Review – PowerBook G3

PowerBook G3
Company: Apple Computers, Inc.
Estimated Price: $3899 (midrange)

Imagine this: A laptop computer that’s as fast
as a desktop, has a huge screen, offers
breakthrough design, but doesn’t leave a hole
in your wallet. Well, you can stop dreaming,
and start believing. That laptop is here, and it’s called the PowerBook G3. It offers an astounding price-performance value not found in most laptops today. Oh, and it toasts the Pentium II processor 🙂

I had the opportunity to use various configurations, including some of Apple’s standard configurations, as well as my own built-to-order (BTO) configuration. I will talk about all the features, and give you my recommendations at the end of the review.

Truly Intuitive Design
The PowerBook G3 has a completely redesigned case that sports dozens of improvements, including a handy sleep indicator light, PC card eject buttons, and labels on the inside of the port door so you don’t plug your SCSI cable into the Ethernet port! Other improvements include stereo speakers (the sound is a great improvement over the 3400’s) and an easily opened modem port door located between the PC card slots and the left expansion bay. However, the modem port door is somewhat flimsy and opens by itself all too often.

Models with the 12.1 inch display ship with brightness and contrast controls above the keyboard, while the 13.3 and 14.1s ship with brightness controls and a volume adjustment control in place of the contrast control. All configurations have a mute button to the left of the brightness control, and a power button that’s finally off the keyboard!

Caught speeding
The PowerBook G3 can be configured with a 233, 250, or 292MHz PowerPC 750 (G3) processor. There are no performance compromises on the 250 and 292MHz processors, as each sports a 83MHz system bus and 1Mb of backside level-2 (L2) cache. This runs at a 2:1 cache to system bus ratio, making a PowerBook G3 equipped with either of these processors absolutely fly.

The compromise is in the 233MHz processor. It has a 66MHz system bus, which is still acceptable by industry standards. What is regrettable is the lack of backside cache, making the 233MHz processor sluggish in some operations.

That is not to say that the 233MHz is any turtle! All three of the processors were quite fast. We don’t have a hi-tech lab here at My Mac Magazine, and we don’t reprint Apple press releases stating benchmark numbers, so I will say that the 250 and 292MHz processors were very close in performance in real world tests, such as opening applications, etc. The 233MHz processor was noticeably slower in all operations, especially when using Photoshop.

One advantage of the 233MHz processor is that it runs quite cool, much cooler than the 250 or 292. Using a 250 or 292 on your lap for an extended period of time becomes painful due to the heat, so it’s definitely something to think about when configuring a PowerBook.

Seeing is Believing
Next to the processor, the size of the display is the next most important buying decision. Laptop screens have always been limited to smaller sizes, and no PowerBook screen could ever stack up to a desktop monitor–until now. My 13.3 inch display measures very close to my Apple 15″ Multiple Scan display, but feels much bigger due to the 1024×768 resolution. It is also brighter, sharper, and, in my opinion, more enjoyable to use than an external monitor.

The PowerBook G3 can be configured with a 12.1 inch passive matrix display, or a 13.3 or 14.1 inch active matrix display. The 12.1 inch comes with 2Mb of SGRAM (video memory), while the 13.3 and 14.1 inch-equipped models come with 4Mb of SGRAM. The 12.1 provides 16 bit (thousands) color at 800×600 on the internal screen, and millions of colors through the standard VGA (adapter included) video output port. The 13.3 and 14.1 provide 32 bit (millions) color at 1024×768 on the internal screen, and the same to an external monitor.

The 13.3 and 14.1 inch displays also come with a S-video output port for connections to electronic devices such as TVs and VCRs. I used the S-video with a composite S-video to S-video cable connected to a Sony TV. 640×480 NTSC was the best resolution, and didn’t look too shabby playing games, but made text unreadable, and absolutely mangled graphics. I wouldn’t recommend using this for such purposes as classroom instruction or slide show presentations.

The 12.1 inch display was dark, even at the highest brightness setting, and it’s refresh rate was surprisingly slow. Furthermore, it looks downright silly sitting in such a big case. On the other hand, the 13.3 and 14.1 inch displays are absolutely beautiful. They are very bright, and actually need the brightness turned down. They are also large enough to usefully support the 1024×768 screen resolution; a welcome addition to mobile computing. In use, though, any differences between the 13.3 and 14.1 inch screens are not striking, as the 14.1 inch display offers only .8 more viewable space than the 13.3. The 13.3 screen, however, is 1.2 inches bigger than that of the 12.1 inch model, a difference which is quite noticeable when using most applications.

A Typist’s Dream
Certainly my favorite feature of the PowerBook G3 is the keyboard. In fact, I’m enjoying typing this review on it right now! The keyboard feels very soft to the touch, its keys are full size, and best of all, it has the full functionality of a standard keyboard. The arrow keys are in the inverted “T” position, and using the new “fn” (function) key in conjunction with other keys will allow you to use functions such as a numeric keypad, page up/down, home, end, and forward delete, among others.

