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Apple 12in PowerBook G4

A Reg long-term, in-depth test

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Review It's easy to be impressed by a new computer when you've only had it for a few days. It still smells fresh, nothing's been spilt on the keyboard, it still looks shiny. And the idiosyncrasies and glitches haven't had time to emerge. Unless there's something spectacularly wrong with the machine, it will get the thumb's up.

That's fine for most reviewers, but not much help to anyone who's bought a highly rated system only to find that said idiosyncrasies really get in the way.

So rather than bash out 500 words on Apple's new 12in PowerBook a few days after receiving it, we thought we'd use it for a month or so and then give our verdict. Our initial impressions of the machine have, by and large, been proven right, but some issues have emerged that might have been missed by a quick once-over.

You can read a full spec. sheet for the PowerBook over at Apple's web site, so we won't go into details here. Suffice it to say that it's based on an 867MHz G4-class processor, with a base 128MB of 266MHz DDR SDRAM (boosted to 640MB in our machine - much too low a maximum), a 40GB hard drive (ours is 60GB), and with a slot-loading DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo optical drive.

Additional Many thanks to Reg readers who pointed out Apple's PowerBook Developer Notes, which point out that the notebook's RAM limit is actually 4GB - all we have to do is wait for large enough SO-DIMMs to become available - or at least not prohibitively expensive as today's 1GBMB DDR SO-DIMMs are. Whatever, Apple still loses points for fitting only one memory slot.

Port array

The machine comes with Apple's standard portable port set: built-in modem, 10/100Mbps Ethernet, 400Mbps 1394, two USB 1.1 ports, proprietary video out (Apple bundles a set of dongles that incorporate S-VHS and VGA ports), and microphone and headphone sockets. Like the iBook, all these are on the left-hand side of the notebook, flush with the case. Alongside them lies the power jack.

We've always liked this approach. It saves having to turn your notebook around to plug peripherals into the back of the machine, and there's no fiddly flap to lift - or break - to reach them. Apple has an advantage here: it doesn't have legacy ports to support so it doesn't need to find ways to cram them all in. And it's consistent: too often you see notebooks with some ports under flaps, others under different flaps, or exposed. By contrast the PowerBook is a model of ease of access.

There's no PC Card slot, of course, but with analogue modem, wired Ethernet and unwired 802.11 available, we don't need one.

On the right-hand side of the PowerBook is the aforementioned slot-loading optical drive, which is a joy to use after all those flimsy tray-loading mechanisms that expose the lens to dust every time they're opened.

The one flaw with the optical drive really isn't the drive's fault: Mac OS X isn't CD-RW friendly. Burning one's no problem, but to erase a disc prior to re-writing, you have to run, of all things, Apple's Disk Utility and effectively reformat the disk. Given that burning is so intuitive - just copy the files onto the disk icon, and select Burn Disc... from Finder's File menu - you'd have thought wiping them would be too. Not so.

The rear of the machine sports three vents, one at either end of the backplane, and a third in the middle under the screen hinge. The outer pair are speaker grilles, cunningly rear-facing so that the sound reflects back off the screen toward the user. It works too, allowing the sound to come from the monitor rather than underneath your hands as is the case with front-mounted speakers.

Display

The PowerBook's 12.1in LCD (native resolution: 1024x768) is mounted on a short arm at 90 degrees to the screen. The beauty of this arrangement is that when the PowerBook is closed, there's no exposed hinge The downside is that it effectively drops the position of the display by an inch. At first we quite liked this - it looks cool - but there's a problem: it encourages you to stoop even further over the notebook than you might otherwise do, which isn't exactly good for your vertebrae.

Ergonomic issues emerge with the PowerBook's keyboard. Getting full-size keys into a layout that can be no wider than 27cm requires some compromises. Apple's was to slice the Return key in half, making it easier to miss, and leaving the keyboard looking like the right-hand end has been lopped off. That said, we found the keyboard good to type on and it's been a pleasure to write with.

The keys themselves are formed from translucent plastic and then painted to match the PowerBook's aluminium shell. So far we haven't seen any of it rub off, but with extended use we can imagine certain keys losing their covering, spoiling the overall look of the notebook. The characters aren't printed on top of the aluminium paint, they're stencilled through it. This allows the same keyboard to be backlit, making the characters glow, a feature supported by the 17in PowerBook but not the 12in.

Wireless connectivity

The PowerBook includes Bluetooth - essentially, it's a built-in adaptor hanging off an internal USB channel; as, incidentally, is the internal modem - and while our ancient (well, a year old) Nokia isn't Bluetooth enabled, our Palm Tungsten is. Setting up a HotSync connection between the two wasn't entirely intuitive, but we got it to work. The speed isn't too good. A Bluetooth sync takes around 1m 19s, compared to around 21s for a USB cradle sync. Still, it's a small price to pay for getting rid of all those cables.

Apple doesn't offer wireless networking as standard. The PowerBook has a built-in antenna, so enabling an 802.11 network connection is just a matter of fitting the optional AirPort Extreme card. Our PowerBook came with this pre-installed. Connecting to a non-Apple 802.11b base station took a little work. Finding the network was easy and instantaneous - logging on was more complex. Apple's AirPort system uses a text password protection scheme. Our Proxim 802.11b base station uses four hexadecimal 64-bit keys to encrypt data during transmission. Connecting PowerBook to base station was a matter of working out how to enter said keys into the AirPort software's password field.

