Apple has updated its entire laptop range of iBooks and PowerBooks. While the changes initially appear superficial there are some compelling advances contained within the technical specifications, surprising performance boosts, and dramatic price reductions of nearly 25 per cent that represent tremendous value combined with the processor and graphics performance increases. Laptop power-users will be disappointed that there’s still no sign of a G5 PowerBook, but the latest industry speculation fluctuates between a late 2004 or autumn 2005 launch for that milestone machine to be unleashed on the world.
PowerBook: more speed for less cash
Today’s new PowerBooks are certainly noticeably faster than last year’s pro laptops, but it’s the other internal upgrades that really shine in this new line-up. However, the pumped-up processors grab the headlines.
Performance While the pro desktop Macs have been liberated from the icy thrall of Motorola’s glacially evolving G4 processor by IBM’s stunningly fast G5, the PowerBook (PB) is beholden to Moto for its speed advances. Apple announced its first 1GHz PB G4 way back in November 2002. For the chip to have taken so long to see a 50 per cent speed hike goes to show the chip’s poor rate of advance.
A 1.5GHz G4 is no slouch in itself - it just appears so next to a G5. There will be many owners of older laptops (including G4 PBs) who will be stunned by the guts of a 1.33GHz or 1.5GHz PB. As Macworld's exclusive speed tests prove, the overall performance boost at the top end of the range is around 10 per cent. But certain application scores take giant leaps: Photoshop results are up by a third; and MPEG-2 encoding is 18 per cent faster.
Storage options Hard-drive capacities stay much the same, with only the 12-inch PBs seeing a welcome rise from 40GB to 60GB. I don’t like to see any Mac that has a disk only as capacious as an iPod. The rest, however, are stuck at either 60GB or 80GB. iBooks and PBs use standard 2.5-inch hard drives, which are currently capped at 80GB. Apple could stick a 3.5-inch desktop 160GB drive in a laptop, but at the unacceptable price of thickness and battery life.
15-inch and 17-inch PBs purchased via build-to-order can be fitted with a faster 80GB hard drive spinning at 5,400rpm, and 12-inch models can be bought with 4,200rpm 80GB disks. As with any Mac, it’s easy to add an external hard disk via FireWire for your iMovies or gargantuan iTunes music library. 120GB costs about £130.
The SuperDrive in Apple’s new laptops has been enhanced from 1-speed (1x) performance to 4x. This update brings them into line with desktop SuperDrives, and so another portable/desktop compromise issues is removed.
Graphics Apple has improved the PBs’ graphics cards. In the 12-inch PBs, the video RAM (VRAM) on the NVidia GeForce FX Go 5200 doubles in size to 64MB - allowing for better video performance and greater game compatibility. The 15- and 17-inch models swap ATI’s Radeon 9600 for the 9700. Searching through ATI’s technical specifications, the differences seem minor. The 9700 features double the graphics-accelerating chip’s number of parallel rendering pipelines and parallel geometry engines. In the simplest of terms, the 9700’s engine and memory clock speed is higher than the 9600. Delving deeper into the tech specs, ATI utilized a low-k dielectic process with the 9700 chip - its copper wiring reduces heat and power consumption, which enables the higher clocks.
VRAM for the 15-inch and 17-inch PBs remains at 64MB, but you can order a 128MB 9700 for an extra £40 via build to order. If graphics (especially 3D) and gaming are high on your list of priorities, this will be £40 well spent - upgrading a laptop’s video card isn’t possible later on.
Expansion There’s no change on PB (or iBook) ports. If you want access to - or future support for - 800Mbps FireWire devices on a portable, you’ll still need either a 15-inch or 17-inch PB. There still aren’t many such peripherals on the market, and the Mac’s USB 2.0 will support more devices for the foreseeable future.
400Mbps FireWire, which like USB 2.0 is on all Macs, is still the best connection standard. Despite USB 2.0’s claim for a slightly faster 480Mbps connection, FireWire remains superior on several levels - including speed. While having a lower maximum bandwidth, FireWire has a higher sustained transfer rate. In most cases FireWire 400 will still beat USB 2.0 in terms of raw data-transfer.
USB also requires more processing overhead from the host CPU, whereas FireWire can do its thing without a CPU’s direct involvement. Unlike USB, it provides both isochronous and asynchronous transfers. And FireWire can also be used for high-speed TCP/IP networking that can exceed the speed of even Gigabit Ethernet.
Wireless Previously only the top-end 15-inch and
17-inch PBs included built-in AirPort Extreme. Other laptops had to have a £79 card added. Now all PBs include both AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth built-in.
Prices While the technical specifications aren’t earth-shattering, the price reductions are enticing. The 17-inch PB sees a hefty cost cut of nearly 25 per cent - its £1,949 price-tag is £50 less than the previous top-end 15-inch model. If these slashed prices were announced on their own, church bells would be ringing. The fact that they’re combined with the above-mentioned feature enhancements means this new laptop line-up is top value.
