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New PowerBooks: Mini Me and the Lunch Tray

Amid rumors of video iPods and tablet Macs appearing during the Macworld Expo keynote address, Steve Jobs calmly introduced a pair of new PowerBook models that slot neatly into Apple’s existing iBook and PowerBook lines. The most obvious distinction for the new machines is display size, and that’s how Apple refers to them officially: the 12-inch PowerBook G4 and the 17-inch PowerBook G4. The 12-inch PowerBook G4 packs a lot of power into the smallest laptop Apple has ever made, and the 17-inch PowerBook G4 breaks new ground for the size of a screen in a laptop computer. Both PowerBooks support Apple’s new 802.11g AirPort Extreme wireless networking; both also exclusively run Mac OS X and cannot boot into Mac OS 9 (though the Classic environment is still available to run Mac OS 9 applications).


Given Apple’s penchant for differentiating the names of new Macs as little as possible, there was much talk at the show about what these new PowerBooks would end up being called. After all, many people refer to the Titanium PowerBook G4 as the TiBook, and Apple’s parenthetical descriptors like Power Mac G4 (Mirrored Drive Doors) are both awkward and hard to say (and as a wag at the Netters Dinner chided me when I said the entire name aloud, the parentheses are silent). So the attendees of the Netters Dinner voted the most popular name for the 17-inch PowerBook G4 as "Lunch Tray," with the 12-inch PowerBook G4’s matching name being "Happy Meal." Despite the elegance of a matching set of names, I suspect many people will call the 12-inch PowerBook something based on "Mini Me," the character played by Verne Troyer in the Austin Powers movies. That comes thanks to Apple’s hilarious TV ad for the new PowerBooks featuring the diminutive Troyer with Yao Ming, the 7-foot, 6-inch (2.3 m) center for basketball’s Houston Rockets. We’ll see what names actually catch on in common usage.

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17-inch PowerBook G4 — With the new 17-inch PowerBook, Apple broke new ground in laptop size. The 17-inch screen is reportedly the largest laptop screen ever, although at 1440 by 900 (the widescreen 16 by 10 aspect ratio), it can’t claim the award for highest resolution, since some PC laptops have screens that run at 1600 by 1200. Kudos go to Apple’s designers for implementing a counterweight in the hinge that makes the lid incredibly smooth to open and close. Despite the massive screen, Apple managed to keep the overall weight down to 6.8 pounds (3.1 kg). It’s also the thinnest PowerBook yet, with a thickness of just under 1 inch (2.54 cm), which is slightly thinner than the existing Titanium PowerBook G4. Rounding out the dimensions, it’s 15.4 inches (39.2 cm) wide and 10.2 inches (25.9 cm) deep.


Rather than rely on titanium for the new PowerBooks, Apple switched to an aircraft-grade anodized aluminum. Although I’m not enough of a metallurgist to verify this, Apple claims the anodized aluminum is lighter and stiffer than the titanium used in the TiBook. My reading of bicycle frame building discussions comparing aluminum and titanium agree that aluminum is lighter, but not generally stiffer. However, it’s also clear from reading those discussions that specific design makes a huge difference in final stiffness. The aluminum isn’t painted, which will please those people whose watches have scratched the titanium finish or whose hand oil has caused the TiBook’s paint to bubble and peel.

Under the hood, the 17-inch PowerBook G4 offers a 1 GHz PowerPC G4 processor with 1 MB L3 cache, 512 MB of PC2700 DDR RAM (upgradable to 1 GB), a GeForce4 440 Go graphics processor with 64 MB VRAM, a 60 GB hard disk, a slot-loading SuperDrive (CD-RW/DVD-R), two USB ports, Gigabit Ethernet, a PC Card slot, audio line in, stereo speakers, a headphone jack, and an internal microphone. Video out is handled by S-video and DVI connectors, and Apple includes a DVI to VGA adapter. The 17-inch PowerBook G4 supports dual displays, and a new function key on the keyboard lets you switch easily between an extended desktop and mirrored displays. Despite the huge screen and fast processor, Apple claims users should see up to 4.5 hours of battery life with the new lithium-ion prismatic battery.

