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Apple PowerBook G4 (867MHz, 12.1in. TFT)

  • Editors' rating
    7.6 Very good

Pros

  • Keyboard is superior to that of the iBook and previous PowerBook G4
  • top-notch display
  • solid performance
  • built-in Bluetooth
  • attractive design.

Cons

  • No PC Card slot
  • heavy compared to some 12in. PC notebooks
  • RAM expandable to only 640MB
  • weak standard warranty.

The smallest Apple notebook packs an appealing punch. At 2.1kg, the company's new, 12in. PowerBook G4 is smaller, lighter and faster than the 12.1in. iBook, although it costs nearly £300 (ex. VAT) more in the UK. Instead of the iBook's G3 processor, you'll get an 867MHz G4 and faster Nvidia GeForce4 420 graphics hardware. The 12in. is cheaper than its larger PowerBook G4 counterparts, but lacks a few of our favourite PowerBook features -- namely, an L3 cache, a PC Card slot and built-in Wi-Fi. However, it trounces older Titanium models with a delightfully firm and large new keyboard, built-in Bluetooth and a slot for the 802.11g-draft-compliant AirPort Extreme card. It also stacks up well against PC notebooks -- even in terms of price. Get the AirPort card and toss in the optional DVD-burning SuperDrive, and you have a thin-and-light notebook that should please anyone on any platform.

Design
The 12in. PowerBook, at 27.7cm by 21.9cm by 3cm, is actually slightly smaller than the 12in. iBook, and it's the lightest of the Mac bunch at 2.1kg (plus 0.23kg for the power adapter) with the battery and the optical drive installed. However, it's still noticeably heavier than the lightest 12in. notebooks on the PC side -- the similarly proportioned Compaq Evo N410c, for example, weighs just 1.6kg, while a fully loaded Toshiba Portégé 4010 weighs 1.9kg. The 12in. PowerBook's new design is similar to that of its 15in. counterpart: attractive, sleek and metallic but with an anodised-aluminium case instead of titanium. The 12.1in. display supports 1,024 by 768 resolution and looks crisp and bright; you can even adjust the brightness from the keyboard -- a nice touch. The lid's hinge is wider than the iBook's, providing more support to the thinner screen. The most pleasantly surprising new design feature is the keyboard, which is superior to that of the earlier PowerBooks, iBooks and possibly even Apple's desktops. A good touch-typist can really fly on this brushed-metal-looking keyboard, which offers good response, has comfortably shaped keys and does not flex at all. Despite the 27.7cm width of the 12in. PowerBook, the keyboard is full sized in both the distance between the centre of the keys and in the travel (the up and down motion). All keys are logically placed, as well. The only thing this PowerBook lacks is the drool-worthy keyboard backlighting of the new 17in. model. The trackpad is large and responsive, although its size places it awkwardly far away from the keypad. We also wish Apple would throw in a right-click button since Mac OS has long supported contextual menus. Apple had to make some small sacrifices for the snazzy keyboard. The reason this keyboard doesn't flex is that it no longer pops out for internal access, as in previous models. To add more RAM, you now need a screwdriver to open the PowerBook's bottom panel -- a small price to pay, we think. To access the AirPort card slot, you simply remove the battery.

