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2/17/01 Saturday's News: Story DetailReturn to News Page

PowerBook G4/400 First Impressions/Performance Tests:
By Mike
Published: 2/17/2001
(updated 2/19/2001 for 10GB vs 20GB IBM HD tests
and WaveLan vs Airport Tests)
(photo courtesy Brian Caslis)

(the original PowerBook G4/400 first impressions article follows)

I've been under the weather the last few days and only had a few hours to play with the PowerBook G4/400 yesterday, but I have to say so far I'm impressed - and hooked (badly). Although I thought the screen had a severe blue tint when viewed in the store Thursday, it looks great to me here at home. (BTW: I've updated the Pismo/Ibook profiles download here to include the one Brian Caslis for the PB G4. *These profiles are not for installing in OS X's profiles folder*) And in this sample, there's not one bad pixel (verified with PowerPixel Tester by Kevin Gregory, a 1993 program that still works under OS 9.1, although I can't find it any more on the web). [Update: Ed Floden sent a note about a free pixel tester at http://www.ekimsw.com/lcdtest/. ]

Here's some comments on what I've seen so far is limited use. (I avoided trying to describe how much I like this PB so far and focused only on specific details.)

  • DVD: Apple suggests running the battery down and then recharging it on a new powerbook. To do this I played a DVD movie (Gone in 60 Seconds). That movie contains the other silver item I've lusted after - a 1967 Shelby GT500. For this test I ran the as-shipped full OS 9.1 extension set and didn't disable Virtual Memory (which usually has a negative effet on audio). I didn't allocate more RAM to the DVD player as I normally do yet it played without any audio glitches, etc..

    I used the "present video" option and the movie played in widescreen mode, which put a grin on my face to see that on a notebook.

  • Battery Life: (Note: One reader wrote to say that the battery does not ship fully charged, more like 3/4.) The DVD movie was almost 2 hours (118 minutes) in duration, and on the initial charge (as shipped) the movie ran the battery to reserve level before it finished. However I had used the system for awhile and installed a few things from CD before playing the movie. And again this was on the original battery charge from the factory, so I'll have to test again after a recharge. Playing a DVD movie is both CPU and disc intensive, so battery life would be much shorter during DVD movie playback than in normal use where the CPU and drives are often idle. With the battery on the bottom, it's not as easy to swap as the previous expansion bay types, but I don't consider this a big issue. The lack of an expansion bay means you can't have 2 batteries installed at once, which was possible on previous models.

  • Heat: So far the most CPU intensive use I'd done with the PB G4 is playing a DVD movie. The bottom of the case got hot during DVD playback and was about as hot as the Pismo G3/500 I reviewed during extended CPU intensive applications use. (After using a PB G3/250 Wallstreet for years, I'm used to notebooks with very hot bottom surfaces, my Wallsteet gets too hot to use on your lap in extended use.) The fact the case is metal may make it more noticable to some however. I'd have to do more testing and would like to find a temperature reporting utility that is compatible (reportedly all current utils don't work properly with the PB G4 and they're not always accurate anyway).

    Several times during DVD movie playback the fan turned on. It has a different pitch than the other powerbooks I've used and is about as noticable noise wise. When the fan did turn on during playback, it ran for about a minute then shut off.

  • Screen: (Note: after using the screen for some time, I can say now that the wider screen was more of a benefit than I first thought. And for OS X, the wider area is a plus for the dock. The color quality is also better than previous models in my experience, as I can see subtle shading in table cells on some of my web pages much clearer than on a Pismo for instance.) As I said previously, I'm lucky this screen has no stuck pixels at all. I like the wider screen, although I won't tell you that it will radically change the way you work like that of a Cinema display. However the 128 pixel wider screen is a nice bonus, especially for DVD or applications that have tool palettes. The screen seems wider in use than the 128 pixel difference would indicate. The wide screen also contributes to the PB G4's unique look. Without a doubt the display is the most impressive you'll find on a notebook. And thankfully, Apple didn't make the mistake that some 15" highres PC notebooks did in my opinion - running incredibly high resolutions (like 1600x1200) where icons in palettes are hard to see. Running less than native resolutions on LCDs makes the image less sharp, so scaling resolutions is not really a good option for general use (text, etc.).

