Time to upgrade: iBook or PowerBook?

They say the aging process improves on most things. I don’t know who said this, but they were wrong. At least about most things. Sure, a fine bottle wine can improve with the passage of time, and there is nothing that can get my heart beating like the sight of a 1967 Ford Mustang Fastback cruising down the street. Unfortunately, you don’t know if that wine will be palatable to the tongue (with just a whisp of aftertaste), or just turn out to be a very expensive bottle of vinegar. As the years roll by there are fewer and fewer 67 “Stangs” on the road as well. Time is unkind to Super Models and computers too.

Case in point, about two years ago, I decided I needed a laptop. My needs at the time were relatively modest (For Macs anyway). I wanted to be able to play DVD movies, have fun with moderately simple games, and to do some small iMovies. I started with a 12 inch 233 MHz G3 PowerBook. This unit (Code named Wallstreet) was the first portable Mac I had ever owned. Looking back, I’m not sure why I decided to get this one as it was almost a four year old design by then and did not have a DVD player. My next try was a 14 inch 500 G3 MHz PowerBook (Code named Pismo). This one was more to my liking with a combo CD/DVD drive with enough speed to allow me to watch movies full screen and use iMovie. It had FireWire and USB ports and a built in slot for an Apple Airport wireless 802.11b network card. It was also much cheaper than the other new contributions from Apple. It served me well for about two years and then it happened.

When SoundTrack came upon the scene, I was mesmerized by it’s simplicity and power. Unfortunately it was less than impressed with my Pismo. As in, it wouldn’t load, much less play. GarageBand came around after not too long and satisfied my meager song making abilities, but the seed was planted. I needed something better.

There are currently two “Apple Stores” in my immediate vicinity along with a very nicely put together Apple section at a local MicroCenter computer store as well. No matter what I’m doing, or where I’m going, if I’m in the area, I will find a reason to stop by one or more of these stores to drool over the latest offerings from Apple.

The other day was no exception. I stopped at the Clarendon Apple Store and was drawn to the Aluminum G4 PowerBooks like a moth to the flame. So much OS/X-ey goodness! Then I looked at the prices and estimated the amount of time it would take my wife to find a good lawyer and either divorce me or have me declared financially incompetent or both. Just as I was resigned to walking out and going back to work, one of those darn friendly Apple Store employees came over and asked if I needed anything or if he could answer any questions.

We started talking about portable computers and I explained my dilemma. “How about an iBook?” he said with a smile. My thoughts about iBooks always flashes back to those blue and green G3s that looked something like a toilet bowl cover on acid. I knew they had been recently upgraded to G4s, but my initial impression was that they were crippled PowerBooks. In some ways that is true, but a lot of what you buy a computer (of any type) for should depend on what you will use it for as compared to how fast it is.

The iBook is not a PowerBook. Even with a G4 processor, it doesn’t have some of the more advanced features. Of course, whether those advanced features are used or needed is a completely different thing. The iBooks for example do not have a PC card expansion slot that is standard on the PowerBooks. While this is almost a must for PC notebooks, the PowerBooks and iBooks have almost everything built in. USB 2, FireWire, Wireless networking (Airport), 10/100 Ethernet (gigabit is standard as well for PowerBooks), 56K Modem, monitor mirroring (PBs have dual monitor support as well), all there. So while a PC card is a nice to have feature, most people probably don’t need it. Here are some of the other differences between the two.

  • PowerBooks have a standard 64MB video card while iBooks are down the scale a bit at 32MB.
  • PowerBooks have slightly faster processors and most models have built in DVD burning SuperDrives, while the iBooks can only have the CD-R/RW/ DVD combo drive with the SuperDrives as a build-to-order option direct from the online Apple Store.
  • PowerBooks can have more total and faster Ram (2 slots for PC2700 speed DDR SDRAM for a total of 2 gigs) vs. the iBook’s (1 slot for a PC2100 speed DDR SDRAM for a total of 640 megs, though some companies have a 1 gig Ram chip available for a ridiculous price).
  • PowerBooks have Airport Extreme cards built-in, while except for the top of the line unit, you have to buy and install the same in an iBook separately.

I guess I could sum it up by saying, that unless you need the power of a G5 (notice I said NEED not lust), the PowerBook could be used as a desktop alternative, while the iBook should simply be a portable extension of your existing computer experience. At this point, you might be thinking, “Geez! He REALLY hates the iBooks doesn’t he?” Nothing could be farther from the truth.

