Given my Windows background, I recently looked at a surprising entry from Apple Computer, the PowerBook G4--a superbly designed machine that just might offer enough style and power to convert even the most diehard Windows user to a Macintosh. Apple's products have a certain panache that most Windows boxes lack, and the PowerBook G4 is perhaps the ultimate example of this often-misunderstood quality that sells millions of Macintoshes every year.
The PowerBook G4 offers a wide-screen LCD that is similar to, but taller than, the 16:9 aspect ratio of a standard movie screen. The G4's screen is a nice departure from the square LCDs I commonly see on other laptops, and the extra space really makes a difference when you work with multiple applications or documents. The large screen is also wonderful for DVD movies, although black bands still appear at the top and bottom of the screen, making me wonder why it wasn't even shorter
Apple markets the PowerBook G4 as a lightweight but powerful supercomputer, and although the truth is a little more pedestrian, the laptop is still an impressive machine. The titanium shell is a departure from the plastic used in most laptops, and the device's 5.3 pounds is decent for a machine of this size. The screen latch is elegant: No latch sticks out while the screen is open, but as you close the lid, a magnet in the lower part of the machine pulls the latch out and secures the lid. The machine ships with an amazing complement of ports: FireWire, 100Mbps Ethernet, modem, VGA and S-video out, IR, and two USB.
The PowerBook G4 isn't perfect, however. It's extremely expensive at a time when Apple's other machines are coming down in price: The model I received costs about $4000, which almost doubles the price of a typical (if less beautiful) Wintel laptop. The keyboard retains dust and oil from your fingers, and then applies it to the screen when you close the lid. The trackpad is very sensitive, and I had to turn off the trackpad-clicking feature because I was inadvertently clicking while typing. And the included DVD drive--a flush-mounted unit that sits under the right wrist pad--was disappointing because I couldn't leave a disc in while typing: Even a light hand rest on the wrist pad caused the disc to grind horribly.
So why would you want a PowerBook G4? For many people, Macintosh compatibility is important or even mandatory. These days, Apple's machines integrate very well into Windows-based networks. I grabbed a copy of Connectix VirtualPC to test the software's ability to run Windows 2000 and Windows applications through emulation and came away impressed with Virtual PC's speed and stability. Granted, $4000 for a machine that emulates Windows is a bit of a stretch for most people, but if you need a Macintosh with total Windows compatibility, the PowerBook G4 with VirtualPC is a surprisingly complete solution. I strongly recommend VirtualPC, which runs far faster than similar Windows-based emulation solutions.
The PowerBook G4 came with Mac OS 9.1, although current versions also include OS X, installed in a handy dual-boot scenario. I installed Mac Office 2001 and a few other Mac applications I have, such as Adobe Photoshop Elements. I also tested Apple's newest digital media applications, such as iMovie 2 (which far outpaces Microsoft's Movie Maker software) and iTunes, which lets you rip audio CDs into MP3 format. Both applications performed well on the PowerBook G4.
Overall, the PowerBook G4 is a strong performer for creating digital videos, editing digital photographs, ripping CDs, and watching DVDs. And of course, with software such as Mac Office, you can get work done too. Whether this functionality is worth the price is debatable. The less expensive, but surprisingly capable, iBook might make more sense financially for the mobile Macintosh set.