Review: Apple's 800MHz PowerBook G4

Many computer manufacturers are hawking thin-and-light notebooks as the next big thing. Dell Computer, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Sony and Toshiba are some of the big name companies delivering small portables, some weighing under 3 pounds. But none of these companies has achieved notebook nirvana, a slim-and-light model with a beefy display and enough power to replace a desktop computer. Consumers that want desktop power must buy heavy-set portables, many weighing as much as 8 pounds or more. Those people looking for true portability have had to accept less computing power and smaller displays.

Until now.

Apple's 800MHz PowerBook G4 meets the demands of the consumer looking for a svelte design that's light on weight but not light on features. You think one size can't fit all? That's because you haven't seen the Titanium PowerBook in action.

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Apple launched the trendsetting PowerBook G4 in January 2001, introducing a smaller, one-inch design and 15.2-inch display, but weighing a scant 5.3 pounds (5.4 pounds now). For comparison, Gateway's Solo 600 weighs in at a hefty 8 pounds with a 15-inch display and 8.65 pounds with a 15.7-inch display. The Titanium PowerBook measures 1 inch by 13.4 inches by 9.5 inches compared to 1.77 inches by 13.86 inches by 11.4 inches for the Solo 600. Side by side, the PowerBook G4 is tiny by comparison to Gateway's notebook.

But the original PowerBook G4, while cool looking wrapped in its Titanium case (yeah, the same stuff used in jet fighters), lacked the power to take on Mac or PC desktop computers. That really remained the situation until April 2002 when with the introduction of an 800MHz PowerBook and an updated 667MHz model, Apple added 1MB of L3 to the system. Earlier models featured 1MB of L2 cache, which was dropped to 256KB with the update. There's a lot of debate about what the true value of extra cache is, particularly L3. If anything, Intel has ratcheted down the cache on many processors. But in casual testing, the performance boost is quite noticeable.

Other changes also make a big difference. Apple boosted the graphics memory to 32MB from 16MB, using ATI's Radeon 7500 accelerator. But Dell and Gateway offer up to 64MB. Screen resolution is better, too, 1280 x 854, up from 1152 x 768. The display is crisper now and noticeably brighter, the latter change being a significant improvement over older PowerBooks and some PC portables. The higher resolution works out to about 23 percent more viewable area than earlier models.

Monitor Me

Many top-end Pentium 4 notebooks serve up higher screen resolutions--in some cases 1600 x 1200. That's great if you like to squint and see bifocals in your future. The Titanium PowerBook's 1280 x 854 is more than adequate, although it's not a typically used resolution. That's because Apple's 15.2-inch display is more rectangular than square. Measured down, the size is about the same as a normal 14.1-inch display. But the width, which serves up a nice 3:2 ratio at the higher resolutions, is 15.2 inches as measured diagonally. The greater width and ratio mean better DVD movie watching. Good for a second reason: DVD movies viewed on a Mac tend to be sharper and colors more true to life, particularly flesh tones, than on a PC, regardless of graphics card or processor.

But the impressive display features don't stop there. The Titanium PowerBook packs a digital video out port for connecting to flat-panel monitors. But Apple's DVI to ADC (Digital Video Input to Apple Display Connector) Adapter is needed for hooking up to Apple flat-panel monitors. The brick, as I affectionately refer to the Adaptor, is a necessary evil. Apple displays use a proprietary connector that delivers power and USB support to the monitor as well as the normal graphics output from a computer. This scheme makes Apple displays easier to set up than other flat-panel monitors, as two chords have been eliminated. But powering an Apple display off a notebook doesn't make a lot of sense. So Apple opted for a standard DVI port, which is supported by most other digital flat-panel monitors, and an extra-cost adapter--the brick--with power and conversion to ADC.

As if this wasn't enough, the Titanium PowerBook supports dual displays and external display resolution up to a whooping 2048 by 1536. Don't expect either from your Dell notebook. I tested the brick with a 17-inch Apple flat-panel monitor to see how the dual-display feature worked. I'm not sure whether to describe the experience of dragging an open folder beyond the edge of the PowerBook display and watching it appear on the external monitor as cool or odd.

