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First Look: The New PowerBooks

Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 2
Column Tag: Reviews

First Look: The New PowerBooks

by Michael R. Harvey

At January's MacWorld Expo in San Francisco, Apple wowed the crowds with the introduction of two new PowerBook models, once again raising the bar for all other computer makers to aspire to. Introducing both a monster 17 inch PowerBook G4, and the smallest laptop Apple has produced, they have widened the line of choices mobile computer users can consider, and gave desktop users pause to reconsider the possibility of leaving that old tower behind. From the outward appearance, to the guts, this new iron packs a punch both large and small.


On the outside, the new laptops are pure eye candy. They just look very sleek, and professional. Constructed of aircraft grade aluminum, they are far sturdier than their titanium counterparts. They are rounded along the edges. Just as a dome has a high strength inherit in its design, so does the rounded design add to the strength of the PowerBook cases. The flex that exists in the lid of the Titanium PowerBooks, just isn't there on these new machines. They are very stable. The hinge on both the 12- and 17-inch PowerBooks is taken from the current Dual USB iBooks. The sleep indicator light now sits within the latch release button. The keyboard on both models is now locked down. You can't get to the internals by removing it any longer. This allowed Apple to firm up the keyboard. You no longer have that bend in it that was necessitated by having it be removable. It has a much better feel to it now when typing. Installing RAM and Airport are now done via a removable plate on the bottom of the units. Also related to the keyboard is a problem that plagued earlier models of PowerBook. Apple has managed to design these new systems so that the keyboard no longer touches the screen when it's latched closed. You can look right through the closed PowerBook and see they are separated. No more gunk building up on the screen.

The 12-inch model is the smallest Laptop to ever come out of Apple. It is smaller, even, than the old Duo sub-notebooks. It weighs in at 4.6 pounds, and has dimensions of 10.9x8.6x1.18 inches. The keyboard is full sized. The 12.1 inch (diagonal) TFT XGA display has a maximum 1024x768 pixel resolution.

Conversely, the 17-inch PowerBook G4 is just a behemoth. It looks and handles great, though. It's large size is obviously to handle the 17-inch (diagonal), 1440x900 pixel, TFT widescreen display. That leaves a lot of real estate to work with. The full sized keyboard looks almost lost on the machine, with what seems like four miles of wrist rest to cross before actually typing. It feels just fine, however, and is very comfortable to type on. There are stereo speakers on either side of the keyboard. The laptop weighs 6.8 pounds. It is rather heavy, but not overly so.

Figure 1: 17" Screen on the G4 PowerBook

Then there is the coolest thing Apple has come up with yet. On the 17-inch model, there are two light sensors hidden under the speaker grills on either side of the keyboard. When the ambient light drops, two things happen. The keyboard lights up from underneath (via fiber optics), glowing through the keycaps, and illuminating the lettering on the keys. The computer also dims the LCD, making it easier to look at in darkened conditions. Trying to describe it just doesn't do the feature justice. You truly have to see it to appreciate how cool it is.


Under the hood, the new systems pack a wallop. They are computers loaded with first time features. Both the 17- and 12-inch models come standard with G4 processors, the first PowerBooks to ship with G4 chips inside. The 12-inch models come equipped with 867 MHz processors, and the big 17-inch models fly along at 1 GHz. Additionally, these are the first computers to ship with Bluetooth built in. They are also the first with the ability to handle Airport Extreme, the 54-Mbps 802.11g wireless networking standard. The 17-inch comes with it installed, and the smaller model is ready for the $99 Airport Extreme card. Each has antennae running up the sides of the LCD screen. Apple reports that these PowerBooks will have much improved wireless connectivity performance over the Titanium PowerBooks.

Figure 2: Top down view of both PowerBooks

Each of the new PowerBooks come with the standard compliment of ports: modem, USB, audio in and out, and video out. The 12-inch version has 400 Mbps FireWire, and 100 Mbps 10 Base-T Ethernet. The 17-inch tops that with gigabit Ethernet, and FireWire running at 800 Mbps. This faster FireWire is backwards compatible with 400 Mbps, but uses a new connector type, so an adapter is needed to connect older devices into the new jack.

The 12- and 17-inch models are equipped with slot loading optical drives. The larger, 17-inch model comes with a Super Drive. It is the only option for this machine. The 12-inch comes standard with a Combo drive, or Super drive can be had as a build to order option. The standard version of the 12- and 17-inch systems have 40 GB and 60 GB hard drives, respectively.

Both have the latest NVIDIA graphics chips on board. NVIDIA provided Apple with their newest GeForce4 Go chips, the 420 for the 12", and the 440 for the 17", with 32 MB and 64 MB of DDR SDRAM respectively. Both run on a 4x AGP bus. With a .15 micron manufacturing process (the last iteration from NVIDIA was a .18 micron size), the small graphics chip size provided Apple with alternately more room for features, and the ability to wedge full graphics features on a small board. Features like mirroring and dual monitor support on both models are thanks to the power of this graphics subsystem.

Figure 3: Top down view of the 17" PowerBook

Look and Feel

Apple really has done it again in the coolness department. The machines look great. The Titanium's were a great industrial design, and these new G4 PowerBooks are even better. They are stylish, functional, and hardy. These are also the first machines to boot solely into OS X. OS X, however, is a whole other article.

Figure 4: 12" Screen on the G4 PowerBook

The Bottom Line

The 12-inch PowerBook has a price tag of $1799. The 17-inch version weighs in at $3299. Both have the usual build-to-order options available. Higher processor speeds, bigger hard drives, more RAM, or add an Airport card (for the 12-inch). The 17-inch PowerBook is about as tricked out as it can be at the above price point. Bumping it up to 1 GB of RAM will dent your wallet to the tune of $3599. On the other hand, loading up a 12-inch PowerBook with Airport Extreme, a Super Drive, bigger hard drive, and more RAM will set you back $2298. Both models should be shipping by the time you read this. They are drool-worthy systems that anyone looking for a new computer should consider seriously. Steve Jobs said in his keynote that this is the year of the laptop for Apple, and with offerings like these, 2003 will very likely be just that.

Michael R. Harvey


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