than the 15- and 17-inch models of the time, but that performance gap has all but disappeared: the new 12-inch model is a genuine speedster (see the bench-mark chart).
The machine's compact design and relative lightness (4.6 pounds) make it by far the most travel-friendly of the PowerBooks. And with AirPort Extreme now built in, it's a better value than ever.
The 12-inch model's battery life is also quite good: at the Automatic Energy Saver setting, we were able to listen to audio streamed from the Internet via AirPort Extreme for 3 hours and 35 minutes. As with the previous aluminum PowerBooks, AirPort reception is impressive: we managed to maintain a wireless connection not only throughout a modest two-story house, but also across the street and almost two doors down the block -- in all, nearly 120 feet from our Base Station.
Is Bigger Better?
For the larger PowerBooks, the latest update brings fewer enhancements, such as faster processors. The 15-inch Combo-drive configuration clocks at 1.33GHz, while the 15-inch SuperDrive model and the 17-inch model now speed along at 1.5GHz. That's up from 1GHz, 1.25GHz, and 1.33GHz, respectively. Other enhancements include a new graphics chip -- the ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 with 64MB or, optionally, 128MB of video RAM -- and 4x DVD burning (in only the SuperDrive-equipped models).
In addition, AirPort Extreme is now built into both 15-inch models as well as the 17-inch; it used to be optional in the lesser 15-inch configuration.
The backlit keyboard -- which can really turn heads on red-eye flights -- remains standard only in the top two configurations, the 17-inch and SuperDrive-equipped 15-inch models. (If you order the Combo-drive 15-inch model from the online Apple Store, however, you can upgrade to the illuminated keyboard for $69.)
Also unchanged are the most-striking features of these big PowerBooks: their huge, bright, wide-format displays, with native resolutions of 1,280 by 854 pixels (on the 15-inch models) and 1,440 by 900 pixels (on the 17-inch). Unfortunately, portable computing remains a game of trade-offs, and you pay a price, in pounds as well as in dollars, for these vast expanses of glass: the 17-inch model tips the scales at 6.9 pounds, while the 15-inch models weigh in at 5.7 pounds.
Even with their big screens, the large PowerBooks continue to deliver decent, though hardly overwhelming, battery life. On the 15-inch 1.33GHz model, for example, we managed to play streaming audio over a wireless Internet connection for about 3 hours and 15 minutes. After recharging, we got through the first 2 hours and 14 minutes of a DVD movie before the battery ran dry again.
In the absence of more-dramatic changes in the higher-end PowerBooks, Apple chose to cut their prices. While the Combo-drive version of the 15-inch model, now including AirPort Extreme, stays at $1,999, the price of the SuperDrive version has dropped, by $100, to $2,499, and you can now pick up the 17-inch behemoth for a mere $2,799, down by $200.
Last September's PowerBook updates, including the rollout of the first aluminum-clad 15-inch model, were tarnished by an unusual number of quality-control problems: white blotches on the screen, strange artifacts on some external monitors, latches that popped open spontaneously, and more. We're happy to report that we've seen none of these problems so far in the four new PowerBooks we've tested, and the Web sites that are quick to publicize word of problems in new Macs are mostly quiet.
In addition, you won't have to take special precautions -- or buy third-party products -- to avoid lap burns or excessive fan noise from the new models. After intensive use, they get warm but not, unlike some of their recent predecessors, painfully hot.
The only concern we noted was a surprising amount of play in PowerBook latches: when the clamshell is closed, the top does not make full contact with the base. If you look closely at the front corners, you can see up to 1/16 of an inch of daylight. And where light can go, dust, lint, and crumbs are sure to follow, especially if you carry your notebook in a backpack or briefcase. We don't think it's a big problem, but in systems that otherwise seem impeccably designed, it's a little troubling.
The Missing Model
Our one real gripe about the PowerBook line is something that's not there: a smaller, lighter model with a conventionally shaped 13- or 14-inch screen. Several Windows PC manufacturers offer notebooks with such displays that weigh 5 pounds or less -- in at least one case, as little as 4.3 pounds -- even with an optical drive and a full complement of other features, all for $2,000 or less.
If they can do it, why not Apple? We suspect there would be substantial demand for a PowerBook that was smaller, lighter, and less expensive than the current 15-inch wide-screen models but equipped with a display larger than 12 inches. (The iBook line includes models with 14.1-inch displays, but they weigh a hefty 5.9 pounds.)
Macworld's Buying Advice
Our favorite PowerBook is the 12-inch Combo-drive model, because it packs so much power into such a compact and elegant design.
Among the new PowerBook models, the performance differences are now insignificant, and relatively few users, we think, have a real need for the advanced features the 12-inch model lacks. That makes the trade-offs pretty straightforward: screen real estate versus size, weight, and cost. If you don't mind bearing such burdens, go for a 15- or 17-inch configuration.