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Apple’s 17-inch PowerBook G4

The first thing most people seem compelled to say after their first glance at the 17-inch PowerBook G4 is also the most obvious: "Wow, that thing’s big!"


It could hardly be otherwise. At a time when most electronics keep getting smaller, Apple pulled another of their seemingly counter-intuitive moves and came up with a laptop that’s bigger. But the PowerBook is also thin, sleek, shiny, and surprisingly light for its size and construction. In short, it’s a striking machine for more reasons than just its size.

Of course, striking good looks are not the primary reason most people buy a laptop – if it were, most current laptops would never move off the shelves! People buy a laptop because they want a useful computer that they can take with them. Believe it or not, the 17-inch PowerBook G4 succeeds at this purpose quite admirably.

As big as it seems when you look at it on a table, I don’t find that it feels unwieldy on my lap. At 6.8 pounds (3.1 kg), it’s heavier than many modern laptops, but lighter than most that I’ve used. My old Fujitsu Lifebook 420D, for example, weighs 7.3 pounds. Toshiba just announced a 17-inch laptop, the P25 Series, weighing in at a staggering 10 pounds. By those comparisons, 6.8 pounds seems just fine, and it’s barely more than half the weight of my cat, who’s in my lap much of the time I’m not using the PowerBook.

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Keyboard — The keyboard appears to be identical to the full-size one found on the 12-inch PowerBook, and it is jammed all the way back toward the screen, which leaves a large palm-and-wrist space in front. Some people have complained that the space is too large; personally, I appreciate the extra space. Another laptop I use regularly (a Toshiba Tecra) not only doesn’t have enough room in front, but it has a sharp edge that cuts into my wrists. The PowerBook is far more comfortable for extended use.

The keyboard features decent key-travel and a solid feel. The keys are plastic, despite looking like aluminum, but feel only marginally less solid than the rest of the case.

Surprisingly, the only serious problem I’ve had with the machine involves the keyboard. After a month and a half of use, the T key wobbled like a loose tooth and came off. I suspect that the problem may be a design flaw as a result of having thin keys but good key-travel. If your fingers are close enough to the edge of a key, your fingernail can catch a bit under the key’s neighbors. Now I type a bit more carefully.

Unlike previous Apple portables, the keycaps on this keyboard are not designed for field replacement, so losing the T key was definitely a bad thing. Calling Apple resulted in some puzzlement from the support representative on the other end, but in the end, she received permission to treat it as a warranty repair (not the norm for PowerBook keyboards, apparently!) and arranged for a shipment box to be sent to me. Fortunately, the machine was back in my hands exactly when Apple promised it would be, four business days later.

One feature that’s received some oohs and ahhs, but not much serious talk, is the keyboard’s backlight. In a darkened room, light sensors concealed in the speaker grills activate rows of fiber optic cables beneath the keyboard. The letters on the keycaps are laser-etched, rather than printed onto the keys, so the light shines through and illuminates just the letters. At the same time, the light sensors automatically lower the screen brightness to balance out the total light level. You can adjust the brightness of the screen and the keyboard using function keys. If the Automatic setting is enabled in the Displays preferences pane, using the function keys sets the ceiling for the automatic system, rather than overriding it entirely.

As I type this now, I’m in a mostly darkened room, with the keyboard brightness cranked up, and the markings on all the full-sized keys are bright and clear. The half-sized keys (function keys and cursor keys), however, are less so.

Bring On the Heat — The machine does get rather warm in one’s lap and under one’s hands after a while. Whether or not you find the heat uncomfortable will be a matter of personal taste. When you first pick it up and put it in your lap after it has been idle for a while, it’s pleasantly cool – as you’d expect a metal case to be. After an hour or so, however, it definitely heats up. Personally, when the laptop becomes too warm for comfort, I take that as a sign I should put it to sleep, get up, and stretch for a while.

If you will be using it on a tabletop instead of in your lap most of the time, the heat won’t be much of an issue. Since Apple is positioning this machine in part as a replacement for a desktop Mac, this may explain why more work wasn’t done to keep it cooler.

Certainly, in terms of hardware features, the 17-inch PowerBook G4 goes a long way toward being an ideal replacement for a desktop Mac. Along the left side, from back to front, are the power connector, modem phone jack, USB 1.1 port, PC Card slot, microphone jack, and headphone jack; on the right side, back to front, are the DVI video connector, the S-Video connector, the Gigabit Ethernet port, FireWire 800 and FireWire 400 ports, and the second USB 1.1 port. Apple supplies cables to adapt DVI to VGA, and S-Video to RCA, providing connections to analog monitors and televisions. With this range, just about every kind of modern peripheral you can think of is available to you. The one common complaint I’ve heard is the lack of a high-speed USB 2.0 port.

The 17-inch PowerBook G4 also sports two wireless networking options as standard equipment – Bluetooth and AirPort Extreme (802.11g). I don’t own an AirPort Extreme Base Station, but 802.11g is compatible with 802.11b base stations (such as the original AirPort), which is how I access the network most of the time. I encountered some early wireless networking glitches, but the cause turned out to be some non-standard options on my SMC 802.11b wireless gateway. With those turned off, everything works smoothly.

