To determine whether you are a PowerBook fanatic, take the Gore test: If a genie were to grant you three wishes, what would they be?
If your first wish would be for a no-compromise Mac portable big on features, small on size and weight, and with enough style to make even PC enthusiasts jealous, you are a PowerBook fanatic. (It’s OK if your other wishes would be for world peace and the like.)
Now rejoice, because that wish has just been granted.
There’s no denying the appeal of this new portable Mac. When I brought the Titanium PowerBook G4 home for the first time, my family opened its box and passed it around as if it were a holy relic.
When I finally wrestled the new PowerBook away from them, the first thing I noticed was how light it was. Apple has shaved almost a pound off the previous PowerBook model (from 6.1 to 5.3 pounds)-and the increased rigidity of the titanium shell allows you to safely lift this PowerBook with one hand.
Opening up the PowerBook G4 is slightly tricky: just below the center of the lid, there’s a long silver button, which you depress to release the magnetic catch. Once the lid is open, you’re greeted by a great gray expanse and what looks like a tiny keyboard. But that’s an optical illusion: this PowerBook is wider than the previous model (13.4 inches versus 12.7 inches). And it’s not as deep (9.5 inches versus 10.4 inches), so it should be easier to use on a plane. The keyboard is the same as the PowerBook G3’s, with a notable exception: it’s not spongy. Apple mounted this keyboard on magnets, making it remarkably sturdy.
The New Face of Portability
The PowerBook G4 is quite different in its ports and expandability.
Expand Your Mind First off, the expansion bays-which allowed you to slide in an extra battery for a long flight or replace your DVD drive with a Zip drive for swapping files-are gone. This might sound distressing, but I can’t think of any internal PowerBook module you can’t replace with an external FireWire or USB-based device. The battery’s new home is on the bottom of the PowerBook G4 (no more accidentally ejecting the battery by snagging the lever of an expansion bay); the battery can be replaced easily while the computer is sleeping. And with power-level-indicating LEDs built right into the battery, you can see how much juice is left.
Power Shortage After years of using the same power-supply specifications for all its portables (you can use an iBook power supply with a PowerBook 1400, and vice versa), Apple gave the PowerBook G4 power supply a much smaller connector. (There goes my stockpile of interchangeable PowerBook plugs.)
Ports of Call On opposite ends of the PowerBook’s back edge (see “Bringing Up the Rear”) are the power plug and the 4-Mbps infrared port (good news for Palm users). Sandwiched between them is the port-access door, and on the lid is the glowing Apple logo, which is now right-side-up to people viewing the portable from behind.
Inside the access door is a full complement of ports: one FireWire port, a 10/100BaseT Ethernet port, two USB ports, one VGA-out port, one S-Video-out port, and a 56K modem port.
Quest for Fire The new PowerBook has one fewer FireWire port than the PowerBook G3, but in most cases that shouldn’t matter. FireWire supports daisy-chaining, and most FireWire drives have two ports. So you can connect your FireWire camcorder to your FireWire hard drive, which you connect to the PowerBook.
Ethernet to the Rescue Apple has added a new feature to the PowerBook G4’s Ethernet port: it can now sense whether there’s a hub or another computer on the other end of an Ethernet connection-and react accordingly. In other words, you no longer need to use Ethernet crossover cables if you want to quickly connect two Macs via Ethernet. (FireWire Target Disk mode is still available.)
This new autosensing feature worked like a dream. What didn’t work so well was getting the connector to slip in and out-there’s not enough room around the port to allow for less than perfect alignment.
Card Trick At the left side of the PowerBook, there’s a single PC Card slot that’s easy to miss-it looks like a vent (see “On the Left Side”). It can accommodate one Type I, Type II, or Zoom Video PC Card. Between that slot and a headphone jack is a built-in microphone hidden behind one of the two speaker grilles. But the microphone jack is gone, meaning you’ll need a USB microphone if you want to connect a better mike.
Wider Is Better
The most striking feature of the new PowerBook may be its wide display. This 1152-by-768-pixel screen is the same height as the PowerBook G3’s but 128 pixels wider. That makes a big difference if you need to manage multiple floating palettes in programs such as Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Dreamweaver, or even Microsoft Office.
Old News Is Good News The new PowerBook uses the same screen technology as the PowerBook G3. But when you view the screens side by side, that’s hard to believe. The new PowerBook screen seems brighter, and the individual pixels are more sharply focused. The overall color of the screen is bluer, and digital-source images appear much sharper and deeper, reminiscent of the Apple Cinema Display.
None of this can be attributed to the graphics controller, however, which is the same ATI Rage Mobility 128 chip used in the PowerBook G3. Instead, credit the G4 and its Velocity Engine subprocessor for smooth playback and display of video.
Strong Resolutions In addition to its native resolution, the screen can be set to five other resolutions: 640 by 480, 720 by 480, 800 by 600, 896 by 600, and 1024 by 768. Choose one with fewer horizontal pixels than the screen allows, and the PowerBook G4 places black bars on either side of the screen (for compatibility with software that defaults to one of the 4:3 aspect-ratio resolutions-games, for instance).
DVDivine The PowerBook G4 comes with version 2.4 of Apple’s DVD Player software. The only apparent change is a new Fill Screen Wide option, which does a partial anamorphic rescaling of images so they fit the screen from edge to edge. Because the PowerBook G4’s display does not have a true 16:9 letterbox aspect ratio, little black bars cover the top and bottom of the screen.
