Apple’s New Powerbook Shines

Here is our review of the new 1.25 GHz 15″ Powerbook G4.

There’s nothing that brings back the sense of ecstatic anticipation that I had as a child on Christmas morning like waiting for the delivery guy to bring my new laptop. Online tracking says “out for delivery,” so I’m sitting here, waiting by the front window of my house. It’s 10:20 am, and I know it’s likely to be a couple more hours. But I’m sitting here, basking in the childlike excitement. One manufacturer that understands and caters to this excitement is Apple Computer. They design their packaging almost as carefully as they design their computers. A new Powerbook comes nestled in its box like a piece of jewelry. I’ve bought Sonys and Dells too, but their packaging and presentation is more pedestrian. It’s exciting to get one of those too, but experience has conditioned me to be particularly eager to open the box of my new 15″ Powerbook G4.

I’m something of a Powerbook junkie. Due partly to the fact that a good friend worked at Apple for many years, and I could get good deals, I’ve had almost every major model of Powerbook since 1995. Duo 2300c, 1400, 3400c, 5300, G3 Wall Street, G3 Lombard, iBook Dual USB, Titanium 400, Titanium 667, 12″ G4. I’ve seen the good (Lombard) and the bad (5300). I defected from the Mac platform a few years back, and I’ve continued to use Windows and Linux regularly over the years, but the Powerbook has been the anchor that has kept me attached to Apple. I reviewed the 12″ Powerbook earlier this year, and found it to be promising but not perfect. I’ve been using the Titanium Powerbook for over a year, which is a long time for me, and it’s honestly one of the best laptops I’ve ever used. The painted trim around the edge is peeling and scuffed from my arms, and especially my metal watch band, scraping on them, but under the skin, it’s a great machine.

I’ve been waiting since the new year for Apple to refresh the 15″ Powerbook model. It’s an overdue upgrade. Many people saw the nifty features from the 17″ Powerbook, like the light-up keyboard, Bluetooth, 802.11g, not to mention faster processor and graphics, and wanted to have them in a more practical size. The Airborne guy just arrived, so let’s see if Apple’s new laptop can live up to the expectations.


Like the 12″ and 17″ Powerbooks released earlier this year, the new Powerbook is Aluminum, with a plastic bezel protecting the inside corners. The Titanium skin of my old Powerbook looked good and had great wow factor, but didn’t seem to be more durable than the new aluminum alloy Apple has chosen. On the contrary, the Titanium case seemed rather more prone to scratches and dents than I would have expected. Though it’s less than a centimeter wider than the Titanium, the new Powerbook seems quite a bit wider when opened. I think it’s an optical illusion caused by the silver colored keyboard. The TiBook’s dark grey keyboard provided some contrast, while the new one’s is just a sea of silver. I personally prefer the dark keyboard’s look, but the new silver one is a dream to type on. The TiBook’s keyboard has a wafery feel that’s common to laptops, and, as I mentioned in my review of the 12″ powerbook, which has a similar keyboard, Apple’s new Powerbook keyboard is great. It has the solid feel of a full-size keyboard.

The one feature that I was absolutely rabid to try out, and one that I was very sad to see omitted from the 12″ Powerbook at its debut, is the lighted keyboard. I love to sit in the dark at my computer, and though I touch type, when I have to use a lot of modifier keys or type a lot of number-letter combos, I always had to angle the screen down to illuminate the keyboard or use one of those USB flexlights that I never seemed to have on hand when I needed it. So now I’ve had the chance to see it in action. The verdict? It’s a nifty feature. I’ll have to spend a few weeks with it before I’ll judge whether it was worth getting agitated about, but it certainly has the wow factor. A complementary feature is the new Powerbook’s ability to dim the monitor according to the ambient light sensor that the keyboard uses to know when to light up. So in the dark, the keyboard lights up, and the screen dims.

The 12″ Powerbook’s hard drive lies directly under the left palmrest, and under heavy hard drive use that area became untouchably hot. The new Powerbook’s drive is under the keyboard, and during a long firewire-based data transfer between Powerbooks, the bottom of the laptop became very hot, but not as hot as the 12″, and not right under my hand, so that’s much better. I purposely left the default 4200 RPM drive in the one that I chose, instead of upgrading to the 5400 RPM drive, since I hoped that the slower drive would use less battery power and churn out less heat. I don’t do a lot of drive-intensive tasks, so I’ll hope my theory pays off over time. The 4200 RPM drive is significantly slower, though.

Like the Titanium Powerbook, the display in the new Powerbook is bright, crisp, and vibrant. It lives up to the Powerbook’s reputation for excellent displays. In her review, Eugenia especially found the monitor in her 12″ Powerbook to be lacking (suited more for consumer-level iBook). This monitor has no such deficiencies.