FireWire is also onboard, in the form of a standard FireWire 400 port and a new separate FireWire 800 port that runs at, you guessed it, 800 Mbps. FireWire 800 requires a new connector, but it’s backward compatible with FireWire 400 if you use the adapter Apple provides. And speaking of ports, the two USB connections are smartly placed, one on each side of the base, making it easier for left-handed users (or anyone using extra USB devices such as video or audio editing controllers) to minimize cable clutter.

Also built in are not one, but two forms of wireless communication. Bluetooth is now standard for communicating with cell phones and other Bluetooth-capable devices. Then there’s AirPort Extreme, an enhanced version of AirPort wireless networking. AirPort Extreme relies on the 802.11g draft standard to provide 54 Mbps of bandwidth when communicating with another AirPort Extreme device, while still maintaining full backward compatibility with 11 Mbps (802.11b) AirPort devices. In a bit of good news for frustrated TiBook users looking to upgrade, Apple moved the antennas (which are used by both AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth, with some clever switching to make sure they don’t interfere with one another) from the base to the upper edges of the screen. Apple claims that reception should be as good as with the recent iBook models, which provide better reception than any other machine I’ve seen.

Lastly, Apple upped the cool factor of the 17-inch PowerBook by adding a fiber optic system that illuminates the keyboard from underneath, with the light shining through laser-etched keycaps. That’s neat, but what’s even neater is that it’s controlled by an ambient light sensor that automatically raises the level of backlight as the room light goes down. The ambient light sensor also automatically adjusts the screen brightness, although you can control both manually from the keyboard as well. People who regularly work in dim environments are sure to find this particularly useful.

The 17-inch PowerBook G4 will be available in February (though Apple’s online store currently lists a 7 to 10 week estimated shipping timeline) for $3,300, and short of paying $300 more to add another 512 MB of RAM, there aren’t any other options. It comes with a free copy of Intuit’s QuickBooks for Mac New User Edition.

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I’ll be interested to see how the 17-inch PowerBook sells. Although the price is reasonable, the feature set is extremely good, and the screen is stupendous, it has one problem: it’s big. Really big. Almost without exception, everyone I talked with at the show felt it was too big to be used as a general laptop computer, although it would be ideal for someone who merely needs a portable computer that can be moved from desk to desk. Though it’s only very slightly taller than the TiBook thanks to a clever screen hinge, it’s awfully wide, and I can’t imagine using it in coach on most airplanes. It won’t fit in many PowerBook bags, but the Apple Online Store offers two optional Brenthaven cases that are designed to hold it (and other bag manufacturers have already started working up new designs). When I asked about the size issue, Greg Joswiak, Apple’s vice president of hardware products, shrugged and said, "That’s what they said about the Titanium PowerBook G4 when it came out, too." For Apple’s sake, I hope he’s right, since it’s one heck of a cool machine, and there will be people for whom it is utterly perfect.

12-inch PowerBook G4 — It was the biggest of PowerBooks, it was the smallest of PowerBooks. With apologies to Charles Dickens, that’s how the keynote felt, since after introducing the big-screen 17-inch PowerBook G4, Steve Jobs reversed gears and showed off the svelte 12-inch PowerBook G4.

It shares an anodized aluminum case with the 17-inch PowerBook G4, but with a 12.1-inch screen running at 1024 by 768, the new PowerBook has more in common with the 12-inch iBook. It’s even smaller than the iBook in every way, measuring only 1.2 inches (3.0 cm) high, 10.9 inches (27.7 cm) wide, 8.6 inches (21.8 cm) deep, and weighing in at 4.6 pounds (2.1 kg). Both the PowerBook Duo and PowerBook 2400 are slightly smaller than the 12-inch PowerBook G4 in one or two dimensions, but not in all three or in overall volume.

