Apple’s PowerBook product planners faced a dilemma during the past year: With the G5 processor still too hot for laptops, and no new blockbuster technologies available to add, how could they breathe some vitality into a PowerBook line that’s now more than two years old?
Instead of one big answer, they came up with a slew of small ones. Individually, none will knock your socks off, but collectively, they make the PowerBook lineup both more appealing and more affordable.
What’s New, PowerBook?
Across-the-board enhancements to the PowerBook family include:
• Faster hard drives: All models now come with hard drives that spin at 5,400RPM, up from the 4,200RPM drives in previous Apple laptops (and most Windows portables). This change didn’t make a big difference in our benchmark results (see “PowerBook G4 Benchmarks” below), but it saves a few seconds on some disk-dependent operations, such as launching applications and saving big files.
PowerBook G4 Benchmarks
|Speedmark 3.3||Cinema 4D 8.5||iMovie HD Render||iTunes 4.7 MP3 encode||Photoshop CS Suite||Unreal Tournament||Compressor MPEG-2 Encode|
|12-inch PowerBook G4/1.5GHz (SuperDrive)||136||4:36||0:58||2:24||2:00||22.4||12:06|
|15-inch PowerBook G4/1.5GHz (Combo drive)||136||4:44||0:56||2:30||2:02||25.5||13:55|
|15-inch PowerBook G4/1.67GHz (SuperDrive)||142||4:15||0:51||2:16||2:00||28.4||12:36|
|17-inch PowerBook G4/1.67GHz||148||4:17||0:46||2:15||1:56||29.1||12:23|
|PowerBook 1.5GHz/15-inch (2004)||134||4:38||0:58||2:26||2:05||26.5||12:24|
Best results in bold. Reference system in italics .
• Hard drive protection: A new technology Apple calls Sudden Motion Sensor instantly parks the drives’ read-write heads—thereby preventing them from slamming into the magnetic platters that hold your data—when it detects accelerated movement that might indicate that you’ve dropped your notebook. Frankly, we didn’t dare test this feature—after all, even if it works, it won’t prevent the other kinds of damage a fall could cause—but it’s nice to know it’s there.
• Scrolling track pad: If you find scrolling a drag when using a track pad, the new PowerBooks’ track pads may offer a better way for you to move around your documents and other windows: just slide two fingers instead of one across the track pad, and the contents of the active window scroll in the direction you moved. It takes some getting used to, but once you do, it could both save you time and spare you some irritation. (If you decide you don’t like this feature, you can turn it off in the Keyboard and Mouse pane in System Preferences.)
Just don’t try using three fingers on the track pad—that does nothing at all. And don’t be surprised if you run into a few glitches in older applications: for example, vertical scrolling works but horizontal scrolling doesn’t in Microsoft Word v.X. On the other hand, in the current version, Word 2004, as well as in Excel v.X and 2004, the new feature worked just fine.
(If you use an older PowerBook or an iBook you can add roughly similar capabilities to your system with any of several third-party utilities, including Shane Celis’s free uControl ( , April 2004 ) and Alex Harper’s $15 SideTrack.
• Latest Bluetooth: Along with AirPort Extreme, Bluetooth remains standard in all new PowerBooks, but the latest models feature support for an updated wireless standard called Bluetooth 2.0+Enhanced Data Rate (EDR). Equipment based on it can exchange data at up to 3 megabits per second, three times the maximum rate of earlier versions (Bluetooth 1.0-1.2). For most purposes you’re not likely to notice the difference in throughput—the real value, according to Bluetooth experts, is that Bluetooth phones and other battery-operated devices should last longer on a charge, because they can shut off their Bluetooth radios sooner, and your system is less likely to get bogged down if you connect multiple Bluetooth devices.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t test these claims, either, because the new features require Bluetooth 2.0+EDR-supported devices, and none are available —Apple is first to market with the new technology. (The new standard is backward-compatible, so the new PowerBooks should work fine with existing Bluetooth phones and peripherals, but with these devices you won’t see any advantage.)
• Better, faster SuperDrives: New PowerBook configurations equipped with SuperDrives can burn DVDs at 8x, twice the rate of the mechanisms Apple used in previous portables.
Apple’s marketing materials for the new PowerBooks make no mention of another welcome SuperDrive improvement: for the first time, there’s full support for DVD+R and DVD+RW media, as well the DVD-R and DVD-RW media SuperDrives used to require. (Some earlier SuperDrives could also be made to work with DVD+R or RW media, according to online reports, but Apple never before supported this capability.) We burned both +R and +RW discs, and they worked just like their -R and -RW equivalents. We’re not aware of any particular advantage to the +R/RW format at this point—pricing is now about equal for both formats—but it’s one less thing to have to worry about when you’re picking up media. Unlike some previous SuperDrive updates, the latest doesn’t seem to cause problems with older media, either: we tried some ancient 1x DVD discs, in -R, +R, and +RW formats, and had no problems.
