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PowerBook G4 Is Sleek but Not Perfect

February 22, 2001|JIM HEID |

The new PowerBook G4 really is as beautiful as it looks in photographs. In fact, Apple's 5-pound, titanium-cased portable computer is even more appealing when you get your mitts on it. The look is sleek and austere: no gratuitous curves, no color. The attention to detail is impressive: The screen latch tucks itself away when you open the lid.

With looks like this, it's no wonder the PowerBook G4 has become today's hot silicon status symbol.

Not that the new PowerBook is perfect. Every portable computer is an exercise in compromise, a balancing act between form and features. The PowerBook G4 is more than a pound lighter than its predecessors, but it lacks some of their capabilities. Still, most people will be happy to trade a few second-tier features in exchange for some weight loss. And those looks.

And that screen. Mounted within a titanium frame a scant quarter of an inch thick, the screen measures 15.2 inches diagonally. It's 8.5 inches high (about the same height as the screen in last year's PowerBooks) by 12 5/8 inches wide (about 1 1/2 inches wider). The extra horizontal real estate is ideal for any task, but it's particularly well suited for video-editing programs, which rely on timeline windows that scroll horizontally.

The PowerBook G4 is available in two flavors: a $2,600 model containing a 400-megahertz G4 processor, 128 megabytes of memory and a 10-gigabyte hard drive; and a $3,500 model containing a 500-MHz G4, 256 MB of memory and a 20-GB drive. Each also contains a slot-loading DVD drive, one FireWire port, two Universal Serial Bus ports, an Ethernet networking port, an infrared interface, an S-video jack for connecting a TV set or VCR and a video jack for attaching an external monitor.

I tested the 500-MHz model and do hereby pronounce it fast. But in the strange world of the G4 processor, speed gains vary dramatically depending on the task. Compared with the 500-MHz PowerBook G3, the PowerBook G4 is only marginally faster at tasks that aren't optimized for the G4's Velocity Engine technology. Microsoft Word, for example, starts about a second faster on the G4, and a search-and-replace operation that takes 8.3 seconds on the G3 takes 7.5 seconds on the G4--nothing to e-mail home about.

But with G4-optimized software, the new PowerBook pulls well ahead. In my tests, Apple's iTunes software created MP3 files about 30% faster on the G4, and a complex rendering job in Adobe After Effects was 35% faster. The G4's ability to wail through calculation-intensive jobs makes the new PowerBook a natural for on-location audio and video editing and image manipulation.

Which brings me to what Apple left out. The new PowerBook lacks an expansion bay, which in earlier models could hold a second battery, a Zip drive, a CD burner or a second hard drive. The inability to add a second internal hard drive is a potential drawback for nomadic video editors, who will have to use external FireWire hard drives for video storage.

The PowerBook G4 has only one FireWire port; previous PowerBooks provided two. That isn't a significant drawback--many FireWire devices contain two ports, enabling you to daisy-chain devices--although some video pros I talked to are concerned about not having a spare connector in case the first one dies in the field.

And like Apple's iBooks and newest G4 desktops, the PowerBook G4 lacks an audio-input jack: You can't connect it to an audio source without buying--and carrying--third-party USB audio hardware. That strikes me as a penny-wise omission in a computer that begs to be used for remote media production.

Finally--and this one is subjective--I'm not fond of the PowerBook G4's keyboard. It's better than those of previous PowerBooks, but it still has the same cramped, Chiclets-size arrow keys and function keys. My aging wrists prefer the more spacious keyboards on IBM's ThinkPad portables.

The verdict? I'm impressed so far, but I have yet to take the PowerBook G4 on the road. Next week, I'll report on how the computer performed during a multi-city, cross-country, coach-class business trip--the ultimate test of any portable's mettle. And metal.

Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine.

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