Light Is Right: Apple's PowerBook G4


Attention, video editing jocks: Apple's long-awaited PowerBook G4 might be just the fashionable ticket for churning out your next Spielberg-ian masterpiece. The futuristic-looking G4 features an extra-wide screen, high-speed ports, and video editing software, all in a tough, lightweight titanium case.

I looked at a shipping PowerBook G4 with a 500-MHz PowerPC G4 processor, 256MB of SDRAM, and a 20GB hard drive; it lists for $3499. A unit with a 400-MHz processor and half the memory and storage goes for $2599. Both configurations include a 15.2-inch screen, a fixed 6X DVD-ROM drive, a built-in 56-kbps modem, and a network interface.

With the G4, Apple hopes to lure those in the hip video editing crowd that might otherwise favor one of Sony's purple VAIO laptops as their portable studio. The G4 could succeed on looks alone. Its elongated screen, with a unique native resolution of 1152 by 768 pixels and a 3:2 aspect ratio, fits large application windows side by side.

The big screen requires the notebook case to measure an inch wider than standard. Nevertheless, the G4 is thin and relatively light, with an inch-tall case and 5.3-pound weight. Many laptops in the Windows world beat that weight, but they don't do it with such a large display. The PowerBook G4 offers more screen for pound than any other notebook we've seen.

The case is made mostly of titanium, which, according to Apple, is stronger than most metals, including the magnesium that several other notebook makers use. A thin, light bezel of carbon fiber (another exotic compound not typically found in notebooks) surrounds the base of the PowerBook, reportedly for extra structural rigidity. The materials work well enough; the notebook seems sturdy.

Minimalists will like the G4's empty stretches of flat metal. The keyboard sports translucent gray keys, a touchpad, and a power button--that's all. The self-retracting screen latch vanishes when you open the lid, and the left speaker port doubles as a microphone. A bluish-white light that indicates when the notebook is sleeping serves as the notebook's sole status light.

On the front of the G4, the self-loading DVD-ROM slot noiselessly accepts discs like a car's CD player does. Need a disc you forgot to eject before shutting down? Forget it: The drive does come with a disc ejection hole--but it works only when the notebook is turned on. It's fixed in place, so you can't swap in a CD-RW or floppy drive, and unlike most other laptops that can't accept those drives internally, you can't connect them externally. Apple means for you to rely on the notebook's IEEE-1394 port, two USB connections, an ethernet port, and built-in wireless networking circuitry to connect to the outside world. (The latter requires the $99 AirPort card.) Most of the connections sit hidden on the back, behind a sturdy titanium cover.

No Floppy Drive, but Gigaflop Speed

Coolly elegant, yes, but the G4 isn't for everyone. Apple touts the G4's PowerPC G4 chip as the first microprocessor capable of supercomputer-class, gigaflop speed. But only a handful of high-end graphics and video editing applications currently are optimized for the chip (most of them from Adobe Systems). According to Apple, a 500-MHz PowerBook G4 outperforms a Pentium III-850 laptop by 30 percent, and the predecessor PowerBook G3 by 60 percent in some processor-intensive Photoshop operations, but users won't see much difference in everyday business applications. In our informal tests, it seemed just as fast as a PC laptop.

However, I had trouble getting a DVD-ROM movie to play uninterrupted when I tried to work on another application at the same time, which isn't a problem on other notebooks. Also, the battery life falls far short of Apple's claim of 5 hours when the G4 is called on to work hard, such as when playing the DVD movie. Our unit pooped out 2 hours into Gladiator.

The G4 packs an industry-standard ATI Rage Mobility video card, but it comes with only 8MB of dedicated video RAM, which is skimpy for serious multimedia professionals. The notebook's sound quality is merely so-so, and it has no external volume control.

The PowerBook G4 includes no productivity software, unless multimedia mavens want to count IMovie 2, a consumer-level video editing application, and the new ITunes jukebox app; Apple does not include its AppleWorks office suite. Free telephone support ends after 90 days and the warranty after one year, a miserly package compared with the lifetime support and 3-year warranties offered by many PC vendors.

For graphics or video pros who work all day in an application optimized for its processor (go to Apple's site for a complete list), the PowerBook G4 should make a sleek, powerful portable editing studio (especially if you're a Mac fan). But most office applications will run just fine on a less glamorous, less expensive notebook.

This story, "Light Is Right: Apple's PowerBook G4" was originally published by PCWorld.

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