Pros: Sleek; powerful; robust; flexible; fun; easy to use
Cons: Can’t run some software; some tiny performance issues; surface under hands develops issues eventually
Rating: 4 out of 5
First published 1/8/2005
It was mostly luck that resulted in my replacing my dying Linux machine with a Powerbook more than a year ago; for various reasons, that’s what happened to be most readily and inexpensively available. I’m no computer expert, but I’ll do my best to review the various aspects of this machine, and hopefully it will help some people make up their own mind about what sort of computer they want.
It’s a 17″, widescreen-display powerbook running Mac OS X (I have yet to upgrade to Panther, more out of innate laziness than anything else, so I’m still running version 10.2.8). It has two 512 M RAM sticks in it, and a 1.33 GHz PowerPC G4 processor. The bus speed is 167 MHz. I’m using it wirelessly with an airport hub. Unfortunately I’m not sure what sort of video and audio components are in here.
I’ve been almost universally pleased and delighted with the performance of this machine. The screen is incredibly sharp and the colors are crisp and beautiful. The resolution is wonderful. Amazingly, it has stood up to my cats jumping onto my closed laptop on many an occasion.
Software comes up quickly, and I can run quite a few programs at a time without any noticeable problems. One issue I’ve noticed is that certain programs do heat up the computer noticeably and cause occasional short delays; these include ITunes (but then, I have an awful lot of music in there!), some games, and Virtual PC. Mind you, I can still run two of those things together and get work done; it just performs a little slowly.
One other small thing is that sometimes when I’m running the Safari browser it’ll pause and show the little colorful “busy” pinwheel for no apparent reason before settling down and taking input again. I haven’t yet figured that one out. [Note added later: after upgrading to Panther this seems to have improved.]
There are all sorts of little features. For example, you can have the screen adjust to the level of light in the room, and you can have backlighting light up the keyboard when it gets dark. I find the keyboard backlighting works best in low light; in the dark, if anything, it tends to make it harder rather than easier to read the keyboard. But you can easily turn it off in your preferences panes.
I find the battery is surprisingly robust. I’m not nearly as good as I should be about draining it and recharging it now and then, and yet it still lasts for a good long time on those rare occasions when I use it, even if I have a handful of programs running. This is in marked contrast to the last notebook computer I had some number of years ago; its battery died in very short order.
There’s a “dock” at the bottom of the screen–a pane with icons for some of the more popular programs you might want to use. You just have to click on an icon there once to bring the program up. Drag an icon onto the dock to add it, or drag it off to remove it. You can even drag them around to rearrange them. Using the preferences panes you can resize the doc and set a few other features with respect to it.
Mac OS X and the powerbook are truly attractive things. I love the sleek shiny appearance of the laptop, and the icons and windows are similarly sleek and attractive. Apple puts some thought into allowing you to customize that; for instance, you can have your background rotate between pictures every so often. The computer comes with a good handful, and you can add more as you like.
My only problem with the aesthetics is the surface of the laptop around the trackpad, where your hands rest. When you use your computer all day in the summer heat, it’s inevitable that your hands will sweat, no matter how much you wash them. Despite frequently using computer-cleansing wipes on my keyboard the surface around my trackpad has become discolored and pitted from the moisture. Of course this took several years, but it’s still annoying.
The powerbook comes with all sorts of useful software. I love using AppleMail for reading my mail; it has a reasonably good adaptive spam filter. You tell it what’s junk, and it learns from that and filters further spam off into a separate mailbox. I find it’s pretty good about not accidentally marking non-spam as spam, for the most part.
While Safari can’t handle every little web-frobby out there that, say, Internet Explorer on Windows can, that’s fine with me. I rather like it, and it suits my needs. I’m not overly fond of most web sites loaded up with scripts and such anyway. The Mac also comes with IE for those who prefer to use it.
Programs like iCal and the address book let you keep your life organized. ITunes lets you store your music, organize it into playlists by all sorts of criteria (or manually), and play music for hours on end.
Because OS X is built on UNIX, it’s a lot more flexible than you might imagine. I do my html editing through shells in emacs, and can use standard UNIX commands like mv and cp and mkdir to get things done, instead of always having to use the graphical interface. I can still use the graphical interface if I want to, however.
It’s easy to set up your machine as a web server so that you can use it to develop web material. I was even able to install PHP so I could test our web site materials out before actually putting them on the web. I can easily turn the server on and off so there’s no chance someone can access it from the outside when I don’t want them to.
Unfortunately most of the world still wants documents fed to them in MS Word format, so you might need to get Office for the Mac. I think it runs quite well, thankfully, and have never had troubles with it. Office Pro comes with Virtual PC, which can run a virtual Windows machine on your Powerbook. I find that only some Windows software actually works on Virtual PC; for example, I have a program for creating web graphics that works fine, but there are a couple of games I tried to install that wouldn’t run at all. Another program I have works in part, but some parts of it won’t save. It also tends to run the computer slow and hot. So it isn’t an ideal thing, but if you have one or two pieces of software you really need to use Windows for, it might work.
In the past one of the big problems with Mac computers was the lack of software made for them. That’s getting a lot better, however. There’s a menu option in the main apple menu that will take you to a directory of third-party software for the Mac on Apple’s site, and it’s very extensive. I’ve always been able to find something that meets my needs, whether I’m looking for organizational software or games. Apple is making it easier for developers to work with the Mac, and developers seem to be responding eagerly. I no longer feel like I have no options if I need a piece of software to do something for me. It may take a little digging, but what I want is usually out there somewhere.
All in all I adore my powerbook. It’s sleek, user-friendly, powerful, flexible, and adaptable. If powerbooks were a little cheaper and ran more software, I’d never use another Windows machine again.
OLD SCHOOL tech review haha. I like the writing – you should review some newer tech gadgets, too. (I’m sure you have something to say about the iPhone!)