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!
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.
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 http://www.vsttech.com 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:
(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 http://www.apple.com/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:
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