    Also remember there's no guarantee of a perfect screen, as all but one of the LCD displays I have owned have had at least one stuck pixel. Sometimes massaging them can help, but not always. (Rarely in my experience and exercise care when pressing on any LCD screen - you may do more harm than good if you're not careful.) In the past, I believe there had to be several stuck pixels touching or a total of 5 to qualify for a screen replacement but not sure what current policies are on this. Many times stuck pixels are not noticeable in normal use. (Black backgrounds often are a good test if you don't have a pixel test utility.)

  • Speakers/Audio: Although no notebook has good audio from built-in speakers (other than the Toshiba 2805-S402, which has subwoofer), Audio CDs played through the speakers sound very poor; use headphones for music or where you want the good audio quality. BTW: I always preferred the Mic location at the top of the screen on previous PB models I've had, since that prevents picking up noise from internal components. The PB G4 has the microphone in the left side speaker housing, which I think is far less desirable. Dell and Gateway notebooks I've used that had a Mic near the keyboard picked up so much noise it was almost useless in my experience. Like the 2001 G4 towers, there's no audio input jack. USB Microphones are one option.

  • Keyboard: There is some flex in the PB G4's keyboard, more than I remember in the Pismo. Even after making sure the keyboard was fully seated and that there was no cable interference below it, there's still noticable (if you look) flex when keys are pressed. The amount of flex varies it seems depending on which keys are pressed (the under keyboard support areas). No thin notbook (or any notebook for that matter) has a keyboard as nice as the Wallstreet - absolutely no comparison. The travel and feel in those keys are second to none I think. The larger trackpad on the PB G4 is a plus for me, but I usually use a mouse even with a notebook. I especially like the media eject key (F12), which eliminates the need to select/drag a CD to the trash.

  • DVD Drive: So far I have seen no problems at all with ejecting CD/DVDs. One reader from Australia said he was told the eject/alignment issue noted here previously was only with a small batch of USA models. Knock on wood it's been perfect so far. It makes the same fan-like noise as other notebook drives when a CD is spinning or in use, but this is par for the course on any notebook drive I've seen (esp. a higher speed one). Heavily inked/labelled CDs can make noise or vibration worse (depending on balance of the CD's label).

  • Construction: Althought the display lid is thin, my first impression is that it's surprisingly rigid in feel compared to previous plastic case Powerbooks. I have heard pressing on it can distort the display image, but I don't plan on doing that. Overall the PB G4 is not as rugged as the previous models. (The most rugged was the Wallstreet series in my opinion.)

    Remember that the Titanium case can be scratched by sharp objects. I'd recommend a soft cloth or towel be used when you invert the PB to replace a battery, add an airport card, etc.

    Picking the unit up closed feels very solid and slightly heavier than I expected. Picking up my Wallstreet for comparison however made me realize the PB G4 is much lighter. Personally, I'd not trade this PB G4 for three of the lightweight (3lb) Sony VAIO SR17s. The extra power, far better keyboard, powered firewire ports and the wide screen is more than a fair tradeoff for 2lbs more weight in my opinion. And with the SR-17, there's no internal CD drive, so that's extra baggage to carry. (Plus an AC adapter for any portable Firewire drives you carry along.)

    I'm also thankful Apple used standard SODIMMs for this thin notebook, not the Micro SODIMMs Sony used in the SR series - which cost $300 or so for a 128MB upgrade. (To add insult to injury, even after spending $300 for a 128MB upgrade, you only gain 64MB net, since both slots already have 64MB modules.) Compare that cost to about $50 for a 128MB PC100 SODIMM for the PowerBook at current prices. With 256MB SODIMMs pricing now, you can have half a gigabyte of RAM in a PowerBook for about $200 or so. That's amazing. You can't use the high profile SODIMMs in the new PowerBook however.

