Notebook at the ready

Introduction

With little fanfare but some great new features, Apple has quietly upgraded all its laptops over the past few weeks. Its iBook and PowerBook G4 don’t look different on the outside, but inside it’s is another story altogether. PowerBook G4
Many Mac users would like the PowerBook G4 to be a portable version of a desktop Power Mac, but buying a PowerBook has always meant trading some performance (and adding cost) for portability. That equation has changed with the recent release of the 800MHz Titanium PowerBook G4, which goes a long way toward eliminating the performance gap that separates the desktop and portable worlds. Apple’s two new PowerBook entries – the £2,749 (inc. VAT) 800MHz model (which we tested) and the £2,149 667MHz model – boast a number of enhancements: n A 133MHz system bus (previously, only the high-end model had the faster bus); n A 1MB Level 3 (L3) cache, consisting of high-speed double data rate (DDR) RAM; n The same 15.2-inch display found on previous models, but with a higher native resolution of 1,280-x-854 pixels; n A new ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 video-chip with 32MB of video RAM on an AGP 4x bus for improved 2D and 3D graphics-acceleration; n A DVI-I connector for hooking-up an external digital flat-panel display; n A DVD/CD-RW combo drive, which is now standard, as is Gigabit (10/100/1000BaseT) Ethernet and an analogue sound-in port. The new PowerBook, however, does lack the previous models’ 4Mbps IrDA infrared port – which may put-off some Palm users. The 800MHz model ships with 512MB of RAM (with a maximum of 1GB supported), a 40GB hard drive, and a preinstalled AirPort card. Although very slightly heavier (2.45kg compared to 2.4kg), the PowerBook G4’s look is identical to its predecessors. But once it’s powered up, you can see the first of Apple’s improvements. The screen is appreciably brighter than that of the previous PowerBook G4’s, and the higher resolution gives it a crisper, cleaner look with a high degree of readability. The PowerBook’s screen also supports resolutions of 1,152-x-768 pixels; 1,024-x-768; 896-x-600; and 800-x-600. Because the LCD screen is physically made up of more pixels, the lower resolutions – which have to interpolate – show-up as blurry in on-screen text. And the laptop will drive an external display at up to 2,048-x-1,536 pixels in 24-bit colour. Using Apple’s new £129 DVI-to-ADC Adapter, we connected our PowerBook to the expansive 23-inch Cinema Display without any problems; this setup finally gives professional graphics and video users the ability to integrate Apple’s excellent digital displays into their workflow while maintaining portability when needed. (A DVI-to-VGA adaptor is also included for hooking up to conventional CRT monitors.) The screen is the most obvious external improvement, but Apple has focused most of its effort under the hood. The 800MHz PowerPC chip is a good start, but it’s the L3 cache and overhauled video subsystem that truly pushes the PowerBook’s performance. Apple put 2MB of L3 cache into the 933MHz and dual 1GHz Power Macs it released in January. And, as was the case with those machines, the L3 cache – 1MB of speedy RAM that helps the processor work more efficiently during data-intensive tasks – gives the Titanium PowerBook G4 definite speed benefits when performing those tasks, such as extensive Adobe Photoshop filter and conversion operations, audio encoding, and 3D and video rendering (see ‘Closing the laptop gap’). For example, the 800MHz PowerBook performed our Photoshop Suite test, which runs a series of processor-intensive operations on a 50MB image, in 36 seconds – nearly as fast as the entry-level 800MHz desktop, and 10 seconds faster than the older 667MHz PowerBook. MP3 encoding, another heavy computing task, was more than 20 seconds faster on the 800MHz PowerBook than it was on the previous high-end PowerBook, and nearly 10 seconds faster than it was on the 800MHz desktop. Graphics-display performance is also very good. ATI’s Mobility Radeon 7500 chip makes an excellent base, upon which Apple doubled the previous complement of high-speed DDR video RAM (to 32MB). The result is quicker, smoother scrolling, faster game play and an all-around snappier system – once again on par with comparable desktop systems (which have more powerful graphics cards). Scrolling through a 34-page PDF, which took nearly three minutes on the earlier 667MHz PowerBook, took only 1 minute, 45 seconds on the 800MHz model – four seconds faster than our 800MHz desktop. In our Quake test, the 800MHz PowerBook clocked in at an unbelievable (for a portable) 71 frames per second. While performance is the big story, Apple also tinkered in other areas, answering a few complaints and concerns raised by owners of previous Titanium PowerBooks. Apple said that it has improved the PowerBook’s AirPort reception; while we ran into fewer