While at the Apple Store, I measured the differences between the iBooks and PowerBooks, my individual needs and my decibel level of my wife screaming at me for yet another computer purchase and came to the following conclusion: I didn’t need a PowerBook. I couldn’t justify it since I already had a desktop (QuickSilver 933 G4 with 300GB of hard drive capacity, a SuperDrive, and 768 MB of Ram) that was more than adequate for my current projects. All I wanted was a portable computer that I could use when I travel, that was powerful enough to run SoundTrack/ GarageBand and iMovie/ Final Cut Express.

The iBook fit that description perfectly. However, the mid-range unit is still $1300! I was sadly about to tell the Apple Store employee that I still couldn’t swing it when he mentioned that they had a returned unit in the back for less. I was skeptical until he brought it out and I saw the price. $1050 for a first generation 14-inch G4 iBook (933 MHz). The only real difference between this one and the next gen was a slightly faster processor (933MHz vs. 1 GHz), and the newer one had a 512K cache as compared to 256K of the older one. For almost 20 percent off, I’ll deal with the minor differences.

The iBook is one tough little unit with a white polycarbonate plastic shell and internal magnesium frame. It’s lighter (5.9 pounds) than most comparable PC notebooks and thinner as well. The 12 and 15 inch PowerBooks are a little lighter and thinner, but not appreciably so. It will take the minor bumps of portable life and never skip a beat.

The included software is a pretty good deal as well (especially since being included means it’s free). The latest version of OS/X (10.3), AppleWorks, the terrific iLife suite, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4, Deimos Rising, World Book Encyclopedia, and Sound Studio to name a few. If you can swing it, get Microsoft Office for the Mac. It is far better and much more powerful than AppleWorks. Not to mention the ease of exchanging documents with your Windows buddies.

The standard Combo Drive works with iLife suite with ease and other programs as well (Like Roxio’s Toast 6). The wireless networking card (yes, I bought an Airport Extreme card as well) has terrific range. I sat in a swing we have in our backyard last night that is roughly 75 feet and through some walls from my base 802.11b base station (a Linksys wireless unit with a built-in 4 port switcher) and the reception was almost perfect. As it got darker, I found myself wishing it had the PowerBook’s automatically lit keyboard, but since the unit itself is white, the reflection off the beautiful 14-inch LCD made it simple for a hunt and peck typist like myself to find the keys I needed.

The battery life is pretty good as well. I don’t use the battery life performance setting and I still get over 4 hours of use, more than enough for a typical jet flight, although at some point I will purchase an additional battery as well.

The Video-out port (with the proper adapters) enables you to use your iBook with either a SVGA monitor and any Television set with RCA style audio and video ports. The screen resolution cannot go above 1024 X 768 (Final Cut, iMovie, and GarageBand in particular benefit from a larger screen space), so you cannot expand your desktop beyond that.

I do have a few other complaints. Apple uses 4200 RPM hard drives throughout their portable lines (yes, even the PowerBooks use them) and that causes some unacceptable slowdowns. Faster drives are available for the intrepid explorer types out there brave enough to install them. I have seen 60 gig 7200 RPM 2.5 inch drives that are priced under $300.

All the ports are on the left-hand side, so if you use an alternative mouse or trackball, you have to leave enough cable to swing around to the right-side of the iBook (unless you’re left-handed in which case you probably think it’s perfect). If you work with digital audio, keep in mind that the iBook does not have an audio-in port. Griffin Technology however makes a unit called the iMic that plugs into a USB port allowing for audio in and out.

Overall, I really like the iBooks. I would probably recommend them over the PowerBooks for the needs of most people. Which one to buy depends on how much more above the base unit you’re willing to spend. Prices range from $1100 for the 1 GHz 12-inch, $1300 for the 1 GHz midrange, and $1500 for the 1.2 GHz top of the line unit. I personally don’t care for the 12-inch unit, mostly because of screen size. Of the next two up, unless you want a SuperDrive, get the midrange 1 GHz unit. I base that on the fact that if you’re going to spend an additional $200 for the SuperDrive, you may as well spend the additional $200 above that for the slightly faster processor, the built-in Airport Extreme card and 60 gig hard drive. At roughly $1900, you’re still sitting at $600 less than the 15-inch PowerBook. For that $600, you could get an extra battery, three years of AppleCare, and a .mac account with enough change left over for an additional 512 megs of Ram.

Had this been a review, I would rate the G4 iBooks at 4 out of 5.

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