With the largest screen ever featured on a portable computer, Apple's flagship laptop would be tempting even if it didn't offer lots of musician-friendly features such as versatile connectivity and quiet operation...
When Steve Jobs announced that 2003 would be the "year of the notebook" at January's Mac Expo, he showcased two new products to underline his point. The 12-inch Powerbook, as reviewed in May's Apple Notes, is a great solution for those who demand power and portability, but it was the 17-inch Powerbook that drew the loudest cheers, proving that size still matters in this age of increasing miniaturisation. It's taken a while for production models to become available, but now they're finally here. So what do they offer the musician?
The much-hyped screen is the same unit as fitted to the 17-inch iMac, and is currently the largest available on any portable computer, stretching the term 'notebook' somewhat! The physical dimensions of the Powerbook (at 392 x 259mm) are 18mm deeper and 51mm wider than the 15-inch model, making it quite an armful to carry around the office or studio. However, the thickness remains fixed at 26mm, and at 3.1kg, its weight is at the lower end of the scale for 'super' notebooks such as the Sony GRV600, the previous holder of the largest-screen-on-a-notebook crown.
When you first open the Powerbook the screen does not initially seem as impressive as you might think. The styling is subtle with the alloy finish helping to smooth sharp edges, and there is a very narrow screen surround. Even the hinge is specially designed to minimise the unit's height with the screen open. For those who travel by air on a regular basis this could be a crucial design point: competitors such as Dell's Latitude D800 open a full 40mm higher, despite having a smaller screen, which could be crucial if the seat in front of you is reclining!
As soon as you boot up, however, you become aware that this is something special; and watching a DVD in full widescreen, with speakers far enough apart to give an impression of stereo field, on a machine that can slip into a briefcase could become a landmark in computing. If that is not enough to impress your mates, then how about the keyboard backlight, which automatically fades in as the ambient light dims...
Apple's claim that this is a replacement for desktop computers is supported by the fact that the 1GHz processor is the same as that found in the bottom-of-the-range Power Mac. Similarly, the processor is supported by 256k Level 2 cache and 1MB of DDR Level 3 cache. The motherboard clock speed matches the faster Power Macs, moreover, at 167MHz, as does the memory specification. This model is supplied with 512MB of PC2700 RAM running at 333MHz, and with both memory slots full the total memory supported is 1GB.
The optical drive on the Powerbook is a slot-loading Superdrive, but be aware that not all Superdrives are the same: this one is a DVD-R (and CD-R/W) drive, but not a DVD-R/W as in the Power Macs. Graphics are provided by an NVIDIA GeForce 4 440 Go with AGP 4x support and 64MB of DDR SDRAM. This will support a 1440 x 900 pixel resolution on the built-in display and up to 2048 x 1536 pixels on an external display, both at millions of colours. Equipped as it is with S-Video and DVI Video sockets, this machine will be an object of desire for those who wish to cut a dash when making presentations.
Communication with the outside world is possible both with and without wires. Bluetooth and Airport Extreme are fitted as standard: Bluetooth can allow you to use an appropriately enabled mobile phone as a modem, for example, while Airport Extreme is the Apple's name for 802.11g, a so-far unratified development of the standard 802.11b 'WiFi' protocol called Airport by Apple but also adopted by many other manufacturers and popping up in offices, cafes and airport lounges all over the place. Apple have taken a small gamble with the adoption of this new protocol since there is a potential competitor, imaginatively called 802.11a, which delivers 54Mbits/s compared to 802.11b's 11Mbits/s, but this does not have 802.11g's advantage of being backwardly compatible with the earlier protocol.
If you are still using wires the Powerbook has its sockets arranged down both sides, as opposed to on the back, as with the 15-inch model. While the Titanium iBook's rear panel is an elegant solution once everything is plugged in, access is inconvenient, which can be a problem on a computer whose main role is to be portable, so I welcome this change. Along the left-hand edge are the sockets for power, modem, one USB, Type II PC card slot, audio line in and headphone sockets. Along the right-hand edge are sockets for the second USB, Firewire 400 and 800, Gigabit Ethernet, S-Video and DVI video sockets. The inclusion of two Firewire sockets is a welcome addition, especially since they are on separate busses, which should improve performance and stability for those using Firewire hard drives and audio interfaces. The Firewire 800 socket is also backwards compatible with Firewire 400 using the appropriate cable.
So how does Apple's claim that the 17-inch Powerbook is a desktop replacement work out in terms of performance? Like all 2003 models apart from the lower two in the eMac range, it boots only into OS X, in this case Mac OS 10.2.6. I chose to carry out tests with Emagic Logic 6.1 and a MOTU 896 Firewire audio interface, for the sake of comparison with previous test results. In all tests, Logic was set with I/O buffer size at 512, Process Buffer Range set to Large and Larger Disk Buffer On.
Comparing the number of PlatinumVerbs available shows the Powerbook performing exactly as you might predict from its processor speed. Dual processors in the two Power Macs allow them to rise above the trend, but not as much as you might expect. The performance of the Powerbook's Fujitsu internal hard drive is very respectable considering it is a portable drive spinning at 4200rpm, and although beaten by the Seagate Barracuda ATA V system drive in the Power Mac, it is not in any way disgraced. Testing with the Lacie d2 Firewire 800 drive gave better results in both computers, and it is interesting to note that Firewire 800 on a Power Mac gives a different level of performance to its equivalent on the Powerbook.
Battery life is claimed by Apple to be 4.5 hours, which seems reasonable. I ran the battery down from full charge in 2 hours 43 minutes by playing a CD on loop — an activity with high power consumption — so expect something in between for general audio use.
The figures above show that the Powerbook is performing at levels that were previously the domain of its bulky stablemates, and this was a surprise for me, since up to now it has been fairly easy to differentiate between desktop machines and notebooks. The former you kept in the studio, the latter you took on the road, but suffered all the inherent compromises. Now the distinction is less easy to draw, as Apple's latest Powerbook performs well enough to be considered as the only computer you might need.
I would personally feel a little ostentatious opening the thing on the 7.35 to St. Pancras, but the display is large enough for serious editing and the backlit keys are actually really useful in dim studio lighting. It makes hardly any noise — the hard drive whine is slightly louder than on an iBook, but fan noise went unnoticed, the larger enclosure dissipating heat far more efficiently than the 12-inch version, which develops noticeable hot spots. With the right choice of peripherals it will give performance in Power Mac territory and it looks a million dollars...