Is Apple’s beefy 17-inch PowerBook G4 too big? Michael Shappe thinks not, and he’s a happy convert from a PC laptop. Adam passes on a number of tips for using Mac OS X more efficiently through smarter scrolling, and Sander Lam remembers the late Dutch translator Walter Van Lerberghe. In the news, we look at the releases of Default Folder X 1.8, AirPort 3.1.1, and OmniWeb 4.5.
Default Folder X 1.8 Released — Jon Gotow of St. Clair Software last week released Default Folder X 1.8, the latest version of his utility for enhancing standard Open and Save dialogs in Mac OS X. Returning to the Mac OS X version of Default Folder X now is an old feature that enabled you to Option-click an item in a Save dialog to copy its name to avoid retyping. Other improvements include system-wide keyboard shortcuts for opening Favorite folders, the capability to set a single default folder for all applications (handy for those people who save documents randomly all over their hard disks), increased performance, and minor user interface enhancements. The update is free for registered users; new copies cost $35. Default Folder X 1.8 is a 3.1 MB download. [ACE]
AirPort 3.1.1 Improves Performance and Compatibility — Apple has released version 3.1.1 of the AirPort software, which includes version 5.1.1 of the AirPort Extreme Base Station firmware. Changes in AirPort 3.1.1 include performance enhancements between wired and wireless clients, stronger handling of multicast traffic on LANs, and better performance and behavior when using NAT and DHCP in the AirPort Extreme Base Station. We’ve also seen an anecdotal report in The Wireless Networking Starter Kit forum about the firmware update enabling a D-Link DWL G520 PCI card in a PC connect to an AirPort Extreme Base Station, which hadn’t previously worked. AirPort 3.1.1 is a 7.8 MB download, available via Software Update or directly from Apple. [ACE]
Do we take anything more for granted than scrolling in a window that’s too small to show its entire contents? Well, breathing probably outranks scrolling, but most of us don’t spend much time thinking about how we scroll. Read these tips to learn how to go beyond the basics of the scroll bar and obvious navigation keys like the arrows, Home and End, and Page Up and Page Down. And all this comes without spending a dime on a scroll wheel-enabled mouse, helpful though such a critter might be.
Double Arrow Scroll Bars — Apple’s default settings for scroll bars have never made sense. The settings are happy to let you put single arrows on either end of the scroll bar (an up arrow at the top and a down arrow at the bottom), or to place double arrows on one end of the scroll bar (both up and down arrows at the bottom of the scroll bar). But Apple doesn’t reveal the obvious third choice of double arrows at both ends of the scroll bar, even though the necessary code has long been built into the classic Mac OS and Mac OS X.
In Mac OS 8.5 through Mac OS 9 (and for Classic applications in Mac OS X), Tom Schmidt’s freeware Scroll Bars (5.6K download) lets you enable double arrows at each end of scroll bars. In Mac OS X, you can use Marcel Bresink’s free TinkerTool 2 (480K download) to enable double arrows at each end of scroll bars (along with many other cool features).
If you’re not bothered by the command line, a quick Unix command will give you double scroll arrows even faster than downloading and using TinkerTool. Just run the Terminal and paste the following line in at the prompt (I assume you need an administrator-level account to do this). Then log out and log back in or restart your Mac to start using the double arrows.
defaults write "Apple Global Domain" AppleScrollBarVariant DoubleBoth
If you decide you don’t like the double scroll arrows, you can switch back to one of Apple’s defaults using the Appearance control panel’s Options tab in Mac OS 9 (most easily accessible from the Apple menu when you’re in a Classic application in Mac OS X) or via Mac OS X’s General preferences pane.
Jump Scrolling — In particularly long documents, scrolling can become tedious, which may account for why Apple added a new option for what happens when you click in an empty part of the scroll bar. Traditionally, the document scrolls to the next page, which is easily understandable and gives you a large target when choosing where in the scroll bar to click. In Mac OS X’s General preferences pane you can now also choose a mode in which clicking in the scroll bar scrolls the document not a page, but to the location in the document that corresponds with your click. So, if you’re at the top of your document and you click halfway down, your document scrolls to roughly the halfway point. Click again at the bottom of the scroll bar and you scroll all the way down instantly. This mode works for Cocoa and Carbon applications, but not for Classic applications.
Honestly, I have this option turned on for one of my Macs, and it drives me batty, since I must constantly evaluate how long my document is and try to imagine what location in the scroll bar corresponds with the desired spot in the window. Luckily, there’s a way to use this feature just when it can be most helpful.
Stick with the normal scroll-by-page approach, but when you want to perform a hyperspace jumps to a specific location in a long document, Option-click in the scroll bar for a one-time jump to that location. I find this technique particularly useful in iPhoto, since scrolling around thousands of photos takes forever. I use Option-click to jump near the location I want, and then click normally to scroll the remaining short distance.
Application Drag and Space Scrolling — Look for alternate ways of scrolling in some applications by clicking and dragging, or by pressing the spacebar. These methods are common, but not universally supported. For instance, hold down Command-Option when using a Finder window in icon view, and you can then click inside the window and drag to scroll its contents.
