What would you do if you could exchange some work for either a shiny new PowerBook G4 Titanium or Apple’s latest portable wonder, the iBook (Dual USB)? It’s not an easy question, since both Macs induce excessive levels of drool, but it’s one I’m going to try to answer in this article. Obviously, my situation is unique: a freelance job for a multimedia software company requires a Macintosh laptop computer, and another client would be happy to pay me for an assignment with the very laptop I need for the first gig. If you’re trying to decide between these two machines, please follow along, and I hope my train of thought will help lead you to a decision as well.
The machine I imagined for myself was a current, speedy Mac OS portable, both tough and lightweight. I knew it needed to be fairly high-powered, since I was hoping for a three-year life cycle. Since I work on projects that require a great deal of image editing and compositing as well as audio, I knew I’d want a CD-R drive and a large internal hard disk, a complement of fast ports, lots of RAM, and a large, bright, high-resolution display. Additionally, I needed an AirPort card so I could work on my home AirPort network. At first blush, a PowerBook G4 Titanium, with its modern PowerPC G4 processor, high-end specs, and huge LCD display sounded like it might fit the bill well.
Titanium Problems — I began my research at the Apple Web site. I was surprised to learn that the PowerBook G4 Titanium is available in only three varieties, two 400 MHz models distinguished by differing hard disk sizes, 20 GB and 30 GB, and a 500 MHz model with a 30 GB hard disk.
Somewhat disappointing was the single optical drive choice: a DVD-ROM drive, with no alternatives available for the Titanium’s thin form factor. I’ve had a DVD-ROM drive in an older machine for years, but have never used it to read a DVD-ROM. Since I often need to burn data to a CD, the lack of ready access to a CD-R drive can seriously impede my work. I already own an external FireWire CD-R, so a built-in CD-R in the portable wasn’t an absolute requirement – although a FireWire port would then be necessary. The Titanium supports FireWire, but my initial disappointment about the lack of a CD-R option led me to consider other possibilities. One option immediately presented itself.
Checking Out the iBook — On 01-May-01, Apple announced the new iBook (Dual USB). It is so different from the old candy-colored iBook in appearance and features that it was almost instantly nicknamed the "iceBook" for its gleaming white plastic body. Substantially smaller and lighter than the old curvy iBook, the new iBook actually beats the svelte Titanium in the miniaturization department. It’s neither as broad nor as a deep as the Titanium, at 4.9 pounds weighs 0.4 pounds less, and it’s a mere 0.35 inches thicker when closed.
The similarity of size and weight caught my eye – I hadn’t considered the old iBook as an option due to its 6.6 pound weight and expansive dimensions. Looking more closely, I was pleased to note that the iBook also sports a FireWire port. Of course, it’s AirPort-ready, but more interesting, it has four available optical drives – CD-ROM, CD-RW, DVD-ROM, and a CD-RW/DVD-ROM combination (you choose one when purchasing; unlike the PowerBook G3 series, the drive isn’t in a swappable bay). And despite these features, its price starts at well over a thousand dollars less than the Titanium.
Some more legwork on the iBook revealed its three main restrictions when compared to the Titanium: the choice of processor, the system bus speed, and the video and display systems. In each case, as one might expect, the Titanium is more powerful.
The most notable limitation, of course, is the iBook’s use of the PowerPC G3 processor instead of the faster PowerPC G4, which also includes the Velocity Engine processing unit for dramatic speed increases in certain types of applications that have been explicitly compiled to support it. Mac OS X itself takes advantage of the Velocity Engine, and going forward, it’s clear that the iBook will feel slower than the PowerBook G4 Titanium as both machines age. This means that the iBook may not meet my three-year life cycle requirement.
Secondly, the iBook uses a 66 MHz system bus as compared to the Titanium’s 100 MHz system bus, which can impact the overall performance of the machine in situations where a lot of data needs to be moved across the system bus. However, the iBook’s 256K L2 cache is on the PowerPC G3 chip itself, providing a 500 MHz data path, whereas the Titanium’s 1 MB of L2 cache is on the processor module and runs at half the speed of the CPU (either 200 or 250 MHz).
Finally, and most glaringly (pun intended), the issue of video and displays comes into consideration. The iBook’s built-in display system is a 12-inch diagonal XVGA TFT active matrix LCD, running at a maximum resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels. That’s not shabby by any means, though it can’t compare with the Titanium’s 15.2-inch wide-screen LCD running at 1,152 by 768 pixels.
The iBook also features nearly the same video subsystem as the older PowerBook G3 (FireWire), the ATI RAGE Mobility 128M with AGP 2x. However, the iBook’s standard VGA-out port is limited to providing video-mirroring of the built-in display. That’s fine for projection or use of a single large monitor at the iBook’s highest resolution, but in contrast, the PowerBook G4 Titanium supports monitor spanning, so, when available, that giant expanse of screen can be complemented by another.
Finally, the iBook lacks a PC Card slot found in the Titanium, but given the functionality and ports built into the iBook, I can’t see any particular need for PC Card expansion.
Outside Opinions — Having realized that the iBook was a viable option for my needs if I adjusted certain expectations, I now faced the task of separating my needs from my desires, and for that, I’ve long had good luck seeking the advice of others.