• Brighter backlighting: The backlighting that automatically illuminates keyboard labels when you’re operating the 15- and 17-inch PowerBooks in dim light is noticeably brighter than before—10 times brighter, according to Apple.
So Many Configurations
There are still five standard configurations—two each with 12.1- and 15.2-inch screens and one with a 17-inch display. They still weigh 4.6, 5.6 pounds, and 6.9 pounds, respectively.
Like its predecessor, the new entry-level PowerBook has a 60GB hard drive, a Combo (CD-RW/DVD-ROM) optical drive; and a 12.1-inch, 1,024-by-768-pixel screen driven by an Nvidia GeForce FX Go5200 with 64MB of video memory. But this model’s G4 processor moved up from 1.33GHz to 1.5GHz, while its price moved down $100, to $1,499. In practice, you’ll save even more, because Apple also doubled the standard memory to 512MB of memory—enough so you may be satisfied without the memory upgrade most users used to find necessary. (Half the memory in the new model is on a card in the single DIMM slot, so if you want more than 512MB, you’ll have to remove the Apple DIMM to install a larger one, unless you buy the Mac online and order the extra memory up-front.)
The other 12.1-inch configuration, now $1,699 (also down by $100), is identical except that it includes an 80GB hard drive and a SuperDrive. Both 12.1-inch configurations provide a full complement of standard ports: two USB 2.0, FireWire 400, audio in and out, 10/100 Ethernet, V.92 modem, and mini-DVI (with adapters for connecting both DVI and VGA external displays with resolutions of up to 2,048-by-1,536 pixels, in either extended-desktop or mirroring mode). One disappointment is that Apple hasn’t managed to shave any weight off the 12.1-inch PowerBook, considering that Windows PC vendors offer comparably equipped laptops that weigh only around 4 pounds (not to mention even lighter mini-notebooks sold without built-in optical drives).
Like previous compact PowerBooks, though, the new 12.1-inch configurations lack some of the advanced features of their larger siblings: there’s no FireWire 800, Gigabit Ethernet, keyboard backlighting, PC Card/Cardbus slot, or built-in S-video port (though Apple will sell you a mini-DVI adapter that provides an S-Video or composite-video output for $19).
As for the new 15.2-inch models, the Combo drive version, unfortunately, didn’t get a price cut—it’s still $1,999. But for that price Apple now offers a 1.5GHz PowerBook G4 (up from 1.33GHz), 512MB of RAM (up from 256MB), an 80GB hard drive (up from 60GB), and keyboard backlighting, which was previously a $69 option on this configuration.
The configuration with 15.2-inch screen and SuperDrive got fewer enhancements: it too comes with 512MB of RAM, an 80GB hard drive, and a backlit keyboard, but the equivalent model had all those features in the previous generation. On the upside, it now has a 1.67GHz processor (up from 1.5GHz), and Apple trimmed its price by $200, to $2,299.
Both 15.2-inch configurations support FireWire 800 and Gigabit Ethernet, and they both have full-sized DVI and S-video ports and a single PC Card/Cardbus slot, in addition to all the connectivity options offered by the 12-inch models. Both have the same display technology as in the previous generation: their wide-format screens (1,280 by 854 pixels), plus the external display ports, are driven by an ATI Mobility Radeon processor with 64MB of video memory. The 1.67GHz model, but not the 1.5GHz one, can be upgraded for $100 to 128MB of video RAM and dual-link DVI, which you’ll need if you want to connect the 30-inch Apple Cinema HD Display.
(If you don’t care about the video option but want a SuperDrive, notice that ordering the 1.5GHz version with a SuperDrive upgrade will save you $150, and cost you only a tiny reduction in performance.)
The video upgrade is standard in the new 17-inch PowerBook, which also got a price cut (down $100 to $2,699), a processor speed bump (1.5GHz to 1.67GHz), a bigger hard drive (100GB, up from 80GB), and, of course, the other refinements mentioned earlier. Otherwise, the high-end PowerBook is unchanged—after all, it already had all of the best mobile technology Apple has to offer.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
If you’re inclined toward a small notebook, and particularly if you don’t need a SuperDrive, consider an iBook instead of the 12-inch PowerBook—you can start with a $999 base model, increase memory and hard drive capacity and add Bluetooth if you want, and come out with something pretty similar to the small PowerBook for several hundred dollars less. But if you want a bigger screen and/or the latest connectivity technologies, the 15- and 17-inch PowerBooks—though still a little pricey—offer elegance and power no other laptop can match.
[ This article has been edited to correct an error in the listed configurations for the 12-inch PowerBook G4/1.5GHz with a SuperDrive—Ed. ]Apple’s PowerBook G4 family