Apple PowerBook G4 15"

Someone e-mailed me asking for a review of my 15" PowerBook, so here she be. I tried to write it like a magazine columnist, using many "colorful words" and over-analyzing everything.

I picked up my 15" PowerBook at CDW one Friday evening and the first thing i noticed was the impressive packaging. A prelude to the engineering inside, the box has a convenient handle and large photos of the PowerBook itself. Yes, the box is that cool that I'm wasting time writing about it.

Even more impressive is, of course, what's in the box. After removing the laptop from its protective shell, I carefully set it down on the desk. A large, white Apple logo adorns the center of the smooth aluminum case which glows when the machine is powered up. I examined both sides of the case and noted each of the ports. No covers or flaps to open, each just waiting for something to be plugged in.

I removed the power adapter from the box and unwrapped its cords. A small, white square with smooth, rounded edges, also displaying a large apple logo on its side. After plugging in the adapter, my efforts were validated by a small ring on the end of its laptop connection illuminating green. The ring of light is orange when the battery is being charged and changes to green after a full charge. A small but useful feature well designed by Apple engineers, like many more found on the Apple PowerBook.

With a push of the button on the front of the PowerBook, the lid popped up one half an inch waiting to be opened. As I opened the lid, I traced the outline of the 15" wide diagonal screen with my eyes, noting the humble "PowerBook G4" label on the bottom of it. The screen opens with the hinge on the back of the base, rather than on top of it.

Paying homage to the widescreen display, the PowerBook's keyboard lay beneath it waiting to be commanded. I put my fingers on the keys and felt the tactile, which was soft, yet responsive. The keys have a unique feel and look to them, having their labels placed boldly in the middle of them opposing the traditional italicized print in the corners of the keys. The labels also seem to be carved out of the paint as opposed to being painted on top of the keys. This is probably to combat the problem of over-used keys having their labels rubbing off over time. After close inspection, one will note the fact that the letter and number keys have a slightly sunken middle part, whereas the side keys (Tab, Shift, Enter, etc.) have a flat design.

The layout of the PowerBook's keyboard is decent, at least for a Unix user like myself. Tilde is up in the top-left corner under Escape, and backslash is above the Enter key on the right. A large Caps Lock key is centered on the left side, waiting to be re-mapped to a Control key. Bridging the large gap between the sides of the keyboard and the edges of the laptop's case are two speakers, with the right-side speaker wrapping around the dime-sized power button.

Of course, no Apple would be complete without a one-button mouse. The PowerBook's large and simple trackpad is coupled with a single, large button.

After my preliminary examination of the physical housing of the laptop, it was time to actually turn it on. I pressed the power button and heard a short whir from the slot-loading DVD/CD-RW drive, followed by the traditional Apple chime. After a moment of darkness, the display lit up with a light grey background and a dark grey Apple logo. A small spinning circle indicated progress as the background eventually turned blue and the Mac OS startup procedures began.

The final installation steps were performed such as setting up the network, registering the software, and ignoring the EarthLink advertisement and e-mail setup.

What followed over the next few hours was my brief introduction to the Mac OS operating system, having never really used it before, mixed in with half a dozen formats, re-partitions, and re-installations while attempting to setup a clean Mac OS+OpenBSD dual-boot on the PowerBook's 60 gig hard drive.

With the XFree86 driver not working for the PowerBook's Radeon 9600 chip, OpenBSD use was extremely limited. After many nights of reviewing XFree86 and Linux framebuffer drivers trying to come up with a fix, I was being pushed towards having to use Mac OS, at least temporarily.

I won't review Mac OS at this time as I'm trying not to get too comfortable in it. It is a nice system as a whole; everything seems to work together as a system whereas Windows seems to have separately designed utilities. I did have to install a few things to at least make it usable for me, though; ucontrol to change the Caps Lock key into a Control key, desktop manager for virtual workspaces, and of course, Mozilla. I also opted to install the developer tools from Apple to get a working GCC environment and CVS.

Now having used the laptop for a few weeks at work and at home, I will say I do like it a lot. I've watched some DVDs, listened to Shoutcasts in iTunes (cliqhop is great; lots of Squarepusher and RDJ) and tried to do some real work which is unfortunately somewhat difficult because of the current operating system. As those are related directly to Mac OS, I won't hold them against the machine itself, which is, after all, what I bought, not the operating system.

The PowerBook is an excellent piece of equipment and its comparably high price is justified. There does not seem to be one individual thing that sets it apart, but rather the small things that make it great. The 15" widescreen is very crisp and bright and spoiled me after only a short time. I leaned over to use my old Toshiba to access some data and its normal-sized screen immediately seemed small and square.

When the PowerBook's lid is closed with a gentle, almost uneventful click, the PowerBook goes to sleep. The Apple on the lid stops glowing so as not to be annoying, but a small square on the lid's latching button illuminates to remind you it's still on. When the PowerBook is on, the hard drive and fan are completely silent. Even under heavy activity like from a make build, neither can heard or felt.

But alas, the laptop does have its share of shortcomings which are operating system independent. The one-button mouse, lack of a separate Delete key (the Backspace key is labeled Delete, but there is no key to delete text ahead of the cursor), no Insert key (?!), lack of dedicated Page Up, Page Down, End, and Home keys, and the fact that the Caps Lock key will continue to blink on and off as it is used as a Control key.

Overall, I am very happy with the 15" PowerBook. Once XFree86 is working under OpenBSD, I will be able to use it as a real workstation and not have to pretend to know what I'm doing in Mac OS. Nicely done, Apple.

Questions or comments?
Please feel free to contact me.