PowerBook 12 vs. iBook: What's a Mac fan to do?

It's a nagging question for which there is seemingly no correct answer, akin to the "paper or plastic" query at the grocery store: PowerBook or iBook? Aluminum or polycarbonate? Twelve-inch or 14-inch?

Ever since Apple Computer Inc. released the iBook G3, Macintosh users have debated the relative merits of the company's entry-level laptop and its pro line of sleek PowerBook G4s. Until last fall, when Apple finally plopped a G4 chip into the iBook, the answer seemed pretty clear. If you wanted speed and had the bucks, get the PowerBook.

That advice is no longer as clear-cut as it once was.

Apple recently sent Computerworld two of its newest laptops for review purposes: a top-end 14-in. iBook G4, with a combination drive and an AirPort Extreme card for wireless networking, and an entry-level 12-in. PowerBook, similarly equipped -- but with a SuperDrive that can burn DVDs as well as CDs. The PowerBook weighs just 4.6 pounds, while the iBook weighs 5.9 pounds.

The upper end of Apple's iBook line has been edging ever closer to PowerBook territory over the past few upgrade cycles, and that's certainly the case with the latest iteration of white wonders.

The top-end iBook now sports a 1.2-GHz G4 chip, a bright and easy-to-read 14-in. LCD screen and a 60GB hard drive, and it can be ordered with an AirPort card. The entry-level PowerBook comes with a slightly faster 1.33-GHz G4 chip, a 60GB hard drive, a fairly bright, but sharp 12-in. screen -- and it has the AirPort card included. In fact, all PowerBooks now come with AirPort Extreme cards installed, one of the nice upgrades introduced into the PowerBook line by Apple last month.

The Powerbook is noticeably smaller than the iBook.
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The Powerbook is noticeably smaller than the iBook.
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The iBook goes for $1,499, and that price now includes the AirPort card. (Update: In an earlier version of this story I incorrectly said the Airport card cost $99 extra. Actually, it's included in the top-end iBook, and costs $99 to add to the other iBook models.)

The PowerBook is $1,799, with the difference in price largely due to the SuperDrive. When ordered with a combo drive, that same 12-in. PowerBook checks in at $1,599, or just $101 more than the iBook with AirPort. Both come with 256MB of memory, which you'll want to double or triple before doing any serious computing. (The going price for a 512MB chip on the market is about $120, and I bumped the RAM in the the two laptops I tested to a healthy 768MB.) Both have 512KB of L2 cache memory. Both offer FireWire 400 ports and Universal Serial Bus 2.0 ports for peripherals. And the larger iBook can be ordered with an optional SuperDrive for an extra $200.

Continuing with the specifications, the PowerBook comes with a 64MB Nvidia GeForce FX Go5200 video card that allows you to easily hook it up via Digital Video Interface to an external monitor. The iBook, with a 32MB ATI Mobility Radeon 9200 card, still offers only VGA for external monitor hookups.

I've had a chance to use all three of Apple's 12-in. PowerBooks, starting with the almost-too-hot-to-handle 867-MHz model from early 2003, the much-improved 1-GHz model released last fall and the 1.33-GHz model released last month. Each incremental update improved on an already solid product, and the latest baby PowerBook is the best yet. It delivers fluid operation for most tasks, runs silently and doesn't get nearly as hot as its predecessors. If you were waiting for the right 12-in. PowerBook to come along, it's here. And if you have one of those first-generation hotties, now is a good time to trade up if you like the size.

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The iBook and Powerbook, side by side.
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The iBook and Powerbook, side by side.

Then there's the new iBook. This is the first iBook I've spent serious time with since the early G3 models of 2002, and the improvements since then make it a fantastic deal for buyers on a budget -- especially now that it sports a G4 chip. For all but the most processor-intensive tasks, it's up to the job, and with the optional SuperDrive, you can get into portable digital editing and DVD creation for a few hundred dollars less than before.

Of course a better Apples-to-Apples comparison would be between the 12-in. PowerBook and the base model iBook, which has the same LCD screen, a slightly slower 1-GHz processor and a smaller 30GB hard drive. (Of course, you can't get that model with a SuperDrive, so if you plan on making DVDs on the go, that one's out.) The price difference between them is $500, enough to buy 1GB of RAM, an iSight webcam and even an inexpensive laptop case.

There's also a midrange iBook, which comes with that same 1-GHz processor but is otherwise essentially the same as the entry-level model -- except that it also has a 14-in. screen. It sells for $1,299.

The PowerBook is faster, of course, as shown by its Xbench score of 117, compared with the iBook's score of 101. But the iBook lasts longer on battery power. The one I had ran for just under four hours, with the processor speed set to "highest," the screen brightness turned all the way up and several applications running, including iTunes, Safari, Konfabulator and Mail. The PowerBook, under the same conditions, lasted two hours and 50 minutes. By turning down the LCD brightness and reducing processor speed, you can no doubt squeeze out more battery time on either machine.

So which one should you get?

A lot depends on whether you're fond of aluminum alloy or white polycarbonate. There's no doubt that based on aesthetics, a CIO or field sales rep is likely to make a better impression pulling out a shiny PowerBook to make a PowerPoint presentation. It looks classy and solid, and it feels that way in regular use -- and that includes the keyboard, which is among the best I've used.

My sense, however, is that the best bang for the buck is encased in white, though it's not the specific iBook I've been using. Given the narrow price difference between the high-end iBook and the low-end PowerBook (eyesight and screen size not being an issue), I'd easily recommend a jump to the 12-in. PowerBook. It's more than worth the $100 difference, and remember, it weighs just 4.6 pounds. It's lighter even than the base iBook.

But if you need to throttle back just a bit on the budget -- and what CIO doesn't want to save some IT money now and then? -- you can get a lot of G4 goodness in a small package and save as much as $500 by going with either of the lesser iBooks. Note: I use the term lesser loosely. There's nothing lesser about this new lineup.

And if you're still wondering about the new 15-in. and 17-in. PowerBooks, I'll be putting them through their paces in the next month or so.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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