17-inch PowerBook G4 1.5GHz full review

The year 2003, which Steve Jobs dubbed “The Year of the Notebook,” brought big changes to Apple’s PowerBook line – the introduction of a 12-inch version, the transition from titanium to aluminium, and the addition of AirPort Extreme, built-in Bluetooth, FireWire 800 (in some models), and USB 2.0, among other enhancements.

In contrast, 2004 is shaping up as a year of incremental improvements, at least judging by the first round of PowerBook updates – see Macworld July 2004 for reviews of other Apple laptops. Instead of new designs or breakthrough technologies, Apple has delivered modest improvements in performance, made AirPort Extreme standard in all configurations, and trimmed prices at the upper end of the line.

Is bigger better?

For the larger PowerBooks, the latest update brings fewer enhancements, such as faster processors. The 15-inch Combo-drive configuration clocks in at 1.33GHz, while the 15-inch SuperDrive model and the 17-inch model now speed along at 1.5GHz. That’s up from 1GHz, 1.25GHz, and 1.33GHz, respectively. Other enhancements include a new graphics chip – the ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 with 64MB or, optionally, 128MB of video RAM – and 4x DVD burning (in only the SuperDrive-equipped models).

Unchanged is the most-striking feature of Apple’s biggest PowerBook: its huge, bright, wide-format display, with a native resolution of 1,440-x-900 pixels. Unfortunately, portable computing remains a game of trade-offs, and you pay a price, in pounds (weight) as well as in pounds (money), for these vast expanses of glass: the 17-inch model tips the scales at 6.9 pounds (3.1kg).

Even with their big screens, the large PowerBooks continue to deliver decent, though hardly overwhelming, battery life. On the 15-inch 1.33GHz model, for example, we managed to play streaming audio over a wireless Internet connection for about 3 hours and 15 minutes. After recharging, we got through the first 2 hours and 14 minutes of a DVD movie before the battery ran dry again.

In the absence of more-dramatic changes in the higher-end PowerBooks, Apple chose to cut its prices. You can now pick up the 17-inch behemoth for a mere £1,949 (including VAT) – down by a whopping £450. When you consider that several significant components inside have been enhanced, this newly priced 17-inch PowerBook is a real bargain if you require the maximum screen size. It’s 9 per cent faster overall – not a giant leap, but welcome nonetheless. It is similarly marginally faster than the previous 17-inch PowerBook in all our other tests.

Despite being top-of-the-range, it isn’t the fastest Mac laptop in town. That honour goes to the 15-inch 1.5GHz PowerBook G4, which beats the giant to the line by a mere 1.5 per cent performance gap. This difference is so minor as to be safely ignored – as is the 17-inch PowerBook’s tiny peak at Photoshop tasks.

Glitches gone?

Last September’s PowerBook updates, including the rollout of the first aluminium-clad 15-inch model, were tarnished by an unusual number of quality-control problems: white blotches on the screen, strange artifacts on some external monitors, latches that popped open spontaneously, and more. We’re happy to report that we’ve seen none of these problems so far in the four new PowerBooks we’ve tested, and the Web sites that are quick to publicize word of problems in new Macs are mostly quiet.

In addition, you won’t have to take special precautions – or buy third-party products – to avoid lap burns or excessive fan noise from the new models. After intensive use, they get warm but not, unlike some of their recent predecessors, painfully hot.

The only concern we noted was a surprising amount of play in PowerBook latches: when the clamshell is closed, the top does not make full contact with the base. If you look closely at the front corners, you can see up to 1/16 of an inch of daylight. And where light can go, dust, lint and crumbs are sure to follow, especially if you carry your notebook in a backpack or briefcase. We don’t think it’s a big problem, but in systems that otherwise seem impeccably designed, it’s a little troubling.

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