While we’re waiting for the PowerBook G5, these new pro Mac laptops are both feature-attractive and temptingly priced for owners of older PowerBooks.
Apple pushed its consumer notebook up a giant notch last year when it swapped the G3 processor for a meatier G4 chip, alongside a next-generation memory system. On the wireless front, they were the first iBooks to support AirPort Extreme (802.11g) networking, as well as Bluetooth connections to compatible phones, wireless keyboards and mice, and other devices for an additional £35. All of these advances remain in this update to the G4 range. G4 speeds have increased, and there’s now a DVD-R SuperDrive option for the 14-inch models.
Performance As we noted in our review of the original G4 iBooks, the speed increases from G3 to G4 ranged from modest in some operations to dramatic in others - particularly with software that takes advantage of AltiVec (a special set of features that speeds up certain tasks commonly used by graphics and multimedia applications). In our Speedmark benchmark tests on the first G4 iBooks, the 1GHz iBook G4 outscored the fastest previous iBook, which had featured a 900MHz G3, by about 21 per cent overall. But if you look at the individual tests that score is based on, the improvement was much more substantial in some cases: rendering an iMovie and encoding a song in AAC format were 30 per cent to almost 40 per cent faster on the 1GHz G4.
Surprisingly, the speed bumps in this second set of G4 iBooks is of the same order as G4 vs G3. Today’s entry-level iBook marks the end of the MHz in any Mac processor specifications, sporting a 1GHz G4 - the same chip as the previous high-end iBook. The new top-end iBook’s G4 reaches 1.2GHz - a 20 per cent rise in chip speed that’s borne out in our tests. iTunes encoding is up by 32 per cent; AltiVec-intensive Cinema 4D by a rollicking 36 per cent.
The first G4 iBooks saw the amount of on-chip Level 2 cache drop from 512K on the G3 iBooks to 256K. Cache is where the Mac stores its most frequently used data to save it having to go back and forth to the slower memory or comparatively lethargic hard disk. This new set of iBooks reverts to 512K, and this increase is as influential as processor speed for the much-boosted performance.
The iBooks will still be the slowest Macs available. This isn’t surprising as the attraction of the iBook is its compact, portable form-factor. The presence of the faster G4 processors ensure that while today’s iBook isn’t the fastest Mac around, it is a more than capable OS X machine that weighs just 2.2kg (12-inch model).
Storage options Even more exciting is the introduction of a DVD-R option to the 14-inch iBooks. Previously, the iBook was the only Mac not to offer the iDVD-friendly DVD burner. Now you can opt for a SuperDrive for an extra £120 (including VAT). This is great value for the capability to burn discs that play in standard domestic DVD players, although it is a little slower than the default DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive at regular CD duties (see table on previous page for full specifications). The laptop SuperDrive now writes at 4x rather than the previous 1x.
Hard-drive sizes stay the same, from 30GB to 60GB. If you plan to use iMovie and iTunes a lot, you may find the 30GB disk a little cramped. You can ask for a 60GB disk in even the entry-level iBook for just £60 more (recommended), or add external FireWire hard disks.
Specifications The top-end 14-inch differs from its predecessor by having an AirPort Extreme Card built in. Otherwise, this is a £79 option in the other iBooks. Another change is the maximum RAM allocation that Apple says the iBook can handle. Previously, Apple stated that the iBook could take just 640MB - the 128MB built in, plus a 512MB DIMM memory upgrade. Since 1GB DIMMs have been available, iBook owners have been able to stretch this to 1.13GB - not that Apple was telling anybody. Now that the iBooks come with 256MB of RAM built-in, the addition of a 1GB DIMM allows for 1.25GB. Maxing the RAM on an iBook will cost you £420 via the Apple Store or £275 through online resellers such as Crucial (www.crucial.com/uk). An extra 512MB - for a total of 768MB - costs £80 from Crucial, but remember that if you want to add more later you’ll have to throw the non-built-in DIMM away to fit the new one. If you buy third-party RAM, make sure it has been tested and certified for the iBook G4. We discovered that generic RAM, even if it appears to be compatible, can cause a variety of problems.
Price Probably the best thing about the updated laptop line-ups are the price reductions. The entry-level 12-inch 1GHz iBook G4 now starts at £799 (including VAT), which is £50 less than the old 800MHz model and a whopping £400 less than the previous (and slower) 1GHz iBook. The days of portability being only for those with deep pockets are gone. £799 makes this iBook model one of the least expensive Macs ever - whether desktop or portable.
The 14-inch iBooks are more expensive, but £150 isn’t too much to pay to opt for the top-end 1.2GHz model rather than the 1GHz 14-inch model - especially as it includes the £79 AirPort Extreme Card.
