Apple's Powerbooks: The Lamborghini Of Laptops

Apple's core customers will cheer, but road warriors prefer lighter machines

`Think different" is the ungrammatical slogan at Apple Computer today, and when it comes to laptops, the company is taking its own advice. At a time when leading-edge notebooks are getting thinner and lighter, Apple's newest PowerBooks are behemoths. This is a case, however, where bucking the trend makes sense for Apple and its most important customers: graphic artists, Web designers, and other producers of multimedia content.

Most Windows laptops aimed at business customers offer more power than people need. But Apple's high-end customers have an insatiable appetite for speed, and the top-of-the-line versions of the new PowerBooks are uncompromisingly designed for performance. Unfortunately, since Apple uses the same 2-inch-thick, 7-pound-plus package for all its laptops, less-demanding buyers don't have the option of giving up a bit of performance for less bulk and weight.

I tried the ultimate model, featuring a 292 Mhz PowerPC G3 processor and a stunning 14.1-inch display (Apple offers a nearly unlimited choice of configurations through the Apple Store at It was without doubt the fastest notebook I have used. It completed a series of complex image manipulations in Adobe Photoshop 5.0 in 29 seconds. The same sequence on an IBM ThinkPad 600 with a 266 Mhz Pentium II--the fastest mobile Pentium on the market--took more than three times as long.

The new PowerBook is not just a speedster. Style has always counted in the Mac world, and the PowerBook is graced by an elegant design that includes gracefully curved sides and big white Apple logos on the top and bottom. The laptop features two identical bays, one on each side, which can hold batteries or floppy, CD-ROM, or DVD drives. The devices can be hot-swapped, meaning you don't even need to put the computer into sleep mode to change, and eject levers make removing drives easy. The PowerBook also has an excellent keyboard.

There is a price to be paid, however, for the PowerBook's speed. In the past, the low power consumption of PowerPC chips has allowed PowerBooks to run relatively coolly. But the G3 notebook runs at least as hot as any Pentium II laptop, making it downright uncomfortable to keep on your lap for extended periods of time. Battery life runs about three hours on a charge, a bit better than average for a machine of this class.

One serious defect of the PowerBook is the lack of any sort of docking arrangement. True, just about everything you would want in a computer is built in. All models come with an Ethernet port for connection to local-area networks, and all but the most stripped-down versions feature a 56K modem. There are modem and printer ports, a video jack for hooking up to a standard TV set, and a SCSI interface for connecting scanners or disk drives, including the high-capacity Jaz, Zip, and SyQuest drives much favored by graphic artists. (An internal Zip drive should be available later this summer).

Although its display, keyboard, and features make the PowerBook more than adequate as a desktop replacement, who wants to hook up all those cables every time you come or go? The PowerBook is badly in need of a simple port replicator that would allow you to make all the connections by slipping the laptop into a simple dock. In addition, even with the use of Apple's Location Manager software, it is far more difficult to switch between LAN and dial-up connections than under Windows.

For the most demanding Mac users, the new PowerBook is a dream come true, but for other potential customers, the current one-size-fits-all model has some problems. It's too big and heavy for the mobile executives who are snapping up thin, light Windows laptops. In the critical education market, college students are big laptop fans and many of them favor Apple. They are very price-sensitive buyers, however, and the cheapest PowerBook configuration costs $2,299. Except in raw speed, it seriously lags behind a similarly priced Dell Inspiron 3000 in features. Meanwhile, a flood of less capable, but more than adequate, Windows laptops is hitting the market at $1,500 or less.

At the high end, Apple has done a very good job of providing portable power to a very important group of customers. But to go beyond a short-term survival strategy and once again become a major player in mobile computing, Apple has to expand its product line to meet the varied needs that make up the laptop market.