In Adobe Acrobat (at least version 5.0), you can drag to scroll when using the hand tool, as long as either you’re zoomed in to see less than a page at a time or your Display preferences are set to use one of the Continuous page layout options. You can also change this on a per-document basis from the View menu, if you prefer Single Page layout normally, but occasionally want to scroll by dragging. The same is true for Apple’s Preview – choose Continuous Scrolling in the View menu to enable drag scrolling.
Don’t like downloading a PDF just to see if it’s something you might want to read more carefully? Try Manfred Schubert’s PDF Browser Plugin, which provides PDF viewing in Safari and some other Web browsers. Why do I mention it in this context? Because it provides drag-scrolling of PDF files by default inside your Web browser’s window. It also lets you save PDF files or open then in another PDF viewer like Acrobat Reader.
Lastly, don’t forget the unassuming spacebar. Since the dawn of time (or at least the dawn of the keyboard), Internet applications that were primarily about reading text, such as email clients, Usenet newsreaders, and, later, Web browsers, have used the spacebar as a shortcut for scrolling down in long pieces of text. It works in Eudora, Mail (in the preview pane), Entourage, Safari, Internet Explorer, Camino, Preview, and many more. Less common is support for scrolling back up in documents; in Entourage, Mail, and Safari you can use Shift-spacebar; in Internet Explorer it’s Option-spacebar. I can’t guarantee that the specific applications you use for reading Internet content will support spacebar scrolling, but it’s likely, and certainly worth investigating.
Scrolling, Scrolling, Scrolling — I’m not saying that you should put a lot of thought into how you scroll around in Mac OS X, just that with small amount of one-time effort, you can learn a few new tricks that make it even easier to use your Mac when you can’t see the entire contents of a window at once.
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How well can one get to know another person by email? I met Walter Van Lerberghe only a few times in person, but we exchanged numerous email messages, mostly relating to our shared volunteer efforts in translating TidBITS into Dutch each week. As such correspondences go, we also diverted on occasion to personal affairs.
On 11-Jul-03, Walter died, causing me to bring up about a megabyte of memories from my hard disk and archived CDs. Despite the sad cause, it was a pleasant job, because Walter’s messages always radiated something sunny. He often hinted at the good life, for example by reminding us that the Belgians are the best beer brewers in the world, and he maintained a good balance between earnestness and humor.
Walter loved to occupy himself with language. He considered it as a pastime to keep active his little gray cells, a phrase made popular by another Belgian, Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot. Walter’s career involved writing brochures for hi-fi equipment, which meant inventing his own words for many technical terms. And Walter didn’t stop at Dutch, French, and English – for their holidays, he and his wife favored Tenerife. Since it’s in the Canary Islands, which belong to Spain, Walter took a course in Spanish.
In 1991, poor health forced him to give up his job, so he spent the extra spare time on his other big hobby: the Macintosh. He became a devoted TidBITS reader, and in 1996 when there was a call for volunteers to translate the newsletter into French, he took the opportunity to combine his two hobbies and to give something back for the consistently high quality of the articles in TidBITS.
It took a bit longer before a Dutch translation of TidBITS came to be, but eventually Jan Vanderwegen and Walter recruited enough other volunteers. In the early days, Walter took much of the work upon himself and encouraged the rest of us to persevere as the team worked out a process. Once we had enough people and a reliable production cycle had crystallized, Walter became our permanent final editor. For a few years he worked on both the French and the Dutch translations, but eventually he had to give up working on the French team.
Walter made demands on himself and on the rest of the team, but he also knew when to ease up. He found absurd the practice of inventing at any price Dutch words for English computer jargon, and he often let us know that he was proud of the quality of TidBITS in Dutch. He preferred to speak about a Dutch "version" rather than a translation. That’s why our capitalization of article titles and subheads differs from the American convention, we have a different punctuation, et cetera.
Walter also did much to make TidBITS better known. Along with telling everyone he knew about TidBITS, he was happy to be interviewed by the Dutch MacFan magazine ("MacFan and TidBITS: that is all you need as a Mac user"). When it became possible to order t-shirts with the TidBITS logo, Walter’s main concern was whether he would receive the shipment in time to wear the t-shirt at his next stay on Tenerife. (He ordered two shirts; whether his wife also lay on the beach wearing the TidBITS logo he never said.)
Walter also cared about making personal connections within the team. On our mailing list, which is meant to discuss translation problems, we once had a spate of funny poems run back and forth, not only generating some smiles among all the serious "work," but also emphasizing our shared love of language. Likewise, our shared interest in the Macintosh was a binding factor. Gradually we became curious about each other, and Walter convinced us that we should someday have dinner together to get to know each other better. Although we never succeeded in getting the whole group together at one time, the tradition of smaller sets of translators meeting from time to time has given us all stronger ties to one another and to TidBITS Dutch.
The title of this article, "My Kingdom for a Mac!", is a paraphrasing of a famous line from Shakespeare’s Richard III, and comes from one of Walter’s early email signatures. As much as five words can, the phrase sums him up in our minds: a song of praise about the Mac, a bit of word play. Walter couldn’t take his Mac with him, but he did leave a kingdom of memories to us.
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.
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.
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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