    I've had two reports that static discharge by touching the case can freeze the system if you've in a static prone environment. (Even Dan Knight of Low End Mac commented on this - saying he's frozen it several times while hitting the F12 key to eject a CD since it's so close to the case edge). I've not seen that here so far, but I'd suggest those in static generating environments (carpeted floors, rubber soled shoes, etc.) get an anti-static mat for their work area, and/or a ground plug connected static discharge pad that I've seen sold over the years in some computer stores. Although ICs soldered into boards are less static sensitive - if it's freezing the system it can't be a good thing. Even in cases where static discharge does not destroy a component, it can shorten its life. In fact, a study I read years ago noted that static discharge (at some point in the life cycle of a product) is the #1 cause of component failure. (BTW - most every notebook AC adapter I've seen does not have a ground plug.)

    The thin design has no expansion bays, which some may miss. Most of the devices I'd want to use now are firewire based however. Expansion bays do make it easier to replace defective CD drives, etc. The advantage to Firewire devices is that you can use them with other Macs you may have. I get a lot of use from my portable VST firewire drive, much more so than I do with my expansion bay hard drive for the Wallstreet.

    One major bonus of an expansion bay however is you can add an additional hard drive (internally). With current drive heights/sizes, a 32GB IBM Travelstar is the largest drive you could have in a PB G4, where with a Wallstreet, Lombard, or Pismo you could have one of these internally and one in an expansion bay. (This would not allow a CD/DVD drive to be installed at the same with the Lombard/Pismo models however. Both Wallstreet bays can hold drives.) With the PB G4, you have to use Firewire to add additional drives. [Update - As noted in the main site news, IBM in March announced a 48GB Travelstar, the same height as the 32GB model which will fit in a PB G4. It also features fluid bearings and sound absorbing material on the case for lower noise.]

    Oops - I almost forgot one other plus of an expansion bay - the ability to hold a 2nd battery (at the expense of not having a CD/DVD drive).

    Looking at the details on the PowerBook G4 you see little things that Apple could have made cheaper but didn't (the machined power and battery button for instance). This reminded me of a comment on Harley Davidson motorcycles - that you could spend an hour just spotting little details that you don't see on a competitor's model. There are compromises in any product, but it's clear the PB G4 was not designed with a bean-counter/cookie-cutter mentality.

    I'll have a more detailed review as soon as I can but I wanted to share my initial impressions on the new PowerBook. I have to say I have not been so taken by any computer since I saw my first Mac 128K in 1984.
    No notebook computer is perfect, and my wish list would include a combo DVD/CDRW drive, Radeon or GeForce2GO graphics chip, etc. - but so far I have to say this is one impressive portable computer. If you can find a retailer with one in stock take a close look at the PowerBook G4, then go look at their array of PC notebooks. That will graphically illustrate how "different" the Apple design really is. Apple also has a great quicktime movie ad on the PB G4 if you missed it here previously.

    Updates: Below are updates with additional test results or comments on my PB G4/400. (Added 10GB vs 20GB Travelstar HD tests and Wavelan vs Airport card tests on 2/19/2001)

    PowerBook G4/400 Tests - 10GB vs 20GB Hard Drive: - Today I installed both an Airport card and swapped out the original 10GB IBM Travelstar hard drive for a 20GB Travelstar drive in the PowerBook G4. (I swapped the 20GB Travelstar I used in the Wallstreet HD upgrade guide.) I was baffled by the slow ATTO Tools benchmark sustained write speed tests on the 10GB drive (less than 6MB/sec - the 20GB drive was nearly 15MB/sec). Even tests with no extensions showed no real gain in that test with the 10GB drive.

    The results of tests in ATTO Tools Benchmark (8MB IO size) and some Finder level tests are shown in the table below. The restart tests were timed from the instant the LCD lit up until the Finder mounted the hard drive (ready to use). For the timed tests (seconds) lower numbers are faster. For the R/W tests, higher numbers are better (MB/sec). The system had the original 128MB RAM (only) and Virtual Memory was enabled. I had disabled Multiple Users extension/control panel, and Palm extensions however (both drives tested with exactly the same extension set, and same files installed [about 4GB used] - disks were defragmented before tests). ATTO R/W tests were run with extensions disabled (enabled or disabled made little real difference actually).

