Is PowerBook G4 a contender?

Summary:COMMENTARY--When I read about Apple's new PowerBook G4 (PBG4), I was initially nonplussed. It seemed to be a straightforward and unexcitingevolution of its predecessor.

COMMENTARY--When I read about Apple's new PowerBook G4 (PBG4), I was initially nonplussed. It seemed to be a straightforward and unexciting evolution of its predecessor. Sure, it was thinner and lighter, had a wide LCD screen, and was all shiny (a common theme with stuff from Apple these days), but it still seemed too large and cumbersome for my tastes.

Good thing, then, that I got my hands on one to actually use for a while. The reality of this machine is far superior to the specs. It's the first PowerBook that actually makes me want to give up my venerable (G3-accelerated) PowerBook 2400.

Lots done right
Apple has built some pretty cool laptops during the past decade or so--though not without occasional lapses--and a lot of what works well with the PowerBook G4 is a result of that experience.

The PBG4's weight reduction is very welcome. It's not as light as a subnotebook, but there's also an awful lot of stuff in this machine. I would love for it to be lighter, but given the current state of the art, the balance of weight-per-feature seems to work. This, for example, is definitely something that I would not have gleaned from studying the specs alone.

The keyboard feels good and continues to have the inverted-T configuration for the cursor keys so crucial to those of us who spend a lot of time maneuvering around in text. The ability to plug another 10/100 Ethernet device straight into the PBG4's Ethernet port without using a hub or a cross-over cable is another indicator that actual laptop users contributed to this machine's design.

The hardware inside is also quite fast indeed. It even runs Mac OS X at usable speeds; in fact, I'm writing this column under 10.0.1 on the PBG4.

The little magnetic latch that comes down automatically as the lid lowers is the pièce de résistance: the attention to detail that went into this machine is evident from this type of clever little idea. At the same time, this is also what makes the few glaring problems with the PBG4 all the more surprising.

Little things
After I'd had a week or so with the PowerBook G4 and had formed my own opinions, I asked various friends who also had PBG4s whether they had any particular gripes about this new machine. The intent was not to find occasional individual problems, but to see whether all of us agreed on one or more misfeatures.

The loss-of-battery-contact-when-flexed was experienced by some, and is already being fixed by Apple. Others lamented getting impressions from the keyboard on their LCDs, which--presumably--is readily fixable. One friend who travels a lot has already found the "PowerBook G4" lettering wearing off, and the bezel has begun to separate from the LCD near the top.

But these are relatively small issues, which I expect will be dealt with by minor changes in the current design's production cycle.

Top issues: Trackpad and AirPort
For all its good sides, the PowerBook G4 did engender some frustration both from myself as well as my friends. All of us are quite familiar with many previous generations of PowerBook and two specific misfeatures are particularly obvious to all of us, both of which are also not present in the PBG4's immediate ancestor.

The first item that drives everyone asked to distraction is the new trackpad. I noticed immediately that it's placed further in from the front edge of the case than previous trackpads, but ultimately decided that this was just something that needs getting used to. However, after numerous instances of the mouse pointer suddenly jumping elsewhere, I realized that the new trackpad is missing a separator between the button and the pad itself.

It's way too easy to brush the pad when hitting the button, and all previous trackpads had a separator between the two. One friend thought it was his big hands that were causing the difficulty, but my hands aren't big and it gets me all the time. Further input from various sources suggests that this is the single most noticed bug in the PBG4's industrial/ergonomic design.

Next on the list of stuff groused about by many is the inferior AirPort range. Given the popularity of 802.11 networks, I guesstimate more than half of the PBG4s are equipped with AirPort cards. And those with AirPorted PBG4s are quite unhappy with the range and signal strength they're getting compared to their previous PowerBooks. When I asked Apple about this, I got an extremely reasonable answer: the PBG4's 802.11 antenna is still well within spec but because of the titanium case, it's not nearly as easy to design an integrated antenna. Previous PowerBooks had plastic cases and embedded antennas, which offered superlative performance. Now that the PBG4 is merely within spec, it's a net loss for PowerBook users. Having used both, I can definitely tell the difference with the PBG4, especially when I'm connected to an ASIP server.

Given 802.11's popularity, it seems like a good idea to investigate integrating the antenna back into the case somehow and getting antenna performance back to the pre-PBG4 levels. I don't know if titanium is conductive enough to use as the antenna itself, or whether it would make sense to have an antenna strip wrap around the edge of the LCD casing. Either way, this is also something that should be fixed.

Hot sound
Another consistent lament is the non-trivial amounts of heat generated by the PowerBook G4 and the loud fan that kicks in before the PowerBook spontaneously combusts. This, presumably, is one of the reasons that these PowerBooks don't have magnesium cases. Hopefully next-generation G4s will convert less electricity into heat, and ultimately eliminate this problem.

The DVD player is also remarkably loud. While it's cool that it's a slot-loading drive, and I think it's rather historically-aware of the designers that holding down the mouse-button at startup ejects a disc if there's one inside, the drive sounds not unlike a jet taking off when it spins up. I sometimes also get a disturbing friction noise with a disc inside. It seems to me that the drive should be protected a bit better so that any flex in the case isn't passed on to it.

Finally, even after accepting that they have to buy new power supplies since the old flying saucers don't output the same flavor power, multiple respondents joined me in consternation with the power supply. It's all well and good that the little silver puck can store the cord that connects it to the PowerBook, but what about the cord that plugs into the wall socket? There's provision to have that cord avoid being an ungainly mess.

And why aren't there at least two or three of those cords in the box? It would not be inconvenient to have a cord dangling out from behind the couch that I can just connect the puck to, but I need to be able to buy the cords. The Apple Store doesn't even have extra PBG4 power supplies for sale at the moment, much less just the cords.

Evolution is good
The PowerBook G4 is a worthy successor and replacement for the PowerBook G3 line, despite its flaws. But with so much of the press gushing over how wonderful these machines are--and they are pretty darn cool--it's also important not to ignore or deny the fact that it has bugs, which in some cases are glaring to long-time PowerBook users.

The first PowerBook G3 in the rounded case had its share of issues that were fixed during its two subsequent revisions. I expect the same to happen for the PowerBook G4, though hopefully Apple can do it in a single revision, not two like last time. For this reason, I look forward to the PowerBook G4 Rev B, which hopefully will have fixed the big issues above, and all the smaller ones as well.

Stephan Somogyi is a proponent of appropriate use of language, and has recently come to the conclusion that vulture is also a verb that can, for example, be used to describe cats' activities when their humans are eating something potentially pleasing to the feline palate. Vulturing--like sharking--can also describe the process of searching for parking, often by circling.

Topics: Hardware, Apple

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