Mac Musings

The PowerBook 2004 Value Equation and Apple's Best Portable Values

Daniel Knight - 2004.04.21

Last week Apple speed bumped the eMac from 1.0 GHz to 1.25 GHz, incorporated USB 2.0, upgraded video, and included a 4x SuperDrive while dropping the price of the top-end eMac by US$100. We called it a stunning value, a far better deal than the just-discontinued models at $100 less.

You'd think Apple would be content to rest for a while, but instead the introduced improved iBooks and PowerBooks on Monday - a total of five (or seven, depending on how you count different speeds of the same 'Book) updated models at once. The slowest Mac made today is the 1 GHz 12" iBook G4, and the fastest portable Macs are the 15" and 17" PowerBook G4 running at 1.5 GHz, the fastest speed ever for a G4 processor.

Yesterday we looked at the lower cost, lower end, consumer and education iBooks and discovered what good values they were. Today we're looking at the new PowerBooks.

The PowerBook 2004

The new PowerBooks are faster than their predecessors. In fact, the low-end PowerBooks now run at the same 1.33 GHz clock speed as the former top-end 17" PowerBook G4.

Video memory is now 64 MB on all models (the previous 12-incher had 32 MB of video memory), and the SuperDrive is now a 4x model, twice as fast as the 2x on the last generation of PowerBooks.

The system bus is now 167 MHz across the board, bringing the 12" model to parity with the 15" and 17" PowerBooks. All three models used PC2700 memory.

12" PowerBook Value

Last year's 12" PowerBook G4 ran at 1 GHz, and the new 12" PowerBook runs at 1.33 GHz, so right off the bat we've got a 33% boost in processor speed with a 1 GHz CPU. The other performance improvement is supports for ATA/100 hard drives, which lets the new 'Book squeeze a bit more out of top-end laptop hard drives.

Size, weight, and just about everything else are the same as last year's 12" PowerBook. The price remains at $1,599 for the 12-incher with a Combo drive and $1,799 for the SuperDrive model.

Remaining inventory of the 1 GHz 12" PowerBook with a Combo drive is selling for about $1,399, and the 1 GHz 2x SuperDrive model is going for $1,499. With a 25% slower CPU and a 12.5% lower price, the new Combo drive 12" 'Book definitely offers more processing power for the buck. At a 17% lower price, the 1 GHz SuperDrive model is a decent value, but the 4x SuperDrive and 1.33 GHz speed definitely tip the value equation toward the new model.

The value equation is a bit better for refurbished 1 GHz 12" PowerBooks, which are selling for $1,199 (Combo) and $1,299 (SuperDrive). At 25% less then the new Combo drive model, the refurbished 1 GHz 'Book offers the same MHz/dollar as the new model, and for those who don't need ultimate speed, the $1,199 price makes it a viable alternative to the new 1 GHz iBook G4 as well.

Looking at the SuperDrive models, a refurbished 1 GHz machine saves you 28% over the new model, which nicely compensates for the 25% slower CPU. If you don't burn a lot of DVDs, the 2x SuperDrive won't be a big factor, so refurbished 1 GHz 12" SuperDrive PowerBooks are a very good deal indeed. In fact, at $100 more than the Combo drive unit, they are a real bargain.

Here the savings more than make up for the difference in speed, and factory refurbished Macs have the same warranty as new ones, so don't hesitate to buy a refurb if you don't need the higher speed of the 1 GHz iBook.

15" PowerBook Value

Last year's 15" PowerBook was available in 1.0 and 1.25 GHz configurations; for 2004 Apple switches to speeds much closer together - 1.33 and 1.5 GHz. At $1,999, the 15" 1.33 GHz PowerBook G4 has the same list price as the previous 1 GHz model while offering 33% more CPU speed. The 1.5 GHz model offers a 20% speed boost over the 1.25 GHz 'Book it replaces at $2,499, a $100 drop from its predecessor's price.

There's only a 13% difference in CPU speed between the two models, and the G4/1.33 GHz can be equipped with a 4x SuperDrive for $200 extra, bringing the total price to $2,199 - $300 less than the top-end 1.5 GHz PowerBook. You can also order the 1.5 GHz 'Book with a Combo drive, but at $2,299 for only a bit more speed than the 1.33 GHz model offers, I wouldn't go there.

For value, the 1.33 GHz model is the hands-down winner, whether configured with a Combo drive or SuperDrive. Spending $300 more for just a 13% boost in processing power seems excessive. The 1.5 GHz model is going to sell to those who want bragging rights or don't realize that the 1.33 GHz 'Book can be ordered with a SuperDrive.

