The 12-inch PowerBook G4

By Joseph Moran

March 05, 2003

Even those who've never stepped away from the Windows PC camp will find a lot to like about this slim little wonder -- a unit that truly takes advantage of wireless networks.

I have a confession to make. I've been involved with computers for a couple of decades now, and for all that time was firmly in the "PC" camp. It's not that I didn't like Macs--just that they really weren't for me.

I think I may have found one that is: The 12-inch PowerBook G4.

This is certainly not the first notebook with a svelte form factor I've ever worked with. It is by far, however, the coolest. So cool, in fact that I swear the temperature of the room dropped 10 degrees every time I took it out.

The 12-inch PowerBook G4 will set you back $1,898. That's $1,799 for the notebook and another $99 for the optional 802.11g AirPort Extreme wireless card, which plugs into the bottom of the unit beneath the battery. (The notebook, like all PowerBooks is "Airport Ready" sporting integrated WLAN antennas.)

For that amount, you get quite a lot, especially for such a small chassis--built-in V.90 modem and 10/100 Ethernet, one FireWire 400 port, two USB ports (1.1--Apple doesn't do 2.0), among others. The slot-loaded DVD-CD-RW (a DVD-R variant is an option) is something I wish you could get on a PC notebook. Then of course, there is the vibrant 12-inch screen which supports 1024 by 768 resolution.

Engineering is all about making trade-offs, though, and it won't come as a surprise to anyone for the 12-inch PowerBook G4 to posses such a diminutive form necessitates a few sacrifices. The only question is whether you'll actually miss the features that were sacrificed.

Probably the most obvious one is the omission of a PC Card slot, something that the PowerBook's 15- and 17-inch siblings do give you. Then again, the PowerBook is so feature-rich that it's hard to imagine that you'd ever need to add anything, at least under normal circumstances.

Another thing it does without is an L3 cache, something the larger models gives you in the amount of 1MB. The 12-incher also makes do with a slightly slower G4 processor and system bus (867 MHz and 133 MHz) than the flagship 17-inch model (1 GHz and 167 MHz).

I did not perform any formal benchmark testing on the unit, but I will admit that it didn't seem to have the alacrity of a cost-comparable but larger models (either PC or Mac), and left me tapping my fingers somewhat during such tasks as rendering large Acrobat files.

Having said that, I expect that giving up a bit of speed won't matter to most (it doesn't to me) because you'll likely make the decision to buy the 12-inch PowerBook much like you might decide to buy a New Beetle convertible--not to go fast, but to do a job and look good doing it.

One thing the PowerBook 12-inch does pretty well is wireless. Some folks buy notebooks and leave them on a desk in perpetuity, but for the truly mobile WLAN user, the small size and weight of this PowerBook (1.18x10.9x8.6 HWD and 4.6 lbs.) make it exceptionally easy to transport it around the home or office or airport.

The unit has a pair of diversity antennas embedded in the lid on either side of the display. Apple claims up to a 150-foot range, and I got pretty close. Measuring signal strength against a pre-draft 802.11g-based AirPort Extreme Base Station, I got a little more than 125 feet from it before the signal was gone for good. One curiosity though was that the PowerBook's AirPort signal strength meter never measured more than about four-fifths strength, even when the notebook and base station were adjacent to each other.

I'm expressing signal strength with fractions rather than a percentage, because the strength meter only gives you a horizontal bar, no actual numerical value; not even gradations on the bar. Obviously, the length of the bar gives you a rough idea as to the signal strength, but it's hard to discern at a glance. It wouldn't have killed Apple to give us the number.

As mentioned in the Base Station evaluation, our NetIQ Chariot testing suite does not offer a performance endpoint compatible with the MacOS, which prevented me from performing tests with the Mac hardware that would be comparable to those done on previously reviewed 802.11g products from D-Link and Buffalo.

So to get a sense of how well the two would play together wirelessly (and what kind of throughput would result), I fired up IPerf, an open-source network performance analyzer.

Using IPerf at the same distance intervals that we typically test with Chariot revealed that the throughput between the AirPort Extreme and the PowerBook was reasonably good at short distances, but trailed off substantially somewhere between 25 and 50 feet.

At 10 feet, IPerf reported a throughput figure of 13.08 Mbps. It had dropped by almost half at 25 feet, coming in at 7.18 Mbps. By 50 feet it had been more than halved again at 3.25, and by 100 feet the throughput was just south of 1 Mbps. A consistent signal could not be obtained beyond this distance.

Because a similar phenomenon was observed while testing the base station against a PC with a Buffalo 802.11g client, I would tend to indict the base station (which has an internal antenna), rather than the PowerBook itself, as the culpable party. I didn't have the opportunity to test the PowerBook against a 802.11g device with external antennas, but I expect it would have fared better.

I never thought I would say it (and please don't tell anyone), but I have finally found a Macintosh that I actually covet. Reasonable performance and a reasonable price are things that many different notebooks can deliver to some extent, but the Apple delivers that plus it adds light weight, small size, and a shimmering look to the equation, to say nothing of built in 802.11g.

Whether you hail from the PC or Mac worlds, it's hard to imagine a better implement for the true road warrior than the PowerBook G4 12-inch.



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