The OSNews Powerbook Wars: Continued — Dave’s Review

We’ve had quite the Powerbook-fest here on OS News over the past few days. I also ordered a 12″ Powerbook, and I would have received it several days before Eugenia if Airborne hadn’t sent it to the wrong state and then lost it somewhere between Ohio and my house. But it finally arrived, and mine is the hot commodity, a 12″ Powerbook with Superdrive (DVD Burner), 640 MB RAM, Airport Extreme (802.11g), and a 60 gig HD. My impression is a little different than Eugenia’s and I’m approaching from a different angle.

First off, every time we post something on OSNews that isn’t strictly “OS news” there are always a couple of people who post and complain about it. Note to these people: yes, I know this is off-topic, but since so many people have been interested, we’re temporarily changing the name of the site to “OSNews: Exploring the Future of Computing and also 12″ Powerbooks.” If you don’t want to read about Powerbooks, please skip to the next story. And yes, someday when two OSNews people order the same dishwasher, we will probably treat you to dueling dishwasher reviews.

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

I was able to review it with my new airport extreme base station, which I have thanks to the attentions of a sympathetic customer service representative at Apple who sent it to me for free when Apple refused to let me return a computer I bought online at the Apple Store because I had upgraded the hard drive, when the terms and conditions were not clear on that fact at all. So remember, if you customize your system you can’t return it, but Apple will go to great lengths to make you go away happy anyway. I sold the computer in question on eBay, and only lost about $100, while the new Airport is worth $250.

All I can say about the Airport Extreme card and Base station is that they work just as well as the old Airport, but faster. That’s a high complement. The new base station also has a couple of nifty features: a print server that uses Rendezvous to share a USB printer with all the computers on the network and an external antenna port that’s very welcome since I had to hack a hole in my old Airport to plug an antenna in when I needed more range. I also love the built-in modem, because I take the Airport with me when I travel, so I don’t have to sit at the desk in my hotel.

Let me preface this review by dispensing with the ridiculous notion of an “objective” review. There is no such thing. A review is an exercise in subjectivity, otherwise it would just be a recitation of specifications. My bias is that I am a hard-core laptop user, who has carried laptops on over 250,000 miles of plane travel and 50,000 miles of road travel, and used them on four continents, and countless networks, wired and unwired. I have also owned more Powerbooks than anyone else I know. I have owned every major version of the Powerbook since 1995 (except the 2400). I have owned the following Powerbooks: Duo 2300c, two 1400s, three 5300s, two 3400s, G3 Wallstreet, G3 Lombard, two G3 Pismos, G4 Tibook 400, iBook 500, G4 Tibook 667. I have also owned two Dell Latitudes and four Sony Vaios, two 505s and two 540s. I ran Windows 98, NT and 2000 and Red Hat Linux 7 and 7.1 on the PC laptops. So this view of the 12″ and its suitability for me is subjective, but also based on a lot of experience with laptop computers.

I have spent the afternoon transferring files from my old machine, a 667 Mhz Powerbook 15″ Titanium with 768 MB RAM. If you embark on this, be sure to check out Carbon Copy Cloner, a little Applescript-based app that makes “cloning” your system from one machine to another a snap. With the built-in Firewire connection, it’s easy as pie. One of the major advantages to the Mac platform (that has miraculously been mostly preserved from OS 9 to OS X) is that for the most part you can drag an app from one machine to another and launch it and it will work, without having to be “reinstalled.” Applications that install kernel extensions are the exception, but in some cases, the application merely prompts you to install the appropriate bits once it is launched for the first time on the new machine. This is the way that things should work, but you don’t always notice how nice it is when it does.

Funny that I would call the 12″ Powerbook at “hot commodity,” because one thing I notice after having it running for a couple hours, copying files, is that it’s HOT, particularly in the lower left-hand corner, top and bottom. It’s not hot enough that it actually hurts my palm to rest on it, but it’s certainly a little hotter than I want it to be. I will probably need to install some kind of insulating palm rest on there for all-day use. Now, most of the laptops that I’ve used have been heat producers, particularly on the bottom. My Tibook heats up down below, but since I keep it on a desk most of the time, it doesn’t bother me too much.

