Apple PowerBook Review (pics, specs)

by Reads (173,823)

by Gabe Lipson, USA

Overview and Introduction:

Apple PowerBook G4 15.2″ (view larger image)

The Powerbook is Apple’s desktop replacement notebook, but unlike most PC notebooks in this category, the Powerbook is not bulky, nor is it thick and heavy. In fact, the Powerbook is about as thin as mainstream notebooks get, and as light as I could imagine any laptop with this size screen. As far as configuration goes, I opted for the 15.2 inch widescreen version with a 1.67 GHz G4 processor, 512 megs of ram, a 64 mb ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 video card, and a super drive.

Reasons for Buying:

I was very apprehensive about buying the Powerbook because I had used PC’s for my whole life. In fact, I was comfortable enough with PC’s that I had become the sort-of neighborhood mechanic. When it came time to choose a computer for college, I had in the back of my mind the aesthetic appeal of the Apple line of computers and hoped that I could find a windows laptop with a similar look and feel. After what seemed like endless searching, I came upon the Asus W3v, which hadn’t even begun to ship to the US yet. So, I put most of my eggs into one basket and decided upon the Asus. But, when they started shipping, I heard nasty things about palm rest heat that scared me away enough to go to my local Apple store and test-drive a Powerbook in the flesh. In a matter of minutes, I was sold.

Where and How Purchased:

I bought the Powerbook at an Apple Store, figuring they would present me with the best warranty options available, and because they honored a student discount offered by my college. The salesmen were very friendly, and offered ample help during the purchasing process. While ringing me up, they registered the notebook and offered a bundle of Apple services (like .Mac), which I refused at the time, but may consider in the future.

Form & Design:

Apple PowerBook G4 underside (view larger image)

The first I saw of my laptop was its minimalist, but beautiful packaging. Apple seems to take quite a bit of pride in aesthetics and ergonomics, which somehow doesn’t hamper function. Nestled between product manuals and a power brick was the aluminum notebook. I don’t think there is a single notebook on the market that has a better or comparable look and feel. The Powerbook is very thin, just heavy enough not to feel cheap, light enough not to be a burden, and large enough that the screen doesn’t strain my eyes after a good amount of use. Needless to say, I was proud of my purchase before turning the computer on. After using the Powerbook for a few weeks, the only potential problem I have had is that the bottom gets extremely hot when there isn’t a proper amount of ventilation underneath it. This means that laying the Powerbook on a comforter while video editing may turn out to be a no-no. Also, because the computer is aluminum, this excess heat can actually cause the case to be a slight bit flexible, so your best bet is to keep it on a desk or to buy a laptop pad that dissipates heat. Still, I have never had a problem working with the notebook on my lap.

Apple PowerBook G4 top view (view larger image)

Apple PowerBook G4 left side view (view larger image)

Apple PowerBook G4 right side view (view larger image)

Screen:

One of my worries about going with the Powerbook instead of a comparable Sony or Asus notebook was its lack of a brightview type reflective screen. I had heard and read that this screen coating really helps with accurate color reproduction, and that notebooks without it would produce muddled pictures in comparison. So, I drove over to Best Buy and looked at laptops and found this to be entirely true with one exception — the Powerbook. If you compared the reproduction of the color white between brightview notebooks, non-brightview notebooks, and the Powerbook, you saw clearly that all but the coated notebooks and the Powerbooks produced a yellowish tint that really detracted from their vibrancy. After playing around with the Powerbook, I am even more satisfied with my purchase because the uncoated Powerbook screen doesn’t have the glare associated with brightview notebooks. Plus, the Powerbook is equipped with a light sensor underneath the speaker grills which enables it to automatically dim and brighten the screen in accordance with lighting conditions. I have not yet experienced any problems with brightness, and am wholly satisfied with the screen quality. I also lucked out and got no dead pixels. The 16×10 wide aspect screen also makes viewing documents and web pages side by side a breeze, which is a positive change I could not imagine giving up. The 1280×854 resolution also makes text and images the perfect size for viewing.

Speakers:

The speakers on the Powerbook are about as good as any other notebook’s. They do not get immensely loud, but do get loud enough that I never need to put them on the highest setting. They lack a great deal of bass, but that is understandable considering the size of the drivers. One complaint may be that the speakers aren’t situated in the front like those on the HP DV1000, so you can’t listen to music with the lid closed, but so far I haven’t figured out how to leave the computer running with the lid closed anyway. I would still recommend a good set of headphones for anyone interested in watching DVDs on flights, as the Powerbook plays movies beautifully.

