Apple’s Year of the Notebook started quite impressively, with the release of the
12-inch PowerBook, a compact laptop that combined extreme portability with the performance of the G4 processor. Following quickly on that model’s heels is the 17-inch PowerBook, the new flagship of Apple’s laptop line. Sporting a huge 17-inch screen, a 1GHz processor with ample Level 3 (L3) cache, extensive connectivity options, and several innovative new features, this $3,299 machine represents the state of the art for anyone who wants the best portable money can buy — especially if size and weight aren’t primary concerns.
Reading a list of the 17-inch PowerBook’s technical specs and capabilities, you could easily mistake this laptop for a desktop Power Mac. In addition to the 1GHz G4 processor and 1MB of speed-boosting L3 cache, this PowerBook offers built-in Gigabit Ethernet and AirPort Extreme, two USB ports, FireWire 400 and 800 ports, a DVI video-out connector, a 56K modem, 512MB of RAM, and a Type II PC Card slot. It’s also a storage powerhouse, offering a 60GB hard drive and a slot-loading SuperDrive that burns DVD-R discs at 1x, CD-R discs at 16x, and CD-RW discs at 4x.
You might also mistake this PowerBook’s central feature for something you’d find on a desktop: its 17-inch TFT display, a bright and beautiful flat panel with a native resolution of 1,440 by 900 pixels. Even former Titanium PowerBook users will be blown away by this remarkable screen. Whether you’re reading spreadsheets, surfing the Web, or watching DVD movies, the 17-inch PowerBook’s screen is nothing short of phenomenal. If you use window- or palette-heavy applications such as Apple’s Final Cut, Adobe Photoshop, or Macromedia Dreamweaver, this expansive screen lets you work without feeling crowded. And if you need even more space, you can use the DVI connector (and, optionally, the included DVI-to-VGA adapter) to drive a second digital or analog display at a resolution as high as 2,048 by 1,536 pixels in 24-bit color.
When it comes to fit and finish, this PowerBook is top-notch. It has the same anodized aluminum shell as the 12-inch model, an excellent improvement over the Titanium PowerBook. The lid, which houses the display, glides back effortlessly on counterbalanced hinges. Two small speakers on either side of the keyboard provide the best sound we’ve heard from an Apple laptop. Audiophiles will still wince at the sound, but it’s more than adequate for watching a movie or listening to music on the road.
Unlike with most previous Apple notebooks, you install extra RAM in the 17-inch PowerBook from a door on the underside of the computer, not by removing the keyboard. As a result, the keyboard is very solid, and the keys have an excellent range of motion. In an Apple first, the keyboard is also backlit, letting you find the right key even in a pitch-dark hotel room.
In true Apple tradition, the keyboard light doesn’t simply flicker on and off: it dims and brightens gradually. This feature is more than eye candy — it’s quite helpful and much more useful than some of the USB-based keyboard lights we’ve tried. An ambient-light sensor on the PowerBook automatically triggers the backlighting, although you can turn this feature off if you don’t like the effect and prefer to adjust the backlighting manually via function keys.
Like last fall’s
1GHz Titanium PowerBook, the 17-inch PowerBook is a well-balanced computer in terms of speed. The 1GHz processor, coupled with the 1MB of L3 cache, a 167MHz system bus (the fastest yet in any PowerBook), fast 333MHz Double Data Rate (DDR) RAM, and the Nvidia GeForce4 440 graphics chip, provides the best level of performance yet found in a Mac notebook (see the benchmark chart). In general, it was comparable in many tasks with a single-processor 1GHz desktop and significantly faster than the 1GHz flat-panel iMac. Despite the high-powered silicon inside, this PowerBook never got hot, and even when its fan came on it was remarkably quiet.
The 17-inch PowerBook’s AirPort performance was similar to the 12-inch PowerBook’s — much better than the Titanium models’ and generally as strong as the current iBooks’. The native Bluetooth support is easy to use, robust, and quite addictive once you’ve collected a few Bluetooth-compatible gadgets to play with. We also found that attaching a LaCie FireWire 800 drive offered a 10 to 20 percent speed improvement over an external FireWire 400 drive when we backed up with Retrospect or copied files between drives, although we didn’t use the drive enough to make concrete performance judgments on FireWire 800 in general.
Apple claims that the 17-inch PowerBook has a battery life of approximately 4.5 hours, but Apple’s battery-life claims are based on ideal conditions. However, we regularly got more than three hours of battery life with average usage, and we were able to watch feature-length movies on a single charge without having to resort to extreme power-management tasks.
Portability of a Sort
The big screen means that the 17-inch PowerBook is significantly wider (15.4 inches) and longer (10.2 inches) than any previous PowerBook, but Apple has been able to keep the thickness of the PowerBook at exactly 1 inch, similar to the Titanium models. The PowerBook weighs 6.8 pounds, which is more than a pound heavier than the Titanium, and in the range of Apple’s older PowerBook G3s.
While the 17-inch PowerBook is big, it wasn’t outrageously so; its thinness really helps dispel the notion that the 17-inch PowerBook is a bulky behemoth, unlike some of the wide-screen PC notebooks we’ve seen. However, its size will knock it immediately out of consideration by some road warriors: while it will fit on a standard airline tray table, we found it nearly impossible to use when seated in a coach-class seat on a full airplane (this is a problem that we ran into with the Titanium PowerBook, too). It was usable in an exit-row seat, as well as in economy plus, business class, and — should you be so lucky–first class.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
For people who do not live entirely on planes or who have fairly light travel requirements, the 17-inch PowerBook will be a fine, if slightly oversized, travel companion. It also serves well as a sleek (if expensive) replacement for a desktop Mac. Given the size and quality of the display, many users won’t even feel the need for an external monitor.
With Apple’s current notebook line stretching from the $999 iBook to this $3,299 model, there’s a portable for everyone. While it will stretch the definition of portability to some, the 17-inch PowerBook represents the best combination of features and performance of any PowerBook. It’s an excellent workstation for video professionals, designers, and other users who refuse to make sacrifices in performance but still require a good level of mobility.