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To iBook or PowerBook?

Apple’s September introduction of new iBook models brought the iBook’s capabilities so much closer to those of the more-expensive PowerBook G3 that it became a difficult choice when I recently decided to replace my aging PowerBook 1400. The 1400 has been useful as long as it has partly thanks to a Newer Technologies NuPowr G3 accelerator. (Newer no longer sells these, but Sonnet Technologies now offers a similar product.)


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Unfortunately, even with a new battery purchased this April, the 1400 no longer runs from battery for long and has trouble waking up from sleep. (I gather the latter problem is a common deterioration in aging 1400s, exacerbated, though not caused, by the Newer accelerator.) I’ve been continually tempted to wait for the next generation of PowerBook, but I’ve reached the point where the inconvenience of a desk-bound laptop outweighs my hope that Apple will soon offer a PowerBook G4 or a thinner, lighter notebook. I know the G4 laptop can’t be too far off, but I believe in buying what you need, when you need it, rather than playing the wait-for-what’s-next game.

Fear not, my souped-up 1400 won’t go to waste. In line with Ron Risley’s solution of turning an old PowerBook into an Internet server, the 1400 is slated to take over a small local company’s Web and mail server tasks, both currently running on a five-year-old Performa 6115 (see "Serving the Internet from a PowerBook 5300" in TidBITS-536).


iThink an iBook — Due to my belief that changes in Apple’s portable lineup were likely and Apple’s historical predilection toward releasing new machines at large public events, I managed to hold off to see what would be introduced at the recent Seybold Seminars or Apple Expo Paris. Apple Expo brought word of both significantly revised iBooks and an increase in hard disk size for the PowerBook models.


There have been a few factors that have kept the iBook line out of contention for my personal machine. (I’ve happily recommended it to others, depending on their needs.) One biggie was the lack of a DVD-ROM drive, useful not only for viewing movies but also for the increasing selection of software available on DVD, such as art collections like Nova Development’s Art Explosion and multimedia titles like the inexplicably Windows-only Complete National Geographic. Would you rather have your clip art library on 48 CD-ROMs or 5 DVD-ROMs?


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The iBook is thicker and heavier than the latest PowerBook G3s, and as a one-time user of a PowerBook 100 and a Duo 230, I like thin and light. The iBook’s size and heft aren’t so great as to disqualify it, but they do weigh against it. Another non-disqualifying factor is looks. Call me stodgy, but delighted though I may be at Apple’s success with fruit colors (and its recent foray into subtler hues), I just can’t see myself with a garish-and-white laptop. The graphite iBook could be an option, but its large white area, which I instinctively suspect would create glare issues in well-lit situations, still turns me off.

In any event, I prefer to make my decisions based mostly on technology and usability. The addition of the DVD-ROM drive to the iBook Special Edition tips the iBook into the "possible" category for me, and both iBook and PowerBook now have the excellent AirPort wireless networking capability. With those items covered, I had to look at other factors.

The iBook’s lack of video output has proven problematic for many people. Some like to hook up a monitor to a laptop for desktop use, but others, especially in academic or corporate environments, just want to project the occasional presentation. Again, the new iBook models lean toward "possible" with the addition of their new AV port. The composite video output (suitable for connecting to a TV, VCR, or video projector) may not offer sufficient resolution for serious software demonstrations or for prolonged desktop use, but it should be fine for casual presentations.

Meanwhile, the iBook has a single built-in mono speaker, and no built-in sound input (such as a microphone) at all. It supports external USB microphones, and stereo speakers or headphones through the AV port.

In contrast, the PowerBook sports a VGA-style video port for hooking up an external monitor or high-resolution video projector, and includes an S-video output port that supports a high resolution signal to do justice to DVD movies. It also has a built-in microphone and stereo speakers, along with a stereo output jack for connecting headphones or external speakers.

Another obvious way of comparing iBook and PowerBook is via their built-in LCD screens. Both have active-matrix TFT displays, with the 12.1-inch iBook display (up to 800 by 600 resolution) roughly matching my PowerBook 1400’s screen, and the 14.1-inch PowerBook display (up to 1024 by 768) dwarfing both. The extra display space on the PowerBook is crucial to some, but I still feel comfortable working in 800 by 600. Moreover, I blame the 14.1-inch display (however unfairly) for what I consider the excessive size of the PowerBook. If I could have a PowerBook G3 shrunk in two dimensions to handle a 12.1-inch screen instead of its 14.1-inch screen, I’d grab it.

