Mac Musings

Big 'Book, Little 'Book

Daniel Knight - 2003.01.08

I think Apple took most of us by surprise yesterday by not announcing speed bumped Power Macs, by not making changes to the iMac, and by showing off two new PowerBook G4 models.

Both new models have aluminum cases, support the new "five times as fast" AirPort Extreme protocol, and include the newest mobile graphics processor from Nvidia. From there they diverge quite a bit.

17" PowerBook G4

iBook To Go Redux

Steve Jobs unveiled the original iBook as "an iMac to go." The behemoth 17" PowerBook G4 takes that quite literally, using the same 1440 x 900 pixel display as the 17" G4 iMac.

The über-PowerBook offers the same 1 GHz G4 processor, 1 MB level 3 cache, 1 GB memory ceiling, and SuperDrive as the former top-end PowerBook G4. Performance should be virtually identical, except that in the graphics department, the 17" model uses the new Nvidia GeForce 4 420 Go graphics processor.

Despite the use of lightweight aluminum, the new behemoth weighs 6.8 pounds (3.1 kg), 1.4 pounds (0.65 kg) more than the 15.2" model. It's also over 15" wide and 10" deep, while retaining the same 1" thinness of the TiBooks. You won't be using this on an airline snack tray.

Built into the 17" AlBook (as it has already been unofficially dubbed) is Bluetooth. This model also includes an AirPort Extreme card, which is backwards compatible with plain old AirPort. There's also a FireWire 800 port in addition to a regular 400 Mbps FireWire port.

This is Apple's first model with a backlit keyboard, which almost lead me to dub it the LumiBook (for aLUMInum and ilLUMInation), but I think AlBook (from the chemical symbol for aluminum) is already entrenched.

Besides the size and weight, the only real drawback to the new US$3,299 monster is the 4.5 hour battery life, a 30 minute drop from the 15.2" TiBook.

What about value? For US$400 more than the 15.2" 1 GHz PowerBook G4 you get Bluetooth (a US$50 option), AirPort Extreme instead of AirPort (expect Apple to change that on the old PB G4 soon if they haven't already), and that monstrously big display. If that additional 20% of screen space is important to you and the physical size of the computer isn't a liability, this is as good a value as the 1 GHz TiBook.

PowerBook G4

PowerBook Lite or iBook Plus?

It's a bit harder to know what to make of the 12" PowerBook G4. It has a G4, aluminum case, and Nvidia graphics that supports monitor spanning, just like the big AlBook.

But in most other respects, it's a slimmed down iBook with a G4 processor. The thinner aluminum case is 1/6" (4 mm) thinner, 0.3" (8 mm) narrower, and 0.5" (11 mm) less deep than the iBook. This helps reduce the weight by 0.3 pounds (0.1 kg), making it the smallest, lightest 'Book Apple has ever produced.

Like the iBook, there is no level 3 cache in the small AlBook, nor can it be expanded to 1 GB of RAM like the other PowerBook G4 models. Instead, 128 MB is built into the 12" PowerBook, giving it a maximum complement of 640 MB.

Without a level 3 cache, performance should lag behind that of the 867 MHz PowerBook G4. Then again, the US$1,799 12" PowerBook also costs US$500 less. On the other hand, it's also $500 more than the 12" 800 MHz iBook.

It's much harder to place the value of the 12" PowerBook. Until now, the biggest PowerBook draw vs. the iBook was the megawide 15.2" display, not the G4 processor. By taking away that advantage and borrowing the overall design of the iBook, Apple has trimmed the price.

I think both new PowerBooks are going to be niche products. The big AlBook will be phenomenal for presentations, but rather impractical for use in transit. The little AlBook may well be the Cube of the lineup, filling an empty space between the iBook and the 867 MHz PowerBook G4.

I would much rather see a G3-based iBook with a 15.2" screen fill this space than a 12" PowerBook G4, but I really wonder if there's really a hole here that Apple needs to plug.

Still, the 12" PowerBook does have bragging rights as the smallest, lightest PowerBook ever. Maybe that will be the key to driving sales.