Apple's new 12-inch Powerbook seems perfect for musicians who are unable to afford a Titanium, but need something more powerful than an iBook. However, with the 800MHz G3 iBook now available at a new low price, is the extra cost of a Powerbook justified in terms of its performance?
During his Macworld keynote speech in January, Apple CEO Steve Jobs declared that 2003 would be 'the year of the notebook', announcing two new Powerbook models. Although it's still unavailable at the time of writing, the 17-inch Powerbook might be the most desirable laptop ever made, with enough power to match the size of its display. However, it was actually the smaller 12-inch model that caught my eye, since while I appreciate the compact size of my iBook, I wouldn't say no to a little more power.
So for those considering a new budget laptop from Apple, the obvious question is whether the 12-inch 867MHz G4 Powerbook is worth the extra cost over its 12-inch 800MHz G3 iBook cousin. In order to answer this question, I borrowed one of each from Apple's PR company and put them to work.
The iBook contained no surprises: the materials and build quality are identical to my own 600MHz model, which I purchased in November 2001. Interestingly, the PR company had sent a 700MHz model by mistake a few days earlier, and the material used for the keyboard and monitor enclosure has a cheaper plasticky feel, compared with the metallicised plastic of the 800MHz (and old 600MHz) model, which has an altogether more classy look and feel. Externally, all three iBooks were identical, with white polycarbonate front and back panels, and a magnesium alloy frame. The Powerbook, on the other hand, is finished in brushed aluminium (or identically coloured metallicised plastic), which, in my opinion, has a brasher look than the Titanium, while successfully presenting a more professional appearance than the consumer styling of the iBook. And where the iBook keyboard feels slightly delicate, the Powerbook feels altogether more purposeful.
To connect to the outside world, the iBook has one RJ11 socket for its built-in modem, an RJ45 socket for Ethernet, two USB 1.1 ports and a single Firewire 400 socket. A VGA video output is provided for video mirroring, which can deliver S-Video and composite video signals via the optional adaptor (which, by the way, is included with the Powerbook as standard), and there's also a minijack headphone socket for audio output. There's no audio input on the iBook, although there is a well-disguised internal microphone, and a simple audio input could be achieved by using a device like Griffin's USB iMic.
The Powerbook has much the same configuration, except that the power connector is on the left side next to the other sockets, which makes for a tidier desk when you have everything connected, and the VGA output is driven by an Nvidia GeForce4 420 Go graphics processor that has dual display capabilities in addition to mirroring. This chipset will support resolutions of up to 1024 x 768 pixels on the internal display and 1600 x 1200 pixels on the external display, both at 'millions of colours'. There's also a line input minijack in addition to the internal microphone, and enhancing the sound system is a hidden third speaker that adds emphasis to the mid-range.
Internally, both machines have a built-in antennae and expansion slots for Airport cards, but only the Powerbook currently supports Airport Extreme, which is Apple's implementation of the 802.11g wireless networking protocol. The Powerbook also has Bluetooth built-in, whereas the iBook requires an additional USB dongle.
In terms of size, the Powerbook has marginally smaller dimensions of 30mm x 277mm x 219mm, compared to the iBook at 34mm x 285mm x 230mm, and the Powerbook also weighs 0.1kg less than the 2.2kg iBook. Perhaps as a result of the colour scheme or the edge-to-edge keyboard layout, the screen of the Powerbook looks smaller, but I measured it with a ruler to confirm that this is only an optical illusion — the screen sizes are identical at 12.1 inches. In fact, the same screen is probably used in both the Powerbook and the iBook, especially since their power consumption ratings are identical, as is the battery life on both machines — Apple predict five hours for both, which is probably correct so long as you don't actually use the computer during that time!
Where the iBook has a tray-loading DVD-ROM/CD-R/W drive, the Powerbook has a slot-loading mechanism; and although the iBook's combo drive can write CD-R media at 16-speed and CD-R/W media at 8-speed (where the Powerbook's drive manages 8- and 4-speed respectively), only the Powerbook can be ordered with a DVD-writing Superdrive. Noise is obviously an issue for musicians, and the iBook has always been noted for its silent operation. The Powerbook was similar to the iBook in that it didn't make any significant noise, aside from the operation of its optical drives, and the iBook's and Powerbook's hard drives are rated identically at 31dB in use — fan noise went unnoticed.
I was keen to see how these machines squared up against each other in terms of performance, although the playing field was not entirely level in that the iBook is supplied with a measly 128MB of RAM, while the Powerbook comes with 256MB installed. Although OS X is now very efficient in the way that it handles virtual memory, 128MB is still not enough for the comfortable day-to-day running of multiple applications or serious audio tasks. So I took one set of readings with the base 128MB, and another with an extra 256MB installed to give 384MB total memory. Interestingly, the figures are almost identical, but comparing the feel of the machine and the ease of opening and closing applications before and after was like chalk and cheese. In short, if you buy an iBook, make sure you buy some more RAM.
The track count results (see Table 1 in the Performance Tests box) show the advantages of a faster system buss in the Powerbook. The Powerbook's 40GB Toshiba drive has exactly the same specifications as the 30GB IBM drive in the iBook (12ms average seek time, 4200rpm spin speed, ATA100 interface), but is connected to the rest of the computer via a motherboard with a 133MHz buss speed, compared with 100MHz in the iBook.
The plug-in counts (see Table 2) demonstrate the advantage of the G4 processor in the Powerbook. Although the processor speeds are almost identical, Logic is optimised for the G4's Velocity Engine, which is demonstrated by the results, especially at lower sample rates.
Although polyphony in the EXS24 sampler is no better at the lower sample rate on the Powerbook than the iBook, it's significantly better at 96kHz. My thought is that approximately 52 voices may be the upper limit for this speed of processor, whatever the value of other parameters. At a 96kHz sample rate other factors come into play, reducing the polyphony from the 52-voice ceiling, allowing the Powerbook to show its advantage. Again, RAM appears to make no difference to these figures for the iBook.
At the end of the day, the cost difference between the 12-inch iBook with an 800MHz processor and a combo drive and the 12-inch Powerbook with an 867MHz processor and a combo drive is £350.00, for the stock models — a fair amount of money that could go some way to funding other parts of a computer music system if your budget is limited. What's more, the iBook is still dual-booting into OS 9 and OS X. However, the Powerbook would be worth the extra cash for several reasons: the enhanced performance is useful, while not exactly staggering, and dual-monitor support is a boon for some music applications.