By John Gruber
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I have, for several years, subscribed to the theory that those who are mostly desk-bound should buy the cheapest laptop they can get by with and the most expensive desktop system they can afford. One reason is the idea that laptops — slower and more fragile — aren’t really worth a big investment. Better, say, to spend $1200 on a 12-inch iBook and $1800 on an iMac than to spend $3,000 on a big PowerBook. Get a portable that’s truly portable, and use a real desktop system the rest of the time.
As of two weeks ago, I officially unsubscribed from this theory, and I am filing this report on a new 15-inch PowerBook G4, maxed out with 2 GB of RAM and the 7200-RPM hard drive upgrade I pondered in my initial coverage the day these new machines were announced. New theory: get the best PowerBook you can and live off it.
Factors that led my change of heart:
I successfully lived off my previous laptop, a seemingly skimpy 800 MHz iBook G3, for about 18 months. Until Tiger came along and made getting by on 640 MB of RAM (the maximum for that iBook) untenable, my only significant gripe about my all-iBook all-the-time lifestyle was the limited number of pixels on the display. (Which, considering the advantages to larger displays, is admittedly a significant gripe. But in my experience, if you’re not switching back and forth from a large display to a small 12-inch display, it’s something you can get accustomed to.)
Synching data between two Macs sucks. Even if the .Mac synching-related fixes mentioned in the Mac OS X 10.4.3 release notes are for real — like, say, if the MirrorAgent background process no longer has a tendency to occasionally wedge itself mid-sync (which, so far in my use of 10.4.3, does seem to be true) — synching data between two machines is never going to be as convenient as having a single data store.
No matter how satisfied you are with the current state of data synching, there’s no means at all for session synching. In an ideal world, there’d be a way to, say, work for a few hours on a Power Mac G5, then put it to sleep, open up an iBook or PowerBook, and continue working in the same session you left behind on the desktop machine: open documents, running apps, browser windows, etc. The idea being you could pick up right where you left off when moving from one machine to another. This could be feasible, theoretically, with some sort of remote login system, where the laptop could act as a remote keyboard and display for a login session that continues to run on a more powerful desktop system. But in the here and now, on Mac OS X, there’s no such thing: if you want to just pick up where you left off when moving from one physical location to another, you’ve got to take the computer with you.
Top-of-the-line PowerBooks are now in the $2000 range, not the $3000 range. The argument that you could get a new iBook and an iMac for the same price as one PowerBook no longer holds.
Your mileage, of course, may vary. Jonathan Rentzsch, for one, is moving in the opposite direction: he’s considering a switch from the “live off your PowerBook” lifestyle toward getting a high-end desktop and a low-end iBook for when he truly needs a portable. But the problem he’s facing trying to live off his PowerBook isn’t shared by me, and, likely, not by you, either:
It may sound wacky, but I need to be able to boot between at least four versions of Mac OS X on a regular basis:
- The last major previous OS version (today, that would be 10.3) for the older stuff I’m still bringing forward.
- The normal, current version of the OS (10.4.2 today).
- A backup of the current version (I apply Software Update fearlessly knowing when it screws up — and it does on a regular basis — salvation is a quick reboot away).
- The next upcoming version.
Each of these boot partitions really need to be at least 20 GB large in order to tolerate full installs of iLife, iWork, Virtual PC, Adobe apps, and developer tools.
The showstopper is that my current working set is 60 GB large. If you do the math, you’ll see even the largest notebook hard drive available today is some 25 formatted gigabytes shy of what I need. Right now I’m managing with an external bus-powered FireWire hard drive, but it’s a pain.
Of course, assuming his requirement for being able to boot into 10.3 is non-negotiable, even if Apple were to offer new PowerBooks with hard drives capacious enough to accommodate his storage needs, it still would not help Rentzsch; new Macintosh hardware never boots previous major versions of the Mac OS. A 15- or 17-inch PowerBook purchased today won’t even boot 10.4.1 or 10.4.0, let alone 10.3.x. (I’m not sure about the 12-inch models, which in their current incarnation are hardly any different than those introduced in January; but at least in terms of official sanctioned-by-Apple support, they too require 10.4.2 or later.)