Apple deserves praise for eliminating all this hexadecimal techie stuff and replacing it with a user-friendly password system, but it could have added an expert mode for greater compatibility with non-Apple systems. It's also inconsistent: joining a network from the AirPort menu allows you to choose the format of your password: in this case hexadecimal. The password field in the Network System Preferences pane offers no such choice.

More to the point, access authentication and data encryption are not the same thing, and Apple shouldn't confuse the two.

Once the WLAN connection was made, we had no further trouble. Reception was excellent wherever we wandered around the house, and we had no difficulty joining public networks that had no password protection.

Battery

The PowerBook's Lithium-ion battery has been the subject of some controversy, with users reporting poor recharge performance, and others claiming that Mac OS X gives inaccurate charge readings.

Our experience is mixed. We calibrated the battery, as suggested by Apple, but found it never quite recharged to 100 per cent. A second calibration fixed the problem, but appears to have reduced the battery's capacity by a fraction.

What Apple doesn't make clear in the PowerBook manual is that the battery doesn't charge if it's more than 95 per cent full. Why? To eliminate very short recharge cycles, which aren't good for the Li-ion's overall lifespan. If we'd have known this, we wouldn't have done the second calibration and might have a higher capacity battery. We wonder how many users have performed umpteen calibrations in the hope of getting an accurate reading - and have suffered much larger capacity reductions than we did as a result.

It has been said that a Mac OS X 10.2.4 bug mis-reports the battery level, but our problems occurred with 10.2.3. That said, if Apple is shipping the machine with 10.2.3 - ours machine arrived long after the 10.2.4 update was posted - perhaps it knows more about the bug than it's letting on. We'll just have to see if the rumoured 10.2.5 update improves matters.

The bottom line: Apple needs to give better, clearer guidance about effectively maintaining Li-ion batteries.

We got an average battery life of around two-and-a-half hours - about half the five hours that Apple suggests we should get. Again, the 10.2.4 bug may be causing trouble here.

Thermals

If there's one thing we weren't happy about the PowerBook, it's the amount of heat it generates, particularly when connected to the mains. Surprisingly, perhaps, it's not the CPU at fault but the hard drive, located at the front of the machine on the left-hand side. Setting the Energy Saver System Preferences panel to put the hard drive to sleep when it can helps.

Generally, however, the left-hand wrist-rest area can get very hot. Ditto the top left-hand side of the machine's face, just above the keyboard, where the mains adaptor connects.

Of course, that's one of the disadvantages of using a metal case, which doubles up as a heat disperser. We've got used to the heat now, but it was a surprise at first. Your own experience may vary - we've been using the machine solidly for eight hours a day, with occasional Sleep periods, during which the PowerBook quickly cools right down.

The PowerBook is very quiet to use, but if the heat inside the case builds up to a certain level, an internal fan, which draws air in at the front left-hand side, across the hard drive, GeForce chip and CPU (both mounted on the left-hand side under the keyboard - roughly speaking the X and C keys, and 3 and 4 keys, respectively), and out of the rear vent we mentioned earlier. We've heard worse fans, but it's by no means quiet. Nor, incidentally, is the optical drive, but most users expect that. The fan noise is disappointing. Again, occasional users may not be disturbed by it, but heavy users almost certainly will be.

Performance

For a machine with no L3 cache and a relatively low-end graphics chip - GeForce 4 420 Go with just 32MB of DDR video memory - the PowerBook feels remarkably sprightly.

Running Quake III 1.3.2 beta at 1024x768, with 32-bit colour and textures, maximum texture quality, high geometric detail, trilinear filtering and no sound gave us a very playable 47.7 frames per second. Dropping down to a smaller resolution is always a drag with LCD panels, and it's good to have a graphics system that's powerful enough that you don't have to. Doom III, if it ships on Mac OS X, may cause us to revise that view, but as occasional players rather than dedicated gamers, we liked what the PowerBook can do.

The PowerBook uses an older PowerPC 7445, according to Japanese site MacMedical, which has taken one of the machines apart: here (in Japanese). The site also has schematics of the PowerBook's motherboard.

Converting a 8m 20s audio file from CD took 53s using iTunes.

Verdict

Apple's 12in PowerBook isn't the lightest or thinnest notebook we've seen, but it's certainly the best looking, and we've enjoyed using it. It's also one of the most compact. Thinner notebooks, aimed at executives, tend to have larger screens and thus larger cases, but we really liked the fact that the PowerBook is barely larger than a sheet of A4 paper. It's highly portable.

The screen might be too small for some, but at 1024x768, we found it large enough for Photoshop work and all the other multi-palette apps we run. The games too. Screen size is a compromise, and one we felt very easy to make given our preference for the PowerBook's size. And Apple still offers the 15.4in PowerBook G4 and, of course, the 17in machine for users who prize screen size above portability. ®

Rating   90%
Pros
  • Great looking
  • Very portable
  • Slot-loading optical drive
  • Well designed
Cons
  • Can get hot
  • Memory expansion limited
Price
  • Combo drive: £1399/$1799
  • Superdrive: £1556.89/1999
Options/
upgrades
  • 802.11g WLAN
  • 60GB HDD
  • Up to 640MB RAM

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