Portable powerhouses

Introduction

Apple’s improved iBooks and PowerBooks make an even stronger case for portable as opposed to desktop Mac computing. Processor speeds have increased by at least 100MHz, hard drives are bigger, some system buses are hiked a notch, and other features have been added to the top-end. A Macworld reader poll in October surprised us with results that pointed to an increasing shift to portable computers, despite the higher prices (caused by the requirement for smaller, cooler components, and a kind of luxury-convenience-tax to raise profit margins). Only 17 per cent of voters plumped for desktops, with 35 per cent owning or planning to buy a portable, and 38 per cent in favour of having both. If you’re considering updating your Mac or buying one for the first time, you should consider the merits of a portable. Portable Macs can do just about anything a desktop model can, with the added advantage of travelling around with you – be that in your back garden or a hotel on the other side of the world. There are trade-offs in performance and flexibility, but nothing so limiting that a portable’s advantages can be ignored. iBook: all white
Apple’s consumer portable iBook has been a phenomenal success. The main spur for sales was May’s new, all-white iBook design. When the company declared its recent quarterly financial results, it announced that 251,000 iBooks were sold, contrasting with 89,000 in the same quarter last year. The new design has clearly caught the public’s imagination. Indeed, its compact shape and light weight (2.2kg) have seduced many professional users as well. Features
The iBook’s neat design is only slightly weightier than the super-slim PowerBook, its compact (28.5-x-23-x-3.4cm) body is about the size of a standard mouse-mat. Into that tidy package, Apple has included a full set of features – blowing away any consumer Windows laptops. There’s FireWire and USB, 10/100BaseT Ethernet, 56Kbps modem and a slot for AirPort wireless networking. You won’t find that level of features in a sub-£1,000 (ex. VAT) Windows notebook. Screen
The iBook’s sharp 12.1-inch TFT screen supports 1,024-x-768 pixels at millions of colours – exactly the same as the iMac’s 15-inch CRT. The only trade-off between iBook and iMac displays is that those pixels are squeezed into a slightly smaller area – making icons and screen text smaller. Otherwise, you can get on the iBook’s screen exactly what you’ll see on an iMac’s. Performance
Macworld Lab’s comprehensive Speedmark 3 tests show that the iBook falls behind on performance. See full round-up of Speedmark scores on page 189) All the iMacs are faster, and the PowerBook is streets ahead on speed. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that even the entry-level iBook’s 500MHz G3 processor was the top professional engine behind the fastest desktop Mac less than three years ago. It’s eminently up to the job – even on complex Adobe Photoshop tasks. The others are much faster, but the iBook is no slouch. There are still four models of iBook. The entry-level model sticks with the previous low-end’s 500MHz PowerPC G3 processor. This is no tortoise. In our general-task tests, the 600MHz iBook was 24 per cent faster than the 500MHz model. But most iBook users – concerned mainly with Web browsing, email, business applications, printing, scanning, etc – won’t notice too much of a difference. If you’re into digital photography, the extra 100MHz is probably worth going for, as image-editing is one area where the extra juice really gets noticed. In fact, the 600MHz iBook is a superb machine for digital photographers – its portability allowing you to store, edit and post on the Web before returning home. The three remaining iBooks all use the 600MHz chip. Your choices after that step-up largely concern the type of optical drive you require. CD/DVD
The entry-level 500MHz iBook has a CD-ROM drive, which may be all you require on the road if you have an external recordable CD drive at home. The first 600MHz iBook features a DVD-ROM drive that can do all the things a CD-ROM drive can, plus play DVD discs and allow you to watch commercially available DVD movies – perfect for long-haul flights. The next 600MHz iBook has a CD-RW drive, so you can record CDs on the move. But it’s the top-end iBook that is the dream consumer portable, with a combination CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive that can record CDs and play DVDs. Memory
All the iBooks now ship with 128MB of RAM, which should suffice for most. Memory is so cheap today, that taking the system to its maximum 640MB of RAM would cost under £150. A better bet for all the iBooks – especially if you’re planning to try Apple’s next-generation operating system Mac OS X – would be to double memory to 256MB for £15 (latest online RAM prices, as of November 1). Hard disk
All the iBooks ship with a 15GB hard disk – except the top-end model, which includes a 20GB drive. If you’re planning on some serious video editing, the extra 5GB of disk space is worth going for – although external FireWire hard drives are available as alternatives. Price
