Powerbook 17" G4, by Apple
Posted: 12-Aug-2003

4 1/2 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Apple Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Jim Melton Class: HARDWARE

Powerbook 17" G4
Vendor:
Apple
Commercial $3299

Introduction
I've had my heart set on a laptop for quite some time. I dreamed of the freedom of "computing" all over the house. Also, I've known that my venerable 8500 was getting long in the tooth, and with more new software requiring OS X, it all seemed to make sense. But, as a fiscally responsible adult, buying iMacs or eMacs for the children for middle/high school has been a higher priority.

However, anticipation of a recent vacation with 3 hours in the air and a 4 hour layover (and easily bored children) raised the priority of the laptop once again. The coup de gras was when my wife told me I could buy it. Off I went to CompUSA, so I could have it in time for our vacation (and before she could change her mind!).

Hardware
This thing is a beast. The first thing you notice about this machine is how thin it is. At only 1" thin, it is a very stylish monster. The slot-loading SuperDrive loads from the front, and all the other connectors are located on the sides. The left side has the power adapter connector, a single USB port, modem RJ-11 connector, PCMCIA slot, headphone and audio in jacks. The right side has DVI and S-video connectors, ethernet, FireWire 400 and 800 jacks, and another USB port.

The exterior is brushed aluminum. It looks kind of like a Ti-book, but there is no Titanium. In the center of the cover is an Apple logo that lights up when the computer is on (not so subtle advertising for those not so lucky).

It only takes about a second to take in the exterior beauty, because you can't wait to get this thing open. A gentle touch of the magnetic lock release, and the biggest screen you have ever seen on a laptop swings open. Stereo speakers flank the full-size keyboard. The power-on button is clearly visible to the right of the keyboard. A gentle touch and the 1440x900 pixel display comes to life. The colors are vivid and there do not appear to be any bad viewing angles for normal laptop use.

The keyboard has a nice, positive feel. It is a pleasure to type on. One of the cool features of this machine is the built-in light sensor. In low-light conditions, the screen automatically dims and the keyboard is backlit.

Of course, one of the obvious uses of this toy is to play DVDs while on the road. Unfortunately, the battery appears to last just barely long enough to play a movie to its conclusion. But the picture is gorgeous. My wife and I watched a movie on the laptop when the children had the "main" TV occupied. It took a little adjusting to get the correct viewing angle from the couch, but there was no sense of "settling" for a small screen.

Battery life is dependent on a number of factors. Obviously, spinning the hard drive or the DVD-ROM will consume battery faster than typing a text document. The estimated battery life can be displayed in the menu bar in a variety of formats. I prefer the estimated time left, which has been as high as 3 hours in my experience. However, the computer enters a forced sleep when it just has a little battery life left, usually when the on-screen indicator claims 30 minutes or more. While auto-sleep can be annoying (I hate to have my work interrupted), at least no work is lost. Find an outlet to plug in the modular power adapter, and the computer wakes almost instantly from sleep (or keep a spare battery handy).

One of the first things you want to do with a laptop is pick it up and go somewhere else. At first, I began to wonder if this thing actually was too big. It doesn't tuck comfortably under your arm; I don't think it would be appropriate for a student to haul back and forth between classes. At a weight of 6.8 pounds, you might get tired before long (shlepping it through the Atlanta airport was no treat). For more stable use (i.e., occasional relocations), it is fine. Also, the 1GHz G4 processor does put out a bit of heat, and all that heat is focused in the center of the bottom (right where your lap would be). For this reason, I don't consider this machine suitable for true "lap top" use; you will be much more comfortable if you can find a table to rest it on.

All in all, it is still designed for mobility. It comes standard with Airport Extreme (802.11g) installed, as well as Bluetooth. Since I have no Bluetooth devices, the latter is of lesser importance to me, but the wireless networking is phenomenal. I purchased a Netgear wireless router and had no trouble making a connection to my laptop. I now have the extraordinary freedom that comes from being on-line all over the house. The speed feels faster than my tethered desktop (no doubt due to the faster processor).

Software
If the hardware satisfied my wildest expectations, the software left me wanting more. Every Mac I've bought over the past 7 years came with at least AppleWorks installed. This machine, which is clearly targeted at the professional market more than the consumer, has no office software at all. It does include iLife (iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, and iDVD). There is a 30-day expiring demo of Microsoft Office, but a demo is no substitute for operational software. It does include OmniOutliner (an outlining tool) and OmniGraffle (an object oriented drawing tool). It also includes QuickBooks, but I found this product inappropriate for home use.

Summary
This computer is the pinnacle of Apple engineering. It comes standard with a 1 GHz G4 processor, 512 MB of memory, a 60 GB disk and a SuperDrive. However, it is the attention to small details that make this large screen such a joy to use. From the power adapter that provides a visual indication when the battery is fully charged, to the backlit keyboard, Apple got this machine right. While this machine may actually be too large for someone with high mobility requirements, and it runs a bit too hot to hold in your lap, it is the perfect machine for someone who wants the power of a desktop system in a portable form factor. On the other hand, Apple let us down with the bundled software. Even Appleworks is better than nothing. Preferably, Apple and Microsoft should have worked out a bundle for Office. As it is, I'll be looking for other alternatives.

Pros

  • Large, crystal-clear color screen
  • 1" thin
  • Positive ergonomics
  • Batter life indicator


Cons

  • Too hot to hold in your lap
  • No "office" software
  • Short battery life


Overall Rating

4 1/2 out of 5 Mice