The New 12″ Powerbook: Slick and Sexy, But Not Without its Faults

My CTX AMD K6-300/128 MB RAM/3 GB drive laptop is obviously at the end of its life. I was in the “shopping” process for a laptop for 2 months now, and I considered a number of PC laptops, including the Compaq Presario 1525US. At the end, I decided to get the new 12″ Powerbook, came in last week, and I am since then using it as my primary machine. Here is what I think about it.

The 12″ Powerbook is a slick machine. It is really a beautifully constructed computer. It gives the feeling that is more natural and more solid than the iBook or the plastic PC laptops. The Apple logo on the back of the LCD screen is lit by the LCD’s backlight and it looks at least cool, especially at night.

The machine features Bluetooth support (connect to other Bluetooth Macs or Bluetooth wireless devices like mobile phones, PDAs, keyboards etc), however, I have no such devices over here, so I couldn’t test it. The 12″ Powerbook comes with 802.11g support, but the place where I bought the laptop didn’t have an Airport Extreme card on stock, so I will have to wait for it as well. The extra 512 MB DDR RAM I ordered didn’t make it either, so I used the laptop with 256 MB RAM, but I did not experience any slowdowns because of it. For normal/web usage, the 256 MB seem acceptable with the pre-installed Mac OS X 10.2.3.

The laptop also comes with a normal ethernet port (no gigabit), modem, one firewire port, 2 USB 1.1 ports, a VGA out for mirroring or dual display, line in for audio, headphone jack, a built-in microphone, stereo speakers, 40 GB 4200 RPM ATA-100 drive (60 GB 4200 RPM drive is optional), a CD-RW/DVD combo drive (Superdrive is optional) and a 12.1″ 1024×768 TFT LCD screen. The CPU speed is 867 MHz and there is 256 KB L2 cache.

12 inch Powerbook - Click for a larger view
Click for a larger image view

The good

I am in love with its keyboard. I believe that Powerbook’s best and finest feature in this model is the keyboard. It just feels great and it “blends” well with the rest of the design. I am generally “difficult” with laptop keyboards, but this one is the first laptop keyboard I worked with that is really easy to get along. My only gripe would be that the arrow keys are half size, so playing pac-man or a fast Tetris game is almost impossible…

Speed is good. It feels much-much faster than my G4 Cube 450 MHz, 1 MB L2 cache and 448 MB SDRAM (which equals or is even better than the fastest G3 iBook selling today at 800 MHz). Running the XBench benchmark, it reaches overall rating from 72 to 75 points, while my Cube ranges from 52 to 56. Yippee, I can resize Safari and even IE now with not much lag. OmniWeb and other Cocoa apps are still slow to resize or scroll though. However, the overall speed is definitely a big improvement over the Cube and surely it will be over the people who currently have iBooks or classic iMacs.

The sound coming out of the speakers is pretty good quality. Not as good as in the 17″ model, neither as good as the one found in most Compaq laptops, but still, not bad at all. Fully acceptable playing my favorite Eurodance radio station… 😉

The laptop is pretty light, not the lightest you can find in its category, but fully portable and easy to carry around. The battery can keep your laptop alive for 3,5
+ hours. Recharging it takes about an hour or so. All the ports are located on the left side of the laptop, and not on the back. The reason for this is because the LCD screen lays behind and down, similarly to how iBook does it. The only part that is located at the back are the speakers. On the right hand side you will find a slot loading CD-RW/DVD combo drive, and I tried burning CDs and playing DVDs. The drive works well.

One thing I like about the Apple laptops is the fact that when you close down the LCD screen and the machine goes to sleep, and then you open it back up, you are up and running on your machine in less than 2 seconds. On PCs, depending on the laptop and the OS installed, it can take up to 8-10 seconds.

As I mentioned earlier, I haven’t received yet the Airport Extreme card, but this laptop can be twice as sexy after fully using it at home with our wireless network.

The installation of OSX 10.2.3 comes with a few extra software, like a fax app, QuickBooks, OmniOutliner and OnniGraffle, GraphicConverter, Art Director’s Toolkit and the demos of MS Office X and FileMaker 6. To be honest, except the graphic converter app, I don’t see me using any of the rest extra software offered there… And I had to install the developer tools manually (the package was in the app dir, but it is not pre-installed).

Classic support is also there, so you can run most OS 9 applications via your OSX, but you can’t install and boot to pure OS 9 with this laptop. I find this acceptable, it is a strategic move to try to push your customers to OSX.

I also installed the Remote Desktop Connection and it works beautifully. I can log in to my WinXP PRO machine and check out my email there and that works great. I tried VNC, but it was unacceptably slow, so using this Microsoft app really works great for me and makes the “transition” to my Powerbook era, easier. 🙂

The Baaad….

Hmm… well, this is a lovely little laptop, but there are certainly a few points which I dislike and they are beyond the “get used to it” or “deal with it” realm.