But where the iBook has been slowed by its reliance on the PowerPC G3, the 12-inch PowerBook G4 uses an 867 MHz PowerPC G4. To that it adds 256 MB of PC2100 DDR RAM (expandable to 640 MB), a 40 GB hard disk (add $50 for a 60 GB disk) a GeForce4 420 Go graphics processor with 32 MB VRAM and dual display support, a slot-loading Combo drive (CD-RW/DVD-ROM), VGA and S-video out (both via an adapter), a FireWire 400 port, two USB ports, 10/100Base-T Ethernet, along with stereo speakers (and a third mid-range speaker embedded in the bottom of the base), audio line in, headphone output, and an internal microphone. On the wireless front, the 12-inch PowerBook G4 boasts built-in Bluetooth support as well as a slot for an optional $100 AirPort Extreme card. The antennas are in the screen again, and Apple claims it should match the iBook’s wireless range. Apple also says the 12-inch PowerBook G4 gets up to 5 hours of battery life from a lithium-ion battery.

The 12-inch PowerBook G4 should be available in about two weeks with prices starting at $1,800; for an extra $200, you can replace the Combo drive with a SuperDrive (CD-RW/DVD-R). It currently ships with a copy of Intuit’s QuickBooks. Unfortunately, the 12-inch PowerBook lacks the ambient light sensor and fiber optic keyboard backlight of the 17-inch PowerBook G4.

While I’m unsure about how well the 17-inch model will do, I have few doubts about the 12-inch model, since there are many people for whom the TiBook was too large and expensive, but the iBook suffered from lack of both performance and dual display support. Adding Bluetooth and AirPort Extreme merely sweetens the deal. The 12-inch PowerBook G4 is, quite simply, the perfect travelling laptop for a serious Mac user. And I want one.

A Step Back — All that said, you may have noticed a few annoying limitations in the 12-inch PowerBook G4. Although 640 MB of RAM is enough, many people would like to install more. A PC Card slot might be nice, and a backlit keyboard would be welcome. It also has only VGA out instead of DVI, FireWire 400 rather than FireWire 800, and 10/100 Mbps Ethernet rather than Gigabit Ethernet. Why the limitations? Though space and power are undoubtedly tight in such a small machine, Apple was careful to provide a rational way for people to choose among Apple’s iBook and PowerBook models, and the company didn’t want the 12-inch PowerBook G4 to eclipse the larger and more expensive PowerBooks (the 15-inch Titanium models are still offered, and now represent the mid-range of the PowerBook line). Apple’s pricing ramps up smoothly, as you can see in the list below:

  • $1,000: 12-inch iBook (CD-ROM, 700 MHz)
  • $1,300: 12-inch iBook (Combo, 800 MHz)
  • $1,500: 14-inch iBook (basic config)
  • $1,750: 14-inch iBook (more RAM and hard disk)
  • $1,800: 12-inch PowerBook G4 (Combo drive)
  • $2,000: 12-inch PowerBook G4 (SuperDrive)
  • $2,300: 15-inch Titanium PowerBook G4 (Combo drive, 867 MHz)
  • $2,800: 15-inch Titanium PowerBook G4 (SuperDrive, 1 GHz)
  • $3,300: 17-inch PowerBook G4 (SuperDrive, 1 GHz)

The feature set of each machine follows along with the price, making it easy to determine which laptop is right for you. Apple is clearly taking portables seriously, and Steve Jobs said that the company believes that someday portables will outsell desktops. Currently, about a third of Apple’s Macintosh sales go to notebooks, compared with less than a quarter of sales industry-wide.

Keep this product line ramp up in mind as you imagine what the future might bring. I could see Apple releasing a 15-inch PowerBook G4 using the anodized aluminum case of the new PowerBooks, particularly if the current TiBook continues to meet the needs of many new customers. I also think a G4-based iBook might be in the offing, but only if the total package doesn’t impinge on the PowerBook line.

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