That said, I have indeed become used to the 17-inch display on my desk at work, and I do occasionally find the 800 by 600 PowerBook 1400 display limiting, such as when switching back and forth between Windows and the Mac OS in Virtual PC. So, for me, the 14.1-inch PowerBook display isn’t a clear win, but it is a positive.

The iBook now boasts a single FireWire port to complement its single USB port. FireWire lets the iBook work directly with digital video from DV camcorders and opens up a whole new (and rapidly expanding) world of peripherals. I don’t know how well daisy-chaining FireWire peripherals works, but many USB peripherals work better when plugged directly into the computer, rather than chained through a keyboard or other external device. Having the PowerBook’s two USB ports therefore seems like a good idea, even if there’s generally no need to occupy one with a keyboard or mouse.

Book ’em, Danno — Since, so far, both machines have stayed in the running based on my needs, it’s time to look at some of the key advantages each has over the other.

For the iBook, price wins in the advantage category. Apple has done an excellent job of making the consumer laptop affordable, with a $1,500 entry-level model and the $1,800 Special Edition that does everything I need. The PowerBook costs quite a bit more, with its two models coming in at $2,500 and $3,500. Though it’s hard to ignore lower prices, my instinct is to buy as much computer as I can afford, since I know I won’t be replacing it any time soon.

The PowerBook’s advantages include slightly faster CPUs, with 400 and 500 MHz PowerPC G3 models next to the 366 and 466 MHz iBook options. In reality, though, two factors make the PowerBook significantly faster than the iBook. First is the PowerBook’s 1 MB of Level 2 cache memory, compared to the iBook’s 256K. Just as setting aside a little of the computer’s memory as a disk cache can improve hard disk performance, setting aside a little very-fast memory as a processor cache allows the processor to move less data back and forth between the processor and the computer’s slower main memory. More Level 2 cache can make a substantial difference in a computer’s performance. Further, the PowerBook offers a 100 MHz system bus and 100 MHz memory bus compared to the iBook’s 66 MHz system bus and memory bus.

Battery flexibility is one key area of advantage for the PowerBook, which supports two batteries installed simultaneously (the second going in the versatile expansion bay, which also houses the hot-swappable DVD-ROM drive or third party devices such as Zip or floppy drives) rated for up to ten hours of continuous use (with a pair of batteries installed). By comparison, the iBook’s integrated battery is rated for six hours, and the machine only supports one battery. You can swap the iBook’s battery for a spare fully charged one, but this requires a complete shutdown rather than sleep and isn’t as simple a task as it has been in the PowerBook line for several years.

I’m not sure just now what I might need it for, but I like the idea of having the PowerBook’s PC Card (PCMCIA) expansion slot. (The iBook lacks one.) So far I’ve mostly used my 1400’s PC Card slots for Ethernet or modem cards, both of which are rendered irrelevant by the features built into both iBook and PowerBook. I’ve also used my PC Card slot for a Lucent wireless networking card, but the AirPort capability in both iBook and PowerBook eliminate that need, as well.

Closing the Book — The PowerBook’s additional battery capacity, heightened performance, and better expandability have convinced me that’s the way to go. With that decision made, the next difficult choice was between the 400 MHz or 500 MHz PowerBook. $1,000 is a hefty premium (considering it’s nearly half the purchase price of the entry-level PowerBook) for an extra 25 percent boost in processor speed. It does, however, take the machine from 64 to 128 MB of RAM, and from a 10 to a 20 GB drive. (The PowerBook supports up to 512 MB of RAM to the iBook’s 320 MB ceiling, and can be configured with a 30 GB drive through Apple’s build-to-order program.) These days, 64 MB of memory obviously isn’t enough, so I would need to spend money adding more. And, while 10 GB is probably enough storage, that’s what my PowerBook 1400 currently sports, and however roomy my 30 MB hard disk felt in 1988, I’ve come to grips with the fact that you can never have too much disk space.

In the end, I decided the 500 MHz PowerBook, complete with optional AirPort wireless networking gear, was a worthwhile investment, especially thanks to Apple’s amazing back-to-school bargains, for which I’m eligible thanks to my return this spring to academia. The iBook would seem better suited to those for whom a laptop is an occasional, or secondary machine, used mostly for travel rather than frequent presentations. Since I use my laptop daily and actively, the PowerBook seems the better bet for me.

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