Apple has produced a small laptop for several years with the consumer iBook, but putting the PowerBook moniker on the new
diminutive 12-inch computer reveals an entirely new set of expectations from the buying public. It’s a tough balancing act to meet those high-end expectations and still meet the executive-level target market for this compact notebook.
Apple also worked on a few old problems that have followed them through the Titanium 15-inch line — battery life, AirPort reception and heat dissipation. Apple improved on two of these, while the last item seems to have been made worse over recent Titanium releases.
AirPort reception much improved
Whenever I open a notebook, one of the first things I do is walk around to see if the AirPort reception has improved. Most of the time, I am encouraged by the progress, but still a little disappointed — not this time.
Apple said that the iBook was the benchmark system for AirPort reception — I think the company has a new benchmark machine with the 12-inch PowerBook. I can easily go three times as far using the new PowerBook as I can with 1GHz Titanium and even farther than the 12-inch iBook.
I used a Linksys 802.11b Wireless Router Base Station and an AirPort Extreme Base Station for the tests on distance with similar results. The Linksys actually outlasted the Extreme Base Station in distance, so it seems to be more of a problem with the AirPort and not the computer’s ability to pick up a signal.
Heat still a problem
With the switch to an aluminum-based body design, there was hope among users that Apple would be able to correct the heat issues often associated with the Titanium PowerBook. They did a great job over the past few updates to the Titanium to allow the machines to run cooler — in my opinion the best Apple notebook for heat dissipation was the 867MHz 15-inch Titanium, with the 1GHz 15-inch a close second.
Sadly, the 12-inch reminds me more of the first generation Titanium than any of the recent incarnations — this is one hot notebook. Interestingly enough, heat is more of a problem when the PowerBook is plugged in, but runs much cooler when running on the battery.
Battery life lasts longer
I have never been able to get the 5 hours of battery life that Apple says you can get from a laptop, but it’s never been really bad either. Normally I would be in the two-hour range — for my purposes on the road that was fine to do my work or play a DVD.
The 12-inch is vastly improved, adding almost an hour to the average battery time during normal use. I was able to watch a two-hour DVD and still have almost an hour left on my battery.
With the target market for this system, improved battery life is essential and Apple has done a great job in the respect.
Hitting the sweet spot
A small notebook like this definitely has a sweet spot between size, features and performance — the ability for a company to hit that spot is essential for the success of the computer. Although I would like to see all of the newer technologies like FireWire 800 and the backlit keyboard included in the 12-inch PowerBook, Apple did well in giving customers a nice feature set in a portable frame.
Including built-in Bluetooth wireless technology gives users of the PowerBook a very simple way to sync their system with many of the devices on the market today like cell phones. You don’t realize how convenient using Apple’s iSync to update information on your device is, until you try to do it by hand again.
Of course, there are sacrifices that have to be made when you reduce the size of a notebook like the PowerBook. The most obvious is the screen size, but for people that need a notebook to travel with, the smaller screen will not be a problem. I found the screen had plenty of real estate for my purposes using Photoshop, email or browsing the Web.
The biggest sacrifice with the 12-inch PowerBook is the loss of the L3 cache. Running at 867MHz, the PowerBook could definitely use the boost that the L3 cache could offer the machine when doing data intensive tasks. You will notice the lack of L3 cache more in applications like Photoshop, than Web browsing or email.
Unlike other PowerBooks, the case for the 12-inch model is very close to the sides of the keyboard and there is just enough room to rest the palm of your hands in the front to comfortably type. I really like the look and feel of the silver keyboard keys, which are not only attractive when you first open your new computer, but keep that look after much use.
Using two rubber plugs on the top corner of the monitor, Apple fixed a problem they have had for some years with the notebooks: key impressions left on the screen from the keyboard when the notebook is closed. Many companies have released leather and foam protectors that you place on the keyboard when the lid is closed to protect the screen, but that is no longer necessary.
Traveling with the 12-inch PowerBook
I made two trips over the past three weeks with the PowerBook — both flights were over five hours each. As many travelers know, using a notebook while sitting in economy class can sometimes be more trouble than it’s worth. Besides finding the room to set up your computer, you also have to worry about the person in front of you putting their seat back — using the 15-inch model in this situation can be especially dangerous because the top of screen often gets caught in the tray lid of the seat, leaving it vulnerable to being broken.
Using the 12-inch PowerBook proved to be easier than I expected on the plane. Whether in business class or economy, I had no trouble at all finding enough room to type and still have room to put my iPod on the tray with the computer. This definitely has a lot to do with the physical size of the notebook, but Apple also borrowed from the iBook by including a hinge that drops down and away, thus reducing the profile of the machine when it’s open.
The weight difference between the 15-inch and 12-inch PowerBooks is very noticeable after carrying them around for a while. If you have ever had to walk long distances with a computer on your back, you will appreciate how much a small weight difference can make.
I tried two carrying cases with the PowerBook: a sleeve from Willow Design and my older backpack from Brenthaven. The Willow Design sleeve is built for the 12-inch PowerBook, providing a snug fit in an easy to handle case. If you are on the move and don’t need to carry extra peripherals, the sleeve is a great item to have on your travels.
While the Brenthaven bag is designed for the 15-inch PowerBook model, I have a hard time giving this case up and used it for my 12-inch as well. The protective sleeve inside the backpack provides ample protection for the notebook, while the abundance of extra pockets give you plenty of room to store peripherals, cables, books and whatever else you decide to take with you on a trip.
The 12-inch PowerBook is a great computer for anyone on the road that needs power and wants a light, portable notebook. Don’t let the size of this notebook fool you — this is a thoroughbred PowerBook.
Even though there are sacrifices with screen size and L3 cache, you purchase this PowerBook knowing what you get with the notebook. For Apple’s target market, having a smaller screen is actually not a drawback at all, but part of the reason they will buy the notebook in the first place.
For benchmarks on Apple’s PowerBook, please see
Macworld magazine’s review of the 12-inch PowerBook.