One thing I’ll miss from my Tibook is the Tote and Tilt handle that I installed. I never owned one of the original “toilet seat” iBooks, but I am of the opinion that every laptop should come with a handle. Though Apple hasn’t made a factory-installed handle since that iBook, there are some aftermarket options available, and the one for the Tibook is the nicest, due to the location of the bolts that hold the monitor hinge on, that can be removed and replaced with longer ones that will also accommodate a handle. See this site for photos. Due to its design, it is unlikely that the 12″ will accommodate an aftermarket handle, and that’s a shame. Apple: please put handles on Powerbooks! We carry these things!

One thing I won’t miss from the Tibook is the painted border around the corners that chips from contact with my watch band. All in all, the Aluminum seems to be a better material for the case than the titanium Apple was using, despite the reduction in cachet. Everybody seems to think that titanium it like Mithril, some sort of magical metal. Truth is, it’s no better than aluminum for many applications that don’t require high structural strength.

The feature that I loved from most of the G3 Powerbooks (and some of the Vaios) was the ability to remove the CD drive and replace it with an extra battery. I realize that the engineering demands of the smaller form factors make this more difficult, but I really liked having 7-8 solid hours of battery life when I carried my laptop from conference room to conference room, or on a flight from Miami to Cape Town, South Africa. I rarely use the CD/DVD drive anyway, so I’d love to see that feature return in my Fantasyland Powerbook.

I love the return of the small form factor. I really loved the Powerbook Duo 2300c, which is a well-beloved machine in Powerbook-land. It had almost no ports or expansion, which is one area that this compact Powerbook shines. True, it has no PC Card/Cardbus slot, but has built-in what you’d probably need one for. I use my PC Card slot to read Smartmedia cards from my camera, but I can get by using USB for that. Everyone can make a short list of the connectors that this Powerbook could have but doesn’t: USB 2.0 (probably because of Apple politics and weak demand from Apple users), DVI (too expensive considering that few Powerbook owners use it, perhaps?), Firewire 800 (too new), PCMCIA/Cardbus (no space). Personally, I’d pick a handle over any of those ports. My computing experience is not diminished for their absence. Truth is, with USB and Firewire, you can plug almost anything into it that you might need to.

I really like the latest Apple power adapters. I love the flip-out plugs with the optional extended cord. I love the flip-out wraps for the cord. I really love the light-up plug that tells you whether your Powerbook is charging or not. It’s small, self-contained, and feature-rich but simple. It’s represents the best of Apple engineering.

I’m so excited to use the built-in Bluetooth I can’t stand it, but I don’t have anything to use it with. Bluetooth phones are pretty rare in the US, though I really wish I had one now, and other bluetooth accessories are rare everywhere. Of course, before the iMac came out, USB stuff was rare. Maybe Apple can give Bluetooth the boost it needs too.

I’ll second what everyone else says and say that the keyboard is great. I kind of wished it were dark-colored like my Tibook, but that might just be prejudice that will wear off with familiarity. I am deeply disappointed that the 12″ Powerbook does not have the backlit keys like its 17″ cousin. In fact, I bought it after Steve Jobs failed to mention that the 12″ Powerbook did not have this feature when he announced it. Nevertheless, the keyboard has a great feel and a good size. It still has the silly “fn” key in the lower left hand corner where the “ctrl” key should be, but I’m already used to that. Aesthetically, I think the keyboard is a bit ugly, both in color and shape. We Mac users are always whining about aesthetics, aren’t we? I didn’t want to disappoint anyone by not having an opinion on this subject.

Overall, though, I think the 12″ Powerbook is a nice-looking machine. The Aluminum skin gets a little smudgy, but it cleans up easy. Frankly, I think that the purple magnesium skin on the Sony Vaios was a pretty nice finish: light, strong, resistant to smudges, scratches, and dents. As I recall, the newer Vaios are more plasticy than the older ones, so maybe it turned out to be a little too expensive. On the Powerbook, the grey plastic trim around the edges is not quite of the same quality and fit and finish that I expect on a Powerbook. There are small gaps, and the gaps aren’t totally even. The plastic trim is a good idea to protect the edge, but the execution isn’t 100%.