Size The iBook is the most portable of Apple’s laptops, but its two sizes may confuse. There is only one 12-inch model, which weighs just 2.2kg and measures 28.5cm wide by 23cm deep and 3.42cm high. For the larger screen you pay a little extra in cash but a lot more in dimensions. The 14-inch iBooks weigh half a kilo more at 2.7kg, and stretch measurements to 32.3cm wide and 25.9cm deep.
This would be acceptable if the 14-inch models offered more screen space than the 12-incher. But you can fit only the same number of pixels (1,024-x-768) on the 14-inch as you can on its smaller, lighter, cheaper brother. Because the screen is physically bigger the icons and text will be large (which is a bonus if your sight is poor), but you’ll fit no more information onto the bigger screen.
Having two 14-inch iBooks and only one 12-inch model appears a misguided strategy for a compact laptop range. Apple has decided to push customers who want the neatest, smallest package to its PowerBook range .
Macworld's buying advice
The processor speed bumps may appear insignificant, but Macworld's speed tests demonstrate otherwise: with some scores up by 33 per cent and more. Other updates, such as the 4x SuperDrives, are welcome. And at these prices, you can afford to buy now and wait for the second round of G5 PowerBooks in a couple of years.
Countdown to PowerBook G5
The arrival of faster PowerPC G4 processors is welcome news for Apple’s portable users, but an expected launch date for a G5-based PowerBook is what many have been waiting for - credit card in sweaty hand. The now high-end 1.5GHz G4 is some 13 per cent faster in terms of raw processor speed than the previous top-performing laptop chip (1.33GHz), but that’s nothing compared to the potential promised by the portable-G5 holy grail. However, the wait for a bunker-busting G5 PowerBook is likely to be a long one, a senior Apple executive has revealed.
Apple vice-president of hardware product marketing Greg Joswiak recently told the BBC: “The G5 is part of our long-term processor road map, but it will be some time before that processor will be in a notebook.”
Of course, Apple is unlikely to start chatting about the possibilities of G5 portability - otherwise sales of the mid- to high-end laptops will stop dead in their tracks. But the technical difficulties of getting a G5 into Apple’s slimline smart PowerBooks are great enough for the wait to drag for some time to come.
Back in November 2003 Dave Russell, director of product marketing for portables and wireless at Apple, said the company “would like” to fit one of its powerful new G5 processors in a PowerBook - if it can figure out how to keep the machine cool enough to operate reliably. “We think the G4 has a very long life in the PowerBook,” he told Computerworld.
The main hurdle in getting a G5 processor into a portable is the need to keep the processor cool, he said. “Have you looked at the inside of the G5 tower?”
Russell was referring to Apple’s Power Mac G5, which has nine internal fans, a redesigned airflow and other cooling techniques used to keep those machines from overheating. Even the initial 12-inch PowerBook G4 ran too hot for many. Apple had to completely re-architect the heat management in those machines - adding a thermo-coupler on the hard drive.
When talking to Macworld at last September’s Apple Expo in Paris, Jon Rubinstein, senior vice president of Hardware Engineering at Apple, conceded that the possibility of a G5 PowerBook was simply “an issue of good, solid engineering”. He made it clear that the current crop of G5 processors are designed for desktop machines, and a cooler-running version of the processor would be needed for a PowerBook. But he did point to the fact that a few years ago, nobody thought it would be possible to get a G4 processor in a PowerBook.
However, Joswiak has pointed to the historical two-year gap between the launch of Apple’s first desktop G4 Macs and the release of G4 PowerBooks, signaling that Mac users anxiously anticipating a new G5 notebook should not hold their breath. The Power Mac G5 was announced in July 2003 - pointing to a late 2005 launch.
One pointer that Apple is serious in its attempts to get the hot G5 into the tiny PowerBook enclosure is January’s launch of the Xserve G5 - which boosted some Apple server speeds by as much as 60 per cent. The heat-generating nature of the G5 processor was solved here by use of a copper heat sink to remove heat from the processors, and employment of eight high-performance airflow fans. The latter are individually managed and monitored by a dedicated fan-control processor. If a single fan fails, the others speed up to compensate. It holds over 30 sensors that monitor critical system functions, with eight dedicated to watching the heat.
Yet some microprocessor experts posit the release of a G5 PowerBook “this year”. Microprocessor Watch editor-in-chief Peter Glaskowsky, who attended briefings with Apple in January, says: “In announcing the new Xserve G5, Apple glossed over what we consider the most interesting fact about the new system: it represents the debut of IBM’s 90nm (nanometer) PowerPC 970FX.”
This new generation G5 offers one crucial advantage against the G5 currently used in the Power Mac. The latter processors were made using IBM’s 130nm manufacturing process. This different manufacturing method means the new G5 has a maximum power consumption of 55W at 2GHz, down from the 90W of the current Power Mac chip. “We expect to see new G5 desktops soon, with faster processors, and G5 laptops later in the year”, he said. IBM has already revealed that the 970FX offers power-management features - meaning a processor capable of speeds of 2GHz could be clocked down, in order that it generate less heat in use.