For most people, however, including yours truly, the 120 GB maximum size of a laptop drive is not a limiting factor, and a new PowerBook is a reasonable choice to serve as the sole workstation even for demanding users.
And so after two weeks of daily use, here’s a review of the late 2005 15-inch PowerBook G4.
The aluminum case of the 15-inch PowerBook G4 is largely unchanged since it debuted in September 2003, and appearance-wise, isn’t all that different from the titanium “TiBook” PowerBooks that ushered in the portable G4 era back in January 2001.1
It’s a design that has aged well. Handsome and austere, there are few visible elements on the PowerBook case that aren’t functional, with the notable and obvious exception of the light-up Apple logo adorning the back of the screen, which logo is emblematic of Apple’s post-millennial industrial design: its size, position, and luminance all seem spot-on perfect. It’s even worth noting that the logo is correctly oriented, considering that until the PowerBook G4, the Apple logos on the backs of PowerBook screens were oriented the wrong way, such that they looked “correct” when you, the user, sat in front of a closed PowerBook, but appeared upside down to anyone looking at the back of an open one.
Other than in the small-print legalese on the bottom of the case, the PowerBook does not say “Apple”. It isn’t necessary for Apple to heavy-handedly brand their case designs; the cases themselves — their shapes, their materials, their proportions, and of course the Apple logo — are the Apple brand.
There’s an extraordinary simplicity to the exteriors of all of Apple’s current portables. Viewed straight-on from any angle — top, front, side — the shape is a simple rectangle with round corners (a “roundrect” in QuickDraw parlance). When open, the cross-section of either half of an iBook or PowerBook forms a simple sort of “D” shape. (This same D-shape profile is used on the new iPods and iPod Nanos, although the bottom edges of the Nano are only subtly rounded off.) The edges are mostly the same on all four sides. There are a minimum of visible seams and no superfluous decorative elements.
Compare and contrast with an older design from Apple itself: the original clamshell candy-colored iBooks. Even when it was new, many Mac users found the original iBooks to be, at best, rather trendy. But even leaving the rather childish color schemes aside — imagine, say, if they had been all-white — the swoopy, curvy, clamshell case lacked the quiet elegance of the modern iBook.
Better yet, compare and contrast to the exterior of your typical PC laptop: two-tone plastic, gratuitously beveled corner edges, dozens of silly extra buttons surrounding the keyboard, and so forth. The difference is that PC hardware appears not to be designed so much as decorated. There are exceptions — IBM’s ThinkPads and Sony’s Vaios are generally pretty good-looking machines. But I don’t think they look as good as PowerBooks or iBooks, and one reason is that although they’re simple, they’re not simple enough.
Epitomizing the PC industry’s lack of respect for their own case aesthetics are those ubiquitous little stamp-sized decals peppered over their laptops’ palm-rest areas. One for Windows, one for Intel (or AMD), sometimes a couple more for components like the graphics card. They’re garish and turn the surface of one’s laptop into a Nascar-style promotion board. Sure, you can peel them off, but judging from the laptops I see in coffee shops and airports, very few people actually do. Presumably these decals are part of the licensing deals struck between the laptop makers and Microsoft, Intel, et al., but why not just say no? We’ll buy your CPUs; we’ll license your operating system; but we’re not going to put your ugly fucking stickers on our computers. Apple is slated to soon start using the same Intel x86 guts as other laptop manufacturers, but I’ll eat my hat if they start boogering up their cases with “Intel Inside” decals.
In terms of sheer processing performance, the PowerBook has clearly fallen behind. The aluminum 15-inch PowerBook G4 was introduced two years ago with a top speed of 1.25 GHz; it’s now two years later and the top speed has increased a measly 33 percent. But in terms of visual appeal, the brushed metal PowerBook is still the best in the industry, and looks just as good today as when the first Titanium PowerBook shipped back in 2001.
The current PowerBooks’ brushed aluminum exterior conveys a sense of ruggedness. However, based on anecdotal evidence from aluminum-PowerBook-using friends and colleagues, I suspect the aluminum PowerBooks look and feel more rugged than they actually are. The corners, for example, are prone to denting, which in turn can lead to problems with the power adapter socket.
