PowerBook G4 17": The First 100 Seconds

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Date: Sunday, June 19th, 2005, 14:51
Category: Hardware, PowerBook 17-Inch

No wonder creative types love Macs. When Apple does something truly brilliant, you can fall in love with a machine in an instant, like the perfect paintbrush or sweetest, favorite electric guitar. And the 17″ PowerBook is one of the best things Cupertino’s ever done: the dream finally realized of a uncompromising desktop machine that’s mobile, built like a tank to take a beating. In my first 100 seconds of ownership, I was hooked. Read more . . .


No wonder creative types love Macs. When Apple does something truly brilliant, you can fall in love with a machine in an instant, like the perfect paintbrush or sweetest, favorite electric guitar. And the 17″ PowerBook is one of the best things Cupertino’s ever done: the dream finally realized of a uncompromising desktop machine that’s mobile, built like a tank to take a beating. In my first 100 seconds of ownership, I was hooked.
The 17″ is the ultimate successor to the original PowerBook G4 in some crucial ways, too. Much as I loved my Titanium 400, even in the first 100 seconds I knew there was going to be trouble. Let’s flash back to 2001: we were ecstatic to have our first G4 laptop in a case that seemed to be the best design ever.
Or so we thought. The moment I unpacked my Titanium, I said, jeez, this thing feels fragile. And, wow, that magnetic hinge mechanism seems delicate. After two years with the Titanium, it turned out that first gut instinct was right. My first-generation Titanium, one of the first off the assembly line, suffered from a serious lack of durability. The machine chronically shut down without warning if you so much as touched it the wrong way. I had two LCDs drop columns of pixels, apparently due to the extreme flexibility of the Titanium shell. (Grab a TiBook’s screen with one hand and bend and you’ll see what I mean. Not true with the Aluminum 17″.) I even had optical drive problems with the eject mechanism and sometimes loading because resting your hand on the thin, delicate case could interfere with the drive. And getting that latch to close was often a challenge. My worst experience: having a display BREAK COMPLETELY OFF the hinge, thanks to the Titanium’s poor hinge design and construction.
Count them: that’s three trips to Texas for repairs, and my PowerBook spends most of its time on my desk. Some of these symptoms began to improve with age, others were tweaked in later-manufactured Titaniums, but it was hard to get away from the thought that the design wasn’t optimal. I babied my PowerBook G4, a far cry from the abuse I dealt a PB/1400 and G3 Series/233, and still it had reliability problems and looked like it had been dragged from behind a station wagon.
There were other sacrifices versus the PowerBook G3 Series. First off, performance gains were less than we hoped in the first generation. The G4 looked in specs too much like Apple’s sluggish desktop offerings from months before. Despite the great case, the machine was evolutionary in performance, not revolutionary. And we made other sacrifices: just one FireWire port and no expansion bays.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m intentionally splitting hairs here. The Titanium still had a more gorgeous screen than my friends’ PCs, competed well with price, and came with a slim, beautiful body everyone loves. But let’s flash back to 2003 and see how far Apple has come — this is truly a computer company operating on all cylinders, making a machine that can be considered a masterpiece.
2003:
I always had a hard time recommending laptops before. Want a rugged machine that will take the unavoidable abuse of the road? Get an iBook. Want performance? Get a PowerBook. Finally, Apple’s brought the best of the iBook line to its pros (who probably need it more, frankly). Nothing’s bendy here, the hinge tension feels absolutely perfect — and look at that new hinge design. Borrowed from the iBook, you don’t have to be an engineer to see the difference: stress distributed across a hinge that’s recessed into the case instead of concentrating it on two exposed points (which, as regular PowerPage readers know, Apple then seems to have made out of clay). Thanks to a bottom-loading memory upgrade scheme, the keyboard feels better than any laptop — Apple or PC — I’ve ever tried. There are stereo speakers that don’t make you wince for occasional use. And no more sacrifices: audio in is back, and we have two FireWire ports (the 800 doubling optionally as a 400).
And this laptop performs so insanely well it’s almost sick. 167MHz system bus, 1GHz processor, 1MB cache, and great video. We’ve claimed it many times before, but I suspect this is the first laptop with performance indistinguishable from a desktop. Forget benchmarks — you don’t wait for anything to happen on this system, even with system hogs like (ahem) iCal. The Titanium ran OS 9 well, but under OS X I started to see spinning color swirlies in my sleep.
Oher improvements over the first-generation PowerBook G4/400-500 caught me by surprise. The slot-loading drive finally seems capable of, well, loading discs, but without the violent sucking action of some mid-generation Titaniums. The sound output completely blew me away. You can crank the volume without hearing any noise, and fidelity is noticeably better. And, of course, there’s the ambient light sensor that dims the display and backlights the keyboard. This feature is so well-designed that it’s barely noticeable. Speaking as someone who sometimes gigs with my PowerBook, instead of feeling like this is a gimick, your immediate reaction is, why aren’t all laptops smart enough to behave like this?
But down to business: all the improvements I’m describing could be applied to a future Aluminum 15″ PowerBook. Is this thing too huge?
I’m going to argue, passionately, no. The 17″ shouldn’t get any bigger — please don’t release a 19″ PowerBook, in other words, Apple. But I find it more comfortable to use, thanks to its surprising lightness and thinness, than my PowerBook G3 Series / 233. And the screen . . . the screen is just perfect. Maybe it’s my laptop roots, but I honestly find the Cinema Displays almost too vast for daily work. Graphics pros probably love it; for audio and music the 17″ seems like the perfect size, neither too large nor too small. So the impression is distinctly of a desktop screen on a machine you can stick in a backpack. And, of course, it’s refreshing to see such a beautiful monitor running OS X instead of being wasted on an ugly Windows UI.
I don’t think US$3300 is too much to pay, either, though with the premium this machine is likely to fetch in Europe German customers, for instance, will certainly feel some hurt. In the US, the included software more than pays for itself: aside from iLife, which is unequaled on the PC in features, the 17″ is the one machine with a decent software bundle: all the licensed shareware Apple has been including plus Microsoft Office and QuickBooks. Apple’s throwing in a free Canon printer on top of that, after rebate, plus $200 off iPod for academic customers. So, your wallet is lighter, but you’ve got something to show for it.
And I’ve come to believe built-in DVD burning should be considered a necessity. It’s the most elegant way to share video or even photos, thanks to iDVD, and it’s a perfect backup/archiving solution. While it’d be nice to see faster than 1x DVD burning, at least this drive delivers 16x CD burning (versus 2x/8x for my LaCie DVD-R drive).
Anyway, enough chatter. It comes down to one thing: I’ve been using Macs since my ill-fated 7500/100 running Apple’s worst OS ever, OS 7.5.2 with Open Transport, in 1996, followed shortly by what I think is the worst thing Apple ever made, the 5300c/100. There are no words to describe life with the 17″ machine but love. This is the computer, and the operating system, I’ve been waiting for.

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