Apple 15in PowerBook G4
Review Ten months is a long time to go without a hardware refresh in the PC industry. For Apple, whose top-end PowerBook notebooks pretty much defined the genre, it's an eternity. The introduction this month of new, speed-bumped PowerBooks thus felt enormously overdue - the delay had led many to expect the fabled PowerBook G5 .
Instead, Apple rolled out a triplet of machines, the 12in versions pushed to 1.5GHz, and the 15in and 17in models to 1.67GHz - up from 1.5GHz, a notional 11 per cent boost.
Offering such a modest improvement - lagging well behind Moore's Law - Apple has focussed on improving other facets, so what used to be build-to-order is now standard. Memory is, at last, 512MB, expandable to 2GB if you start with a 1GB module. The hard drives run at 5400rpm, rather than the 4200rpm common in notebooks. Bluetooth 2.0 and 802.11g Wi-Fi are built in. New trackpads offer a finger-driven scrolling facility. Surprisingly, the frontside bus hasn't been upgraded - it's still 167MHz, meaning it now runs up to ten times slower than the CPU. The PowerBook FSB speed has been in the mid-100s since 2001.
That the demand for these faster machines existed is clear: they're presently the number two seller on the Apple Store, behind the substantially cheaper iPod shuffle. But are they really worth it? We tested a 1.67GHz 15in PowerBook with 512MB RAM and DVD-R Superdrive.
First, an admission. I ordered one of these, to replace my ageing 500MHz 12in iBook, before the call came to review it. I just knew I needed a bigger screen and faster CPU. Off went my order, and then in came the review unit.
It's the same slim design as before, encased in aluminium with the screen hinged inside the body, a design first used in the iBook four years ago. There are two USB 2.0 sockets on either side of the body, along with separate Firewire 400 and Firewire 800 ports, sound in and out, a DVI connector for outside display, Gigabit Ethernet, a PC Card slot and modem port. The hard drive comes in 80GB or 100GB sizes. All in a package weighing 2.5kg (5.6lb) whose price has dropped some since last year. The standard version comes with a slot-loading CD burner; an 8x DVD burner is optional.
Turn it on, and the PowerBook shows off its graphics ability right from the start. The 15.2in screen is distinctly brighter than previous models and very crisp. The 1280 x 854 resolution isn't the best available on the market; Dell and IBM offer native resolutions up to 1600 x 1200. While Apple was first to offer 15in and, later, 17in screen sizes, it hasn't led the pack on resolutions. The Radeon, however. can drive a separate monitor as a mirror or as a second display with up to 2048 x 1536 pixels.
And here we come to the bugbear of the PowerBook design. As Thomas Faraday discovered, the magnetic field inside a shell of metal is uniform. Hence the 'Faraday cage' , used to block out intrusive radio signals. Since their launch, the metal-cased PowerBooks have been notorious for bad wireless reception: metal cases, especially around the screen, where the aerials are located, kill the signal. In the models released last April, this seemed to have been fixed; at least the complaints weren't as loud as before.
However, I found the wireless reception disappointing compared to the iBook, which has a plastic casing that doesn't absorb signals. Where the iBook would report 80-86 per cent signal strength, the PowerBook would be lower - 60-65 per cent. Sometimes it lost the signal altogether at a point where the iBook was reporting 80+ per cent - though I think those cases were due to something strange in Mac OS X 10.3.7, which can be slow to rejoin networks, especially after 'sleep'.
Now, why have the freedom of movement a notebook brings if you can't suck up Internet connectivity wherever you may find it? The fact that Apple still uses metal in the screen casing, or around their edges, means this aspect of modern laptop, for which it was the trailblazer, is being sacrificed on the altar of aesthetics. Can't have plastic edging; that would spoil the look. Yeah, but it would improve the Wi-Fi no end. If you want great wireless performance from an Apple notebook, you'll want an iBook.
So I was feeling a little disappointed with my putative purchase, which at the time of writing was still chugging over from Shanghai. Should I try to swap it for a 14in iBook G4?
