The Mobile Mac

Upgraded PowerBook vs. New MacBook: Which Makes More Sense?

- 2006.06.12 -Tip Jar

To upgrade or not to upgrade? This a question I've been askingmyself as I keep going to the Apple Store and admiring the new Intel-powered MacBooks and MacBook Pros

The current generation of Apple laptops are very, very nice, andI'd be lying if I said I didn't want one. The problem I have isthat while I want one, I don't need one.

I mentioned in my last few columns that the work I do would notreally benefit from the Intel architecture, and that remains thecase, as it likely is for many of you reading this. Safari, Mail,iTunes, and the rest of the iApps are universal binaries and willlaunch and run faster, but honestly, we're talking seconds on thelaunch clock. Real time saving will not be had loading web pages ordownloading emails, but only in applications like iMovie HD andiDVD, where the processing muscle of the Core Duo will really comeinto play. Email and web browsing just don't require that muchhorsepower, working well even on a pokey old G3.

As for games - there is a task that demands the ultimate inprocessor, graphics, and data throughput from any computer, Windowsor Mac.

Mac Gaming

Macs have always had fewer games available than Windows PCs, butonce upon a time the games we did get were quite a bit better thanthose on that other platform.

Remember Marathon? I played Marathon over a companyintranet back in 1995 using a PowerPC upgraded Quadra 700 running its PowerPC 601processor at 50 MHz with 40 MB of RAM and a massive 230 MB harddrive. Marathon on that not-quite-cutting-edge computer was arevelation, not only allowing multiplayer play, but even allowingme to verbally taunt my opponents using a microphone over theQuadra's built-in ethernet connection. Graphics were fluid andfast, and with a hack I found on the Web I even had a very coolsound effect of spent casings falling to the floor after everyshot.

Macs were great game machines back then, and they aren't badtoday. Return to Castle Wolfenstein is one of my favoritegames, and I enjoyed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republictremendously, both played on my 1.5GHz 12" PowerBook with medium settings and good results. Theseare, however, old games, released when Panther was the hot new OSand a 1.5 GHz G4 was the latest and greatest.

Horsepower

Look at the system requirements for Doom3 orQuake4, and you will be informed that that 1.5 GHz G4 is theabsolute minimum, while on Quake4 you need 1.67 GHz. That meansthat the fastest PowerBook ever released (discontinued only a monthago) is the absolute minimum specification to play Quake4.

The desire to play modern games is not an issue for many people.Some people use their Macs only to get their work done, to keepinformed, or to play games that aren't so resource-heavy. I want toplay Quake4 and Doom3, not to mention the wealth of Windows-onlygames like Rome: Total War and the Star Wars sequel TheSith Lords. Apple's Boot Camp makes this possible and is thereason why I covet an Intel-powered Apple laptop. Sadly, Appledidn't replace the model in its old lineup that I wanted most toreplace, the 12" PowerBook.

You see, I play games when I travel. Rather than spend too muchmoney drinking in some rural motel bar, I'd rather fire up a gameon my Mac and crush the enemies of Rome, flex my budding Jedipowers, or reduce the chest of some unsuspecting zombie to pulpwith a well-placed load of buckshot. Violent, I know, but it getsme worked up for the conference, deposition, hearing, or whateverother reason I'm in a lonely hotel room.

I also like to play games during long flights. Games and moviesmake the time go by quickly on my twice-yearly trans-Pacificflight.

Now the MacBook Pro isthe perfect 15" laptop for me, but the problem is that I don'ttravel with a 15" laptop. I fly coach, and while the 12" fits onthe tray table, it's still a very tight squeeze if the person infront decides to recline, as they invariably do. The 15" MacBookPro is just too bulky.

I also like to travel light, and the 12" PowerBook is alreadyheavier than I like at 4.6 lbs. I used to carry a 3 lb IBM ThinkPadfor just that reason, but I deal with the extra weight for thebenefits of the Mac OS.

Last year's games were great on the 12" PowerBook last year, butit isn't last year, and I'm tired of those old games.

Substandard Video

The new MacBook is a great iBook replacement, and while heavy,it opens to the same height as the 12" PowerBook, making it useablein coach. The problem, as I've mentioned in previous articles, isthe low-end integrated graphics that takes away the ability to playthe most demanding games. For many, this simply doesn't matter, butRome: Total War and Sith Lords both require a Direct X 9 graphicscard with 64 (Rome) and 32 (Sith Lords) MB of dedicatedgraphics RAM. The integrated chipset of the MacBook might be up tothe requirements of the less demanding Sith Lords, but Rome: TotalWar demands some serious graphics horsepower, and only a bettercard with discreet memory will do.

Many people have defended Apple's (and budget PC makers') use ofintegrated graphics by claiming that small laptops are not forgamers, and that gamers should buy a gaming laptop. My response isto ask who decided that gamers are willing to lug around a 12 lbmonstrosity with 30 minute battery life? Yeah, an Alienware or DellXPS with a desktop GPU (there is even a laptop now with dualGPUs) will play any modern game with good performance, but thosethings make lousy business or travel laptops.

I want it all - a small laptop with decent graphics and lightweight. This isn't impossible. The MacBook Pro has plenty ofgraphics horsepower, as do a number of thin-and-light PC laptopslike Lenovo's T-series. The problem is a general perception thatbuyers won't mind the integrated graphics on the smaller models.Apple sold many 12" PowerBooks to small laptop buyers who wanted adecent graphics processor, myself included.

Okay, I know this sounds like a rant. What it really is, simplyput, is the reasoning for why I don't yet own an Intel-based Applelaptop. I want one badly, but they don't yet make the one Iwant.

When my 15" PowerBook wears out, I won't hesitate to replace itwith a large MacBook Pro, but the 12" PowerBook is simplyirreplaceable right now. Were mine to die, I'd look long and hardfor a leftover new or refurbished replacement, as I'm just notwilling to go any larger or heavier than what I have.

That said, there ways to extend the life of what I have now andsatisfy some of that new computer lust I'm feeling, which will beaddressed in my next Mobile Mac article. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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