Mac Musings

About Time to Replace Five-Year-Old PowerBook G4

Dan Knight - 2006.01.09 - Tip Jar

Five years is a good, long life for a laptop computer, in this case my 400 MHz PowerBook G4. This model was introduced at the Macworld Expo in 2001, and it was the first Mac laptop with a widescreen display. It was almost exactly what I'd been hoping for.

Battle Scars

It hasn't work well. The two small rubber bumpers that separate the lid from the base when the 'Book is closed where the first casualties, both gone within the first year. The painted off white metal surrounding the base began to show wear quickly; today it's worn through to metal.

The handrest and trackpad have shiny spots and wear spots. The keyboard leaves impressions on the screen. The four rubber or plastic feet are all gone. The lid and base have acquired plenty of scratches. The PC Card slot is broken, which meant I had to revert to an Apple AirPort wireless card and its distance limitations.

Three of seven screws that hold the bottom cover in place have disappeared, and the backspace key is missing.

I've upgraded it several times - first to 256 MB of RAM (a lot before OS X), later to 512 MB and finally 768 MB. I'm on my third hard drive. I outgrew the stock 10 GB drive when I switched to OS X in 2002. In the past year, that 5400 rpm 20 GB drive was replaced by a 40 GB model. I also replaced the battery about two years ago, as the original one was down to about 45 min. capacity.

I've considered adding a Combo drive, getting a 550 MHz CPU upgrade, and expanding RAM to 1 GB, but my trip to San Francisco for the Expo convinces me that I've used this PowerBook long enough.

AirPort at the Airport

I was pleased to discover that Kent County International Airport offers free WiFi wireless connectivity. My PowerBook detected the network, but I couldn't find a single location where the AirPort card in my titanium laptop could actually connect to it.

Chicago's O'Hare offers wireless Internet for a fee, and I wasn't prepared to pay $6.95 for the hour or less I'd be in the terminal. I was so ready for lunch by the time that I got to San Francisco, that I didn't even think about using my 'Book there.

I'm writing this from my hotel room, where I can't detect a single WiFi network. There's one in the bar downstairs, but I'm on the fourth floor. The hotel is wired for Internet access, but I didn't even think to pack an ethernet cable. (I also grabbed the wrong cable for my iPod. Looks like I'll be visiting Fry's or whatever I can find in this part of SF to buy a 10+' ethernet cable and a short FireWire cable.)

Moving Forward

If I had 802.11g wireless (Apple's AirPort Extreme, a.k.a. 54g wireless), there's a chance I'd see the WiFi hub downstairs. And I probably would have been able to connect at Kent County International.

The 1152 x 768 display has always been workable, and for 2-3 years, the TiBook was my primary computer. I now alternate between a spacious 1280 x 1024 display on the Power Mac at the house and 1280 x 960 on the eMac at my apartment. Between the 400 MHz speed and small display, I've hardly done any real work on this 'Book since September. (It's still adequate for wireless access from the living room.)

The question now is what to replace it with. I'd like a Combo drive, definitely want 802.11g wireless, know I'll have more power (400 MHz is so 2001), and need a 1280-by-something display.

Right now that means a 15" PowerBook. 667 MHz to 1.67 GHz speed. Titanium or aluminum. 1280 x 854 screen (the 1152 x 768 screens are out of the picture for me, and the 1440 x 900 display on the newest 15" 'Books is more than I want to spend right now.)

Titanium Negatives

I've seen how poorly the TiBooks wear. Worn off bumpers, missing feet, screws that disappear, and literally wearing through the paint to the titanium after years and years of use.

Speed isn't a big factor, but the AirPort range limitations would mean buying a third-party 54g wireless card.

Aluminum Negatives

I really like the appearance of the aluminum PowerBooks, but I've read that the aluminum tends to ding and dent more readily than titanium. I don't think I want another PowerBook that looks like it's been through a war zone.

I don't know the extent of the memory slot problem that apparently inflicts every generation of 15" aluminum PowerBooks, but it's frightening to think that a memory slot that works one day may stop working with a future OS or firmware update.

iBook Not an Option (Yet)

I've ruled out iBooks for the same reason I've ruled out the 12" PowerBook G4 - a 1024 x 768 display just doesn't cut it for me. I'd like something smaller than my 15" PowerBook, but right now that's the smallest Mac with a widescreen display.

iBooks seem to wear daily use well, and because they have a plastic enclosure, wireless reception and range are excellent. There's no PC Card slot, but the only things I've used that for are third-party wireless cards (not necessary with modern 'Books) and a Compact Flash reader, which can be replaced easily with a USB card reader.

Right now the big drawback is the screen, and if Apple were to introduce a 12" iBook with a 1280 x 800 display, I'd consider that a perfect replacement for my five-year-old PowerBook. Even a 14" iBook with a widescreen display would be very tempting.

The other, much less important, drawback is the iBook's abysmal keyboard. It's not terribly rigid, keycaps pop off fairly easily, and the only way it's better than what's on my TiBook is that white keycaps are easier to read in low light.

Unfortunately, the keyboards on PowerBooks don't seem a whole lot better. Maybe the early PowerPC era, with the PB 1400 as an example, was the pinnacle of PowerBook keyboard design. Apple, I'd gladly put up with a 1/4" thicker 'Book to have a really good keyboard.

Well, tomorrow we should know what Apple's plans are for the next few months. I'm certainly in no hurry to buy.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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