Many Mac users would like the PowerBook G4 to be a portable version of a desktop Power Mac, but buying a PowerBook has always meant trading some performance (and adding cost) for portability. But that equation has changed with the recent release of the 800MHz Titanium PowerBook G4, which goes a long way toward eliminating the performance gap that separates the desktop and portable worlds.
More Than Just a Speed Bump
Apple’s two new PowerBook entries–the $3,199 800MHz model (which we tested) and the $2,499 667MHz model–boast a number of enhancements:
a 133MHz system bus (previously, only the high-end 667MHz model had the faster bus);
a 1MB Level 3 (L3) cache, consisting of high-speed double data rate (DDR) RAM;
the same 15.2-inch display found on previous models, but with a higher native resolution (1,280 by 854 pixels);
a new ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 video chip with 32MB of video RAM on an AGP 4x bus for improved 2-D and 3-D graphics acceleration;
a DVI-I connector for hooking up an external digital flat-panel display;
a DVD/CD-RW combo drive, which is now standard, as is Gigabit (10/100/1000BaseT) Ethernet and an analog sound-in port.
The 800MHz model ships with 512MB of RAM (with a maximum of 1GB supported), a 40GB hard drive, and a preinstalled AirPort card.
The Screen’s the Scene
The PowerBook G4’s look and weight is identical to its predecessors, but once it’s powered up, you can see the first of Apple’s improvements. The screen is appreciably brighter than that of the previous PowerBook G4’s, and the higher resolution gives it a crisper, cleaner look with a high degree of readability.
The PowerBook’s screen also supports resolutions of 1,152 by 768; 1,024 by 768; 896 by 600; and 800 by 600. And the laptop will drive an external display at up to 2,048 by 1,536 pixels in 24-bit color. Using Apple’s new $149 DVI to ADC Adapter, we connected our PowerBook to the expansive 23-inch Cinema Display without any problems; this setup finally gives professional graphics and video users the ability to integrate Apple’s excellent digital displays into their workflow while maintaining portability when needed. (A DVI-to-VGA adapter is also included for hooking up to conventional CRT monitors.)
The screen is the most obvious external improvement, but Apple focused most of its effort under the hood. The 800MHz PowerPC chip is a good start, but it’s the L3 cache and overhauled video subsystem that truly pushes the PowerBook’s performance.
Apple put 2MB of L3 cache into the 933MHz and dual 1GHz Power Macs it released in January (see “The Fast Crowd,” May 2002). And, as was the case with those machines, the L3 cache–1MB of speedy RAM that helps the processor work more efficiently during data-intensive tasks–gives the Titanium PowerBook G4 definite speed benefits when performing those tasks, such as extensive Adobe Photoshop filter and conversion operations, audio encoding, and 3-D and video rendering (see “Closing the Laptop Gap”).
For example, the 800MHz PowerBook performed our Photoshop Suite test, which runs a series of processor-intensive operations on a 50MB image, in 36 seconds–nearly as fast as the entry-level 800MHz desktop and 10 seconds faster than the older 667MHz PowerBook. MP3 encoding, another heavy computing task, was more than 20 seconds faster on the 800MHz PowerBook than it was on the previous high-end PowerBook and nearly 10 seconds faster than it was on the 800MHz desktop.
Graphics display performance is also very good. ATI’s Mobility Radeon 7500 chip makes an excellent base, upon which Apple doubled the previous complement of high-speed DDR video RAM (to 32MB). The result is quicker, smoother scrolling, faster game play and an all-around snappier system–once again on par with comparable desktop systems (which have more powerful graphics cards). Scrolling through a 34-page PDF, which took nearly 3 minutes on the earlier 667MHz PowerBook, took only 1 minute, 45 seconds on the 800MHz model–4 seconds faster than our 800MHz desktop. In our Quake test, the 800MHz PowerBook clocked in at an unbelievable (for a portable) 71 frames per second.
While performance is the big story, Apple also tinkered in other areas, answering a few complaints and concerns raised by owners of previous Titanium PowerBooks. Apple said that it has improved the PowerBook’s AirPort reception; while we ran into fewer dead zones on wireless networks with the new PowerBook than we had with the older models, reception still wasn’t as strong as with an iBook.
We were pleasantly surprised by how much quieter and cooler the new models are over the previous generation. The internal hard drive is very quiet. Over a week of solid testing, our PowerBook’s fan rarely came on, and when it did, its pitch was much lower than the 500MHz PowerBook G4’s.
Overall, the 800MHz PowerBook ran much cooler than any Titanium PowerBook we’ve tested so far. We ran the PowerBook as a desktop system for days, with the lid closed and connected to the Apple Cinema HD Display and a mouse and keyboard, and we rarely found the PowerBook too hot to handle–a malady all too common with previous models.
Another minor improvement worth noting is the Combo drive, which reads DVDs at 4x and CDs at 24x, and burns CD-R and CD-RW media at 8x. The first generation of media drives in the Titanium PowerBooks were noisy and problematic. But the drive in this new PowerBook is extremely quiet, aside from a startling click when you first insert the disc.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Make no mistake–despite its physical similarities to previous PowerBooks, the PowerBook G4/800 is no mere evolution of the PowerBook line. Apple has done much more here than add a simple speed bump and some minor features. The $3,199 price is definitely higher than we would like, but the extras–the high-speed processor, cache and video subsystems, increased screen resolution, new video options, higher RAM complement, and built-in AirPort–alleviate some of the sticker shock. This really is the closest Apple has come to providing desktop power in a PowerBook. Whether that’s worth the extra cost is something that you’ll have to weigh carefully, but for pro graphics users, Apple has made a strong case.
Closing the Laptop Gap
BEST RESULTS IN BOLD. REFERENCE SYSTEMS IN ITALICS.
Speedmark scores are relative to those of a 500MHz iMac (Flower Power), which is assigned a score of 100. Photoshop, iMovie, and iTunes scores are in seconds. Quake scores are in frames per second. The 800MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 required OS X 10.1.4. We tested each reference system with Mac OS X 10.1.2 installed and 512MB of RAM. We set displays to 1,024-by-768-pixel resolution and 24-bit color. The Photoshop Suite test (which runs in the Classic environment) is a set of five scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory partition was set to 200MB and History was set to Minimum. We tested MP3 encoding with an audio-CD track that was 9 minutes and 25 seconds long, converting it from the hard drive using iTunes’ Better Quality setting. We tested Quake III at a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels with Graphics set to Normal. For more information on Speedmark, visit www.macworld.com/speedmark.
–Macworld Lab testing by Rick LePage and James Galbraith