The über-plasticy white iBooks may not look as rugged (or cool) as their PowerBook brethren — broad-stroke instinct holding that metal is strong, plastic is chintzy — but I think the opposite is true. This isn’t to say the aluminum PowerBook casing is flimsy, or even that in the grand scheme of notebook computers it isn’t in fact more rugged than most, but from what I’ve seen, mile for mile, iBooks hold up better than PowerBooks.
iBooks also get better AirPort reception than do PowerBooks. At my desk in my home office, my old iBook gets a strong signal from the base station 15 feet across the room and picks up about 3 or 4 other wireless networks from neighbors. The PowerBook doesn’t get as strong a signal from my base station (although it’s certainly “strong enough”), and doesn’t detect any of my neighbors’ wireless networks.
If in some hyper-configurable alternate universe I were able to order the same laptop as this new PowerBook but with an iBook-style shell, I’d take it. Sure, the brushed aluminum looks cooler, but I’d happily accept the trade-off for something more durable and with better AirPort reception.
One area where PowerBook hardware is clearly superior to that of iBooks is the keyboard. I consider PowerBook keyboards superior in every regard.
Most importantly to me, they just plain feel better when typing. There’s a certain flimsiness to the iBook keyboard 2 as a whole, which manifests as a sort of saggyness or lack of rigidity. I suspect this is mostly to blame on the fact that the iBook keyboard serves a user-accessible hatch; you need to pop off the entire keyboard to access the iBook’s RAM and AirPort slots.
On the PowerBook, on the other hand, the RAM slots are accessible via a dedicated hatch on the bottom of the case, which design not only allows for a sturdier-feeling keyboard, but also makes for the most easily-accessed RAM slots on any Mac I’ve ever owned. (The worst was the original G3 iMac.) I bought the PowerBook with the default 512 MB of memory, but replaced it with two 1 GB chips for the maximum allocation of 2 GB. My only gripe about the process is that the screws securing the hatch were excessively tight; if you don’t have a good Philips size 00 screwdriver, I recommend getting one before attempting to unfasten these screws, lest you risk stripping them, or slipping and disfiguring the case with a deep scratch.
In addition to feeling sturdier as a unit, the individual keys on the PowerBook feel better. They’re clickier, in a good way. (As a point of reference regarding my taste in keyboards, it’s worth mentioning that at my desk, I still attach my beloved 14-year-old Apple Extended Keyboard II, which I consider the single best hardware product Apple has ever manufactured.) In terms of “how it feels while typing”, this PowerBook’s is the best laptop keyboard I’ve ever used.
The other major feature of the 15-inch (and 17-inch) PowerBook keyboard is that it offers illumination, which illumination can be triggered automatically by ambient light sensors located under the speaker grille. The sensor works great, and the illumination is genuinely handy in low-light situations. I expect this feature to eventually find its way into every Apple laptop.
The perfectionist in me wants to complain about the fact that, when illumination is on, some light spills from between the keys, particularly at the edges of the keyboard. In a perfect implementation, rather than merely allowing light to shine through from a single source under the keyboard, each individual key would contain its own light source. But I won’t complain about this, if for no other reason than that such a keyboard might be prohibitively expensive.
My only actual complaint about the PowerBook keyboard is the Enter key next to the right-side Command key; I would much prefer to have a second Option key there. Yes, yes, Enter is a different key than Return on a Mac, but if you really need Enter while using the PowerBook keyboard, you can use Fn + Return. I’ve been baffled by this key arrangement for years — who uses the Enter key so much that it deserves such a prominent spot on the keyboard?
My suggested solution would be for Apple to allow this key to be remapped using the new-to-Tiger “Modifier Keys” section of the Keyboard & Mouse System Prefs panel. Sure, “Enter” isn’t technically a modifier key, but on Apple’s portable keyboards it’s placed in a spot where many people might prefer an Option or Control key.
I’m aware of no low-impact workarounds or hacks for tweaking this key, where by “low-impact” I mean “something other than a kernel extension that typically needs to be updated with each minor revision of the OS”. Until fairly recently, iBooks and PowerBooks still used ADB for their built-in keyboards and trackpads, and on such machines, that damned Enter key can be remapped by editing a plist file in the ADB driver kernel extension. I used this trick on my old iBook without a problem, but I’m aware of no such “just modify this plist” style hack for the late-model PowerBooks and iBooks which use USB internally. (If anyone out there knows of a solution, I’d love to hear it. Cupertino-area readers, I’m looking in your direction.)