The recessed screws, the battery, and the RAM door on the bottom are all very nicely engineered, though. I also like the ports on the side. The rear ports on the 15″ Powerbook with their flappy little cover were always an annoyance to me. It made plugging things in a chore. Truth is, some ports are better on the side, and some are better on the back, and that preference changes depending on how you use the laptop. The move of the ports from the back to the was certainly a hinge-design decision, and the hinge on the 12″ Powerbook is very nice. The location of ports can really be a sore point for me. That’s one of the reasons I hated my Dells. The power cable always got tangled up with my mouse cable. And Sony just stuck ports all over the place. Sloppy.

I’ll also echo everyone else and say that the speaker placement is a neato idea (on the back edge with the sound bouncing off the screen), and the speakers sound pretty good for a laptop. Some companies put big speakers into their laptops to make them sound good. Apple still saved space and made it sound good anyway. Not that I care. I keep my sound very muted and use headphones for music, but I appreciate the effort.

Now let’s talk about Performance. In the days and weeks following the release of this machine, we’ve been up to our ears in benchmarks, so I won’t do any new ones. Suffice to say this is not Apple’s fastest Powerbook, and Powerbooks are not the fastest laptops. We were all disappointed to learn that Apple was not putting an L3 cache into the 12″ Powerbook. However, this is not a slow machine by my standard of judgment. Truth be told, it’s pretty hard to find a machine these days that is slow by my standard. Processor speed is no longer near the list of the computer industry’s problems, except for the fact that computers are now so fast that they’ll have to think up some other reason to get us to upgrade (not that it’s a problem for us consumers).

Now, the machine that this Powerbook replaced, the iBook 500, that’s a slow machine. It simply did not run OS X with acceptable speed. OS X is still a resource hog, and although I have grown to love its beauty and usability, you need a really fast computer to really live with it. My 15″ Titanium Powerbook 667 is a perfectly acceptable performer, and the new 12″ Powerbook is quite a bit faster, though the only place I’ve noticed it so far is in VirtualPC performance. The 12″ Powerbook runs Windows98 on VirtualPC 6 at least as fast as the last computer I ran Windows 98 on, probably a 450 or 500 Mhz Pentium. The new Powerbook is almost fast enough to do a search of a large Entourage email database (not really). Entourage is slow, and until Microsoft ports it to some mainframe OS so I can use 128 processors, I think the search will always be too slow. Nevertheless, I still find Entourage to be the best email client for my needs on any platform, but that’s only because all the email clients suck so much. Too many sucky ones available for free or “included” to make it worthwhile for someone to make a really good one you’d have to pay for.

Now, Eugenia, in her review, mentioned her disappointment with the monitor quality of her 12″ Powerbook, and she discussed it at great length with other people in the comments. She’s a level-headed person (no, I didn’t say cool-headed) and I believe her when she says that her monitor does not compare well with the other LCDs she’s held it next to. However, I must say that after peering and squinting, and trying as hard as I can to hate it, I think the monitor on my 12″ Powerbook is pretty good. It doesn’t have quite the same view angle as my 15″ Powerbooks’ monitor does, and the resolution is not enough to make the anti-aliasing in Entourage not look blurry, but the brightness is good and I have no complaints about the quality.

There’s an inherent problem with monitor resolution in an LCD, and it’s that an LCD only looks good at its native resolution. Sure, you can release a laptop with a teeny tiny resolution like some people like, but then other people, perhaps more people, will have to choose between squinting and blurry. I think Apple is prudent to go with a slightly higher resolution than I would otherwise choose. Nevertheless, in the Fantasyland Powerbook, I’d probably go with 1152×864 for a 12″ monitor. So for the quality issue, I think we may have to wait until I go visit Eugenia later this month, and we can hold our Powerbooks up side-by side and see if mine really is better than hers or if my standards are just lower. Although, one of the reasons that I have stuck with Apples and Sonys is that I can’t stand a crappy monitor.

I tested out the problem with DVD playback that Eugenia mentioned in her review, and my DVDs play smoothly. Software-based DVD decoding has always proven to be a little flitty, so I’m not surprised to hear of strange behavior, though.

