Mac Musings

eMac, iMac, or PowerBook?

Daniel Knight - 2004.09.27

I'm in the interesting position of running a home-based online business from three distinct places: the house, the apartment (separated), and any place I can get Internet on my TiBook. That includes at my part-time job, at my girlfriend's house, and in hotel rooms when taking a trip.


Today we use two Macs to create Low End Mac. The oldest is my 400 MHz PowerBook G4, which has been in use since January 2001. Although 400 MHz may sound slow to some of you, I can assure you that this is a comfortably fast machine for the work I do. Best of all, it's very portable.

It has a 5400 rpm hard drive and 512 MB of RAM. With a 7200 rpm drive and a gig of RAM it would be a bit faster, but probably not enough so to justify the cost. Besides, it's got a few shortcomings.

Top of the list is the keyboard, which is better than any iBook ever had, but not as good as earlier PowerBooks or the aluminum PowerBook G4 models. On top of that, the keys are black. Have you ever tried to find the right key in a dark room on a black keyboard? Nuff said.

Second on my list is the 15" screen, which is 1152 x 768 pixels and not as bright as the 1280 x 854 display used on more recent 15" 'Books. I was used to 1280 x 1024 on my desktop computer, I use 1280 x 960 on my eMac, and the 1152 x 768 on the TiBook has always felt a bit restrictive.

The third thing I'd really like is a CD burner so I can back up data and burn CDs from iTunes while away from home. You can retrofit drives to the TiBook, but they cost a pretty penny.

PowerBook G4I bought the TiBook realizing it was adequate - that 400 MHz was enough speed, 512 MB was enough RAM, and 1152 x 768 was enough space to get by. It's a bit of a compromise, but it was not just adequate, it was the only Mac we used to create LEM for 2-1/2 years.

But if I were buying a 'Book today, it wouldn't be merely adequate. Since the third TiBook revision Apple (667/800 MHz DVI) has included a 1280 x 854 screen and a Combo drive (introduced midway through the 550/667 MHz PB G4 model's life). The 15" aluminum models have wonderful keyboards. I would be very happy with a 1 GHz 15" aluminum PowerBook G4 - and blown away by the current 1.33 GHz and 1.5 GHz models.


The eMacFor over a year, I've used an eMac as the main production machine at Low End Mac. The 700 MHz Combo drive model was purchased so the TiBook could go to Apple for a screen transplant. I didn't want to be without a computer for a week, and I reasoned I could sell it pretty quickly after the TiBook came back.

I was wrong. The 700 MHz speed combined with a real keyboard hooked me. When I did find someone who wanted to buy it this summer so I could get a SuperDrive model, I replaced it with a refurbished 1.25 GHz eMac. With a gig of RAM and a faster-than-stock 7200 rpm 80 GB hard drive, I'm very happy with it.

Yeah, it's big, bulky, and starkly white, but for the money and my needs, it makes a great office computer.

What Next?

As I said, the speed of the eMac spoiled me, and my old faithful TiBook is lacking in several areas. With most of my work done at home on the eMac or in the apartment on the old TiBook, I'd been leaning toward another 1.25 GHz eMac, maybe the Combo drive model. Refurbished, they sell for US$699 when the Apple Store has them. Tax extra, shipping included.

With 768 MB of RAM and a 7200 rpm hard drive, it would be as powerful as the home machine. And I could still use the TiBook as my field machine.

Or I could look at a PowerBook G4 that eliminates the many drawbacks of my older one. But it's not easy to find a much of a deal on a 15" aluminum PowerBook these days, and that's the minimum requirement to get the vastly improved keyboard.

Shopping around, I could pick up an open box 1 GHz aluminum PowerBook for US$1,499, or for just a bit more (US$1,699) I could own a 1.33 GHz one. Add in $85 or $170 RAM (at this point, I'd find less than 768 MB a bottleneck because of the sheer number of apps I have open most of the time, and 1 GB is even better) and $130-140 for a 7200 rpm 60 GB laptop hard drive, and we're getting kinda pricey. And let's not forget the AirPort Extreme card.

Of course, I could probably get around $1,000 for my souped up TiBook, which would make an AlBook cost competitive with an eMac.

The G5 iMac

My girlfriend has a home-brew Windows XP system, and she recently replaced her flickery old CRT monitor with an older flat panel display (a hand-me-down from her brother). I've been playing around a bit on her PC, and that display blows me away. That got me to thinking....

iMac G5The "trailing edge" G5 iMac has a 17" 1440 x 900 pixel flat panel display and more power than my 1.25 GHz eMac. I don't need to burn DVDs on more than one Mac, and the G5 iMac already includes a 7200 rpm drive. All that for the less than an open box or refurbished AlBook.

I'm not about to buy another computer just yet, but given the choice between a second eMac, a relatively new PowerBook, and a G5 iMac, the thin, fast iMac with it's pixelicious display (1440 x 900!) merits serious consideration.

No, I'm not going to order one this week, nor do I expect to do so in the near future. But once Apple starts offering refurbished ones for maybe US$200 off, they'll definitely have my interest.

In which case, my old reliable 400 MHz PowerBook G4 will probably remain a very adequate field computer for a bit longer.