The most obvious reasons to get a 15- or 17-inch PowerBook instead of an iBook are the built-in displays. The improved displays are also the single biggest difference between these new PowerBooks and the previous models they replaced: the 15-inch PowerBook now offers 1440 × 960 resolution, up from 1280 × 854; the 17-inch offers 1680 × 1050, up from 1440 × 900. Which means:
The more pixels the better, in general, because more information is visible simultaneously on-screen. The productivity benefits of larger displays are provable. With desktop displays, when you add more pixels to a display, you can increase the physical size of the display to fit them. (Cf. the massive 30-inch Cinema Display.) With laptops, however, there’s a trade-off: more pixels may be better, but you can’t keep expanding the physical size of the screen to accommodate them. The 17-inch PowerBook form factor is, in my opinion, about as big as a portable computer can get while still being considered a “laptop”; a 20-inch PowerBook would be suited for a very large lap, indeed.
So when you squeeze more pixels into the same size display, you wind up with smaller pixels. In some ways, more pixels per square inch is better — it’s a higher resolution per actual inch of screen space. But in other ways, given some of the assumptions of the current Mac OS, too high of a resolution, in terms of pixels per inch, would be undesirable. Nearly all of the elements of the Mac OS X user interface are specified in pixels — the menu bar is 22 pixels high, the standard height of a text editing field (e.g. the location field in Safari) is 22 pixels, etc. So, when you make the pixels smaller on your display, the elements of the user interface become smaller in terms of actual units of distance.
In theory, a 200-pixel-per-inch display would be wonderful: at that resolution I suspect on-screen type rendering, thanks to anti-aliasing, would appear to be of roughly the same sharpness and fidelity as the output of a typical inkjet printer. But in today’s Mac OS, a 200-ppi display would be nearly unusable; UI elements and on-screen text would be about half the size of what you see on the screen you’re using today.
Apple is aware of this, and there is already developer-level technology in Mac OS X 10.4 laying the groundwork for a future release of Mac OS X with a scalable, resolution-independent interface. That’s the future; the question today is whether the resolution of the new PowerBook display is too high given the pixel-based nature of the current Mac OS UI.
My answer: No, the resolution is just fine. Things do look a little small, but it’s really not that much different than the pixels-per-inch resolution of the 12-inch PowerBook and iBook.
Here’s a table comparing the resolutions of Apple’s current displays, 3 as well as the previous 15- and 17-inch PowerBook displays:
|15-inch PowerBook G4 (new)||1440||960||114|
|15-inch PowerBook G4 (old)||1280||854||102|
|17-inch PowerBook G4 (new)||1680||1050||117|
|17-inch PowerBook G4 (old)||1440||900||100|
|20-inch Cinema Display||1680||1050||99|
|23-inch Cinema Display||1920||1200||98|
|30-inch Cinema Display||2560||1600||102|
So, yes, the new PowerBook displays are the densest in Apple’s line-up, but they’re only about 10 pixels-per-inch denser than the 12-inch displays. I don’t think, however, that another shift like this will occur until after Mac OS X fully embraces a scalable user interface. A hypothetical 15-inch PowerBook display with 1680 × 1050 resolution would work out to 132 ppi — significantly higher than any of the current displays.
Apple claims the new 15-inch PowerBook display is 20-some percent brighter than before, and, indeed, it’s quite bright for a laptop. Next to my 20-inch Cinema Display, however — but not unexpectedly — it seems a tad dingy. The higher resolution is also a bit noticeable when compared side-by-side with the Cinema Display, but not distractingly so, and the fact that you can easily connect to an external display for an extended multiple-display desktop is one of the nicest features of the PowerBooks.
(iBooks only support display mirroring, where an external display can only show the same thing as what’s on the internal display. This limitation is seemingly artificial; unsupported hacks allow you to diddle your system to allow iBooks to span the desktop across a second display.)
The PowerBooks’ support for external displays is quite clever. When the PowerBook wakes from sleep (or starts up), it detects which displays are available and uses them. This means you can walk around using the built-in display, set it down, connect an external display, and it automatically recognizes the just-connected external display and uses it. If you keep the PowerBook open, it uses the external display in addition to the built-in display; if you keep the PowerBook closed, it uses the external display instead of the internal. Disconnect the external display, and the right thing will happen, where by “right thing” I mean that any windows which were open on the no-longer-available display will be moved to the internal display, and resized, if necessary, to fit.
