Eight months after Apple announced its smallest and largest PowerBook G4s — the 12-inch and 17-inch PowerBook G4s, in aluminum, not Titanium — Apple released the laptop many professional Mac users had been waiting for — the aluminum 15-inch PowerBook G4. With its slick performance, bright screen, and support for USB 2.0, FireWire 800, AirPort Extreme, and Bluetooth, this laptop was worth the wait. But people who’ve received PowerBooks with loose latches or video problems may wish that Apple had taken a bit more time to iron out kinks.
All This and More
Until this laptop came along, professionals who needed every bell and whistle Apple could pack into a PowerBook — Bluetooth, AirPort Extreme, FireWire 800, S-Video output, a SuperDrive, Gigabit Ethernet, and a backlit keyboard — had to purchase the 17-inch PowerBook G4, an expensive, and expansive, computer. The faster of the two new 15-inch PowerBooks not only provides all these features in a smaller package, but also offers a faster processor, 20GB more hard-drive capacity (80GB), and USB 2.0, which we found to be 12 times faster than USB 1.1.
In addition to the aforementioned amenities, the 1.25GHz PowerBook G4 includes 512MB of RAM (the machine can accommodate as much as 2GB of RAM), an ATI Mobility Radeon 9600 graphics processor with 64MB of RAM, a DVI connector (a DVI-to-VGA converter is included), S-Video–out ports, audio line-in and -out ports, a 167MHz system bus, 512K of L2 cache (but no L3 cache), a PC Card slot, and a built-in 56K V.92 modem. The bright, 15.2-inch screen offers resolutions as high as 1,280 by 854 pixels, and you can run an external display at 2,048 by 1,536 pixels and millions of colors. The $1,999, 1GHz version of this machine is nearly the same as the 1.25GHz version, but it has a 60GB hard drive, 256MB of RAM, and a Combo drive. It also lacks the standard backlit keyboard and built-in AirPort Extreme card. (Aside from the faster processor, all the elements the 1GHz PowerBook lacks can be added as build-to-order options.)
The 1.25GHz 15-inch PowerBook is a noticeably snappy performer. Finder menus flick down in an instant, applications launch in next to no time, and iTunes visuals are as smooth as velvet. The keyboard is solid and crisp — both it and the trackpad button require slightly more pressure than the Titanium PowerBook’s keyboard.
At 5.6 pounds, this laptop is also slightly heavier than the 15-inch Titanium PowerBook, which weighs 5.3 pounds. And it’s a little larger by a few fractions of an inch. Like its 12- and 17-inch siblings, the 15-inch model has ports on its left and right sides — a configuration that may be a little cumbersome. And this PowerBook — like its aluminum relations — gets very warm around the rear bottom corners.
Perhaps the most sought-after feature in these new PowerBooks is improved AirPort reception. We tested this in a room about 45 feet away from our Base Station, where an 800MHz iMac G4 gets solid AirPort reception (three or four bars in the AirPort menu-bar icon) and a 400MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 gets no reception whatsoever. The new PowerBook found the Base Station and registered two or three bars — not as good as the iMac’s reception but far better than that of the older PowerBook.
This PowerBook’s battery life is unimpressive. When the Energy Saver system preference is set to Highest Performance (the setting used for our tests), you can expect to get two hours at most out of a fully charged battery under constant use. After setting Energy Saver to DVD Playback, we were able to watch two hours and four minutes of a DVD before the battery ran out of juice.
Small Performance Differences
Although the 1.25GHz model is spunky, it’s not 25 percent spunkier than its 1GHz sibling, which performs on a par with the previous 1GHz Titanium model. In our Speedmark tests, the 1.25GHz 15-inch PowerBook performed about 13 percent better than the new 1GHz model. In other tests, the 1.25GHz PowerBook was between 11 percent (the Compressor test) and 20 percent (the Cinema 4D XL test) faster. And demonstrating that an Apple laptop can be a respectable gaming machine, the 1.25GHz PowerBook G4 cranked out 86 frames per second in our Quake III test; the 1GHz machine cranked out 73 frames per second.
We can’t check the vital signs of every computer Apple ships. We can, however, report on the quality of the PowerBooks we’ve received, and that report is not encouraging. Of six 15-inch PowerBooks Macworld ordered from a non-Apple retailer, three had to be returned. One repeatedly locked up and experienced kernel panics after being unplugged from an external monitor, another’s fan ran constantly, and another displayed only the magenta video channel when plugged into an external display. So if you absolutely must have this PowerBook now, be prepared for potential problems.
The screen on the 1.25GHz 15-inch PowerBook used for this review exhibited a white blotch about the size of a dime when we put a white background (such as a blank Microsoft Word document) on the desktop. And the latch on this PowerBook locked inconsistently — the lid occasionally popped up after it had been closed for a couple of seconds. Reports of such latch problems are widespread on the Discussions area of Apple’s Web site and on other Mac-related sites.
We understand that the first version of a computer is likely to have a few problems, but if our small sampling is any indication of how other 15-inch PowerBooks are leaving the factory, Apple might benefit from cocking a sterner eye toward quality control.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
The new 15-inch PowerBook G4s are impressive pieces of engineering, with stunningly bright screens, plenty of power, all the right ports, and a solid feel. We hope that by the time you read this, Apple will have worked out the kinks in the consistency of its PowerBooks, so the laptop you receive will be the laptop you love.