Number 1 issue is heat. The thing burns. After 2-3 hours of continuing usage, the laptop just burns like a hot cake on the lower left side. As other reviewers have already said and people on the forums, the Powerbook 12″ just gets too hot. It is cool to be fanless, but if I had to choose between fan noise and my lap or my hands becoming roasted, I prefer the fan noise. Yes, other laptops also get hot, but this laptop is among the hottest around. This issue should be resolved in newer models, or I don’t see me buying a new Apple laptop in a few years from now.

Number 2 issue is the quality of the LCD screen. With great sadness I will have to say that the LCD screen used in *this* Powerbook model, is crap. I know that the older models and the current 15″ Powerbook’s LCD model has _great_ quality, same as the LCDs found on the Sharp/Sony/IBM laptops, but the one used for this Powerbook is the same as the one found on the 15″ iMac and the iBooks. I tried adjusting gamma and color, to no avail. After 1-2 hours using this machine, my eyes hurt, the horizontal lines of the Aqua windows are way too visible, fonts look worse and more blurry as they do on most Linuxes *because* of this LCD and the lack of Clear Type, LCD is not viewable from up or down but only when you are directly looking at it in perfect line, and worst of all, when scrolling on a web page that has many colors and the LCD has to adjust quickly from black to white colorspaces, the LCD is just “slow”. Motion blur in all its glory.

For those who didn’t know, Apple is using two different models on their LCD products, one great quality (older powerbooks, Cinema Displays) and one crappy/cheap one (imac, ibooks, 12″ powerbook and the new 20″ Cinema Display (that’s why it is so cheap and it even competes price-wise with the PC LCD monitors in the range)). The new 12″ Powerbook comes with the cheap one. However, I can live with it I guess, as I find the heat issue even more annoying than the LCD quality. However, I did mention my old AMD K6 laptop in the beginning of the article, and the irony is that this 1998 laptop has a fantastic 13.3″ LCD screen (also at the same resolution), and it’s waaay better quality-wise from the Powerbooks’ in year 2003. I guess, they don’t make LCDs as they used to (yes, that was sarcasm).

Many will be unhappy with the fact that the resolution is at 1024×768, but for a truly mobile solution, that resolution is acceptable. There is some space around the LCD, so they could use something like 12.8″ and use 1152×864 resolution, without making the Powerbook bigger. Good quality LCDs used on today’s SONY or Sharp or Fujitsu PC laptops are able to do 1280×768 at 10.4″, so having 1152×864 on the 12.1″ or 12.8″ screen would be a no-issue. But instead of asking for more resolution, I would first ask for a better quality screen, as I explained above.

The hard drive the 12″ laptop uses is not among the ones someone would consider fast hard disk for laptops. Depending on your luck, you will end up with either a Fujitsu or a Toshiba 4200 RPM drive (Apple uses both). Mine is a Fujitsu one, but other than the slow RPM and seek time, it works well. However, I find the booting of the OS on the Powerbook to be a bit slow. My Cube has a slower hard drive overall (but faster seek) and slower CPU, but it comes up faster than the Powerbook.

There is no DVI port, nor PCMCIA or PC card/bus port on the Powerbook, and in order to install the new Airport Extreme card, you will need to remove the battery and make a “real” hardware installation. The memory placeholder is more reachable and easier to deal with. However, in order to open the placeholder to put the ram in it, it requires a Philips 00 screwdriver, instead of the “clip-in” thingie you usually find on PC laptops.

Another thing I find quite annoying is the the touch pad. It is not fast enough. I have the acceleration to maximum and still, in order to go from 0,768 to the 1024,0 screen co-ordinates, by using normal speed on my finger, it requires two “trips”. If I do the trip fast with my finger, it can go to these co-ordinates in one trip, but in that case it is quite useless, because you lose in precision. Mind you, this is not a hardware problem, it is more of a mouse driver problem on OSX, but the fact that the problem exists, it makes it a laptop issue too. I find the mouse speed on my Cube slow as well.

The other day I was boasting in the forums that I have never crashed OSX on my Cube (I had crashed it because of hardware issue, but never because OSX has failed). Well, in two days since I got the Powerbook via FedEx, I managed to crash the powerbook, twice. Here is how:

The first time you turn on your Powerbook, you are asked to input information about yourself, register the machine, put in the IP addresses and send the info over at I did so, the machine connected to their servers, did the registration fine, and then when it was saying “Disconnecting…” the machine just wouldn’t respond. I left it there for a while, but it wouldn’t come out of that screen. Please note that this screen comes up _before_ Finder and the OSX desktop has loaded. So, no matter what you try to kill the crashed app, it wouldn’t work. OSX was not responding so I had to hard reset it.

The second time was on Saturday night. A few friends were over here for dinner (and a lot of you ‘know’ them, but I won’t tell who they are 😉 and we wanted to do an FTP transfer from my Cube, to the Powerbook. We FTP’ed in successfully, we copied over files that were in the realm of 200 MB each, and then we started chatting between us. The FTP was still going on, and after a few minutes, suddenly the machine gone to sleep (I use the default time settings for power energy). When we tried to bring the machine up, it wouldn’t come up. Black screen, and nothing else. The caps lock was still working, so the machine was not completely crashed, but it wouldn’t awake no matter what. So, we had to hard reset it again and then we got over the painful fsck time to clean up the filesystem (no, don’t ask me to put the journaling on, it is still experiemental).