Do any Windows-based laptops offer this sort of on-the-fly auto-detection of external displays? I honestly don’t know.
And speaking of Wintel laptop displays, what is the deal with the growing trend of laptop displays being treated with some sort of super-high-gloss finish? This isn’t something where some laptop displays are a bit shinier than others; it’s a dramatic, instantly discernible difference. During a recent trip to Fry’s, the majority of the laptops they had on display had screens which were treated with this hyper-glossy finish.
What is behind this trend? Are these screens significantly cheaper? If not, what is the appeal? Why would anyone want a screen so glossy that it’s reflective? These screens quite obviously are more prone to glare from light sources, and the glossy finish would seemingly bring even more attention to smudges left behind by the ignorant mouth-breathing sort of people who touch computer displays with their fingers.
Needless to say, the new PowerBook displays use no such coating.
My PowerBook shipped with a custom build of Mac OS X 10.4.2, build number 8E45; the mainline release of 10.4.2 was build number 8C46. This is naught but a historical footnote at this juncture, however, given that 10.4.3 was released on October 31.
I mentioned earlier that I took the $200 build-to-order option to upgrade from the stock 80 GB 5400 RPM hard drive to a 100 GB 7200 RPM drive. What Apple doesn’t advertise regarding this option is exactly which 100 GB 7200 RPM drive you get. I’m aware of two: the Hitachi Travelstar 7K100, and the Seagate Momentus 7200.1 (model number ST910021A). I’m happy to report that, according to System Profiler, my PowerBook shipped with the Seagate Momentus. I say “happy” because according to these benchmarks from Bare Feats, the Seagate is faster. (Although to be fair, their comparison was against the 60 GB Hitachi.)
I’m unsure why Apple doesn’t tell you which make and model drives you get, but presumably it’s because they want to keep their options open if, say, Hitachi Travelstars suddenly become much cheaper than Seagate Momentuses.
Until last week’s AirPort Update 2005.001, my PowerBook was afflicted by the severe AirPort bug documented by Sven-S. Porst here. In a nut, the bug affected new iBooks and PowerBooks equipped with more than 1 GB of RAM. The AirPort Update completely solved the problem for me, so it’s not worth complaining about further.
I can’t get used to the new two-finger scrolling feature supported by this year’s PowerBook trackpads. It’s a useful feature and it seems to work really well, but I never remember to use it. I suppose it will grow on me.
However, occasionally drags don’t seem to register on the trackpad — I’ll drag one finger across the pad, but the cursor won’t move at all on screen. I’ll immediately repeat the same finger drag, and it works. I’m not sure if this is some sort of confusion with regard to how many fingers the trackpad senses I’m using, or if it’s some other problem, like the static electricity glitch Rentzsch complained about in his aforementioned “No PowerBook Can Hold Me”. I never had this problem with my iBook trackpad.
Speaking of the trackpad, I found that the button had a rather strange clickiness to it at first, as though it were slightly “stuck”. After a few days of use, I no longer noticed it; I’m not sure if it was simply a case of my getting accustomed to it, or if it was something that changed after a few days of breaking in. I suspect it’s a little bit of both.
The machine is very quiet — it’s been days since I noticed the fan, and even then it was quiet. And contrary to some people’s warnings about 7200 RPM drives, the disk is nearly silent, and unquestionably quieter than the slower drive in my old iBook.
Several MacInTouch readers have reported an odd “looping” sound glitch during music playback from iTunes (or in one reader’s case, QuickTime Player). I’ve heard this too — it’s very similar to the sound of a CD player skipping while playing a scratched disc, but of course, I’m not playing CDs. The skipping lasts for a few seconds and then corrects itself, and stopping / starting playback fixes it as well. What’s so curious about this is that it apparently only happens on new 15-inch PowerBooks.
