Laptop of the Month, and a Look at Apple's New OS Challenge

For this month's laptop review, I looked at a surprising entry from Apple Computer, the PowerBook G4—a superbly designed machine that just might offer enough style and power to convert even the most diehard Windows user to a Macintosh. Apple's products have a certain panache that most Windows boxes lack, and the PowerBook G4 is perhaps the ultimate example of this often-misunderstood quality that sells millions of Macintoshes every year.

The PowerBook G4 offers a wide-screen LCD that is similar to, but taller than, the 16:9 aspect ratio of a standard movie screen. The G4's screen is a nice departure from the square LCDs I commonly see on other laptops, and the extra space really makes a difference when you work with multiple applications or documents. The large screen is also wonderful for DVD movies, although black bands still appear at the top and bottom of the screen, making me wonder why the screen wasn't even shorter.

Apple markets the PowerBook G4 as a lightweight but powerful supercomputer, and although the truth is a little more pedestrian, the laptop is still an impressive machine. The titanium shell is a departure from the plastic used in most laptops, and the device's 5.3 pounds is decent for a machine of this size. The screen latch is elegant: No latch sticks out while the screen is open, but as you close the lid, a magnet in the lower part of the machine pulls the latch out and secures the lid. The machine ships with an amazing complement of ports: FireWire, 100Mbps Ethernet, modem, VGA and S-video out, IR, and two USBs.

The PowerBook G4 isn't perfect, however. It's extremely expensive at a time when Apple's other machines are coming down in price: The model I received costs about $4000, which almost doubles the price of a typical (if less beautiful) Wintel laptop. The keyboard retains dust and oil from your fingers, and then applies it to the screen when you close the lid. The trackpad is very sensitive, and I had to turn off the trackpad-clicking feature because I was inadvertently clicking while typing. And the included DVD drive—a flush-mounted unit that sits under the right wrist pad—was disappointing because I couldn't leave a disc in while typing: Even a light hand rest on the wrist pad caused the disc to grind horribly.

So why would you want a PowerBook G4? For many people, Macintosh compatibility is important or even mandatory. These days, Apple's machines integrate very well into Windows-based networks. I grabbed a copy of Connectix VirtualPC to test the software's ability to run Windows applications through emulation and came away impressed with VirtualPC's speed and stability. Granted, $4000 for a machine that emulates Windows is a bit of a stretch for most people, but if you need a Macintosh with total Windows compatibility, the PowerBook G4 with VirtualPC is a surprisingly complete solution. I strongly recommend VirtualPC, which runs far faster than similar Windows-based emulation solutions.

The PowerBook G4 came with Mac OS 9.1, although current versions also include OS X, installed in a handy dual-boot scenario. I installed Mac Office 2001, and a few other applications I have, such as Adobe Photoshop Elements. I also tested Apple's newest digital media applications, such as iMovie 2 (which far outpaces Microsoft's Movie Maker software) and iTunes, which lets you rip audio CDs into MP3 format. Both applications performed well on the PowerBook G4.

Overall, the PowerBook G4 is a strong performer for creating digital videos, editing digital photographs, ripping CDs, and watching DVDs. And of course, with software such as Mac Office, you can get work done, too. Whether this functionality is worth the price is debatable. The less expensive, but surprisingly capable, iBook might make more sense financially for the mobile Macintosh set.

Mac OS X
Speaking of the Macintosh, you might be aware that this system's weak spot has historically been its OS, which has survived largely unchanged for a decade and a half. That situation changed this spring when Apple finally released Mac OS X ("ten"), which is based on Berkeley System Designs (BSD) UNIX, a Mach micro-kernel, and the elegant NeXTStep software that Steve Jobs developed while between jobs at Apple. The end result is an OS that rivals Windows 2000, Windows NT, and Linux for reliability and stability. The OS also has a gorgeous UI.

Judging an OS solely on its look is shallow, I suppose, but there's something special about Mac OS X. The Aqua UI has its annoyances—those darn hopping icons in the new dock, for example—but Apple hit a home run with this OS. Mac OS X is still incomplete, although the company plans to complete it this summer. One problem I ran into with the initial release is that it contains no DVD playback software, which is curious. And an emulation mode—called the Classic environment—that runs older Mac OS applications loads slowly, which is a pain for people with a vast library of existing applications.

Apple claims the OS will soon be the most commonly used UNIX desktop. It's amazing that the company was able, in one fell swoop, to completely out-do years of UI work by the Linux camp: Mac OS X is far more elegant than anything on Linux. Comparing the OS to Windows is more of a draw: Mac OS X's visuals are cleaner and more aesthetically pleasing than Windows XP's Luna interface, but XP's task-based paradigm will help people be more productive. And Windows users won't need to relearn simple skills when moving to XP, as Mac users must do when moving to Mac OS X.

For users who've suffered through Mac OS 9's constant crashes, Mac OS X is the answer. And for heterogeneous environments with Macintosh clients, Mac OS X is worth a look. It's stable, fast, and beautiful to look at.

Speaking of Mac OS X, I was a little disappointed with Microsoft's response to this new platform. The company ships a beta version of Internet Explorer (IE) 5.1 for Mac OS X with the OS, and the final IE version and a native version of Office are due later this year. But the company has no plans to port other existing applications, such as its Outlook Express client or Windows Media Player (WMP) software, to Mac OS X, despite the fact that both are available for earlier Mac OS versions. I suppose application support will come as Mac OS X becomes more pervasive, but I expected a bigger commitment from Microsoft. This chicken-or-egg dilemma also seems to be playing out with other Mac software houses, who apparently are waiting for the market to grow before showing up with new native applications. Windows users have never had to deal with this problem, and although Apple's break with the past is laudable, I think this approach will cause problems.

Overall, Mac OS X is a promising Windows competitor, with the technical underpinnings to warrant head-to-head comparisons. I'll be watching Mac OS X to see how it improves in the coming months, and I'm looking forward to a new Office version that takes advantage of this platform. For digital media work, the Macintosh is still the platform of choice, and I'll write more about iMovie and iTunes in upcoming issues of Connected Home EXPRESS, our email newsletter for the connected home.

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