Apple PowerBook G4 (1GHz, 17in. TFT)

  • Editors' rating
    7.4 Very good

Pros

  • Backlit keyboard lights up automatically in low light
  • DVD-burning SuperDrive fitted as standard
  • built-in 802.11g and Bluetooth networking
  • attractive design
  • solid keyboard.

Cons

  • Doesn't outperform 15in. Titanium model
  • awkward shape limits portability
  • weak standard warranty.

Apple's high-profile 17in. PowerBook G4 took on legendary status as would-be owners waited for this portable giant to start shipping. We can't deny that this is a rock-star's notebook, what with its hot new design, built-in DVD burning as standard, wireless networking and awesome backlit keyboard. But the £2,211.91 (ex. VAT; £2,598.99 inc. VAT) 17in. PowerBook performs about the same as its 15in. predecessor, and it's extremely awkward to carry. If you want an attractive, not-very-portable Mac with a 17in. LCD and a DVD burner, an iMac is more than £1,000 cheaper. If you're after a slick-looking G4-based Apple notebook, the original Titanium PowerBook remains our top choice.

Design
The 17in. PowerBook G4, which is made of brushed aluminium alloy (like its new 12in. counterpart, rather than the titanium-built models of old), is almost ridiculously large: it's definitely a desktop replacement, and is difficult to tote around. In everyday use, the PowerBook's extremely rectangular shape -- 39.2cm by 25.9cm by 2.6cm -- is a barrier to free motion. The notebook simply won't fit in most standard-sized laptop bags, and it's so long that when tucked under an arm, the end of the notebook bashes into passers-by, turnstiles and door frames. At 3.1kg (plus another 0.23kg for the power adapter), the 17in. PowerBook is more than half a kilogram heavier than the 15in. Titanium model but lighter than Dell's 4kg Inspiron 8500. There's one benefit to this notebook's strangely wide size, however. The 17in. screen, viewable at 1,440 by 900 pixels and a 16:10 aspect ratio, makes watching DVDs in letterbox format a full-screen dream, and you can comfortably fit two open documents side by side. Text, however, appears slightly small at 1,440 by 900, which is a slight detraction. You can zoom in on or enlarge text to counteract the problem, but lowering the screen resolution from the native setting significantly deteriorates the image. This PowerBook's hottest feature, however, is its backlit keyboard. A few other notebooks, such as the IBM ThinkPad T40, feature some keyboard lighting (usually as a single light at the top of the screen), but the 17in. PowerBook uses an ambient sensor to detect low light and automatically illuminate the keyboard. In a darkened room, the letters and spaces between keys glow with a soft, purplish light. We found, however, that a room has to be quite dark for the backlighting to come on -- we'd like to see a light-sensitivity setting in the System Preferences. Apple says that the backlighting won't eat battery life, as the PowerBook automatically dims its screen to compensate. The keyboard itself sports the same brushed-metal style -- although it's actually plastic -- as the 12in. model, with full-sized, logically placed keys and comfortable, extremely quiet typing. The trackpad is huge -- about 10cm wide -- with a single, enlarged mouse button. With so much extra space, we wish Apple would relent and toss in a second mouse button. In addition, the keyboard and trackpad both look tiny and awkward on such a large palette (maybe Apple could enlarge the keyboard to Pro size or throw in a numerical keypad to even things out a bit), and the trackpad is a bit too far from the keyboard for quick navigation. A set of speakers flank the keyboard, providing decent sound for music and movies.

