The Mobile Mac

Pimping My 15" PowerBook G4

- 2006.06.19 - Tip Jar

I recently wrote about upgrading my trusty 12" PowerBook, so now I'd like to explore the options on the larger models. I don't own a 17" PowerBook, but except for the processor upgrade speeds, there is little difference between it and the 15" model.

Processor upgrades are still US$450-550 from Daystar, but they may make more sense on the larger PowerBooks. The 15" is upgradeable to 1.83 or 2.0 GHz. While a 33% speed boost is noteworthy, the fastest upgrades only give full speed when plugged-in - and they suck batteries dry in a hurry when your run unplugged.

If you use your larger PowerBook as a transportable desktop, this might be a good deal for you, but since I take my 15" PowerBook with me on longer trips (or when my wife takes the 12"), I'm not willing to sacrifice battery life. Also, while they provide significant speed boosts, the processor upgrades are expensive.

Still, 2.0 GHz in a 15" PowerBook makes for an excellent machine for playing PowerPC optimized games or for muscling through PhotoShop or other non-Universal applications.

Like the 12" PowerBook, there are other ways to books the performance and ability of the larger PowerBook. Here's what I did.

A New Hard Drive

First, I looked to the hard drive again, but this time rather than going for more speed, which I really don't need on my large machine, I looked for the best combination of price and size I could find. While a 160 GB drive would have been nice, they remain too expensive. I settled on a 120 GB Samsung SpinPoint hard drive with an 8 MB cache and 5400 RPM speed.

The cache and speed are the same as on the 80 GB Hitachi TravelStar that came in the PowerBook, but because the platters are more dense, the read and write speeds are actually a bit faster, according to the spec sheets. In use, I don't feel any difference at all, though the Samsung drive is quieter and a bit smoother, something these drives are well regarded for. Since I got the drive for only $100 and now have ample space for my entire iTunes music and video collection, not to mention for manipulating video on the hard drive, I consider this a real bargain.

More RAM

Bumping the RAM to the maximum of 2 GB was an easy modification that took all of 5 minutes and $200. When I did the upgrade, I did have one nasty surprise, finding that (like many) my 15" PowerBook suffered from the dreaded lower memory slot defect. I sent it off to Apple, and it was returned four days later with a new logic board and no issues.

Like on the 12", more RAM really liberates the system when multiple applications are open, and with a full 2 gigabytes and the stability of OS X, I tend to just leave everything I use open all the time.

Add a SuperDrive

Since the hard drive required opening the case and the $90 fee to avoid the anxiety of doing it myself, I decided to a similar optical drivectomy to the one on my 12" PowerBook. This wasn't urgent, as my 15" PowerBook tends to stay at work or home, where I have desktop Macs with fast desktop DVD writers. In fact, my 15" PowerBook is the lower level Combo drive model, the January 2005 model that added the backlit keyboard and scrolling trackpad, but at the old 1280 x 854 resolution and the lower 4.5 hour battery (I never get more than 3:20).

Still, while I didn't care about burning DVDs on this machine too much, I did always want it to be region free. Plus, if I do sell it in a year or so for a MacBook Pro, having a SuperDrive will making for a much easier sale. With that in mind, I installed a Pioneer DVR-K05, just like the one that went into my 12" PowerBook, and I was delighted with the smooth and quiet operation - and the easy firmware patch to make it region-free.

At the end of the day, the Pioneer DVD writer upgrade makes even more sense to owners of Combo drive PowerBooks and iBooks. Pioneer makes a tray-loading version of this drive for older tray-loading iBooks, and the slot load model will work in any titanium or aluminum PowerBook (and possibly the new MacBooks as well).

A healthy RAM boost and a 50% larger (and quieter) hard drive have given my 15" PowerBook a new lease on life. DVD movies were always a delight on the 15.2" widescreen display, and now I can add my Region 3 DVDs into the mix while keeping all of my other applications openi and functioning in the background. Even Virtual PC works well when given 512 MB of RAM.

For my use, the only benefit of the 15" MacBook Pro over the upgraded PowerBook G4 is the framerate on games, and I really haven't played any games on the 15" PowerBook yet, so I doubt I would on a MacBook Pro. LEM

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

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