And I found a bug too. I would call it a “stupid” bug, because it mostly looks and feels like a by-product of Quartz Extreme more than a “real” bug. So, when entering full screen to play the “Office Space” movie with the DVD Player, the movie would lose frames. On windowing mode, it plays perfectly. But on fullscreen mode it would lose its smoothness. It would require you to look hard to see the problem, but the problem is there. And then, I thought: “that can’t be right. Even my slower Cube can play DVDs in fullscreen with absolutely no problem, so this has to be a bug”. I opened the CPU utilization application which is just a small window “always on top”, and I put it on top of the fullscreen DVD playback in order to observe the CPU utilization. CPU was only at 1/3, so the CPU was not the problem. BUT, for the time the little CPU window was on top of the DVD fullscreen playback, the movie would NOT lose frames! Take that little window away, and the movie would start become smoothless again! *Normally* you would expect the exact opposite to happen, because the CPU would need to calculate and render the parts of the window that are covered or not covered. In the case I experienced, it was the opposite. That really looks like a bug, and I hope that the DVD programmers over at Apple are reading this. Update: Others seem to have the same problem.

A gripe I have with the memory is that it comes with 128 MB built-in and 128 MB on the memory placeholder, by default. I don’t get that. Why didn’t they include that 256 MB as built-in so it could free up the memory placeholder for the user to add a 512 module and go up to 768 MB of max RAM? The way it is now, the max is at 640 MB and after you upgrade, you end up with an unused 128 MB DIMM that you can’t use anywhere else! The price difference for Apple doing that would be really minimal, and the customers would be happier and this Powerbook would sound more powerful. If 640 MB is ok for you though, well, fair enough. But Mac OS X is a Unix, which means that it can utilize well any extra RAM, so as much RAM one can put in, the better. Personally, I want this machine maxed-out in RAM and I can’t wait for my 512 MB DIMM to arrive.

Last point is the graphics performance. The machine includes a 32 MB GeForce4 MX 420. The 420 is the slow GeForce 4 model. And you can read here and here about what Carmack suggests about the GeForce 4 MX. Yes, for a laptop, this card is a _great_ solution, but this is a Powerbook we are talking about. And the 420 model is significantly slower than the 440 model found on the higher end laptops. That’s bad of course if you want to play games, but if you are not interested in games, the included 420 model is good enough. Speaking for myself, I don’t mind it having the 420 instead of the 440, but having the Radeon 9000 or the 440 could also be good.


The new 12″ Powerbook is nothing more but an iBook on steroids with a G4 in it. This is exactly how I feel about it. It is crippled when compared to its big brother Powerbooks:

* Max of only 640 RAM while the limit could easily be 768 MB (the other Powerbooks max out at 1 GB). Plus, it could use PC2700 RAM instead of PC2100, but on the other hand it wouldn’t make much of a difference cause of other front side bus issues (and it would be more expensive).
* Terrible LCD screen quality
* No L3 cache, while traditionally Powerbooks have 1 MB (which greatly improves overall speed)
* No gigabit ethernet (not that I care about this one much really)
* Slow-ish graphics card
If Apple was to take down their G3-based products and rename the 12″ Powerbook as an iBook, I wouldn’t be surprised at all.

So, this was a review negative you say? I say not necessarily. I am obliged to write about my experiences and any problems that I came across. It is an $1800+ purchase at the end of the day, it is not like buying chocolate from the store in the corner (except if you are Steve Jobs ;-).

If you want a cheaper Powerbook to boast to your friends, or you want a fast-ish Powerbook that is able to do its job fine and be small and really be portable, this is the Mac laptop you were looking for. And no matter what, don’t buy an iBook, shave off the extra $500-600 and get this laptop instead. But don’t except it to be as “wonderful” or as “glamorous” or as “full-featured” as the other Powerbooks. But it would be glamorous, and fast, and wonderful and full-featured compared to the iBooks. Yes, this is the cheapest Powerbook ever, but have you considered what was crippled in order to pay this “better” price? And speaking for myself, I don’t like crippling my own eyes just to pay $300 less. I expect a certain (LCD) quality from a piece of hardware that bares the name “Powerbook”.

This might even be a new strategy at Apple, to use cheaper parts or less features in order to compete with their PC competitors. I don’t know. All I know is that I want a better LCD screen for the $2000 I paid Apple for, especially when older laptops were better in this regard. I see it as a backwards step, *or* as a way to blend between the two product ranges of the Powerbook and the iBook.

For many people this machine should be able to completely replace their desktops, however, if Apple was more careful and they included/fixed the issues we are mentioning in the “baaad” section, this could be THE laptop you were always dreaming of.

Don’t misunderstand me though, I like the Powerbook. It is already a best-seller for Apple and I haven’t make up my mind for purchasing it. I use it all the time and it is solid and it does what you expect and its keyboard is great. But it could [easily] be better for the $2,000 it cost us.


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