I began with my wife. She listened to me lay the issues out, but in the end for her it was a clear-cut decision based on price; she thought that the significantly cheaper iBook was the preferred option. An enquiry to a list of computer professionals, most of whom are not Mac people, yielded the same choice but with a new perspective. The discussion there determined, based upon my use patterns and peripherals, that the machine under consideration was unlikely to be a replacement for my existing Power Mac G4 desktop system, and thus it would be more sensible to obtain a smaller, lighter, and cheaper "orbital" system.
A query to the savvy Mac users on TidBITS Talk turned up somewhat different opinions that favored the Titanium over the iBook, citing display and screen size most frequently, followed by longevity, speed, and processor concerns. Folks on TidBITS Talk also zeroed in on my desire for a CD-R in the portable as dispensable.
Ever the iconoclast, TidBITS Contributing Editor Matt Neuburg suggested a PowerBook G3 (FireWire) because of its robust suite of professional features and lowering price in the face of the new portables. His observations are cogent, but since size and weight predominated in my mind as the narrowing factors, I didn’t look closely at that machine as an option. However, its dual-battery capacity and resale pricing (I saw one on eBay with Final Cut Pro for about $1,800) make it an attractive cost/value comparison to the iBook for the professional user.
The final sources of information I pursued with regard to the iBook were Macintosh price-and-bundle tracking sites, plus discussion groups and bulletin boards. I learned some interesting things from these forums, most notably that a number of people were considering stepping down from the Titanium to the new iBook, and that despite its space age construction, the Titanium’s thin but large form factor contributed to it feeling fragile. Other negatives that cropped up around the Titanium related to problems with the DVD-ROM drives, slight keyboard impressions on the screen when closed (caused by dirt and skin oils deposited on the keyboard), and poor AirPort range due to the antenna placement and titanium shielding. Although Apple will hopefully work out these design kinks, it won’t happen in time for this purchase. On the timing issue, although Apple has had trouble shipping machines in quantity when promised, the new iBooks (and particularly the CD-ROM model) do seem to be shipping steadily and for some online orders, before promised.
I also read of some problems that new iBook owners were experiencing. The first problem that surfaced involved difficulties with the audio output of the iBooks, solvable only with a restart; Apple responded immediately with a software update that Apple recommends all iBook owners download and install. The second problem involved varying problems with the trackpad, such as wandering or jumping cursors. The trackpad problem reports are still coming in and no resolution or clear indication of the scope of the problem is currently available. [Having just received my new iBook from Small Dog Electronics, I can say that the cursor wandering and jumping is, at least on my machine, related to touching the large trackpad surface accidentally with multiple fingers. -Adam]
Reading that brick-and-mortar merchants frequently had the iBook in stock inspired me to pay a visit to my local Computer Store in Seattle. I expected I would be more impressed by the form factor and screen size of the Titanium. However, once I was able to use both machines side-by-side, I found that the keyboard, trackpad, and button layout on the iBook was noticeably more comfortable. In particular, the Titanium has an extra half-inch or so of lip between the front edge of the machine and the trackpad button; every time I went to hit the button with my thumb, I smacked this lip instead. On the iBook, although the trackpad and button are the same size and shape as on the Titanium, I didn’t have the problem with the lip. By itself, this isn’t a huge issue – I’m sure I’d get used to avoiding the Titanium’s lip right away. But overall, I just found the iBook more comfortable.
The iBook display was extremely crisp and bright. Even at the highest resolution of 1,024 by 768, I had no difficulty looking at it or hitting even small controls. The Titanium’s larger display was just fine, but for some reason, I saw the iBook’s display more clearly. Finally, the Titanium’s slot-loading DVD-ROM ejects to the front of the machine, which would be a minor hassle when I use the machine in bed. The side-mounted, tray-loading configuration of the iBook wouldn’t suffer this problem. Another bonus on the iBook side for lap use is my initial impression that it runs cooler than the Titanium. A lap warmer can be nice in the cold, rainy months, but I don’t need to bake my thighs otherwise.
Finally, I was impressed at how small the iBook looks, while the Titanium’s width gives the impression of size. The difference between them is only 2.2 inches, measured edge-to-edge the long way, but in packages this small, a few inches matters a lot.
Choosing a Book — To sum up, I found the pricing of the iBook far more attractive than the Titanium’s pricing. The low price also helped me soften my desire for a three-year life cycle. The main technical differences, such as CPU speed, display size, and monitor spanning capabilities turned out not to be crucial because I’m planning to use the portable in conjunction with my primary desktop Mac. Finally, the opportunity to handle the two machines side-by-side enabled me to determine that for whatever intangible reason, I preferred the feel of the iBook.
In the end, the iBook most closely suits my needs. Its up-to-date ports provide access to my supporting cast of peripherals here at home, so much so that I decided to get the least expensive CD-ROM model (though with more RAM and an extra battery). The iBook’s Lilliputian stature means I can travel with it easily, and the price difference between it and the Titanium allows me to save some of the money I earned recently for the proverbial rainy day (which may come in the form of my late-summer electric bill here on the power-challenged West Coast). I’m looking forward to opening the box on my new iBook.
[Mike Whybark plays a bright-blue electric mandolin in the Seattle-based Bare Knuckle Boxers and has designed user interfaces, logos, and Web sites for the DVD anime classic Bubblegum Crisis and two Better Homes and Gardens CD-ROMs, among others. Most recently he led the initial development of an online sweepstakes and contest management system for iPromotions, now a division of 24/7 Media, Inc.]