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Laptop Theater — Of course, the whole point of owning such a large laptop is to have more screen real estate, and the PowerBook’s 17-inch display is seriously beautiful. It’s bright, crisp, and clear, and in my opinion responsive enough for playing graphics-intensive video games (a key test for redraw performance). I can view the display from a wide range of angles without distortion.

In bright sunlight, the display is definitely usable. The screen’s contrast is adequate for writing code, casual Web surfing, and reading and composing email; however, I wouldn’t want to do serious photo editing or anything else where I needed to see color accurately. By comparison, the aforementioned Toshiba Tecra’s screen is almost impossible to use in sunlight. I’m personally still not sure I agree with Apple’s decision to go with the 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio, since I would have liked the extra height as well as width (for example, a resolution of 1440 by 1280 instead of 1440 by 900).

The slot-loading SuperDrive can read all manner of CD, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD, and DVD-R discs; it can also write to CD-R, CD-RW, and DVD-R discs. So far, like any good Apple product, I’ve found that this feature just works. (When first announced, an error on Apple’s Web site stated that the SuperDrive performed at 2x speed, when in fact it’s a 1x model. This is slow when compared with the 4x SuperDrive found in Power Macs, but you sacrifice speed for portability.) Playback of DVDs is smooth unless the machine is busy with other processor-intensive work.

The large speakers on either side of the keyboard are quite adequate for playing music (with iTunes, for example) or listening to the soundtrack of a DVD as it plays. True audiophiles, of course, will want to pipe the output somewhere else via the line-out/headphone jack, but for casual use I don’t have any real complaints.

So, how does it perform? Well, I’d say it depends on what you expect. If you’re a PC user accustomed to 3 GHz machines with highest-end video cards, you may feel a bit let down. But for anyone else, and for my purposes – Web development, graphic design, surfing – I’ve found it to be more than acceptable, especially with 1 GB of RAM. [Editor’s note: Apple loaned me a 17-inch PowerBook G4 for a week, during which time I found Mac OS X to be snappier than on my Titanium PowerBook G4 running at 400 MHz. Processor-intensive applications such as Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, Final Cut Express, and iMovie were noticeably faster as well. In fact, despite the beautiful screen and fantastic industrial design – the spring-loaded hinges deserve a special award in their own right – it was the 17-inch PowerBook’s faster overall performance that impressed me the most. -Jeff Carlson]

Powering the Powerful — Finding a place to plug in a power adapter is becoming easier these days, but it can still be a concern, especially when traveling with a laptop. You might think that, given the PowerBook’s relatively high processor clock speed and large screen, the length of time you can free yourself from the AC umbilical cord would be rather short. I’m pleased to say that it isn’t necessarily so.

As with any battery powered device, battery life depends on what you’re doing with it. With AirPort and Bluetooth off, the keyboard backlight off, and the screen’s backlight dimmed to its lowest visible setting, I can write or program on the machine for a good three and a half hours before it warns me that it’s hungry. The screen is quite readable at that brightness level, although obviously, just how readable depends on the ambient light around you. Cranking up iTunes to play music stored on the hard disk (this keeps the disk spinning) reduces my battery life, but not tremendously. Even with AirPort on, I can get better than two hours out of the battery before it starts whining. I haven’t done any serious CD or DVD playback on battery power, so I’m uncertain how much those impact battery life.

Yes, laptops with longer battery life are available, but none that I’m aware of that approach the overall power and utility of this PowerBook. I find that a flat two hours is the best I can get out of my Toshiba Tecra under similar conditions.

For when you do plug in, Apple’s AC adapter is handily designed. It’s a square white brick, with a somewhat thin cable running to the computer. Flip-up brackets at two corners allow you to wrap the cable to keep it from dangling (also useful when stowing the adapter in a case). A third corner features a removable plug module. If the module is in, you can just plug the flip-up prongs into any outlet. But the PowerBook also comes with a sturdy extension cord that replaces the plug module. This modular design is very clever. It’s unclear to me, however, if it’s possible to plug in modules for other countries’ electrical systems, or if you need a completely different brick.

Add It Up — My only complaint, aside from the difficulty I had with the keyboard, is the PowerBook’s price. At $3,200, it’s one of the most expensive consumer machines available, desktop or laptop. Toshiba’s 17-inch rival is more than $1,000 cheaper (albeit 3.2 pounds heavier). I was willing and able to pay the Apple premium, but continuing to price even high-end machines so much above Windows- and Linux-based Intel rivals will not help Apple’s case.

This machine represents a return for me to both the Macintosh and NeXTstep folds, since I was a devotee of both environments in the 1980s and early 1990s. Now, I’m thoroughly addicted to this not-so-little laptop. I think the price is steeper than it should be, but I’m not feeling cheated. I expect to get several years of fun and productivity out of the machine, both at home and on the road.

[Michael Scott Shappe is a software engineer, Web designer, copy editor, and sometime reviewer. He recently returned to the Macintosh platform after several years’ sojourn on Windows and Linux. He still thinks Linux is kinda keen, but he’s very glad to be putting distance between himself and Windows.]

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