Power to the people

Introduction

Apple’s PowerBook G4 (PB G4) is lighter, thinner and yet larger than the old PowerBook G3. It’s also faster, yet boasts longer battery life. And if you thought the previous Macintosh laptop looked good, you’re going to swoon over this one. Apple is famous for transforming the beige personal computer into a rainbow of translucent plastics, and pioneered good-looking portables with its original PowerBook. This time, instead of reinventing the PC wheel, Apple has taken its design pointers from Sony’s acclaimed Vaio range of laptops – and given the silvery look its own flashy spin. Not heavy metal
Building the laptop’s skin from titanium enabled Apple to create a portable that’s both light (2.4kg; 5.3lbs) and durable. We don’t need to go into too many raptures about the looks, as you can see how neat it looks from our pictures – see the March 2001 issue of Macworld for the full photo portfolio. What you don’t get from pictures is an exact idea of size. It’s obvious that the PB G4 is super-thin – at just one-inch thick, it’s slimmer than even the popular Vaio notebook. But it’s also bigger. The G4 laptop is about an inch wider than the G3 portable, but less deep. This makes it a lot easier to use in-flight on an economy-class seat-tray. Apple made the PowerBook thinner by removing the old expansion bays. Some mobile Maccers will be aghast at this, but I like Apple’s thinking. There’s a greater variety of FireWire and USB devices that do all the jobs the old expansion units offered. I’m willing to lug a few externals around if it makes my laptop thinner and lighter when I don’t need them. Apple could have taken this further, in the same way that Sony has with the Vaio – separating CD/DVD drive, port replicator, triple-capacity battery, etc. A fully loaded Vaio weighs a lot more than the PB G4, and still has a smaller screen – the PB G4’s is a whopping 52 per cent larger than the most popular Vaio’s 12-inch display. Pass the ports
Apple has also dropped one of the FireWire ports. The PB G3’s second port was just a convenience. FireWire supports daisy-chaining, and most FireWire drives come with two ports. So you can connect your camera to the hard drive and the hard drive to the PB. This doesn’t affect performance (one or two ports, there’s only one FireWire controller), and it might even improve it – your DV camcorder may even be able to download data directly to the external drive if that’s the selected destination. All the other ports you’d expect of a no-compromises laptop are included: two USB, S-Video, 56Kbps modem, 10/100BaseT ethernet, IrDA infrared, and VGA for external display. While the expansion bays have been chopped, there’s still a PC Card and CardBus slot. AirPort antennae – for wireless Web browsing and networking – are located on either side, and you install the optional AirPort Card in a slot under the PC Card slot. You get to this by removing the keyboard. Also under the keyboard are two DIMM slots – one filled with a 128MB chip. Maximum RAM is 1GB. Apple mounted the keyboard on magnets, making it incredibly stiff. The feel is reminiscent of the old Apple Extended Keyboard, probably the best keyboard ever made for a computer. The new metallic buttons Apple has added all over this machine – especially the power button – are very classy. The slot-loading DVD drive is also an attractive addition. Mounted at the front, it’s also a lot more convenient in tight spaces. And Apple has moved the headphone jack to the side – making it a lot easier to connect and disconnect. The microphone jack has disappeared altogether, meaning if you need to connect an external mike to the PB G4, you’ll have to get a USB microphone (such as Macally’s £70 iVoice). There is still a built-in mike, hidden behind one of the speaker grilles. The new cable-sensing ethernet port can sense when there’s a hub on the other end of an ethernet connection versus another computer, and act to accommodate it. This eliminates the need for an ethernet crossover cable on computer-to-computer connections. Macworld Lab tests
CPU performance
Photoshop results are about as close as you get to a real-world test of the CPU performance. Clearly, the G4 gives the new PowerBook a major edge over the old PowerBook G3 when it comes to Velocity Engine-optimized tasks such as Gaussian Blur, Unsharp Mask, or Lighting Effects. Results range from twice as fast to more than three times faster on the Titanium PowerBook. Scores are impressive – comparable to the new 533MHz Power Mac. However, there’s very little difference between the 400MHz and 500MHz PowerBooks. But once you exit the realm of the Velocity Engine, the speed difference between old and new PowerBooks drops considerably: in a Photoshop RGB to CMYK conversion, the 500MHz PB G4 is only about 10 per cent faster than the PB G3. And the 400MHz PG G4 is actually slower than the 500MHz G3. And in Speedmark 2.1 tests, which judge Mac performance on a variety of everyday computing tasks, the difference in speed is smaller still. It’s important to keep in mind that when it comes to Speedmark, a little means a lot. The baseline score of 100 is for a 350MHz G3 iMac, so a score of 137 means the 500MHz PB G4 is roughly 37 per cent faster than an iMac. Amazingly, the 400MHz PB G4 has the same Speedmark score as the 500MHz PB G3! Take away the Velocity Engine, and a G4 is basically a G3 in terms of performance. So, it makes sense that a 500MHz G3 would be faster than a 400MHz G4 running CPU tasks that are not Velocity-Engine savvy. Notice how much higher the Power Mac G4 533 scored in Speedmark tests? That’s because the Power Mac has faster system and memory buses (133MHz vs the PB’s 100MHz), plus faster storage and graphics subsystems. Graphics
The Titanium PowerBook G4 uses the same ATI Rage Mobility graphics subsystem as the PowerBook G3, so – as you can see in our Quake III tests – the scores are very close. Quake can’t leverage the G4’s Velocity Engine, and without that, the G4 is only marginally faster than a G3. Battery life
Of course, another key component of portable performance is battery life. Apple now claims battery run-times in the five-hour range. I chose to test this claim in three different ways. First, in normal use, with the hard drive coming up and down as determined by a script, with processor cycling enabled and screen blanking after one minute of no input. Second, a maxed-out test featuring everything running, including the hard drive, DVD drive, with processor cycling disabled, and the screen at maximum brightness for the entire test. Third, absolute minimum power: screen dimmed, drive spun down, processor cycling enabled, and the chip clocked to 300MHz (set this in the PowerBook control panel under Expert settings). In the maxed-out test, the PB eked out an hour and 47 minutes of battery life – not bad considering the abuse I put it through. The standard profile delivered 3 hours and 12 minutes – again very respectable. The minimum power configuration did indeed deliver about five hours of battery life.
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