dead-zones on wireless networks with the new PowerBook than we had with the older models, reception still wasn’t as strong as with an iBook. We were pleasantly surprised by how much quieter and cooler the new models are over the previous generation. The internal hard drive is very quiet. Over a week of solid testing, our PowerBook’s fan rarely came on, and when it did, its pitch was much lower than the 500MHz PowerBook G4’s. Overall, the 800MHz PowerBook ran much cooler than any Titanium PowerBook we’ve tested so far. We ran the PowerBook as a desktop system for days, with the lid closed and connected to the Apple Cinema HD Display and a mouse and keyboard, and we rarely found the PowerBook too hot to handle – a malady all too common with previous models. Another minor improvement worth noting is the Combo drive, which reads DVDs at 4x and CDs at 24x, and burns CD-R and CD-RW media at 8x. The first generation of media-drives in the Titanium PowerBooks were noisy and problematic. But the drive in this new PowerBook is extremely quiet, aside from a startling click when you first insert the disc. iBook
The all-white iBook has been with us for about a year now, and it’s been a phenomenal success in both the consumer and education markets. Its lightweight, compact design and 1,024-x-768-pixel screen resolution makes it an ideal travelling Mac – whether you’re carrying it around the house or taking it to school. The most obvious upgrade is the faster 700MHz processor, which is a nice – but not essential – speed boost. The 500MHz model has been dropped, with the entry-level iBook at 600MHz. The difference in speed between 600MHz and 700MHz isn’t great – marking around a 7 per cent overall-performance boost. But it’s good to see Apple upping the speeds as the chips become available at the right price-points. Some people will be disappointed that Apple hasn’t dropped the PowerPC G3 for the more capable G4 processor, as it did with its iMac earlier this year. A G4 chip would make the iBook much faster, especially when using those applications that are specially optimized for its Velocity engine. However, using a G4 would make the iBook more expensive, and might even necessitate a case redesign to allow for heat-dissipation issues. As the great thing about the iBook is its form-factor, it would be a shame to make it bigger and possibly heavier just for the extra juice. Apple should wait for its engineers to redesign the iBook so that it can take a G4 without adding weight or size, and for G4 prices to drop to keep the cost appropriate to its budget-conscious customers. If Apple had opted for a G4, we could have expected to see a performance boost of close to 20 per cent. But that wouldn’t have helped much on most consumers’ main activities of Web browsing, email, word-processing, and light digital-photography. Those applications that require super-fast performance – pro-level video-editing, music, and multimedia – are better suited to the PowerBook anyway, with its larger screen-area. What does improve these iBooks’ performance above the 7 per cent pure MHz speed bump is the increase in on-chip level-2 cache – doubling to a far more powerful 512K. In many ways, cache is more important to certain software applications – music especially – than a small MHz jump. This pushes the performance boost to well over 10 per cent. Indeed, Apple claims that improvements in iBook architecture (all system buses now run at 100MHz), as well as the enhanced chips, mean that the new iBooks run up to 35 per cent faster than previous models in tasks such as encoding MP3 files. Another doubling over specification comes with the graphics-accelerator. The iBook moves forward to ATI’s Mobility Radeon video-processor, but increases video RAM from 8MB to 16MB. Again, this is far more beneficial than the 100MHz chip spike – for instance in Photoshop scrolling, but particularly in 3D gaming. The real reason behind this video upgrade is to be found in the architecture of Apple’s forthcoming Mac OS X update, code-named Jaguar (see Macworld, June 2002). Jaguar includes a hardware-accelerated version of OS X’s Quartz graphics engine. Quartz Extreme requires at least a Radeon or NVidia GeForce video chip. The iBook now features a new video-out port that supports VGA output, as well as S-video and composite video with an optional adaptor. The iBook video adaptor costs £17 (including VAT), and plugs into the combination VGA/S-Video/Composite video-out port built into your new iBook. Hard-drive capacities have also been raised to 20GB at entry-level, and to to 30GB at the high-end. Apple has altered the range to offer the choice of either 12.1-inch or 14.1-inch screens, with CD-ROM or CD-RW/DVD-ROM drives. The entry-level 12-incher features the 600MHz G3; the others boast the 700MHz chip. See Macworld’s Buyers’ Guide (page 113) for a list of each model’s features.
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