The 800MHz PowerBook also comes with fully-functional 802.11b wireless networking, which can be added to the 667MHz model for an extra $100. Apple introduced wireless networking more than a year before Dell promised it and IBM delivered it, and the Mac maker's experience shows both in hardware and software. Apple also is the only company to offer integrated wireless networking across its entire portable or desktop lines.

But you will need a wireless networking hub, preferably Apple's AirPort Base Station, to use this feature. AirPort wireless networking serves up nearly unfettered access to your portable, with rates typically ranging from 2mbps (megabits per second) to 11mbps. Distance from the base station reduces throughput, which is faster than most broadband connections even at slowest rate; I've found 11mbps is no problem in the same room as the base station, or even the next.

Doohickeys and Dings

Other PowerBook niceties: Big bandwidth for those who need it, as the integrated networking supports up to a gigabit of throughput; like PC notebooks in this class, a CD-RW/DVD combo drive; two USB ports, each with up to 12mbps throughput; and one powered FireWire port. The latter two features are worth elucidation. Most PC notebooks offer shared USB ports. While there might be two ports, total throughput between them is 12mbps. Both PowerBook USB ports deliver 12mbps. In terms of FireWire, which can be used to transfer data with peripherals at up to 400mbps, Apple offers a true 6-pin port that is powered by the notebook. Almost all PC notebooks use the 4-pin port, which won't deliver power to the device. For people hooking up digital camcorders to their portable, 4-pin is OK, because the device typical has its own power. But in the case of external pocket-size hard drives, 4-pin ports create problems for the consumer, who must carry an extra power supply to use the device. This isn't a problem for those folks using the PowerBook, which can power the hard drive through the 6-pin port.

But Apple has yet to boost the speed of the system bus, which slogs along at 133MHz compared to 400MHz for Pentium 4 portables. Factor in 133MHz SDRAM vs. 266 DDR SDRAM on P4 notebooks and you have a recipe for slower performance. And yet, Apple does a remarkable job squeezing great power out of Mac OS X 10.1.5. In fact, in casual testing the 800MHz PowerBook performed as well as or better than a 1.7Ghz Pentium 4 Gateway 600XL or 1.6MHz P4 HP Pavilion zt1195. So much for the idea more is better.

If the 800MHz PowerBook has one failing it's price. At $3,199, this is no cheap portable. Gateway's 600XL serves up faster memory, a speedier system bus and double the graphics memory for less than the price of the 667MHz PowerBook. On the other hand, the Titanium PowerBook is much smaller, weighs in three pounds less but with desktop replacement performance, offers better video and graphics options and sports a sturdier case and more attractive design.

Apple offers two 800MHz models, although users can custom-order other configurations direct from the online Apple Store. The standard model packs an 800MHz PowerPC processor, 15.2-inch display, 512MB of SDRAM expandable to 1GB, 32MB ATI Radeon 7500 graphics accelerator, 40GB hard drive, CD-RW/DVD drive, integrated USB, FireWire, 56kbps modem and 10/100/1000 networking, 802.11b wireless networking and Mac OS X 10.1.4 or .5 for $3,199. The $3,799 high-end model doubles the memory and boosts the hard drive capacity to 60GB.

The budget conscious might opt for the $2,499 PowerBook, which packs a 667MHz processor with that same hefty 1MB of L3 cache, 256MB of SDRAM and 30GB hard drive. With the exception of wireless, the sibling model is identical to the 800MHz PowerBook. If you can, buy from a dealer who throws in extra memory for free, a common practice among Mac catalog stores. Mac OS X--and for PC users, Windows XP, for the matter--really needs 512MB of memory. You'll be glad you got it.

Those on a tighter budget still, might consider an older model or one that has been refurbished. Small Dog Electronics specializes in Mac refurbs.

The Titanium PowerBook's price situation is exacerbated by the extra cost of Microsoft Office. Office v. X for Mac OS X is in many ways superior to Office XP for Windows. But many PC manufacturers include Office XP in the cost of the notebook. Plan on shelling out $300 or more for the Mac version. Ouch!

There's no question the Titanium PowerBook isn't for everyone. But for those people looking for a classy notebook that looks good, is extremely portable but offers desktop performance and delivers outstanding graphics and video features, the Titanium PowerBook is a winner.

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