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Review: PowerBook Firewire G3/500
By Mike
Review date:3/22/2000
To Date, The Best Notebook On The Planet
Intro | Apps/Game Performance | Benchmarks | Compatibility | DVD/Movies | Specs | Summary
Introduction

Let me preface this review by saying the PowerBook G3 Wallstreet has been my favorite computer. I've owned Macs since the first 128K model in 1984, and over the years have owned or used most every brand or type of personal computer made, but none has been more useful to me overall than the Powerbook G3. I've used it daily for almost two years now and I'd be lost without it. That machine has been one of the most reliable and useable (and portable) computers I've ever owned or used, bar none. The icing on the cake is an excellent ergonomic design and the classiest looks of any portable computer ever. My Wallstreet has convinced many diehard PC fans to give the Mac a serious look. My only wish was that it had better 3D graphics performance for those (rare) times when I'd like to relax with a mindless 3D game. Since readers of this site in 1998 donated that Wallstreet to me (I'm still stunned) I consider it priceless and irreplaceable.

With that said, I found the new Powerbook Firewire model (nicknamed Pismo) to be improved in many areas and the most well-rounded portable computer I've ever used. If you've never owned a Powerbook, there's never been a better time to buy. Thinner, lighter, faster, with more features and better battery life, the new Powerbook is a pure pleasure to use. My wish for better 3D graphics performance was answered as well, as the new Powerbook is the first portable to use ATI's Rage128 Mobility graphics chip. As you'll see in the later pages of this review, this chip is the fastest notebook graphics performer to date.

This review includes separate pages with detailed applications/game performance, benchmarks, dvd/movie playback, specs/compatibility info and more that you should read after this page. The links to detail pages are listed at the top and bottom of each page of this review.


First Impressions:
I was overjoyed that Apple did not mess with the classy lines and sophisticated looks of the past Powerbooks. They represent the pinnacle of not only a notebook's 'wow' factor but also usability. All ports are in one place and there's no excess buttons or gimmicky keys (some notebooks even have chrome CD player buttons if you can believe it).

Noticeably thinner than my Wallstreet, but basically identical in exterior design to the Lombard (which I have not had the chance to use). The trackpad is positioned well, avoiding accidentally brushing it with your palms and moving the cursor (a frequent and frustrating problem I've seen with many PC notebooks). The 'pillows' or wide splayed palmrests make the Powerbook very comfortable to use.

One thing I noticed early on is that the Wallstreet models seem more solidly made. Grasping the Pismo by the front edges emits a creaking sound for instance. A fair tradeoff for the much lighter weight and slimmer profile however and the Pismo is more than rugged enough for portable use.

Note: I'd remove any credit cards from your wallet if you try one of these new Powerbooks at your local dealer, especially if they have a selection of software installed on it to demonstrate how well rounded these new machines are. It would take quite a bit of willpower to resist buying one.

Keyboard:
Although the thicker Wallstreet Powerbook has what I think is the finest keyboard of any notebook computer ever, I was more than satisfied with the new model. My only complaint is a minor one and common to all Powerbooks -- I wish the arrow keys were larger. This would require a case modification and non-rectangular keyboard of course. One note: I did notice the keys are easy to pop off when removing or reinstalling the keyboard. During replacing the keyboard after a RAM upgrade, I accidentally popped off the F9 key, but thankfully it snapped back on and seems fine.

Display:
The 14.1 inch active-matrix display at first didn't seem as bright as I remembered a friend's 14.1 inch Wallstreet, but this may have just been just my impression from comparing it to my 13.3 inch Wallstreet 1 model. Increasing the brightness controls of course are a snap, in fact the new key layout is more responsive than the Wallstreet's dedicated buttons in my opinion. Some graphics professionals have complained about the lack of an accurate Colorsync profile, but most owners will find the display satisfactory. I noticed an improvement in gamma by changing from the default 'Color LCD' to 'PowerBook G3' in the Monitors Control Panel 'Color' settings. [Note:: Owners of 14" display Powerbooks and iBooks might want to try the colorsync profiles sent by reader Brock Brandenberg. See the 3/22/2000 news page for more info . I've made the files available for download here. (*NOT for use w/OS X *)] The review unit had one bad pixel (red) in the lower left hand corner which was not noticeable in normal use. (It's very rare to get a perfect LCD panel this size and most have at least one or two stuck pixels.)

Graphics Performance:
The Powerbook Firewire is the first notebook to use ATi's brand new Rage128 Mobility graphics chip. Based on the core features of the Rage128 Pro but with lower clock speed (105MHz chip and memory clock) and 64-bit memory bus. The Rage128 Mobility performs very well for a notebook even in demanding 3D/OpenGL games. The Rage128 Mobility has 8MB of video ram (SDRAM) and the chip design allows for another 8MB of expansion ram that also increases the memory bus width to 128-Bit, but I doubt the confines of the Powerbook design allows this option. As-is, the PowerBook Firewire has the highest performance graphics in any notebook to date. See the Benchmark and Apps/Games pages of the review for more info.


Video Capability:
The Rage128 Mobility chip supports TV out, video mirroring and dual displays (extended desktop using the built-in LCD display and an external monitor. The LCD display supports up to 1024x768, millions colors as well as 640x480 and 800x600 (reduced resolution modes are not as sharp however and there is no optimize function as with the Apple Studio LCD displays). External monitors can be driven at resolutions up to 1152x870, millions colors (1280x1024 in thousands color mode). 8MB of video ram is standard and not expandable. More details on the video hardware are on the specs page of this review.


