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PowerBooks Gain Faster CPUs, Scrolling Trackpad

Apple today pulled the wraps off an update to the PowerBook line that increases CPU speeds to 1.5 GHz and 1.67 GHz, bumps all hard drive speeds to 5400 rpm, adds an 8x SuperDrive, and introduces a pair of interesting new technologies – the scrolling trackpad and Sudden Motion Sensor – the latter of which you hope you’ll never need.

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Faster PowerBook! In a not unexpected move, Apple bumped up the clock speeds of the PowerPC G4 used in the current PowerBook line. The end result is a $2,700 1.67 GHz 17-inch PowerBook that comes with a 100 GB hard disk, an 8x SuperDrive (CD-RW/DVD+-RW), an ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 graphics processor with 128 MB of video memory, Dual Link DVI support that can drive Apple’s 30-inch Cinema HD Display, and internal Bluetooth 2.0+EDR. Other specs remain the same: 512 MB of RAM, Gigabit Ethernet, 56 Kbps v.92 modem, built-in 54 Mbps AirPort Extreme, a pair of USB 2.0 ports, FireWire 400 and 800 ports, optical digital audio input and output, and an illuminated keyboard with the ambient light sensor.

The addition of the backwards-compatible Bluetooth 2.0+EDR (Enhanced Data Rate) is somewhat notable, given that Apple is the first major company to build the technology in by default. Bluetooth 2.0 triples the maximum data rate from 1 Mbps to 3 Mbps and in doing so, thanks to the side effect of transmitting for shorter periods of time, reduces power consumption. Of course, nothing else supports Bluetooth 2.0 right now, but that will undoubtedly change soon. The final Bluetooth 2.0 specification was ratified in November 2004, with the first ratified chips appearing in December, meaning that Apple turned on a dime to build them into these new PowerBooks.


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The 15-inch PowerBook comes in 1.67 GHz and 1.5 GHz models ($2,300 and $2,000, respectively). Compared to the 17-inch PowerBook, the 15-inch 1.67 GHz model includes only 64 MB of video memory (128 MB and Dual Link support are optional), comes with an 80 GB hard disk, and lacks digital audio input and output; the 1.5 GHz model also trades the SuperDrive for a Combo drive (CD-RW/DVD-ROM) and loses the option of Dual Link support.

With the 12-inch PowerBook, Apple offers a pair of 1.5 GHz models. The $1,700 model includes an 80 GB hard disk and an 8x SuperDrive; the $1,500 model instead provides a 60 GB hard disk and a Combo drive. Both models also rely on an Nvidia GeForce FX Go5200 graphics processor with 64 MB of video memory, and they offer only 100Base-T Ethernet and FireWire 400 instead of the faster ports sported by their larger siblings. As with previous models, the 12-inch version does not offer the illuminated backlit keyboard.

All models come with Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, iLife ’05, Art Director’s Toolkit, QuickBooks for Mac New User Edition, GraphicConverter, OmniGraffle, OmniOutliner, and a variety of trial versions of other programs.

Scrolling Trackpad — Raging Menace Software’s $15 utility SideTrack has long simulated scroll-wheel capabilities on PowerBook and iBook trackpads, but it does so by devoting a side of the trackpad to scrolling. Apple’s new scrolling trackpad technology, which is built into all the new PowerBooks, takes a different approach that may work better. Drag two fingers on the trackpad simultaneously to scroll horizontally, vertically, or to pan around the active window. You can customize the settings or turn off scrolling entirely, presumably in the Trackpad tab of the Keyboard & Mouse preference pane.


The scrolling trackpad technology is built into the trackpad hardware and thus won’t be available to owners of older PowerBooks or iBooks, though I would expect to see it migrate to the iBooks with the next minor update to that line.

Sudden Motion Sensor — Dropping your PowerBook is a bad idea. A really bad idea. But as much as breaking the screen and denting the case in ways that might prevent the lid from closing or the optical drive from working are terrible, horrible, awful, rotten, no-good things to have happen, even worse is damaging the hard drive and losing all your data. (Unless, of course, you have cleverly followed Joe Kissell’s advice in "Take Control of Mac OS X Backups" to ensure that you can restore everything with a minimum of fuss and downtime.)

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Apple still hasn’t built any sort of automatic backup capabilities into the Mac, but the entire line of new PowerBooks feature the new Sudden Motion Sensor, which detects changes in axis position and accelerated motion (as will likely happen when you accidentally pull the PowerBook off your desk while messing about with the cable nest on the floor). When the Sudden Motion Sensor activates, it instantly parks the heads of your hard drive to lessen the chance that they’ll scratch the disk surface, reducing the likelihood of data loss. Once the Sudden Motion Sensor notices that your PowerBook is level again, it unlocks the drive heads automatically.

As much as the Sudden Motion Sensor is a useful technology, it’s by no means a panacea. Even ignoring all the other damage that comes with dropping a PowerBook, the Sudden Motion Sensor is relevant only if you drop the PowerBook while it’s running; when the PowerBook is sleeping or shut down, the drive heads are already parked. So don’t assume that the Sudden Motion Sensor will provide any protection beyond what you already have in many situations. As always, focus on prevention: be careful when handling your laptop, use a well-padded laptop bag (TidBITS sponsor Matias has a video of dropping a laptop in their Laptop Armor bag onto concrete from a high of 10 feet (3.05 meters)), and set up your working environment to reduce the risk of people tripping over cables and other accidents.


Nice Updates — These minor revisions to the PowerBook line are welcome, particularly given that they don’t come with increased prices – no one will ever complain about a CPU speed bump, and the faster hard disks should improve performance with disk-intensive work. The Dual Link capability will be particularly appreciated by those who use a 15-inch or 17-inch PowerBook as their primary Mac, but who also need the massive screen real estate of a 30-inch Cinema HD Display. And the addition of Bluetooth 2.0+EDR, the scrolling trackpad, and Sudden Motion Sensor sweeten the deal beyond what normally happens with a speed bump update. The new machines will be available later this week.

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