There are two ways to get inside this new PowerBook. If you want to add RAM, just look beneath the keyboard. If you want to add an AirPort card or replace the hard drive, you must remove the bottom of the PowerBook.
Easy-Access RAM This new portable has the same easy-access RAM slots as the PowerBook G3. Just press down on two small latches on the keyboard and lift it off. (The RAM is the only part of the PowerBook that is user upgradeable from the top.)
Adding RAM is easy, and there are two slots. (On the 500MHz model, the bottom slot is filled with a 256MB RAM module.)
What a Wireless World You can see the AirPort card from beneath the keyboard. Unfortunately, it’s not accessible from there-the PC Card socket is in the way, so you must turn the PowerBook over to reach it.
You can open the PowerBook G4’s case with a Phillips screwdriver-you don’t need the less common Torx screwdriver most recent Apple portables require. However, I still had a hard time; several of the screws on my PowerBook were set at an angle and were quite difficult to extract.
Lifting off the bottom cover was also a challenge. Because it’s made of metal, it can bend. I ended up using the tip of a flat-head screwdriver to get the cover off.
After removing the bottom, adding an AirPort card seems easy. You gently raise the edge of the slot-it should come up at an angle. Next, connect the built-in antenna plug to the card. Then slide the card into the socket and push the card down.
Tricky Storage While Apple apparently expects users to install AirPort cards (there’s a somewhat vague installation diagram at the bottom of the battery-storage bay), it doesn’t appear to have that attitude about the hard drive. Removing the drive requires the dreaded Torx screwdriver, as well as quite a bit of patience and manual dexterity.
Pitfalls After either operation, putting the bottom cover back on can be tough. You must slide the cover on from the front-be very careful to fit every snap into every groove, or you might bend the case.
In disassembling the PowerBook G4, I scraped its lid, scratching off some paint and leaving some ugly (and permanent) reminders of my installation experience.
The PowerBook G4 performs as you’d expect a G4 Mac to perform: it’s fast when using applications that take advantage of AltiVec, the G4’s Velocity Engine subprocessor, and it otherwise behaves much like a G3.
Speeding Along To see where the G4 processor has its greatest impact, consider Macworld Lab’s Photoshop tests (see “The Need for Speed”). Optimized by Adobe to take advantage of Velocity Engine, Photoshop 5.5 pushes Mac hardware to its limits, and the new PowerBook has a major edge over the PowerBook G3 when it comes to tasks such as Gaussian Blur, Unsharp Mask, and Lighting Effects. Results range from nearly twice to more than three times as fast on the PowerBook G4.
But once you exit the realm of Velocity Engine, the speed difference between old and new PowerBooks drops considerably: in a Photoshop RGB to CMYK conversion, the 500MHz PowerBook G4 is only about 10 percent faster than the 500MHz PowerBook G3, and the 400MHz G4 is about 35 percent slower.
In Speedmark 2.1 tests, which gauge performance of a variety of everyday computing tasks, the difference in speed is smaller still. Because the rest of the PowerBook G4’s logic board is largely the same as the PowerBook G3’s, overall performance gains are modest.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in graphics performance. (The PowerBook G4’s graphics subsystem is soldered to the logic board, so it can’t be upgraded.) In our Quake III tests, the scores are very close. The current version of Quake can’t use AltiVec, and without AltiVec, the PowerBook G4 is only marginally faster than a G3.
Staying Power Of course, all this power is meaningless without good battery life, which Apple says is in the five-hour range. I tested this claim in three ways: maxed-out (everything running, including the hard drive and DVD drive, with processor cycling disabled and the screen set at maximum brightness); normal use (hard drive spinning up and down as determined by a script, processor cycling enabled, and the screen dimming after one minute of inactivity); and minimum power (screen dimmed, drive spun down, processor cycling enabled, and the chip clocked down to 300MHz [you can set this in the Expert Settings control panel]).
In the maxed-out test, the PowerBook managed to eke out 1 hour and 47 minutes of battery life-not bad considering the abuse I put it through. In the normal-use test, it lasted even longer: 3 hours and 12 minutes, again very respectable. And the minimum power configuration indeed delivered about 5 hours of battery life. Of course, a portable running at 300MHz with a dimmed screen and spun-down drive is no tool for a road warrior.
Burning Up Finally, Macworld Lab put both the PowerBook G3 and the PowerBook G4 on a heat analyzer and ran them for several hours under the most-demanding circumstances possible. They both reached a maximum heat between 115 and 120 degrees (Fahrenheit). (In myown use, the G4 got warm but never uncomfortably hot in my lap.)
ANDREW GORE is Macworld ‘s editor in chief and an expert on all things PowerBook.
Type PowerBook in Macworld.com’s Search field to get current news and reviews relating to portable computing on the Mac.
Macworld’s Buying Advice: If you’re a fanatic, only the best will satisfy your cravings: you’ll settle for nothing less than the 500MHz Titanium PowerBook G4. But unless you do mainly AltiVec work, the 400MHz model should meet your daily needs. And it costs much less-you can upgrade both your RAM and your hard drive and still save money.
The PowerBook G4 is a brilliant update to a product line already leading the market in price, performance, and functionality. And it passed the ultimate test-when I showed this portable to my die-hard PC-toting friends, they turned green with envy. Some even placed orders for their own PowerBook G4s the same day.
That’s certainly all Apple could wish for.
On the Left Side
Bringing Up the Rear
Guts and Glory: Take a gander at the inside of the PowerBook G4: glimpse the goods beneath the keyboard (left) and behind the bottom (right).