The new G4 features a brighter, higher-resolution display and improved battery life. But just, how good is it.

Apple’s hot right now. Any product that it releases attracts mass attention, both from the media and from the public. And so it is with the new PowerBook range. But does this particular line-up warrant such interest? Apple’s new laptops look exactly the same as their predecessors – no bad thing, considering how stylish they already were, but hardly earth-shattering. They’re also lacking any power boost.

You may have heard that Steve Jobs’ company is soon to start using Intel processors in its machines. A key reason for this is IBM’s inability to produce a low-voltage version of its top-of-the-range G5, for use in pro notebooks. Until Apple switches over, its PowerBooks are stuck with the slower G4s. The 1.67GHz chip inside our 17in review model is vastly underpowered compared to what’s inside the fastest PC portables.

Fortunately, the new range does offer upgrades in two key areas of portable technology: the display and the battery. The changes to the screen are two-fold. Firstly, the brightness has been improved, courtesy of a stronger backlight. The adjustment isn’t that obvious: if you looked at this model without directly comparing it to the older one, you probably wouldn’t see any difference. What’s more, the new display still doesn’t compare well with the best from Sony or Dell. However, Apple claims that you’re getting something like a 45 per cent increase in brightness; and if you look at two screens side-by-side, particularly in bright sunlight, you can see what it’s saying.

The other upgrade to the display is the resolution, and this is far more apparent. The previous 1,440×900 panel has been swapped out for a 1,680×1,050 replacement. The effect is a great deal more screen real estate: a true benefit for image editing, video and even simple spreadsheet work.

Living longer
A laptop’s display is one of the main drains on its battery. A brighter screen usually results in a depleted battery life. It’s therefore impressive that Apple has not merely maintained the old PowerBook’s lifespan, but actually improved it. The official line is that you get an extra hour on the road, but obviously this is highly dependent on what you’re doing.

Our MobileMark benchmark doesn’t run on the Mac OS X operating system, so we instead opted to play a DVD movie while running down the battery – a fair test that puts an average load on the processor. Initially, we forced the screen to maintain full brightness. At this level, the PowerBook managed a lifespan of two-and-a-half hours. This is about what we’d have expected from the old model – but remember, the screen is brighter, so you’re still getting something for nothing.

For a fairer comparison, we allowed the Mac’s power-saving function to dim the screen slightly. Under these circumstances, it kept going well beyond the three-hour mark. This is superb for such a large machine: with some desktop replacements, you’re lucky to get much more than half that.

Apple has achieved this battery upgrade while brightening the screen by essentially tweaking just a couple of components. The most notable of these is a switch to DDR2 memory. This doesn’t offer a particularly big performance boost over the old DDR, but it’s far less power-hungry, and is therefore an ideal laptop part. The change is also interesting in light of the imminent Intel switch: the silicon giant has long pushed DDR2 down the throats of PC manufacturers, and now it may well be doing the same thing to Apple.

Same old
The only other feature that’s new to this model is the dual-layer support in the dual-format DVD drive. That apart, this is the same PowerBook that we know and either love or hate. Not surprisingly, raw performance hasn’t changed one iota. We ran a series of software tests on the old and new PowerBooks, and each one produced near-identical results. In comparison to laptops from other vendors, this means a slight compromise. If you’re thinking of running powerful applications like Sibelius or Studio 8, you may well be better off with a Dell or a Sony.

The PowerBook’s main claim to fame, however, is still its looks. If you’re only interested in word processing, you won’t notice the slower processing, so you might be enticed by the shiny silver design. With the $3,999 price tag for this 17in flavour remaining constant from the old model, you’re also getting better value for money here.

PRICE: $3,999




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