It's Big, It's Groundbreaking -- but the Price Eclipses It All
By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, April 6, 2003; Page H07
Three thousand, two hundred and ninety-nine dollars.
It's impossible to talk about Apple Computer's new 17-inch PowerBook without mentioning the cost. This laptop is a remarkable piece of work, with the biggest screen anybody has ever put into a portable computer, and it carries a price tag to match.
Most people will never spend this much on a computer -- the over-$3,000 price bracket tends to be limited to things like cars and houses. (If you must know, this PowerBook actually costs more than my car.) So I was a little nervous hauling this machine around town.
The 17-inch PowerBook features other unusually large dimensions. While it's only one inch thick and about 10 inches deep, it's 15.4 inches wide, too big for many computer bags. And at 6.8 pounds (the model I tested weighed 6.9 pounds, a difference Apple blamed on variations in components), it's almost a pound heftier than any other Apple portable.
It owes those dimensions to the enormous screen it's built around. At 17 inches from corner to corner, you (and whoever's sitting next to you) won't find a better way to watch DVDs on a plane.
The keyboard that faces this display looks comically undersized in comparison. Some of the leftover space is taken up by two speakers, which sound far better than the tinny hardware on most laptops. The rest is used as a palm-rest area that approaches the size of an airliner's table tray; you could rest a drink on one corner, but it would be grossly unwise to risk tipping a Coke into a $3,299 machine.
This PowerBook wants for little on the inside. With a "SuperDrive" that burns DVDs and CDs and loads through a slot instead of a pop-out tray, a roughly 60-gigabyte hard drive, 512 megabytes of memory, a 64MB Nvidia GeForce 4 graphics accelerator, and a 1GHz G4 processor, it's competitive with almost any desktop Apple sells. (The Matsushita-manufactured SuperDrive is theoretically capable of burning to DVD-RAM discs as well as DVD-R and -RW, but Apple's software only supports the last two formats, depriving users of a more convenient option for backing up data.)
Processor and screen combine to drain this PowerBook's lithium-ion battery; it ran for barely over four hours with every possible power-saving option enabled. DVD playback exhausted the machine in 2 hours and 20 minutes, and it was gone after 2 hours and 40 minutes of playing through an MP3 collection with the screen partially dimmed. Those figures are only average compared with many newer laptops.
On the other hand, the bulk of this computer means most people will want to keep it planted on a desk anyway.
A broad range of connectors awaits on the sides of the PowerBook: one FireWire 800 and one FireWire 400 port (more on these in a moment), one PC Card slot, two universal-serial-bus ports, an Ethernet port (rated for up to 1,000 megabits per second, instead of the usual 100 Mbps), and a v.92 modem. This laptop also includes Digital Visual Interface (DVI) and S-Video connectors for monitors and TVs; if yours features older VGA or composite-video connections, an adapter cable comes in the box.
The 17-inch PowerBook also includes two forms of wireless networking. Its internal Bluetooth receiver allows you to connect peripherals like handheld organizers and cell phones without cables; a nifty file-exchange program also lets you bounce data to and from another Bluetooth-equipped Mac.
More important, this laptop's innards hide an AirPort Extreme card, which uses the new, faster "802.11g" flavor of WiFi to offer wireless connections of up to 54 Mbps, almost five times as fast as standard WiFi. (Most tests suggest your real-world speed with 802.11g will be more like 22 Mbps -- still much better than what you'll get out of WiFi in practice.)
But if you should meet an owner of a 17-inch PowerBook, you're not likely to see those aspects of the computer. Instead, the proud owner will probably want to show off the keyboard. Yes, the keyboard: A light sensor hidden next to it senses when the room has gone dark, then automatically turns on embedded lighting in the keyboard while also dimming the screen.
Apple fans love finding these little grace notes in the company's products, and the 17-inch PowerBook has its share, from the compact AC adapter to the LED battery-life readout on its underside.
But in other respects, this model falls short of the standard set by the 12-inch model Apple began shipping two months ago. Its optical drive is positioned on the front, not the side, so a CD or DVD ejects into your lap instead of your hand. Placing the modem and Ethernet ports on opposite sides invites confusion. The screen can move on its own if you grab the laptop in a hurry (Apple says its hinge is designed to allow a certain amount of play, but it's still disconcerting). And the computer emitted a weird little whining noise at random times, which Apple couldn't begin to explain.
Like every other Mac, this PowerBook includes slow USB 1.1 ports instead of the faster 2.0 variety that are now standard on PCs. In comparison, the PowerBook's FireWire 800 port seems a questionable addition, given how few external devices support this 800 Mbps variation of FireWire -- which also requires a different plug from the FireWire (aka FireWire 400) that Apple has been shipping with its computers for years.
The weakest part of this machine is the paucity of third-party software. It ships with Mac OS X and Apple's excellent iLife bundle of multimedia applications, but if you'd like a word processor, a spreadsheet application or a personal-finance program, you'll have to buy them yourself.
So who actually needs this Lexus of a laptop? Apple says it was built for graphic designers who can use this to replace their desktops. In other words, it's not the computer for the rest of us.
It is, however, worth checking out in the store, if only to see the design refinements like the backlit keyboard that might make their way to more affordable hardware -- say, Apple's 15-inch PowerBook, which hasn't been updated in five months.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org