By Gene Steinberg
Apple’s slim, trim Titanium PowerBook G4 is now in its third generation. In the notebook’s most recent revision, Apple has kept the eye-catching, elegant form factor but added a faster processor with 1-MB DDR of L3 cache, a bigger hard drive, a more powerful graphics card, and a higher price. Combined with a bright, crisp, 15.2-inch, wide-screen display, this package makes the PowerBook a compelling alternative to a desktop computer, not to mention a Windows desktop-replacement notebook. (Click here to check the latest prices for this product.)
The PowerBook blurs the line between a desktop-replacement and a thin-and-light system. It has all of the features of the former category but is only one inch thick and weighs just 5.4 pounds with an Apple AirPort wireless networking card; the compact power adapter adds 12 ounces to the total travel weight. Most Windows desktop-replacement systems are thicker and considerably heavier, while most Windows thin-and-lights have smaller, 14.1-inch displays and can’t match the PowerBook’s features.
Apple PowerBook CNET Rating: 8 out of 10
The PowerBook comes in two standard configurations. The $2,499 entry-level model includes a 667-MHz G4 processor, 256 MB of RAM, and a 30-GB hard drive. At the opposite extreme, the top-of-the-line $3,199 configuration includes an 800-MHz G4 chip, 512 MB of RAM, and a 40-GB hard drive. The latter also includes Apple’s AirPort Wi-Fi card, which is otherwise a $99 option on iBooks and the entry-level PowerBook. We tested both, though our 667-MHz model included an extra 256 MB of memory. For a custom configuration, use the build-to-order system on Apple’s site to choose from a limited selection of processors, memory amounts, hard drives, and accessories. However, Apple offers nowhere near the level of customization available from competing Windows notebook manufacturers.
Then again, the laptop already has just about everything you need. At the top of that list is the PowerBook’s stunning, wide-screen, 15.2-inch LCD, which now has a native screen resolution of 1,280×854 pixels, up from 1,152×768 in the previous model. This change will slightly expand the desktop area yet won’t make the icons and the icon labels seem too small. Most Windows desktop-replacement systems have a higher default resolution that lets you display more text and graphics onscreen but at smaller sizes.
Both PowerBooks feature the ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 graphics chip with 32 MB of RAM. The ATI chip already graces a number of Windows notebooks, including the Gateway 600XL and the Micron TransPort GX3. Apple’s ace in the hole is a DVI output port, which allows you to connect a digital flat-panel display to the PowerBook. With the supplied VGA adapter, you can hook up a CRT or an analog LCD monitor, but if you want to use one of Apple’s own monitors—all of which employ the Apple Display Connector (ADC) proprietary connection scheme—you’ll have to spring for one of Apple’s $149 DVI-to-ADC adapters.
Also standard issue is a slot-loading combination DVD/CD-RW drive, gigabit Ethernet, and the standard array of Apple ports: one modem, one FireWire, two USB, one PC Card/CardBus, audio line-in (another new feature), and S-Video. Now that Apple has added support in Mac OS X for the Bluetooth personal-area networking found in some cell phones, handhelds, and printers, the company has dispensed with the infrared port. However, you still have to buy a separate USB Bluetooth adapter, the $49.95 D-Link DWB-120M, to use this feature. In contrast, a few Windows notebooks now have built-in Bluetooth receivers. Like all Macs, the PowerBook has a single mouse button below its comfortable, center-mounted trackpad.
Performance keeps inching up
In addition to the faster processor and more memory, the high-end configuration of the PowerBook gets a boost from the L3 cache. Overall, it was faster than the 667-MHz PowerBook on CNET Labs’ tests, but the margin varies widely, depending on the task. In our Adobe Photoshop 6.0.1 trials, the difference ranged from a barely noticeable 6 percent to a more significant 19 percent. In the benchmark for lighting effects, the 800-MHz PowerBook actually ran 12 percent slower than its less costly counterpart. Only in the iMovie-export test did the 800-MHz model strut its stuff, with a performance advantage of 37 percent over the lesser configuration. Again, our 667-MHz PowerBook was equipped with 512 MB of memory. As you’d expect, both PowerBooks easily outperform the cheaper, G3-based Apple iBook.
To test the battery, we ran a DVD movie at full-screen setting. In that round, the 800-MHz PowerBook lasted 2 hours, 50 minutes; the 667-MHz configuration actually quit 17 minutes earlier. Apple claims you’ll get about 2 hours of use from the 55.3-watt-hour, lithium-ion battery while watching a DVD but as much as 5 hours on less-demanding tasks, which seems realistic, based on our results. Neither configuration of the PowerBook, however, can match the 14.1-inch iBook and its 3-plus hours of battery life on our DVD tests.
Though the lack of cross-platform benchmark tests makes it difficult to objectively compare the PowerBook’s performance to that of similar Windows notebooks, Windows XP seems a tad snappier overall than Mac OS X. However, the Apple offers more than enough power for everyday tasks such as Web browsing and image editing, as well as opening long documents in Microsoft Word and Excel.
Software and support
Aside from the notable omission of a productivity suite, the PowerBook comes with a decent software bundle. In addition to Mac OS X 10.1.4 and Mac OS 9.2.2 (for compatibility with older applications), the package includes Apple’s digital hub programs (iMovie, iPhoto, and iTunes) and standard array of Internet software, including Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mac OS X Mail. Also in the package is Adobe Acrobat Reader, Code Line Communications’ Art Directors Toolkit, SmithMicro’sFAXstf, Lemke Software’s GraphicConverter, OmiGroup’sOmniGraffle and OmniOutliner, James Thomson’s Pcalc, Caffeine Software’s PixelNhance, and Ambrosia Software’s Snapz Pro X. Microsoft Office X for Mac will add another $459.95 to the price of the system, minus a $100 mail-in rebate that Apple is offering with the purchase of a new system through Sept. 30, 2002.
Apple’s warranty remains underpowered among PC makers. You get one year of coverage for parts and labor, as well as three months of toll-free technical support, after which it’s $49 per incident unless you can demonstrate a problem is caused by a factory defect. You can extend the warranty to three years for an additional $349. The 104-page, illustrated manual is well rounded, offering information on setup, use, and simple troubleshooting. You’ll also find a rich resource of help information, software updates, and discussion forums at Apple’s Web site.
Despite a higher price than that of Windows-based desktop replacements, the 800-MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 stands out for its design, features, and performance.
This article was originally published on July 22, 2002.
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