Apple"s 15-in PowerBook adds value

Von Ken Mingis

Let"s start our look at Apple Computer Inc."s latest 15-in. PowerBook, with a glance back at what the company offered in the same size just one year ago.

In March 2004, the 15-in. aluminum PowerBook was just six months old, its reputation battered a bit by troublesome white spots that had shown up on some PowerBook screens in the fall of 2003. But because of its place in the PowerBook lineup -- sandwiched between the petite 12-in. version and the top-end 17-in. version -- the 15-in. model proved to be popular, white spots or not.

So if you walked into an Apple Store a year ago seeking the better of the two 15-in. PowerBooks then offered, you found yourself walking out with a laptop built around a 1.25-GHz G4 chip, an 80GB hard drive (spinning at 4,200 rpm), 512MB of RAM, an ATI Mobility Radeon 9600 video card (with 64MB of video RAM), a SuperDrive and an AirPort Extreme card.

Price: $2,599.

In late January, Apple updated its PowerBook line -- and I promptly snapped up a new 17-in. model. But before doing so, I seriously considered the 15-in. model, which for most people offers the best blend of performance and portability. In the end, the larger screen won me over. But when Apple offered a new 15-in. PowerBook for review purposes, I readily agreed to try it.

So what has a year of progress brought? A faster processor (the G4 now runs at 1.67 GHz), a faster hard drive (it now spins at 5,400 rpm), a newer ATI video card (the Mobility Radeon 9700), a faster SuperDrive, a new Sudden Motion Sensor that kicks in if you drop the PowerBook, a new scroll pad that allows for two-fingered scrolling, a much brighter backlit keyboard and a new price: $2,299.

In fact, the pricier 17-in. PowerBook now costs just $100 more than that 15-in. model did a year ago.

Who says progress is bad?

On today"s 15-in. model, you can, of course, opt for a larger 100GB hard drive and twice the video RAM, which is enough to run one of Apple"s gargantuan 30-in. Cinema Displays. Do that, and you"ll tack another $200 onto the price tag. And you"ll still be spending less than you would have last March.

In day-to-day use, I can"t tell any significant difference in this PowerBook and the 17-in. model I bought two months ago -- except that I miss that extra bit of screen real estate. In terms of speed, the two are virtually twins. The larger model clocked in with a score of 135 using the Xbench benchmarking software, while this one came in at 131. Believe me, you won"t notice those four points.

But if you"re someone who travels with your PowerBook on a regular basis, you will notice the weight difference. That 17-in. model weighs 6.9 pounds; Its smaller sibling checks in at 5.6 pounds. Now, 1.3 pounds may not seem like much, but if you have a laptop in a case slung over your shoulder regularly, you"ll feel it over time. (The 15-in. model is also a heck of a lot easier to open up if you"re crammed into a seat in coach class on an airplane.)

The 15-in. screen is sharp and bright, even here in a well-lit office next to large plate-glass windows that let in plenty of light all day long. I used a small program called Screen Query to check for any random bad pixels and found none. Nor have I seen any white blemishes on the screen. I"m also a fan of the matte finish that covers the screen, which reflects much less glare than the Xbrite screen technology being touted in the PC laptop world today.

Like the backlit keyboard on my 17-in. model, the keyboard on the 15-in. is substantially brighter than the one used in earlier models. Apple claims it"s up to 10 times brighter, an estimate with which I"m not going to argue. It"s that much brighter and much more useful in dimly lit situations.

However, not all is well with the latest revision. Not long after the "05 PowerBooks started getting into buyers" hands, some users noted on Apple"s online discussion areas, as well as on other Macintosh-related forums, that their trackpads didn"t seem to work right. They either moved the cursor too slowly or stopped working completely, and they seemed to be particularly susceptible to static electricity. The problem apparently affects PowerBooks across the line, according to users.

Earlier this month, Apple acknowledged the issue with a knowledge base document that offers a way to "reset" the trackpad. Basically, you put you whole palm over it for several seconds. Once reset, you should be able to use it as before, with the added benefit of being able to scroll vertically or horizontally if you use two fingers.

Apple says it"s still investigating the issue, but so far, at least, I"ve had no problems with either of the new PowerBooks I"ve used. And I have to admit that I"ve gotten very used to the two-finger scrolling method of maneuvering around Web pages, e-mails and other documents.

I haven"t tested the Sudden Motion Sensor, and I hope I never have to, as it"s designed to work if you accidentally knock your PowerBook off a table or drop it onto the floor. There"s no user input for the feature; it happens automatically by parking the heads of hard drive platters until the sudden motion has stopped, theoretically preserving your data. How well your PowerBook survives the fall is another matter.

Despite obvious improvements, there was much virtual gnashing of teeth in January about the lack of a PowerBook G5 and a lot of speculation about the possibility of a dual-core G4 PowerBook lineup later this year. Apple officials have said they"d like to squeeze a G5 into a PowerBook, if they can figure out how to dissipate the heat put out by that chip. That"s a big if.

As is obvious when looking back a year, the one thing that"s clearly been added to the latest 15-in. PowerBook is something less tangible than new hardware, but just as important. It"s called value.