Review: 15-inch PowerBook G4 (January 2005)
As was widely expected, Apple released an update to the PowerBook line in January. More of an evolutionary step than a revolutionary one, the new PowerBooks add comparatively little in the way of new features or specs but, with the “AlBook” design on its third revision, there is a higher level of refinement than ever before.
The gotta-have-it new feature is the new scrolling trackpad, letting you use two fingers on the trackpad to scroll and pan about the screen. While it may seem trivial to people who have never used it, after spending just one afternoon with it, you’ll be wondering why every laptop in the world doesn’t have this feature. Forget scroll wheels, scroll buttons, or any other scroll add-ons; Apple has once again introduced an amazingly simple, intuitive, and powerful feature to the market. The scrolling features of the new PowerBooks are available for most late-model iBooks and PowerBooks through the use of iScroll2, a free replacement trackpad driver by Daniel Becker based on the Darwin trackpad driver.
Unfortunately, the trackpads have had their share of problems. While scrolling is incredibly improved, basic mousing has taken a step backwards in reliability. There are countless reports of people having problems with jumpy cursor movement, overly stiff buttons, trackpad tapping, etc. Apple has acknowledged the problem, though a permanent fix has yet to be discovered or disclosed. The 15" model reviewed for this article has been largely problem-free, though the button is noticeably stiffer and scrolling is noticeably jerkier than on the TiBook it replaced (or the Wall Street before that). The most annoying problem, which the official fix has thus far failed to remedy, has been occasional loss of “contact” between the trackpad and my finger, causing the cursor to release during drags. This usually presents itself during window resizing, where the window will “fall off” the cursor, and a click will be issued at the end of the cursor’s path (where the window resize widget would have been dragged had it not “fallen off”). As usual, individual skin chemistry and ambient humidity play a big role in how serious the problem is.
The other major new feature, which has thankfully been entirely problem-free thus far, is the Sudden Motion Sensor. The SMS is also called the “Apple Motion Sensor” in some cases, and has yet another name in the Darwin source code. Apple’s advertising refers to it as the Sudden Motion Sensor, so that’s what I’ll use here.
Similar in purpose to IBM’s widely advertised hard disk motion sensor (in the memorable commercial where the guy intentionally knocks a laptop off the coffee-shop counter, only to realize the laptop isn’t his friend’s), the Sudden Motion Sensor detects acceleration and deceleration of the laptop and parks the heads on the disk drive to minimize damage. The innovative feature in this case is Apple’s placement of the sensor on the motherboard, rather than inside the hard disk. Because the SMS is software-accessible, it has been the subject of perhaps the most hacking since the Color Classic. Enterprising programmers have already developed some intriguing proof-of-concept programs, a fairly complete input framework that lets you use it like a mouse, an iTunes controller, and an interesting arcade-type game. Thus far unfulfilled is a suggestion for an Etch-a-Sketch-like Trash, which sounds incredibly cool, if somewhat silly. Suffice it to say that the SMS has the “cool factor” going for it, and it seems to work as advertised.
Keyboard backlighting has been around a while, but as someone who was upgrading from an icKeys-illuminated TiBook, I just have to point out that once you experience the glory of the backlight, you’ll never want to give it up. The keyboard on the new ’Books feels even better than the TiBook’s keyboard did, and the backlighting makes working in a darkened space like a dorm room or airplane cabin simply effortless. No more fumbling around with awkward gooseneck USB lights, just clear, softly lit labels on every key. The auto-dimming screen is a very nice touch, too, though it needs to be a bit more aggressive in extreme low-light situations, such as a totally dark room.
With the AlBooks, Apple seems to have returned to the days of the Wall Street, when laptop keyboards didn’t leave “keyprints” on the screen. At the least, the AlBooks are much better than previous models, especially the TiBooks, which were highly susceptible to transfer of skin oils from the keyboard to the screen. In a move sure to please cheapskates everywhere, Apple has begun shipping new ’Books with a sheet of plastic foam between the screen and keyboard; I recommend you save this and use it to prevent any possible “keyprinting” on the screen. Those of you who want something a little classier, though it’s by no means as necessary as on older PowerBooks, should check into the numerous leather or cloth screen protectors out there.
Other improvements introduced in January are mostly minor. CPU speeds have been bumped up roughly 12 percent across the board, with the 12" and 15" models getting a boost to 1.5 GHz (and 1.67 GHz as an option for the 15") and the 17" going to 1.67 GHz. For the two larger models, the user-upgradeable 512 MB RAM is now a single module instead of two, leaving the second slot free for future upgrades and preventing a wasted DIMM. (The 12" model has only one DIMM slot.) Hard disk sizes are generally up across the board, with the top-of-the-line 17" model getting a 100 GB drive, the largest on the market. All PowerBook hard drives are now 5400 RPM drives, making for faster disk access than the 4200 RPM drives in previous generations. The claimed weight for the 15" model is down from 5.7 to 5.6 pounds, which is probably too little for anyone to notice. The 17" model has on-board dual-link DVI, giving it the ability to drive the 30" Cinema Display, and the 15" SuperDrive model can have it added for $100 via Build-to-Order. The last significant change to the lineup is pricing, which is down by $100 on almost every model. More computer for less money is the general rule of progress in the industry, and it’s always nice to have a price cut.
If you have a PowerBook introduced in the last 18 months, there’s really little reason to upgrade. iScroll2 adds the most important feature introduced in the new PowerBooks to all recent Apple laptops, so the only things you’ll really gain are speed and some hard disk space (and the ability to drive a 30" Cinema Display, if you’re one of the lucky few). If you’re still slogging along on a TiBook or older laptop, or you’re ready to make the jump from the iBook to the PowerBook line, the new PowerBooks are just what Uncle Steve ordered. Those of you using a laptop as a desktop replacement won’t mind the oddities of the new trackpads, and the rest of the features greatly overwhelm this annoyance.