Apple 15in PowerBook G4
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.