    IBM TravelStar 10GB vs 20GB
    PowerBook G4/400
    % Gain
    Peak Read
    37.2659.31 58%
    Sustained Read

    Peak Write
    Sustained Write
    5.6714.94 163%
    Dupl. System Folder
    63.2546.1 37%
    PShop 5.5
    Load 18MB File

    PShop 5.5
    Save 18MB File

    3.032.25 34%
    49.746.0 8%

    Since the IBM 20GB Travelstar drives are available for about $165 at OWC (a 20GB Hitachi is appx. $145), this was a worthwhile upgrade in my opinion, doubling storage space and increasing performance. I'll be putting the 10GB drive in the Wallstreet, otherwise I'd have put it in a portable firewire case perhaps. (See the Firewire articles page for an example kit build/review.)

    Update: I noticed last night while running tests on the PB G4 in a totally quiet room that the 20GB Travelstar drive does have some idle noise. I never noticed this when the drive was in the Wallstreet, so perhaps the metal chassis of the PB G4 makes this more noticable. (The wallstreet mounting inverts the drive and bracket with different mounting [see this article], so perhaps this and the different chassis is the reason it seemed totally quiet in that system.) You can verify it's the drive by spinning it down. I'm still happy with the drive but may try to reduce the idle noise with some modifications later. The stock 10GB drive also made some slight noise, but I didn't notice it as much, but can't remember if I'd used it in a totally quiet room before replacing it..

    BTW - Some PB G4s come with Toshiba 10GB drives, not the IBM Travelstar 10GB mine had. Dan Knight of LowEndMac.com noted his Toshiba 10GB performance was much better than my 10GB IBM, but he had ATTO's IO size set to 512KB, which is likely within the cache size of the drive. (The 20GB Travelstar has a 2MB cache for instance.) This is why I test at 8MB I/O size, to better show overall drive performance. (He later replied to my email on test file sizes to say that 8MB I/O tests showed similar sustained rates to my IBM 20GB drive, although peak rates were lower as I remember.)

    PowerBook G4 - Airport card vs Wavelan Card Range Tests: Since I had a Wavelan Silver PCcard handy, I decided to run some simple tests to see if the standard Wavelan card had better range than an internal Airport card installed in a PowerBook G4. (Due to the metal case, there have have been reduced range reports compared to iBooks and Pismos.) My simple tests showed that the Wavelan card did provide improved range.

    My Airport Base is located upstairs in the rearmost room (about 5 ft off the floor). Once downstairs, the Wavelan card consistently showed one more 'dot' of signal strength than the internal Airport card. For instance when downstairs in the front room, the Wavelan card showed 4 of 5 dots lit, the Airport card showed 3. Outside in front of the house (I'd estimate appx. 45 feet [line of sight] from the base) - the Wavelan card showed 3 dots, the Airport card showed 2. (My front "lawn" is about the size of 4 doormats, so that's the maximum distance I would need to be from the base. The townhouse is brick construction, so aluminum siding, etc. may have different effects.)

    Even in the downstairs room directly below the base, the Wavelan card showed all dots lit - but the Airport card showed one less. Due to recent horribly slow and intermittent problems with my Adelphia cable model I didn't run file transfer tests (even friends in the area also have complained about this - I suspect they need to update bandwidth to handle all the new accounts).

    It does appear there is less range with the PB G4 Airport cards. Inside the house this would not likely be a problem however, but if you have a Wavelan PCCard and don't mind using a PCcard that sticks out from the notebook, then the Wavelan may be a better wireless solution. (It costs about $60-$70 more list price than the Airport card however.) The PB G4 comes with an Airport PCCard extension already installed, so the Wavelan card was plug and play (I only needed to configure TCP/IP for DHCP - took less than a minute from inserting it to using it.)

    I'll probably use the Airport card since for my needs (and range) it should be fine, but I'll post an update if I see any problems in use. Overall I am very pleased with the new PowerBook G4. My PB G3/250 Wallstreet is like a comfortable old pair of loafers and I've used it daily since summer 1998. I have gotten more use from it than any computer I've ever owned by far, but as I stated above, I have never been so hooked by a new Mac since I bought my first 128K model in 1984.

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