The MacInTouch report also contains several reports from readers who perceive distracting horizontal lines between each row of pixels on screen. I notice no such thing. Whatever the issue is here, it seems to be quite subjective. Those who perceive it seem to see it in every 15-inch PowerBook, not just in one particular (i.e. possibly defective) unit. So if you’re thinking about getting one but are concerned about this “I see distracting horizontal lines” issue, I suggest looking at one in person at an Apple Store before ordering. This is also sound advice for anyone concerned about the new machines’ denser screen resolutions.
The elephant in the room, of course, is next year’s pending switch to Intel processors. Does it make sense to buy a new PowerPC-based PowerBook now — or any other Mac, for that matter — when new and potentially significantly faster hardware will be available next year?
Word on the street is that “pro” machines will switch last, and the first machines to make the switch will be the consumer-oriented machines like the Mini and iBook. But it seems unlikely to me that Apple is going to make the current PowerBook form factor last all the way through 2006. Especially if there’s pent up demand for Mac laptops from people who might have otherwise already bought a new PowerBook, but decided to wait to see what the Intel era brings, it could well be in Apple’s interests to unveil higher-margin Intel PowerBooks before the iBooks.
But it’s all conjecture, and no one outside Apple knows the actual time table.
I have no doubt that whenever Intel-based PowerBooks do ship, they’ll provide a significant performance boost over the final generation of PowerPC models. But it’s always been the case that “next year’s” model will be faster, and, quite often, cheaper as well. The pending switch to Intel doesn’t change my basic buying advice: if you need a new Mac now, get one now.
Anyone already using an aluminum-era PowerBook G4 would probably be well-advised to wait; the new screens are better, but overall system performance hasn’t improved dramatically.
But I can think of a handful of reasons why someone might want a last-generation PowerPC Mac instead of a first-generation Intel, even if they’re willing to wait another six months to a year. For one thing, if you use big-brand software from companies like Adobe and Microsoft, native-for-Intel universal binary versions aren’t likely to be available until quite some time after Apple starts shipping Intel Macs, and even then, I expect them to ship in the form of for-pay major-version upgrades. The current versions of Adobe’s and Microsoft’s suites should run under Rosetta, but I strongly suspect performance won’t be as good as on last-generation PowerPC machines. I.e. the first generation Intel Macs will be faster than the last generation PowerPC ones, but not so much faster that they can run PowerPC binaries under Rosetta faster than they natively run on PowerPC processors. That’s just my (somewhat informed) hunch.
Second, new first generation Mac hardware historically has a tendency to be flakier than subsequent speed-bump revisions. In the case of Titanium PowerBooks, this flakiness was quite literal — the titanium surface finish started peeling off their cases after a few months of use. If you’d prefer to wait for “Rev. B” of the next new PowerBook generation, you’ll probably have to wait until early 2007 at the earliest.
One reason Apple has occasional problems with the sturdiness of first-generation new hardware, perhaps, is their iron-clad secrecy during development. Take for example the iPod Nano, and its now-infamous propensity for collecting scratches. I’ve heard many people question why Apple shipped the Nano like this, since they “must have known” that it was so easily scratched. I suspect they didn’t know, because in their desire for secrecy only a few people ever saw the prototypes before they went into production, and they never took the prototype Nanos out of their development lab. The only way to test what happens when you really use something is to really use it, but to really use a still-in-development Nano would have meant allowing people to take them out of the lab, which inevitably would have meant allowing them to be described on the rumor sites before they were announced. My money is on a “Rev. B” Nano some time early next year with a more scratch-resistant surface treatment.
Given that the next generation of Mac hardware is being developed under the same sort of secrecy, it may well be worth your patience to let others do the field testing for first-generation “Rev. A” models of Intel-based PowerBooks and iBooks.
Depending on Apple’s Intel time table, there may yet be one more speed-bump revision in the PowerBook G4’s future. But if not, the current 15-inch PowerBook G4 is an appropriate send-off to one of the best products in Apple’s history.
The aluminum 12- and 17-inch PowerBooks were introduced in January 2003, but the 15-inch model remained stuck with the inferior prone-to-flaking Titanium case for another eight months. ↩
I percieve this same flimsiness on all modern iBook keyboards, 12- and 14-inch alike, from both the G3 and G4 eras. ↩
The 30-inch Cinema Display measures at 29.7 viewable inches, and the 15-inch PowerBooks measure 15.2, just in case you think my math is off by a pixel. ↩