Despite Steve Jobs’s talk of ripping CDs and burning DVDs, the real heat of his Macworld Expo keynote address came at the end when he unveiled the PowerBook G4 Titanium, a svelte portable that promises to blaze through your data, roast your lap, and burn a hole in your pocket.
The buzz before the Expo suggested Apple had a new laptop in the works, and the question before the keynote became: would it be a jaw-dropping reinvention or just a speed-bump upgrade with improved specs? Make room on the floor for your jaw.
Mercury Rising — The PowerBook G4 is certainly faster and more powerful than its predecessors. The first Apple portable to feature the PowerPC G4 processor, the laptop is available in two standard configurations (both can be customized at the Apple Store): a 400 MHz model with 128 MB of RAM and a 10 GB hard disk, or a 500 MHz model with 256 MB of RAM and a 20 GB hard disk (a 30 GB hard disk is also available). Both configurations feature a 100 MHz system bus, 1 MB of L2 cache, an ATI Rage Mobility 128 graphics processor, 10/100Base-T Ethernet, a DVD-ROM drive capable of playing DVD video and CD audio, a 56K internal modem, an infrared port, room for an optional AirPort card, and a lithium-ion battery that can provide up to five hours of battery life.
The PowerBook sports two USB ports and one FireWire port for expansion (apparently there was room enough for only three ports, which is why Apple dropped one FireWire port), one PC Card/CardBus slot, a stereo minijack, a VGA video output port, and an S-video output port. In short, almost everything a mobile Mac user would want from a modern laptop.
Thin Different — It isn’t necessarily hardware specs that will drive PowerBook G4 sales, however. The new machine is constructed of commercially pure titanium, the strong but lightweight metal used in surgical implants and aircraft engines. As such, the PowerBook is bright and shiny, almost making the brushed-metal QuickTime interface look attractive. (I said "almost.") The titanium shell also accounts for the PowerBook G4’s light weight: a mere 5.3 pounds, compared to 6.1 pounds for the current PowerBook G3 (FireWire) model. The difference may not look like much, but anyone who travels with a laptop will appreciate the lightened load. But here’s the best part: the PowerBook G4 Titanium is one inch thick, and that’s with the lid closed. Apple has been making PowerBooks thinner and lighter since introducing the PowerBook G3 Series, but the G4 makes everything else seem positively bulky.
Overall, the case is a bit shallower (9.5 inches) and wider (13.5 inches) than existing designs. The good news is that the thinner body lowers the top edge of the screen, so the PowerBook G4 is likely to be more comfortable to use on an airplane. Oh, and Apple even changed the logo on the case so it is right-side up when other people see you using such a nifty device – or when it gets a cameo on television.
How did Apple’s engineers achieve this flattening feat? In addition to ever-shrinking components, they made some design decisions that capitalize on space savings. The DVD drive, for example, is a slot-loading device built into the front-right side of the unit and there are no expansion bays. The battery is slim and square, and fits into a compartment in the bottom. The keyboard is also thinner, though it uses the same layout of existing PowerBooks (including the annoyingly placed Fn key), with the addition of an Eject function on the F12 key. And the lid latch is a small magnetic clasp at the front (unfortunately, the G4 doesn’t have the elegant latch-less closing mechanism of the iBook).
The Widening Inferno — Impressed yet? How about the last big departure from the PowerBook lineage (and I mean big): the PowerBook G4’s screen measures 15.2 inches in a "wide-screen" format (a 3:2 aspect ratio), which accounts for the machine’s added width. The default resolution is 1,152 by 768 pixels, though the screen can also display more common resolutions (such as 1,024 by 768 pixels) at a 4:3 aspect ratio. The included 8 MB of video memory displays millions of colors on external displays, plus supports mirrored and extended desktops on multiple monitors. Apple predictably touts the capability to use the larger screen to better edit video using iMovie or Final Cut Pro, but I’ll be happy to make more room for the increasing number of palettes in programs like Microsoft Word 2001 and Adobe GoLive 5.
Burn Rate — All this power does herald another hot aspect of the PowerBook G4: its temperature. Models on the Expo floor were definitely toasty on the bottom, even after accounting for them having been on lighted display tables. Considering that the titanium case must act as a heat sink, a lot of the heat generated by the G4 processor is bound to end up in your lap.
Apple is selling the 400 MHz configuration for $2,600, and the 500 MHz configuration for $3,500. Although not cheap, these prices are in line with new PowerBook models of the past. For many people at the Expo, the temptation to buy a PowerBook G4 drove conversations and comparisons. Some even gave in to their burning desires and placed orders at the Apple Store using the AirPort-equipped PowerBook G4 models on display.
However, therein lies the biggest potential problem of the PowerBook G4 Titanium: can Apple keep up with demand? Jobs announced that the new machines would start to be available in limited quantities at the end of January. Given the company’s history of announcing products before manufacturing is fully ramped up – especially with a complex and detailed product like a one-inch thick portable – it will be interesting to see how well Apple can keep up. Still, it’s a flame worth tending: my order is already placed.