Apple is clearing out remaining inventory of the 15" 1 GHz Combo drive model for $1,799, and selling the last of the 1.25 GHz SuperDrive ones for $2,299. (Amazon has them for $1,699.99 and $2,199.99 after $100 mail-in rebates.) The first is just a 10% discount compared with the new 1.33 GHz model, not making it particularly attractive. And buyers in the know will avoid the 1.25 GHz SuperDrive model when they can order a brand new 1.33 GHz one with a faster SuperDrive for $100 less.

Looking at refurbished 15" PowerBooks, the 1 GHz model is available from Small Dog at $1,549, and I can't find the 1.25 GHz version anywhere. On a strict price basis, a 25% slower model at 22.5% less isn't a bad deal at all, and for those who want the 15" screen and have limited budgets, it's a steal.

But the value leaders are definitely the new 1.33 GHz models equipped with a Combo drive or SuperDrive.

17" PowerBook Value

There are several reasons Apple doesn't call their 'Books laptop computers. Heat is one of them, but in the case of the 17" PowerBook, size is an even bigger factor. Although just an inch thin, this model has a huge 10.2" by 15.4" footprint - necessitated, of course, by that spectacularly large 17" display.

Compared to the 1.33 GHz model it replaces, the new 1.5 GHz 17-incher offer just 13% more processing power while reducing list price from $2,999 to $2,799. The 2003 model is being closed out at $2,599, which saves $200 (under 8%) compared with the new model. (Amazon has them for $2,499.99 after $100 mail-in rebate.) Considering the twice-as-fast SuperDrive, the new 1.5 GHz model is the value winner.

On the refurb front, Small Dog has one at $2,449, and nobody else seems to have any at the moment. The difference in processing power almost exactly matches the difference in price, so if you need a 17" 'Book, don't need the faster SuperDrive, and can't justify $2,799, the refurbished 17-incher at that price represents an equal value.

PowerBook or iBook?

Looking at the big picture - new and refurb, iBook and PowerBook - we find some exceptional values. For absolute value, a refurbished 800 MHz iBook G4 (from $849) offers respectable power, a compact size, and an incredible price. Of all the models we've looked at today and yesterday, it's definitely the winner in the budget category.

If you need to burn DVDs, the entry level models are the 1 GHz 14" iBook G4 at $1,499, the 1.2 GHz iBook at $1,699, the new 1.33 GHz 12" PowerBook G4 at $1,799, or a refurbished 1 GHz PowerBook G4 at $1,299. For value, the PowerBooks get the nod. The 1 GHz refurbished PowerBook costs $200 less than the SuperDrive-equipped iBook, while the 1.33 GHz PowerBook definitely offers enough additional performance to justify the $1,799 price.

While I appreciate the larger screen on the 14" iBooks, I'm always impressed by the clarity of my son's 12" PowerBook. With both screens offering the same 1024 x 768 real estate, I'm leaning more toward the 12" 'Books except for one thing - I like a lot more pixels. For the way I work, the original PowerBook G4 with its 1152 x 768 display was just big enough. It became the primary reason I bought the first one that reached my dealer.

Since then Apple has gone to a 1280 x 854 display on the 15" PowerBook, which I've been lusting after since the PowerBook hit 800 MHz in April 2002. With the new aluminum enclosure eliminating the three biggest problems (poor AirPort reception, breaking hinges, and a tendency to scratch), the 15" is the PowerBook of choice for those who need a lot of information on screen and don't want the bulk or expense of the 17" PowerBook.

Looking at new, discontinued, and refurbished, if I were buying today, I'd choose the 15" PowerBook G4 at 1.33 GHz, debating whether I need a SuperDrive or not in my portable computer. (Mine is so old it doesn't burn CDs, let alone DVDs.)

What I find really amazing is that Apple can offer a 17" PowerBook G4 with all the same features and performance as the top-end 15-incher for just $300 more. I'm sure I could put the 1440 x 900 display to good use, but at nearly 7 pounds and with a 10.2" by 15.4" footprint, I'd really hate to haul around something this large. If you can justify the screen size, though, I have to say that the 17" PowerBook G4/1.5 GHz offers real value compared with either last year's 17-incher or the new 1.5 GHz 15" PowerBook.

Whichever model best meets your needs, these are simply the best 'Book values Apple has ever offered.