PowerBook 17-Inch: First Impressions

Posted by:
Date: Monday, April 14th, 2003, 01:00
Category: Archive

After spending two days with my new PowerBook 17-Inch I am finally starting to get used to it. A good friend of mine named Nuggets got bragging rights by getting his 17 first told me that “at first I thought it was too big.” I have to concur. When you first open up and use the massive PowerBook you’ll fell the same way. Coming from a 15-inch it feels just too big. But don’t fret, it goes away in about an hour.

After spending two days with my new PowerBook 17-Inch I am finally starting to get used to it. A good friend of mine named Nuggets got bragging rights by getting his 17 first told me that “at first I thought it was too big.” I have to concur. When you first open up and use the massive PowerBook you’ll fell the same way. Coming from a 15-inch it feels just too big. But don’t fret, it goes away in about an hour.

First thing you should do with a new PowerBook is calibrate the battery. According to the manual and kbase article #86284 this is done by fully charging it, disconnect it from the AC adapter, use it until you see the first low battery warning dialog on the screen then continue to use it until it goes to sleep. At that point the battery has been sufficiently drained for calibration.

Too Big?

After using the PB17 for about an hour, I found myself quite used the large 1440 by 900 pixel screen. I was immediately taking advantage of the extra real estate by moving my iChat buddy list to the far left side, then BBEdit, then a Camino browser window, then finder icons. Recently I moved my dock to the right hand side to make even more top to bottom space for applications. This setup take a little getting used to but works quite well.

The fit and finish of the 17″ PowerBook is tight. The aluminum painted key tops give the keyboard a firm and crisp feel and the speaker grills are nicely done. I wish that Apple would finally concede the two-button argument and split the trackpad button in two. Also, the massive footprint of the new enclosure could have easily accommodated the addition of a numeric keypad, at the expense of the speakers. I wonder why they didn’t add this. One friend noted that its size could easily accommodate a drink holder. Join in the PB17 code name discussions here, I dig Walt Mossberg’s “Aircraft Carrier.”

If you type with your wrists hanging off the right and left of a 15-inch TiBook, the 17-inch will feel weird at first. The extra width of the chassis forces your arms out a little more and kind of digs into your forearms, but like the other aspects of a new piece of hardware, you will get used to it. Don’t panic.

Open the Book

Upon further inspection I discovered that the keyboard is spot-welded onto the palm rest/top housing. As well, the trackpad and supporting components are permanently connected to the palm rest. What this means is that no longer will you be able to just replace a keyboard or trackpad when a soda gets spilled or if it becomes defective over time. This also means that instead of a US$100-$200 keyboard replacement or a simple trackpad or trackpad button replacement, it’s going to be a much more expensive repair to replace the entire palm rest/top housing. At least for the keyboard, it looks like Apple had to do this for the circuitry required to light up the keyboard.

The PB17 comes bundled with an Airport Extreme obviating the need to open the case and install this on day one. The Airport Extreme card and hard drive are installed in the top half of the machine and require some serious disassembly to access. An interesting note about the Airport antennas from the Developer Note:

Two antennas are built into the computer, on either side of the flat-panel display. One antenna is always used for transmitting. Either of the two antennas may be used for receiving. Using a diversity technique, Airport Extreme may select the antenna that gives the best reception. The secondary antenna is used for Bluetooth.

Memory in the new PB17 is DDR SDRAM which means that fat memory strip from your PB15 is not compatible. It ships with 512MB and is expandable to 1GB total. The 512MB chip can be purchased from Transintl.com for US$120 a little less on Froogle. Where did you purchase yours?

For my last couple of PowerBook upgrades I was able to update the system software on my IBM Travelstar 60GH hard drive then simply unbolt and install it in the new machine. Bang. Almost zero transition time. The 17-inch PB however requires a 9.5mm high Fujitsu (model MHS2060AT) hard drive mechanism. Previous (15-inch) PowerBooks allowed 12.5mm high hard drives which won’t fit in the new 17. Good thing I checked.

Hard Drivin’

The down side to having to keep the internal HDD is that: a) it is a 4200 RPM mechanism (versus the 5400 RPM IBM) and b) re-creating a hard drive with a lot of data takes a good two days, and a lot of thought. Moving to new drive brings up other questions like backing up, archiving, and how much room your have on your external drives. Omni Group’s US$15 Omni Disk Sweeper is a good tool for “finding and deleting big, useless files” clogging your drive. Next run DeLocalizer to save a quick 300-500MB of valuable hard drive space in unused language data files.