Processor and Performance:

I was very worried about buying this Powerbook because of the fact that it still only has a G4. I was always under the impression that the Powerbook was meant to be a portable version of the Power Mac, which meant close to comparable performance in the past, but since the G5 produces so much heat and uses up so much power, they have held off putting it in a notebook for some time. But, my fears were tamed when I read an article explaining that the G5 was originally a server processor comparable to the Intel Xeon chip, and that for mainstream use, the G4 is still comparable to most Pentium M’s. This turned out to be correct. All tasks seem very responsive compared to my 3 GHz Pentium 4 desktop. I have hit very few performance bottlenecks, excepting a rendering job that I did in final cut pro that took a little while. Still, the same process took about the same amount of time on my windows computer using Adobe Premier. The 80 Gb hard drive in the Powerbook is 5400 rpm, which is not as fast as they come (7,200 rpm), but also doesn’t eat up as much battery life or produce as much heat. Because of these tradeoffs, I think that Apple’s inclusion of a 5,400 rpm drive (which is relatively new to the line which used to be equipped with 4,200 rpm drives) was a good idea.

Benchmarks:

It is very difficult to benchmark an Apple computer next to a Windows computer because, minding the inherent pun, they are like apples and oranges. Still, I looked around and discovered that the program SuperPi that is recommended by notebookreview.com had a Unix version that was ported to the Macintosh. So, I downloaded the program and had it calculate Pi to two million digits, just like others had done with windows machines. The results I got were very impressive.

Notebook Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits
Apple Powerbook (1.67 GHz G4) 1m 36s
Gateway 7426GX (AMD Athlon 3700+) 1m 39s
IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 45s
Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 48s
IBM ThinkPad T41 (1.6GHz Banias Pentium M) 2m 23s
Compaq R3000T (Celeron 2.8GHz) 3m 3s
Dell Inspiron 600m (1.6 GHz Dothan Pentium M) 2m 10s
Dell Inspiron 8600 (1.7GHz Banias Pentium M) 2m 28s


To make sure that this test was valid and that the Super Pi port to the Mac wasn’t somewhat flawed, I downloaded a program called PiCalculator, which calculated Pi to 2m digits in a minute and 29 seconds. Like I said, daily tasks never skip a beat.

There is an apple benchmarking program called XBench that has become the gold standard of mac benchmarking. On XBench I got a score of 143, which is about 6 percent slower than a comparably equipped 1.8ghz G5 iMac. This was with all performance settings on high and the computer plugged into the wall. Yet, this cumulative score included the lower end video card that I bought. Powerbooks with the 128 meg ATI card tend to score better because a graphics performance test is factored in. In the area of sheer processing performance, my computer got a score of 196, which essentially means that the G4 is not dead as long as the G5 is too hot to put into a portable.

Keyboard and Touchpad:

Keyboard and Touchpad in the dark (view larger image)

The keyboard on the Powerbook is wonderfully spacious. Even compared to other full sized notebook keyboards, it feels much more comfortable to use. Apple made wider keys that don’t have a lot of depth, but have a great deal of travel, which makes it feel very responsive. Also, along with setting the screen’s brightness to look best with the amount of ambient light available, the light sensors activate a network of fiberoptic keyboard lights when a room is dim, making nighttime viewing much easier than with a USB light of sorts. The touchpad, also, is very responsive. A lot of PC laptops I tried out had almost slick feeling track pads that became a hassle to use after long periods of time. Also, the ability to scroll through web pages and documents by brushing two fingers down (or across if you want to scroll sideways) the touchpad is very intuitive and very useful. It has become second nature. When I first bought the Powerbook I was worried about its lack of a right click button, but after a good amount of use, I have actually come to like Apple’s ctrl+click arrangement. With touch pads on other notebooks, I remember accidentally right clicking all the time, just because there wasn’t much differentiation between the buttons. With ctrl+click, you get all the functions of right clicking, and after a while, it too becomes second nature. I also bought a Bluetooth mouse to accompany my Powerbook (which has a scroll wheel and a right button), and all three buttons worked like a charm from the start. Apple’s inclusion of Bluetooth 2.0 was a nice touch, also. It means that when these devices start to hit the shelves, I won’t have to use a USB dongle to satisfy new compatibility issues.