DVD Playback:
The Pismo ships with DVD Player 2.1. Before I played my first DVD title I had added another 128MB Dimm and disabled Virtual Memory. After seeing some delay in "The Matrix" movie's intro loop at the repeat point, I increased the RAM allocation to the player from the default (less than 8MB) to 30MB which seemed to remove the delay. Controls were sluggish as is true even on a G4/450 system, but I saw no dithering (as I see with the Wallstreets decoder PCcard) or audio sync issues that were present in the earlier software player versions. Since watching movies on a notebook is secondary, with the proper settings most owners will be satisfied with DVD performance.


DVD Drive:
The Pismo's DVD drive is noticeably faster than the one in the Wallstreet as far as installing applications from CD or copying files. With unbalanced CDs or those with heavy labels or inking, it has the same noisy operation that is common to most all notebook CD drives.



Applications Performance:
In applications that are not Altivec aware (G4) - the Powerbook Firewire's 500MHz G3 CPU generally outperformed the following desktop systems:

B&W G3/400
iMac DV SE
Apple G4/450 (in many cases)

See the Applications Performance page of this review for test results. PSBench test results in Photoshop 5.5 showed the Powerbook G3/500 was not far behind the G4/450 system. (The 21 filter test includes many filters that are not Altivec accelerated however.)

Game Performance:
Just as with the iMac DV SE, the 64bit/8MB/lower clock speed Rage128 chip is best suited to 640x480 modes with demanding OpenGL/3D games like Quake2, Quake3, Rainbow Six and Unreal Tournament. However for a notebook to even run these games in other than a slideshow is an accomplishment. If ATI can improve the 16-Bit image quality in OpenGL (I'm told they can) this machine would really make a great portable gaming solution.

In Quake3 16-Bit mode, 35 frames-per-second rates were recorded. 32-Bit color mode looked great, with lower performance of course (especially during lots of action onscreen). At 640x480 modes, the PowerBook G3/500 performed better than an iMac DV (400MHz G3 with 512K cache), so it's more than playable in this mode. Tweaking detail settings down can help and I've provided some tips on the game tests page. I've been talking to ATI about the 16-Bit OpenGL image quality and a friend there indicates that improvements are possible.

Especially at the faster 16-bit modes, this is one sweet portable game machine. 32Bit 640x480 Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament ran faster than I expected for a notebook and with medium settings played fine in my limited tests. (Remember you will need a lot or RAM to run these games - 128MB is bare minimum and still requires Virtual Memory. I'd suggest 192MB or more of RAM for best performance.) OpenGL games such as Quake 3 cannot be run in 1024x768 mode in millions colors (32Bit mode) due to a lack of memory. (Not a big loss, since 1024x768/32Bit mode would be too slow to be usable in these games anyway.) For specific performance test results in 3D games like Quake1, Quake2, Quake3 and Unreal Tournament, as well as 32Bit Quake3 screenshot samples, see the apps/games page of the review.



Battery Life:
In a word --Impressive. With the default Energy Saver settings (for battery) and the display brightness set at the midpoint, I was amazed at the run-time on this 500MHz notebook. During battery run-down test, I didn't pamper the machine or purposely avoid certain tasks. Although I did not use the CDrom drive, I worked as I normally would, several times taking a break to get coffee, using several applications at once, opening and saving files, etc. I connected a Firewire external drive, copied over 2GB of total files over a period of an hour or so, did some simple Photoshop 5.5 editing of screenshots for this review, used Appleworks word processing (including writing this article actually) and even played a short game of Quake. The battery lasted just over 4 hours of use. (Longer actually, but I was called away for about 20 minutes near the end of the test and the PB went to sleep, so that time was not included in the total).
FYI: Apple notes the estimated battery time remaining is not accurate until you have completely drained and recharged a battery.


Temperatures:
Although when on AC power, the bottom of the case does tend to get very warm after extended use, it does not get as hot as my Wallstreet 250. On battery power the bottom stays much cooler (due to processor cycling, hard drive spindown, etc.). The maximum CPU temperature I saw reported by Gauge Pro was 51C after a series of 3D game tests and this was when overclocking the cache to 250MHz using Powerlogix's Cache Profiler. Although I don't consider these reported temperatures literally accurate in all cases (especially with copper CPUs), my Wallstreet PB G3/250 runs at nearly a constant 76C. Neither temperatures have been a problem as the notebook G3 CPUs are rated for either 85C or 105C I'm told.

The review includes separate pages covering the following areas:

  1. Applications/Game Performance: How the PowerBook performed in real world applications and popular 3D Games. Includes comparisons to a PB G3/250 wallstreet, iMac DV SE, B&W G3 and G4/450 system.
  2. Benchmark Results: MacBench 5.0, RaveBench, Video, Disk and Memory Benchmark tests.
  3. Compatibility: Notes on hardware and software compatibility.
  4. DVD/Movies: DVD and Quicktime movie performance. Also includes comments on Audio.
  5. Specifications: Hardware design features and interfaces. Also includes a list of included accessories.
  6. Summary: Comments on documentation, pricing, suggested sources and value. Also includes links to other reviews of the Powerbook and other PB related articles here.


You can follow my preferred path through the review by continuing to the next page,
or use the links below to jump to a specific page.

Index of PowerBook Firewire G3/500 Review

Intro | Apps/Game Performance | Benchmarks | Compatibility | DVD/Movies | Specs | Summary

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