Features
The 17in. PowerBook has all of the features that its new 12in. counterpart lacks, plus a few more. You'll get a 1GHz G4 processor; 1MB of performance-enhancing L3 cache, which the 12in. model lacks; 512MB of DDR RAM; a 60GB hard drive; and an Nvidia GeForce4 440 Go graphics card with 64MB of video RAM. You'll also get the Apple SuperDrive, which reads and writes CDs at 24X and 8X, respectively, and reads and writes DVDs at 8X and 1X, along with a built-in AirPort Extreme card, which provides 54Mbps, 802.11g-draft-compliant wireless networking that's compatible with the 11Mbps AirPort; and built-in Bluetooth for accessing Palm devices or the Internet via Bluetooth mobile phones. Of course, there's also a built-in 56Kbps modem. The PowerBook's specifications compare well against those of desktop-replacement notebooks on the PC side, few of which offer DVD-burning drives. In terms of processor, memory, and drive space, however, the 17in. PowerBook is almost identical to the 15in. Titanium model -- only extras such as the faster SuperDrive, the AirPort Extreme card, Bluetooth, the 17in. screen, and the new keyboard design and lighting set the new model apart. The 17in. PowerBook performed about the same as the 15in. model, but its battery didn't last as long. It outperformed a similarly configured iMac, as well, although the iMac had half as much memory. Overall, its performance is excellent, but it's not significantly better than that of the iMac, and it's about the same as that of the Titanium PowerBook. As for connectivity, the 17in. PowerBook comes all decked out. The left side of the notebook sports both modem and USB ports, an audio-in jack and a headphone jack. On the right side, there's another USB opening; two FireWire ports (one is FireWire 800, a faster standard that supports data rates of 800Mbps, compared to 400Mbps for standard FireWire); gigabit Ethernet; a DVI-output port for connecting a digital monitor or projector; and S-Video out. The PowerBook ships with a DVI-to-VGA adapter that lets you plug in an extra (analogue) monitor. As always, Apple's software package is excellent -- but only if you buy your own office suite. You'll get OS X 10.2.3, the excellent new iLife bundle (which includes iDVD, iTunes, iPhoto and iMovie), as well as QuickBooks 5.0 from Intuit, Apple iSync, FAXstf, plus OmniOutliner and OmniGraffle (an elegant charting application) from the Omni Group. Apple also bundles the Microsoft Office X Test Drive, which lets you use Office free for 30 days before you buy a licence. Weirdly, though, Apple doesn't bundle its own office suite, AppleWorks, with the PowerBook line, although an OS X version is available.

Performance
The 17in. PowerBook features nearly the same system specs as the higher-end of the two 15.2in. PowerBook configurations: a 1GHz PowerPC G4 processor, a 1MB L3 cache, 512MB SDRAM and a 60GB, 4,200rpm hard drive (the 17in. system features the faster Ultra ATA/100 drive interface, while the 15.2in. model uses Ultra ATA/66). The 17in. PowerBook also features an Nvidia GeForce4 440 Go graphics card with 64MB of DDR video memory. Not surprisingly, given the nearly identical specs, the 17in. and 15.2in. PowerBooks performed about the same in our application-based tests. Both of the 1GHz systems outpaced the 12.1in. 867MHz G4 PowerBook. The 12.1in. system's performance suffered less from a slower clock speed than from its comparatively paltry 256MB of RAM. This discrepancy was particularly noticeable in our Photoshop tests, which are processor intensive and employ a large test file. The 17in. PowerBook also outperformed a 1GHz G4 iMac desktop configured with 256MB RAM (Apple also offers the 1GHz iMac configured with 1GB of RAM), but the differences weren't significant, and most users wouldn't notice a difference in everyday use, especially on an iMac with more RAM. We use three different applications (Photoshop 7.0, iMovie and iTunes) to test Apple's notebook performance. We perform a number of common, processor-intensive tasks in Photoshop; in iMovie, we convert a large movie file into QuickTime; and in iTunes, we convert a music file into MP3, timing each procedure.

Battery life
We expected this PowerBook's huge 17in. display to significantly hamper the battery-life performance, at least compared to the results from smaller PowerBook configurations. But although it features a slightly less powerful battery than the 15.2in. system (a 55-watt-hour rating vs. a 61-watt-hour rating), the 17in. PowerBook lasted nearly as long in our DVD-playback test. In fact, all three of the PowerBook designs seem to provide about the same amount of battery life: the tiny 12.1in. system, which has a 47-watt-hour battery, outlasted the 17in. model by only 11 minutes. Overall, battery life is roughly two and a half hours at high drain, which is acceptable. That's long enough to watch most movies, and it would probably last much longer using productivity applications rather than watching DVDs. In order to drain the battery of an Apple notebook, we play a DVD movie in full-screen mode with the sound on.

Service & support
Apple offers a somewhat stingy one-year warranty on parts and labour on the 17in. PowerBook. For £199, you can extend the warranty to three years, which we recommend if you plan to tote this giant around a lot. You also get 90 days-worth of free technical-support calls. After that, calls cost £35 per incident, unless you can demonstrate that a problem was caused by a factory defect. The 104-page illustrated paper manual in the box is clear and informative, providing instructions on setup, use, installation of additional memory, installation of an AirPort Extreme card, changing the battery and simple troubleshooting. You'll also find a rich resource of help information, software updates, and discussion forums at Apple's Web site, although you must register -- for free -- to use the help pages.

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