12.1-inch PowerBook G4 full review

Mac users who need a powerful portable computer haven't exactly been spoilt for choice lately. There's the light and small iBook, which, with its G3 processor, doesn't come close to the G4 might of its professional-level kin - though it is the lowest-priced Mac laptop.

At the high-end of the line, the popular, very powerful Titanium PowerBook G4 has been the only option for anyone who needs a G4 processor in a computer that weighs less than 9.5kg - but it can be awkward to carry.

Effectively bridging the gap between the PowerBook and iBook lines, the new 12-inch PowerBook G4 - the first Mac to boot only into OS X - is a remarkably diminutive laptop that packs more of a punch than the iBook, but not quite as much power as the Titanium.

Judge by its cover

This silver PowerBook G4 is sturdily constructed - not out of titanium but out of anodized aluminium. The result is a laptop that feels quite rugged; its case, although it's far from impervious from scuffs, is certainly more resistant to scratches than the Titanium PowerBook's coating of metallic paint.

The material is rigid, too - pressing the back of this PowerBook's flat-panel display while open made no visible marks on the display itself, whereas it's quite easy to make waves by touching the back of the Titanium model's screen.

The new aluminum shell has a slightly raised texture that is more comfortable to hold than the Titanium's smooth surface.

Aluminum is also a good heat conductor - and this PowerBook can get very warm, especially in the underside area to the left of the trackpad. We measured temperatures there as high as 39°C (102°F) - not hot enough to cause damage, but warm enough to notice when using the machine.

We didn't hear the cooling fan go on very often; but when it did, it was pretty quiet - all told, the 12-inch PowerBook is much quieter than the Titanium.

This PowerBook measures only 3cm (1.18 inches) thick, 27.7cm (10.9 inches) wide, and 21.9cm (8.6 inches) deep - it's the smallest PowerBook ever in terms of volume. It's also quite light; at only 2.1kg (4.6lbs) it's easy to carry, open or closed, with one hand - a level of casual portability that only the slightly larger iBook can match among Mac laptops.

Like the iBook's keyboard, this PowerBook's keyboard spans the computer's entire width - but it's a full-sized keyboard of higher quality than the keyboards Apple has been using on laptops lately. Unlike those of most recent models, this PowerBook's keyboard is not designed to flip up when you want to install RAM or an AirPort card - as a result, the keyboard feels less spongy when typing, and its keys seem to have a larger range of motion.

Neither do the keys leave grid-like marks on the display after more than a week of use - a problem with iBook and previous PowerBook models. With the keyboard now firmly seated, users who want to upgrade this PowerBook's RAM will need to do so through a rectangular door on the bottom of the PowerBook.

To install an AirPort Extreme card, you flip open a small door cleverly hidden in the PowerBook's battery bay and slide it in. (In our testing, this PowerBook's AirPort reception appeared to be better than the Titanium's - but not quite as good as the all-white iBook's.)

The ability to take advantage of Bluetooth wireless technology, which allows you to use the PowerBook to communicate with other devices over short distances, is built in. We quickly and easily connected the PowerBook to both a Sony Ericsson T68i mobile phone and a Palm Tungsten T handheld.

Missing link

There are always compromises in small laptops, and in fitting the 12-inch PowerBook into its laptop line - between the consumer-focused iBooks and the heavy-duty Titanium and new 17-inch PowerBooks - Apple had to make some tough decisions. As a result, this PowerBook doesn't have Level-3 cache, support for ADC or DVI monitors, highly expandable RAM slots, or a PC Card slot.

With its hinged display - which pivots to sit slightly below the back of the keyboard when opened - and array of ports on its left side, this PowerBook owes much to the iBook's exterior design.

Beyond the aluminium sheen and new keyboard, major physical differences on the outside include an audio-in jack and stereo speakers (they're on the back of the PowerBook, behind the keyboard and positioned to reflect off of the screen - there's also a third speaker designed to boost midrange sounds), there's also a slot-loading optical drive on the right side (it's a CD-R/DVD Combo drive - for £158 more, you can get this model with a DVD-burning SuperDrive).

The trait that firmly places this model in the professional realm is its G4 processor. Running at 867MHz, it's able to take advantage of Apple's Velocity Engine technology to accelerate certain data-intensive tasks. But this model's processor has no Level-3 cache; the rest of the PowerBook line uses 1MB of Level 3 to speed-up data-intensive tasks in applications such as Adobe Photoshop and Apple's Final Cut Pro.

Like the other PowerBooks, this model includes double data rate (DDR) RAM, which allows data to be transferred into memory faster. Its 133MHz system bus is the same speed as the Titanium's.

The 12-inch PowerBook is also somewhat limited when it comes to RAM. In addition to its 128MB of built-in RAM, it can hold only a single PC2100 memory module. Currently, those modules reach only 512MB in size, limiting this PowerBook - like the iBook - to 640MB of RAM.

That might sound like a lot, but many people will find themselves wanting more, especially those who run many applications at once.

In terms of speed, this PowerBook is clearly faster than the 800MHz iBook. But the former's lack of Level-3 cache and its slower processor mean that it's no match for the Titanium.

On display

This model's fine 12-inch display, with a native resolution of 1,024-x-768 pixels, is bright and readable, but some people may find the pixels too small for comfort.

You can attach external video displays via a mini-VGA connector; Apple includes adaptors in the box, so you can connect directly to VGA monitors and projectors, as well as to composite devices, via either RCA or S-Video cables.

Like the other PowerBooks, the 12-inch model supports a dual-display mode, allowing you to attach a monitor with a resolution as high as 1,600-x-1,200 pixels, in addition to the PowerBook's built-in display. It also supports video mirroring, albeit at lower resolutions.

The PowerBook can even drive an external monitor while the lid of the PowerBook is closed, although we experienced occasional performance slowdowns when we tried this out.

Unfortunately, Apple's choice of a mini-VGA connector means that this is the only PowerBook that can't be connected to Apple's excellent ADC flat-panel displays (or any digital display, for that matter) - at least, not without a pricey add-on such as the £210 Gefen ex-tend-it VGA- to-ADC conversion box. This doesn't make sense, given that a laptop with such a small screen cries out for an external monitor.

Another video limitation is in the included graphics chip, the NVidia GeForce4 420 Go, which comes with 32MB of video memory. Although this chip does a fine job of driving the PowerBook's display and even an external one, its general performance isn't as good as the ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 chip found in the Titanium PowerBook.

This PowerBook fared much worse in our standard Quake test than it did in other tests. People who want a laptop that's also a solid game-player should think twice before choosing the 12-inch PowerBook.

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