Features
The 12in. PowerBook delivers far more bang for the buck than the high-end iBook, while cutting a few of the features of its high-end brethren. Like the iBook, this notebook doesn't include a performance-enhancing L3 cache, but the 12in. PowerBook compensates with its 867MHz G4 processor and faster graphics via an Nvidia GeForce4 420 Go with 32MB of DDR SDRAM. Unfortunately, the PowerBook, which comes standard with 256MB of DDR RAM, tops out at 640MB (the same as the iBook), creating a possible bottleneck if you run several RAM-hungry programs such as Photoshop, iDVD and Virtual PC simultaneously. As for expansion and connectivity, the 12in. PowerBook lacks a PC Card slot, but a full set of ports runs along the left-hand side, including FireWire, 100Mbps Ethernet, video-out, sound-in and -out, a modem and two USB ports. In contrast, the 17in. model boasts both a PC Card slot and the faster FireWire 800 standard. The video-out features are designed for travellers connecting to TVs and projectors, not desktop users -- you'll find no DVI or AGP to connect an extra monitor or an Apple flat-panel display -- a shame, since a smaller notebook means a smaller screen. The 12in. PowerBook also offers some excellent features that previous models lack, including a slot for a £67.23 (ex. VAT) AirPort Extreme card, which provides 54Mbps, 802.11g-draft-compliant wireless networking that's compatible with the 11Mbps AirPort. We've become used to built-in Wi-Fi in the PowerBook line, but most comparable thin-and-light notebooks, such as the Toshiba Portégé 4010 series, don't include it either. A DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive comes standard, but you can tack on a slot-loading CD-RW/DVD-R SuperDrive for another £134.37 (ex. VAT). Built-in Bluetooth for accessing Palm devices or the Internet also comes standard, and the 12in. PowerBook now has a pair of stereo speakers and an enhanced mid-range third speaker that provide audio clear enough to hear dialogue in movies. Finally, a 40GB hard drive offers plenty of room for a decent-sized iTunes music library and is a reasonable capacity for such a small notebook. The hard disk comes loaded with an ample collection of software, most notably QuickBooks 5.0 from Intuit, Apple's iSync and iLife, FAXstf, plus OmniOutliner and OmniGraffle (an elegant charting program) from the Omni Group. Also convenient is Microsoft Office X Test Drive, which lets you use Office free for 30 days before you buy licenses.

Performance
The 12in. PowerBook, with its more powerful G4 processor, handily outpaced a G3 iBook in our tests, but its small amount of RAM limited its performance. We used three different applications (Photoshop 7.0, iMovie 2.0, and iTunes) to test Apple's notebook performance. We performed a number of common, processor-intensive tasks in Photoshop; in iMovie, we converted a large movie file into QuickTime; and in iTunes, we converted a music file into MP3, timing each procedure. The 12in. PowerBook put its G4 867MHz processor to good use in our intensive Photoshop 7.0 tests, easily outperforming the budget G3-800MHz iBook. But its meagre 256MB of RAM placed it far behind the 1GHz Titanium PowerBook G4, with its more generous 512MB of RAM. In our iMovie and iTunes tests, the 12in. PowerBook scored closer to the 1GHz G4-based Titanium than to the 800MHz G3-based iBook. In iMovie, the 12in. PowerBook was approximately 20 percent slower than the Titanium, while the iBook was about 40 percent slower, thanks to its less powerful G3 processor. The 12in. PowerBook took only 10 seconds longer than the Titanium to encode our test audio file in iTunes.

Battery life
Although the 12in. PowerBook's small display (it's actually 12.1 inches) consumes less power than the larger PowerBook configurations, this notebook also sports a relatively small, 47-watt-hour battery. This combination of specifications kept the 12in. PowerBook alive for a relatively short 2.6 hours in our intensive battery test. The 1GHz model, with a 15.2in. display and 61-watt-hour battery, lasted 2.5 hours. The iBook's combination of a small display (12.1 inches) and a large battery (55 watt-hours) offered the best performance, delivering 3.2 hours of non-stop DVD viewing. 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 the 12in. PowerBook's parts and labour -- an increasingly common standard on both sides of the platform fence. Thankfully, you can extend the warranty to three years for £237.45 (ex. VAT); this plan is worthwhile if you carry your PowerBook around often, which is likely with this model. You also get 90 days of free (and toll-free) technical support calls. After that, calls cost £29.79 (ex. VAT) per incident unless you can demonstrate that the problem is caused by a factory defect. The 104-page, illustrated paper manual in the box is clear and informative, providing instructions on setup, use, changing the battery, and simple troubleshooting, as well as installing additional memory and an AirPort Extreme card. You'll also find a rich source of help information, software updates and discussion forums at Apple's Web site, although you must register to use the help pages.

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