I also immediately reformat and partition a new hard drive into two with a main first partition then a second 5GB partition for beta testing new software. Just select Disk Utility from the file menu of the installed when booted from the system CD.

There are tools like Mike Bombich’s excellent Carbon Copy Cloner available that will easily clone one Mac OS X hard drive to another while preserving file permissions and the invisible Unix system files, but for this upgrade I wanted to take a “clean system” approach and scrub some of the cobwebs that were undoubtedly hanging out in my previous system. It’s like getting a car wash, your car tends to just drive better when it’s super clean.

One thing about manual hard drive migrations, do yourself a favor: make your user accounts and hard drive names on the target HDD exactly the same as they were on the source. That way you can simply drag over your user folder (use a FireWire cable and Target Disk Mode here) and have things like your iTunes and iPhoto libraries work.

Changing the names of user accounts and drive names will break these and cause hours of permission/file pathing grief. iTunes glaring omission of archiving lead to me Doug’s AppleScripts for iTunes, an excellent site with 171 Applescripts for tweaking your iTunes library. I spent hours with these tightening up my MP3s. The scripts for getting rid of duplicate and MIA MP3s are especially useful, the DVD archiving scripts are difficult to get working with large amounts of files.

New Features

The new items in the 17-inch PowerBook I love are the built-in Bluetooth and the ambient light sensor. The latter are really useful for non-touch typists that use a PowerBook in low light. Excellent implementation and execution of a feature we first alluded to over a year ago on the PowerPage.

Also new is the addition of a FireWire 800 port that uses a 9-pin connector and is backwards compatible with original 1394 FireWire devices with 6-pin or 4-pin connectors. I find it curious that Apple did not bundle the FireWire 800 to 400 adapter that Steve Jobs promised in his MWSF03 keynote address. He did say it was going to be included in the box, didn’t he?

The PB17 runs a tad warm but not as much as the PowerBook 12-inch, probably a function of the much larger cabinet which undoubtedly aids cooling. The 17-inch PB finally convinced me to disconnect the almost useless 17-inch CRT monitor I have been using for extended desktop (spanning). I stopped using it because it looks so soft and dull next to the crisp 17-inch LCD. There is much less eye strain when using an LCD monitor compared to a CRT.


Apple authorized service providers have told the PowerPage that they are already seeing repairs of both the 12″ and 17″ PBG4s coming in. Seems that the big guys are especially slippery and prone to damage when dropped. You have to take extra level of caution with the aircraft carrier model due to its added size. In fact, plan on getting a new sleeve case, bag and other accessories like stands and tables if you go for the 17-inch as none of your current stuff will fit.

Using the PB17 with any sort of angled table in bed, like the Laptop Laidback is a challenge, the weight of the large 17″ display makes it want to close down on you while typing. This is a real drawback as the 17 does not work well with the keyboard angled much more than 20 degrees down, after this point the weight of the screen will make it start to close.

On the plus side, Apple seems to have addressed the key marks on the screen problem as it is barely noticeable in initial tests. This is a good as I’m sure that the hard edge of the aluminum keys could do some real damage to the display. I have been using a US$13 PowerPad screen protector from PowerBookResQ just in case.

Year of the PowerBook

The announcement of the new aluminum 12 and 17-inch PBs at Macworld Expo SF03, rumors of the 15-inch going aluminum really soon and even the possibility of 970 processors and even dual processor 17-inch PowerBook next year. 2003 is certainly shaping up to be “The Year of the PowerBook.”

Stay tuned for plenty of new accessory and luggage options as manufacturers ramp up for the new PowerBook 17-inch, and tune into the PowerPage for the latest reviews of all the new schwag. Vendors looking to have PowerBook items reviewed on the PowerPage should get in touch soon as the summer reviews schedule is filling up fast. Readers looking to review new PB17 items should use the PowerPage NewsWire to contribute stories.

Full PowerBook 17-inch specs and details are on the Apple PowerBook 17-inch page, Apple also has PDF User Manuals, Data Sheets and a Technology Overview. If you are a tinkerer you will want to read the 17-inch Developer note in HTML and PDF.

Buy your PowerBook G4 17-inch from Amazon.com and support the PowerPage.

Recent Posts

Comments are closed.