The 'Book Page

The Case for a 'Book

Dan Knight - 2002.03.18 - Tip Jar

Long before I bought my PowerBook G4 and retired my desktop SuperMac, I'd been making the case that the PowerBook (and later the iBook) was the most sensible choice for most computer users.

I've lived with my 400 MHz PowerBook for over a year and have only two regrets: there's no way to replaced the internal DVD drive with a Combo drive and I could have saved about $1,000 on this model if I'd waited for Apple to discontinue it.

The TiBook is practically perfect, though. I don't need to burn CDs, it does get a bit hot in spots, the keyboard does leave marks on the screen, the two rubber bumps that keep the keyboard separated from the body have worn off, and it is a bit too big to use on an airplane seat tray.

On the other hand, it's fast enough, powerful enough, compact enough, and just plain good enough to be the one machine I can use to run my business at home, in the park, or on a trip.

There are plenty of arguments pro and con. I want to look at them one by one to help you decide if your next Mac should be a 'Book or a desktop.

Price

Let's get the biggest objection out of the way right at the start. Just as Windows zombies chant "Macs cost too much," most computer users believe that portables are far more costly than desktop machines. Let's look at the facts:

  • iMac G3/500, 15" 1024 x 768 display, 128 MB RAM, 20 GB hard drive, CD-ROM, $799
  • iBook/500, 12" 1024 x 768 display, 128 MB RAM, 15 GB hard drive, CD-ROM, $1,199
  • iMac G4/700, 15" 1024 x 768 display, 128 MB RAM, 40 GB hard drive, CD-RW, $1,299
  • Power Mac G4/800, 15" Studio Display, 256 MB RAM, 40 GB hard drive, CD-RW, $2,198
  • PowerBook G4/550, 15" 1152 x 768 display, 128 MB RAM, 20 GB hard drive, Combo drive, $2,299

If you can't swing $1,200 for a new Mac, we certainly won't object to your picking up a 500 or 600 MHz iMac.

The 500 MHz iBook provides portability vs. the G4 iMac's somewhat greater horsepower, but both are good entry level choices in this price range.

Likewise, the Power Mac G4 offers about 50% more horsepower in a much bulkier system than the comparably priced and portable PowerBook G4/550.

Once you get past the old CRT iMacs, prices are comparable, although there are other differences to look at.

Performance

How much horsepower do you need making a milk run to the corner grocery store? Pretty much anything bigger than a scooter provides plenty of power for daily trips close to home.

In the same way, all of today's computers have far more sheer power than most computer users need most of the time. A G3/500 can satisfy all of the users much of the time and most users all of the time. Unless you're working with huge images in Photoshop, doing a lot of digital video editing, or want the best gaming performance, today's entry level models are more than enough for your typical tasks. (You might find OS X a bit sluggish, though - Apple seems to have designed it so they can sell more G4 computers.)

Expandability

Even the entry-level models support 640 MB of memory, which is even a lot in Mac OS X. And every Mac made today, even the 'Books, supports drives in the 40 GB and beyond range, which is a lot of space for anyone who isn't doing a lot of digital video work.

Best of all, every Mac made for some time now has FireWire, which lets you chain dozens of hard drives to the computer if/when you need more space. Even if you have a Mac that doesn't include a CD burner, you can add an external one.

Yes, the Power Mac has more room for internal hard drives, which can be an advantage when setting up a server or a powerful graphics/video editing station. But it still has just a single full-width drive bay, making it impossible to copy a CD without a second drive or some disk swapping.

Upgradability

PowerBooks used to really lose out compared with desktop Macs when it came to video and processor upgrades. With iMac graphics built onto the motherboard, only the Power Macs give users the option of replacing the video subsystem with a better one. If you need that capability, the Power Mac G4 is definitely the Mac you're after.

As for CPU upgrades, that's become a moot point. Nobody sells processor upgrades faster than the slowest processors in today's Macs, nor does it seem likely that it's going to happen. Apple seems the only company with the resources to offer upgrades, and then only for the Power Mac, and then sees no reason to do so when it can sell you a whole new computer instead.

Also bear in mind that most Mac users use their computer with the processor and video that came with it until they replace it. They are far more likely to upgrade memory or replace a hard drive than swap out the CPU or drop in a video card.

Display Options

Neither the iMac nor the iBook support a second monitor displaying something different from the main screen. The PowerBook G4 supports that without additional hardware, as do some video cards used with the Power Mac G4. If you need more than two displays, you definitely want the Power Mac.

Most users seem content with 1024 x 768 displays, exactly what the iMac and iBook offer. So does Apple's 15" Studio Display. The TiBook one-ups this with a wider 1152 x 768 display - and even higher resolutions on an external display.

If you always need something bigger than 1152 x 768, only the Power Mac makes sense, but most users don't need that.

Desktop Space

For sheer power and expansion options, you can't beat the Power Mac G4, which can also dominate your desktop with a large 8.9" by 18.4" footprint plus a mouse, a keyboard, and a display. Even with a thin Studio Display, the Power Mac will take up a lot of space.

The iBook and TiBook have much smaller footprints, followed by the flat panel iMac and then the CRT iMac.

Portability

Apple provided a carry case with the original Macintosh - 16.5 lb. plus mouse, keyboard, and cables. It was portable, but it wasn't terribly convenient. But compared with the old compact Macs, the Power Mac G4 is a monster. If portability is a factor, the only nice thing you can say about the G4 is that it has handles.

The 34.7 lb. CRT iMac isn't much easier to move, but some companies are already offering carry cases for the 21.3 lb. flat panel iMac.

Compare the bulk and weight of those with the 4.9 lb. iBook and 5.3 lb. TiBook. There's no question which is more portable. If portability is a factor at all, skip all the desktop machines.

Field Use

Not only are 'Books portable, they also run off batteries providing hours and hours of use away from electrical outlets. And even if you only use the 'Books at home, that same battery provides a long-term UPS in the event of a power outage.

Conclusion

For the majority of Mac users, 'Books provide all the power and expansion they'll ever need at a reasonable price while providing a level of portability unmatched by Power Macs and iMacs. Even if portability isn't a factor, they merit consideration.

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