Maybe not. Battery life is very good, at about 2.5 hours at full screen brightness, and four hours at the dimmest setting. There's also a preference which will adjust the screen brightness depending on ambient light - the sensors are beneath the speaker grilles either side of the keyboard. It dims the screen as the surroundings get darker - neat, and good for wringing just a little more from the battery. Turning off the backlit keyboard improves the life further; as will killing the Airport Extreme card and Bluetooth.
The keyboard is splendid: positive key feel, no key wobbling, no flex, and a positive key shape. Then there's the new trackpad, using a new supplier (bye-bye Synaptics, which provided Apple's trackpads for years). Dragging two fingers down or up will scroll the active window. This is a vast improvement on the previous trackpads, where putting two fingers anywhere near the trackpad would make the mouse pointer skitter all over the screen. The scrolling at first seems silly, an affectation, but quickly becomes addictive. (For older laptops, there's the paid-for Sidetrack  extension, costing $15.)
The trackpad's single button seemed surprisingly heavy; there's a very short travel between resting and clicking, and clicking is hard, with little physical feedback. Quite a few times I double-clicked something I meant only to hit once, or clicked once instead of twice, or just slid off altogether without clicking. This was the second most annoying thing, though a fair way behind the Airport Extreme connectivity.
The software bundle includes Apple's iLife 05 package, and four third-party apps: Art Director's Toolkit, which does what it says, Graphic Converter (an excellent, scriptable photo and graphics edit/import/export program), OmniGraffle (a diagram-drawing application) and OmniOutliner (an outliner). It's when you're using the software that the PowerBook really shows its stripes.
First, it's fast. Yes, anything will seem fast compared to a three-year-old machine - direct comparisons between the two generations can be found here  and here  - but I've used plenty of others. This whizzed along.
And it does it amazingly quietly. The 4200rpm drive in the iBook makes noises from time to time like it's sharpening something - a sort of 'crick-crick'. The 5400 drive in the PowerBook? Breathe gently through your mouth. OK, a second time, slightly harder. That second time, that's how loud it is. All the time. Rather as at 60mph in a Rolls Royce the loudest sound is the ticking of the clock, at 5400rpm on a PowerBook the loudest sound is the clicking of the keys.
Incidentally, the Fujitsu disk uses IBM's SMART disk monitoring system to tell you if things are about to go bad. Get the excellent SMART Reporter  for a menu item that does the monitoring for you.
Heat, always a laptop's Achilles Heel, is also handled well. The fans never came on, despite working it hard - it's not that cold in my house. The heat is focused underneath, and never gets unbearable. Pretty much everything is used to ventilate the internals, including the speaker grilles, and the palmrests remain cool.
One thing that bothers me is the power lead. Apple's design uses a plug that sticks straight out of the side of the machine. Over time, such a design is apt to get yanked accidentally by passing people and the natural shocks that computer flesh is heir to. My iBook plug has suffered so much it's wrapped in insulating tape to absorb the force exerted by such tweaks. Why doesn't Apple use a plug at right angles to the body? Wouldn't that be less prone to damage? Perhaps someone could enlighten me as to whether there's a pragmatic design decision there - or whether again, aesthetics have triumphed over practicality. The PowerBook plug has the same sticking-out design. It seems a hostage to misfortune.
So wrap it all up, and what have you got? An inadequately speed-bumped, super-quiet, long-lived, large-disked, bright-screened, fast machine that works best when it gets its communications from wires rather than wireless, and should be kept away from clumsy passers-by. The ideal user? People who use wires, stay put and need something quiet are the obvious candidates. Musicians and sysadmins, people like that. And, of course, wannabes. Well, I have a website, you know. Does that make me a sysadmin? Anyway, I've decided to keep mine. When it arrives. ®
|Apple 15in PowerBook G4 (2005)|
|Pros||Cool. Quiet. Fast.|
|Cons||Weak wireless reception. The damage-prone power lead.|
|More info||The Apple PowerBook site |