The entry-level’s £1,099 (inc. VAT) is extremely good value for such a well-featured laptop. You can add an external CD-RW drive for about £150, so – if you don’t mind your CD burner being a separate unit – the slower chip option saves you £180 on the 600MHz CD-RW iBook. Nearly £200 is a lot to pay for the convenience of a built-in CD-RW drive, so that model’s extra speed will have to persuade you. And the CD-RW model is just £70 shy of the combo CD-RW/ DVD iBook, so it’s definitely worth spending the extra for the DVD capabilities. The DVD iBook is only £200 cheaper than the CD-RW/DVD iBook, so the top-end combo model wins again – as it would cost £150 to add the external CD-RW drive, and you get a larger hard drive with the £1,499 iBook. If DVD is totally irrelevant to you, the £1,099 iBook is fine. If DVD is even a possibility, try to save enough for the top-end combo drive. Whatever your choice, the new iBooks are compelling alternatives to iMacs – and even PowerBooks. If you can, get to London’s MacExpo or your local AppleCentre or PC World, and get an iBook in your hands. It’s then that this system’s merits become truly tempting. PowerBook: G4 is key
Even slimmer and lighter than the iBook (though larger in size), the PowerBook G4 (PBG4) is the best choice if you need a large TFT screen on the move and a separate even-larger monitor at the office. Performance
The PowerBook G4 (PBG4) adds a turbo drive to iBook’s portable speed. As it packs a PowerPC G4, even the entry-level PowerBook is much faster than the top-end iBook. Although we haven’t yet tested the 550MHz PBG4, a guesstimate based on tests of the old 500MHz PBG4 suggest that the 550 would be about 17 per cent faster than the 600MHz iBook. The G4 is also a lot faster on programs – most notably Adobe Photoshop – that have been optimized to take advantage of its Velocity Engine’s extra data instructions. While a G3 iBook can easily handle Photoshop’s processor demands, the PowerPC G4 is the only choice if this is one of your key applications. Macworld Lab tests show that the top-end 667MHz PBG4 is 33 per cent faster than the 600MHz iBook, and 16 per cent faster than the previously fastest PowerBook (500MHz G4). However, there is still a gulf between the high-end Mac portable and the desktop Power Mac. Our lab tests point to a gaping performance gap of 41 per cent between the 667MHz PBG4 and the 867MHz Power Mac G4. It’s difficult to tell what is causing this massive difference – especially as Apple has increased the system-bus speed of the 667MHz PBG4 to 133MHz, the same as the Power Mac’s. That said, the 667MHz PBG4 is extremely fast for a portable – and, for many, that portability means a whole lot more than a few saved seconds on a Gaussian Blur. Display
The PBG4 boasts a widescreen 15.2-inch TFT display, which supports up to 1,152-x-768 pixels at millions of colours. The extra width is perfect for programs that litter the screen space with palettes and other windows – think pro-level video, image and music apps. A marked superiority of the PBG4’s video capabilities over the iBook is the possibility to add a larger CRT or LCD screen (supporting 1,920-x-1,440 pixels) to the PB’s VGA port. (You can add a second monitor to an iBook, but it will merely mirror the resolution of the iBook’s screen – the picture’s larger, but it doesn’t show anything else.) Unfortunately, you can’t add one of Apple’s LCDs to the PB, as these require an ADC port – which is rather short-sighted on Apple’s part. The PBG4’s 16MB Radeon video card offers more to graphics pros and gamers than the iBook’s 8MB Rage 128, but most consumers won’t notice the difference. Features
There’s not much difference in feature sets between the iBook and PowerBook. What the PBG4 has that the iBook doesn’t, is a higher-quality video output (S-Video as opposed to AV) and Gigabit Ethernet networking. 1,000BaseT Ethernet is undoubtedly the way forward, but is still a technology in its infancy when it comes to take-up. It’s a lot faster than 100BaseT, but not ten times faster as the figures suggest – Macworld Lab tests put the speed increase at about 50 per cent. That’s still a big boost when transferring giant files, but the extra expense for kitting out a whole studio to the new standard is still delaying Gigabit Ethernet becoming the norm. Apple should be praised, however, for being the first PC manufacturer to add Gigabit to all of its pro systems. Wireless networking, however, is becoming extremely popular, and the top-of-the-range PBG4 is now the only Mac that comes with an AirPort Card pre-installed – although all Macs have a card slot ready for the 11Mbps technology standard. Memory
Apple has a great deal on until the end of the year, whereby PBG4 buyers get double the amount of RAM pre-installed. Until December 31, 2001 the 550MHz PBG4 comes with 256MB of RAM, and the 667MHz has 512MB. Hard drive
The top-end PBG4 has a large 30GB hard drive running at 7,200rpm, compared to the 550’s 5,400rpm 20GB disk. Optical drive
Both PowerBooks ship with slot-loading DVD-ROM drives. However, a slot-loading CD-RW option is available on the online Apple Store. Price
While Mac professionals will always pay top-dollar for the fastest, most capable Mac, the price difference between the 550MHz and 667MHz PBG4s is large. The extra £600 gains you a larger and faster hard drive, more memory and a pre-installed AirPort Card, but not much more than 100MHz in processor speed.
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