Keyboard and Touchpad (view larger image)

Input and Output Ports:

The Powerbook comes with a very nice array of ports which lie along the sides of the computer. On the left hand side there is a PC Card slot, a headphone jack, a line-in/microphone jack, a USB 2.0 port, a phone jack, and a DC Power connector. On the right side there is a DVI monitor output port (the computer comes with a DVI to VGA adapter), an S-video connector (the Powerbook comes with an S-Video to RCA adapter), a gigabit Ethernet jack, a Firewire 800 port, a Firewire 400 port, another USB 2.0 port, and a security slot. The port placement is, in my opinion, very effective. You can use the USB on the right hand side for a mouse (if you didn’t buy Bluetooth), and the left hand port for a hard drive printer that isn’t wirelessly connected. I have heard a few complain about the fact that they included only two USB ports, but with so much becoming wireless these days, I really don’t see the need for any more (especially when a 4 port USB hub the size of a cigarette lighter costs 15-20 bucks). I also played around with the video output. With the Powerbook, apple gives you the ability to not only mirror the screen, but also to extend it in any orientation you choose. It was fun to play around with, but is a novelty I don’t see myself using often. You can do these same things when you connect a TV. The Powerbook automatically recognizes what resolution is proper for your particular set when you press the “detect displays” button. Overall, picture quality is as good as my standalone DVD player’s.

Wireless:

The Powerbook came equipped with an airport extreme card, which complies with the WiFi 802.11G standard. In my household, wireless reception is very good except for in one single room upstairs. This probably has to do with the construction of my house, but overall I’m happy. What was amazing was the minimal amount of steps it required to set up different network profiles, and how easily it connected to my network. My windows machines never played that easily. In fact, I had two PC’s that would never connect to the same workgroup without producing huge errors. It turns out that my Powerbook was able to connect to both of them without any problems (once I figured out that I had to turn on windows networking). I have heard that the iBook gets better wireless range than the Powerbook because it doesn’t have a metal case that interferes with the signal. Still, the antennae are located underneath plastic strips along the edges of the display and seem to do their job nicely.

Battery:

I could very easily say that the battery doesn’t last long enough, but the approximately 2.5-3 hours of time I get with a single charge seems to be standard among notebooks with large displays and heat-hungry components. Still, I have never run into a problem, per say, with its lifespan. Watching a DVD, I was able to get two hours and twenty seven minutes of life in power saving mode, and doing normal web browsing and word processing I am usually able to get in the ballpark of three hours.

Battery meter LED charge level indicator (view larger image)

Operating System and Software:

This Powerbook came with OS X v. 10.4 “Tiger.” I am incredibly happy with tiger’s performance thus far. In fact, I boxed up my windows desktop last night because Tiger has spoiled me. It is inherently more intuitive than windows, and Spotlight is simply amazing when it comes to finding things in a snap. Even if you’re in an “open with” dialogue, you can use spotlight to find the right program to open a file with. It makes the somewhat less impressive finder system much more manageable. I also really like the new dashboard feature. I figured that this was a novelty that I wouldn’t use a lot, but it turns out that I download and use widgets for little tasks constantly. Also, expose’ is fantastic. The ability to show all open windows at the touch of a button and to choose one from the lot makes computing a hell of a lot easier. This computer is a workhorse, and Tiger is as well. I also love the fact that “Force Quit” actually works. In windows, we all know that trying to close programs with ctrl+alt+delete becomes a huge hassle. Plus, the diagnostic utilities available with tiger abound with features I had only wished Windows had adopted. Aside from just outlining memory and processor usage, it provides a windows-like task manager of sorts that goes into much greater detail about specific processes.

Customer Support:

I decided to wait on purchasing the extended 3 year warranty, but as of now I have a single year of coverage and 90 days of free phone support. I actually called the tech line with a question a few days ago, and they were very responsive and friendly.

Complaints: 

My one complaint is that apple doesn’t let out information about upcoming computers so they are ble to keep prices high before new launches. Because of this, I worry that in a week they will announce a G5 Powerbook, and I will have spent $2,300 for an outdated product. Other than that, I have no complaints.

Praises: 

I think I’ve outlined enough praises in this review. Still, I want to reassure any Windows user that there really isn’t much hassle in moving from windows to Tiger. It has turned out to be well worth it, as it has shifted my love/hate relationship with computers toward the more positive end.

Conclusion:

This is a laptop that fits in more categories than I ever imagined a single computer could. It is thin, light, powerful, beautiful, has a gorgeously large widescreen, and it makes me happy just looking at it. So, would I recommend this computer to anyone? Absolutely. I would recommend this computer to everyone if I could. Still, my only reservation is that it is very pricey.

Pricing and Availability


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