The monitor in the new 15 incher has the same resolution as the TiBook: 1280×854. This is certainly going to be a disappointment for some users who prefer high resolutions. This is the eternal conundrum for laptop manufacturers, since, unlike CRTs, LCD panels only support one resolution well. Some manufacturers, like Dell, offer a variety of monitors with different resolutions in an attempt to satisfy various customers’ preferences. This is great, but it’s certain to add expense and complexity to the distribution process. Dell, which has no retail distribution is better equipped to do this. Apple, not wanting to deal with the complexity of multiple monitor choices, had to pick a resolution that would satisfy the majority of users. 1280×854 is a good choice. My recommendation would be to also offer a 1680×1050 monitor as a build-to-order option. I’d probably still take the 1280×854, because I don’t really need everything to be teeny tiny.

The latching mechanism that holds the computer closed is like the 12″ model. The 12″ I bought had a defective latch. The little hook that springs out broke off the first day. Even after it was fixed, the whole mechanism feels a bit flimsy. Maybe it’s just my bad experience. But another aspect of the latching mechanism that I don’t like much is how there’s a bit of play between the monitor and the computer when it’s closed. The rubber bumpers that cushion it are a little too small, so they don’t hold the thing shut snugly when it’s closed. I’m not sure if it will have long-term consequences, or whether it’s just an aesthetic concern.

I’ll leave the side-by-side speed comparisons to Bare Feats, but my subjective observation is that the new Powerbook is much faster than my old one. While OS X 10.2 still felt a bit sluggish on the 867 MHz G4 in my TiBook, everything just pops with the new 1.25 GHz processor in the new 15″ Powerbook. There was some concern that the lack of a L3 cache, that the Tibook had, would affect performance, but the inclusion of a large 512 K L2 cache seems to do the trick. Also, the excellent Radeon Mobility 9600 yields a performance gain, especially when paired with the Quartz Extreme graphics acceleration in OS X 10.2. The only processor-intensive tasks that I do regularly are mp3 ripping and the occasional recreational Photoshop work. I’m your typical business-oriented computer user. So I don’t have huge processor needs. Pretty much any computer these days is plenty fast enough for me, and this Powerbook is no exception. Since the release of OS X, though, with its voracious thirst for processor cycles, none of my Powerbooks had the necessary oomph. This one finally feels like I went back in a time warp to my 400 MHz G4 and Mac OS 9, as far as responsiveness goes. Responsiveness is about the only thing I missed from OS 9, though.

The new Powerbook has all the ports on the sides: modem, USB 2.0, audio in, headphone, Cardbus, DVI (with a VGA adapter included), S-video, Gigabit ethernet, Firewire 400, Firewire 800, and security. I prefer the ports on the side, because I always had to fumble to get anything into the ports in the back behind their little floppy door in the TiBook. I do worry about these ports accumulating dust bunnies, though.

One pleasant surprise in the new Powerbook is its above-average speakers. Apple has tried many times to deliver a quality listening experience in its portable computers. Remember the 3400 and its “subwoofer” built into the lid? Well, the large perforated surface area next to the keyboard hides some nice speakers, that are almost good enough to play music out of. Well, I won’t go that far, but they’d do in a pinch.

So what else is new in here? 802.11g “Airport Extreme” is nice, but since my main network use is over a 1.5 Mbit DSL line, it doesn’t really come into play. Built-in bluetooth is great, but until I get a bluetooth-ready phone, PDA, keyboard, and mouse, I don’t have anything to report. Hopefully Apple’s new Bluetooth religion will do for personal area networks what Apple did for USB and Wi-Fi: push peripheral vendors to adopt the standard more quickly. Speaking of which, I’m happy to see Apple finally embrace USB 2.0, though I wonder if I’ll ever use it.

In conclusion, the new 1.25 GHz Powerbook G4 15″ is a great piece of machinery. It’s beautiful, durable, fast enough for everyday computing, has a crisp monitor, an outstanding and unique keyboard, a nice OS and a suite of great applications (iTunes, iCal, iPhoto, iDVD, iChat, iMovie, etc). I’m glad to see the cornerstone of the Powerbook line brought up to date with 802.11g, Bluetooth, DVI, USB 2.0, gigabit Ethernet, and Firewire 800. I’m pleased with the 1.25 GHz G4 chip and I love the Radeon 9600. Though the lid does not close snugly against the case, this is the sturdiest-feeling laptop I’ve even used. The only thing I’ll miss from my tiBook will be a 3rd party add-on, the Tote and Tilt handle. Note to laptop manufacturers: build handles into your laptops. If you are considering a new laptop, even if you’re a Windows user, you really ought to take a quick look at the new 15″ powerbook before you make up your mind.

The Powerbook I bought retails for $2599 (1.25Ghz G4, 80 Gig HD, Superdrive DVD-R) You can buy a comparably equipped Dell Inspiron 8500 for about the same price (after rebate), or a bit more if you want a Centrino. The Inspiron has a 15.4″ monitor that’s available in higher resolutions, and it’s available with processors that benchmark quite a bit faster than the G4. But come on, look at the thing. I’ve owned several Dell laptops, and they’re plasticky and pedestrian, though relatively solid. Next to the Powerbook, most laptops are a sad sight. The Vaios can hold their own, but also at a premium price. And many people find that the iApps add real value to the Mac offering. All in all, the Powerbook is a great machine, comparably priced to other name brand PC hardware.


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