Double Duty
The PowerBook G3 has two hot swappable expansion bays that will accept a variety of devices, from floppy drives to hard drives and everything in between. The right bay supports 3 1/2 inch or 5 1/4 inch devices while the left bay only supports 3 1/2 inch devices. The two bays are completely interchangeable (provided that the module is 3 1/2 inch), and both accept batteries, allowing for up to 7 hours of power without recharging.

The 20X CD-ROM module or DVD-ROM module (12X CD/1.5X DVD) will only fit in the right bay, whereas the floppy drive module and Zip drive module from VST Technologies will fit in both (look for a review of the VST Zip drive next month). VST also makes hard disks that are interchangeable in either expansion bay.

Yes Sir, That’s Standard
In addition to all its options, the PowerBook G3 comes with many standard features. These include built in 10BASE-T Ethernet, a Lithium Ion battery for up to 3.5 hours of use, 16 bit stereo sound input/output, two CardBus-compliant PC Card slots that accept two Type II cards or one Type III card, and a 4Mbps (megabits per second) IrDA infrared port that works very well. Also included is an AC adapter, and 2D/3D graphics acceleration via the ATI 3D Rage LT chip set.

The three most common configurations of the PowerBook G3 are:

  • $2299 – 233MHz/12.1/32Mb RAM/2Gb HD/20X CD/No Floppy/No Modem
  • $3899 – 250MHz/13.3/32Mb RAM/4Gb HD/20X CD/Floppy/K56flex Modem
  • $5599 – 292MHz/14.1/64Mb RAM/8Gb HD/20X CD/Floppy/K56flex ModemMy preferred configuration (most likely because it’s the one I own) was built-to-order:
  • $3799 – 250MHz/13.3/64Mb RAM/2Gb HD/DVD-ROM/Floppy/No Modem
    (The above price reflects BTO configuration at time of purchase: 29 May 1998.)Other configurations can be found at various catalogs and resellers, and BTO configurations can be ordered from The Apple Store
    Note: at the time this was written, the 292/14.1 configurations were still very rare.

    When choosing a configuration or custom-configuring a PowerBook G3, there are a few recommendations that I would make:

  • Stay away from the 12.1 inch display. You will most likely be disappointed with it; I know I was. If you have the funds, by all means go for the 14.1 inch display, but the 13.3 inch model should fulfill your needs well, and the money you will save on the screen can be put to use in other areas such as the RAM or the processor, which brings me to my second recommendation:
  • Most graphic designers and power users will be happier with a 250 or 292MHz processor, mainly because of the backside cache and the faster system bus. While the 233MHz processor is no slouch, today’s (and tomorrow’s) powerful applications simply require more and more computing cycles, so buy as fast a processor as you can afford. But if you do select the 233 MHz CPU, you should know that Apple has prudently situated it on a daughtercard for upgradeability at a later date. This assumes, of course, that Apple or third party developers will eventually make the upgrades. But it’s nice to know you have a theoretical upgrade path.
  • The PowerBook G3 is expandable to 192Mb of RAM, and comes with two RAM expansion slots, one on the bottom of the daughtercard and one on the top. The bottom slot is extremely hard to access and can only accommodate a 64Mb module. The upper slot is easy to access and can accommodate a 128Mb module. Apple fills the bottom slot by default with a 32Mb or 64Mb chip, depending on how much memory you order. If you eventually plan on upgrading to 192Mb, you will want to get 64Mb right out of the box. That way, you will 1.) never have to access the bottom slot and 2.) you won’t be stuck with a useless 32Mb module. Then, you can buy a 128Mb module (some go for as cheap as $199) for the top slot and easily max out your PowerBook’s RAM at 192Mb.
  • You can choose between a 2Gb, 4Gb, or 8Gb hard disk. Most people only need a 2Gb or 4Gb disk, but graphic designers and desktop publishers will enjoy the extra storage space of the 8Gb jewel.
  • The DVD-ROM kit (DVD-ROM module and PC card) is a great investment, and I highly recommend it. You’ll be happier in the long run when software titles and games start coming out on DVD disks. In the meantime, you can use it in conjunction with the MPEG-2 decoding PC Card to view some great movies (13.3 or 14.1 inch screen required). The DVD card (sold separately for $200 for people who already own a DVD-ROM module) was not available for testing at the time this review was written.The Summary
    Well, there isn’t too much to say about the PowerBook G3 that isn’t good. It’s a winner, hands down. Its speed, screen, and design are unmatched in the computer notebook industry today, and it offers the best price/performance ratio of any notebook, especially in the midrange configurations.

    While it is still on the heavy side, the PowerBook G3 is a wonderful addition to Apple’s product line, combining the speed of the G3 processor with the versatility of a PowerBook. It truly rivals desktop computers, and I use mine as a complete desktop replacement. It brings me great joy to congratulate Apple, and give the PowerBook G3 my highest recommendation.

    MacMice Rating: 4

    Adam Karneboge

    Websites mentioned:

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