PC killer on the loose

PC killer on the loose

There are trend-conscious people at every company who demand the sharpest-looking mobile phone or PDA, something that screams “I’m so hip”. Whether or not it actually works is irrelevant. With IT budgets squeezed almost to zero, management is understandably touchy about frivolous purchase requests.

Therefore, when you hand in your requisition for an Apple PowerBook G4, attach this review. Few who look at the PowerBook G4 can believe it’s not the latest fashionable toy. After spending quality time with the PowerBook running Mac OS X 10.2.2, we don’t care if we ever touch another $US3,500-plus top-end PC notebook. Yes, it is that good, and its value has nothing to do with its sleek looks.

Apple packaged the PowerBook G4s so exquisitely that at first we were afraid to get our fingerprints on them. Our reverie lasted about 15 minutes. Then we dragged two systems — an earlier 867MHz model and the newest 1GHz unit — through hell for several weeks, both in the lab and on the road. We beat them twice as hard because they’re so pretty and because, well, we’re not Mac people. When it was over, the PowerBooks owned us utterly. Trust us; that never happens.

Nice specs

The object of this review is the newly updated PowerBook G4, the model that includes a 1GHz PowerPC processor and a SuperDrive DVD/CD burner. It features a 15.2-inch display set in a 3:2 ratio (other notebooks are 4:3), 512MB of RAM, and a 60GB hard drive.

The landscape screen, which has a default resolution of 1280 by 854 pixels, has the widest horizontal viewable range we’ve seen on a notebook. You can drive an analog or digital external monitor at resolutions as high as 2048 by 1536. The external display either mirrors what’s on the LCD or stretches your desktop across both screens. Apple includes all the video connectors you’ll need for presentations: VGA, S-Video, and composite.

Apple’s sales literature claims the PowerBook G4 outperforms a 2.2GHz Pentium 4, but don’t count on that claim. Running at full speed, a P4-M notebook will feel faster than a PowerBook G4, especially when running applications optimised for the Pentium 4 architecture. But when the P4-M throttles back to conserve the battery or keep from burning your lap, the more efficient PowerPC takes the lead.

The ATI Radeon 9000 display controller with 64MB of RAM makes a big difference in perceived speed. Apple uses hardware-accelerated OpenGL (comparable to Microsoft’s DirectX gaming graphics technology) for the entire OS X GUI. Where ClearType font smoothing slows Windows way down, Apple’s smoothed text draws fast and scrolls quickly. The combination of the ATI graphics chip and the 1GHz PowerPC processor keeps the interface responsive, even in low-power mode. It’s amazing that a 2.45kg machine can pull five hours out of a battery without slowing to a crawl.

Getting online

The PowerBook G4 has exceptional network and peripheral connectivity. The built-in Ethernet supports copper gigabit, and the 1GHz model includes an AirPort 802.11 wireless adapter. The back panel, protected by a hinged metal cover, also has two USB (not USB 2.0) ports and a full-sized FireWire socket.

We tested the AirPort card with both a 3Com access point and Apple’s AirPort Base Station. 3Com’s access point puts out a much stronger signal, but the PowerBook’s airport card and software had no trouble making encrypted connections to both. The AirPort installs easily under the keyboard, leaving the Cardbus slot open.

The PowerBook adapts quickly and auto­matically to existing networks and handles changes quite well. It reconnects almost instantly when waking from sleep mode. In fact, the whole machine is ready to go before you get the cover open. We tried to confuse OS X by reconfiguring our lab’s wireless and copper networks while it was connected. We never managed to give it more than a few seconds’ pause. Unless it needs new security credentials, OS X makes a home on whatever network it finds without asking you anything.

Better than a desktop

The PowerBook G4 probably will spoil you for your desktop PC. The slot-loading SuperDrive (how did Apple squeeze a DVD burner into a 1-inch tall case?) records CD-R, CD-RW and DVD-R media. Now that a blank DVD-R is going for under $5 a disc, it’s practical for general storage as well as making movie discs for your home DVD player. The Pioneer drive also works with DVD-RW media. The SuperDrive is slow, burning CD-R at only 8X and DVD-R at 2X, but remember: this is a notebook. Your desktop can’t burn 4.7GB onto an optical disc at any speed.

The titanium chassis, the DVD burner, the wide-screen display, the super-fast graphics chip, the Gigabit Ethernet, the FireWire, and the standard wireless connectivity only paint part of the PowerBook picture. More than half of the story is Apple’s incredible OS X and the massive collection of bundled and freely downloadable software it runs. If you don’t find the software you need, pull it off the Net and compile it using the included graphical development tools. GNU did just that for some 2,500 Unix/Linux projects, and developers add dozens of titles to that list every day. Commercial developers are also ramping up fast.

The PowerBook G4 isn’t a product to watch; it’s the only notebook on the market worth spending $US2,500 on, and at that price, it’s a steal.

Way to go, Apple.

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