I’ll have to express some solidarity with Eugenia on one topic: I also managed to crash my new Powerbook in the first few hours. I was doing a big file transfer over Ethernet and also installing some new software. I clicked the button to enter my registration code for LaunchBar and I crashed hard. By the way, if you’re using OS X and you don’t use LaunchBar, you don’t know what you’re missing. I was also doing a lot of other things at the same time, so I don’t know what caused the crash, but its been rare enough that I think it might be worth mentioning. It may be that the 12″ Powerbook has newer hardware on it that really wants 10.2.4, but it shipped with 10.2.3.

Probably the stupidest thing about the 12″ Powerbook is the fact that the regular configuration comes with a “throwaway” 128 MB DIMM. 256 MB RAM is not really enough these days (though the Powerbook seems to run well with it for routine stuff) so most users will want to upgrade, and to do so you have to remove the included 128 Meg DIMM. The only excuse I can think of for this is that Apple got a quantity of 128 Meg modules at a fire sale and wanted to use them instead of just including 256 Megs on-board. Now, I must give Apple kudos for not completely screwing build to orderers on the RAM prices. Upping the RAM on a BTO Powerbook to its 640 MB maximum costs a reasonable $150. The best price I could find on a 512 MB module was $135 shipped. So it’s still more money to buy from Apple, but it’s not a complete rip-off like it usually is when you buy RAM from the computer manufacturer. It’s a shame there’s only 128 built in. It really should have been 256. I hope you saved a lot of money on this one, Apple!

I haven’t burned a DVD yet, but iDVD looks great. Someone mentioned something in one of the comments on Eugenia’s review, and I must say that I agree: Though Apple makes great hardware (let’s save the obvious problems with the PowerPC for another discussion), most people really buy Macs for the software. Apple software like OS X and the iApps is really great, but just as important are the non-Apple apps like Watson, LaunchBar, BBedit, Transmit, and (gasp) Office X. All these apps are better (in my opinion) in important ways than their other-OS counterparts, if they even have counterparts. Not only that, the way that these apps interact with the OS, and the intangible way that the whole system fails to get in the way of my productivity is the thing that brings me back to Powerbooks even though I have owned and still own several PCs running Linux and Windows. So it’s important to me that the new Powerbook be good. I’ve had some bad ones (like the poorly-built 5300 and the well-built but dog-slow 1400), and this 12″ Powerbook is not a bad one.

Many people have noted that the 12″ Powerbook is just a new iBook with a Powerbook name on it. I think that’s a silly thing to make a big deal out of. I don’t really draw the separation between the two lines like that. It’s true that Apple deliberately leaves features out of its lower-priced laptops (like monitor spanning) that I like to have in order to maintain a market for its higher-priced models. In my opinion, whether the 12″ Powerbook started out intended as an iBook or not, it’s worthy of the Powerbook name. It has monitor spanning, a nifty metal exterior, plenty of ports, performance beyond what I would expect without an L3 cache, an available Superdrive, a small form factor–everything I would expect from the lowest-priced member of the Powerbook line.

Could this Powerbook be better? Of course. There are trade-offs, and every person has different desires, and there can only be so many models. What do I wish the 12″ Powerbook had that it doesn’t? My Fantasyland Powerbook has:

  • Backlit keyboard like the 17″ Powerbook
  • A folding handle like the original iBook
  • 1152×864 resolution
  • Removable DVD drive replaceable with a 2nd battery
  • DVI video out
  • USB 2.0 ports (since they don’t take up extra space)
  • Translucent black keys like the Tibook
  • Included Bluetooth-based Mouse (with two buttons and a scroll-wheel)
  • 1 MB L3 Cache
  • 256 MB RAM built-in

What does the 12″ Powerbook have that it shouldn’t?

  • A hot palmrest
  • Gaps in the plastic trim around the edge

My Fantasyland Powerbook could also have a faster processor, gigabit Ethernet, space for more RAM, a better graphics card, Firewire 800, a slightly larger monitor, and plenty of other bells and whistles, but I don’t think I would care about them enough to pay for them.

My rating of the new 12″ Powerbook: considering its price and size, I give it an 8/10.


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