The Powerbook is Dead…

…Long live the, ah, MacBook.

So we’re starting with sad note in technohistory: I’ve been surgically attached to both the name and entity of Powerbook since it first appeared rather more than fourteen years (and to my laughingly named Mac ‘Portable’ before that), so I’m unlikely to convert to the casual dropping of, “I’ll just grab my MacBook…” overnight. Or possibly not ever. And what happens when Apple migrates their Power Mac range to Intel – do we end up with the Mac Mac?

But enough of the sentimental maundering – this is supposed to be about what the Intel shift means to travelling photographers and meedja types, for whom a <whatever>Book is their weapon of choice, and for those Wintel frustratees who are considering a shift, now that direct platform comparisons are possible for the first time.

First things first, then – just what is a MacBook, and what’s changed from the previous generation of PowerPC-based machines?

Design

A full specification is available on the Apple web site, so I’m not going to reiterate that, but concentrate on what’s changed, for better and worse. The basic industrial design remains as for the 15″ Aluminium PowerBooks, albeit in a case that’s 1cm wider than before, but a couple of mm slimmer – almost back to the thickness of the PowerBook Ti. Depth remains the same. Strange to tell, that little extra slimness is much more significant for travelling than the extra centimeter of width – I’ll happily trade a bit of footprint for something I can stuff into the narrowest possible space in a crowded equipment bag. A good start then. Now for the rest…

Gains

The Big One: A change from a single IBM PowerPC processor to a dual-core Intel ‘Yonah’, running at 1.67 or 1.83GHz. Apple claim up to 4x performance improvement over the 1.67GHz Alu PowerBook – probably closer to 5x over my 1.25GHz model. That’s more than useful (but see Performance caveats below).

Screen: Another Big One: While it seems to have lost a few pixels over the outgoing final G4 (1440*900, against 1440*960), it’s gained in brightness, to the point where it is claimed to match the brightness and contrast ratio of the Cinema Displays. For editing on the the go, that’s worth the upgrade alone – the old Powerbook’s greatest weakness for photo editing was poor brightness and contrast. What’s interesting to note though is that the 20″ screen in the new iMac claims both greater brightness and twice the contrast ratio of any of the Cinema Displays. Suprised? Yes, me too, and I’d love to do a side-by-side comparison.

Magnetic cord Power Supply: This is actually very useful, given the state that my G4’s power cords always get into where they join the machine.

Built-in iSight: Useful and convenient, but not as useful as a separate iSight. It also appears that the included iSight can’t be rotated separately from the screen, which is a pain in several proverbials.

Remote Control, receiver and Front Row built-in: The addition of a remote control receiver and the remote itself falls into the ‘occasionally useful’ category – as soon as it’s possible to control applications other than Front Row, it’ll be useful for travelling presentations, although will lack the ‘wow’ factor I currently get when operating my PowerBook from my mobile phone with Salling Clicker. But I’ll still be able to do that.

802.11a Support: The MacBook Pro supports the 820.11a high-speed wireless network protocol, something neither mentioned on the web site, nor supported by any Apple Base Station. I wonder if this indicates that Apple have adopted Intel’s new generation Centrino architecture, lock, stock and barrel?

Losses & Misses

There’s no internal modem (Apple sell a separateUSB modem): While I haven’t used a modem in six years in Europe or the US (With Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPRS/EDGE/UMTS doing the job very nicely), I frequently have recourse to good ole POTS in parts of Africa, Belgium and other such disadvantaged places. Just means that I’ll need to pack a USB modem stick alongside my MiniTV DTT stick.

Firewire 800 has gone AWOL: This is bad – Like many, I’ve got a lovely large 800Mbps Firewire external drive for working storage – looks like I’m going to have to use its USB2 connection instead. Apple, why?

No PC Card slot: It’s been replaced by ExpressCard/34 slot: Has anyone ever seen an ExpressCard/34 peripheral?

No S-Video output: This was sometimes useful, but with more TVs having DVI/HDMI input, is becoming less so.

Trackpad: It’s still a single-button trackpad – a complete nonsense, when Mac OS X automatically supports as many buttons as you care to throw at it. How long are Apple going to try to perpetuate the myth of single-button ease of use? More likely that they were on such a tight timeline to market that they just went with previous trackpad supplier specs.

Magnetic cord Power Supply grumble: I can’t use any of my spare G4-era power supplies with the new machine.

DVD burner: Now this is really stupid: Apple seem to have reverted to a 4x single-layer writer, rather than the 8x dual-layer device in the final G4. I can only imagine this was done if the 8x drive wouldn’t fit the slimmer form factor. But it’s a leap back into the dark: being able to immediately backup 9GB of pictures on a single DVD is a major help – it’s back to twice the number of disks and more thumb-twiddling.

Performance & Usability

Raw performance looks great: 2-5x the throughput of the G4/1.67GHz. At least, with Universal applications, which is to say, those that have been recompiled to run natively on the Intel system. At the moment, that includes Mac OS X itself (not necessarily axiomatic, so good to see) and Apple’s built-in and iLife ’06 applications (not sure about iWork yet). Everything else runs under emulation, using the built-in Rosetta engine.

Apple’s Pro apps are due in March or thenabouts, as is MS Office. It’s just, just possible that Aperture might then turn into something not entirely dog-slow, but I’m not holding my breath, either for that or for competent RAW conversion (acerbic review forthcoming). It should do wonders for Final Cut on a portable. One irritant there is that Apple seem to be going to charge $49 cross-grade fee per application. Let me see, I’ve just shelled out $2500-3000 of my hard-earned on your latest shiny toy and now you want to charge me to make your own applications work on it? Gits.

If you’re a photographer, designer or other such media pimp, you’re going to be wanting core applications shuch as Photoshop, iView MediaPro, Capture One, Noise Ninja and others of that ilk. People who’ve had a quick hands-on with a MacBook say that Photoshop runs under Rosetta at about the same speed as it does native on a G4 so, as long as there isn’t a major bottleneck on certain operations (as can happen with emulation), the move to MacTel would seem to be a no-brainer.

There’s a limited options list, including a maximum of 2GB of memory – I don’t know whether that’s a hard limitation or simply that Apple is being conservative about the availability of 2GB DDR2 SDRAM modules – PC equivalents are advertising 4GB in two slots, and I don’t see why the Mac should be any different (did I really say that?).

There is a 120GB, 5400rpm drive option, although my own view of the sweet spot would be the 100GB 7200rpm drive at the same price – if I need more drive, I need a LOT more than the odd 20GB and would get more out of the 7200 spin.

I also note that Apple quote a maximum operating temperature of 35 degrees Celsius (about 95 Fahrenheit for the SI-challenged). That’s really not acceptable for travellers – although I’ve used my G4 in temperatures of 40 Celsius or so without problem other than scorched thighs. I hope the MacBook is similarly tolerant. I have no problem with the minimum operating temperature of -24 Celsius though – fingers stop working far above that.

Odious Comparisons:

Now, this is where it gets really interesting: for the first time, ever, we can start making like-for-like comparisons with very similar machines running Windows – here, the new Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi is a near match, feature-for-feature, with the MacBook Pro: The same processor (at 2.0GHz rather than 1.83GHz), similar size display (albeit at a higher resolution – actually it’s almost unreadable), more ports, more memory, same graphics card and a similar base price. It features a technocool carbon fibre chassis, but still manages to weigh half a kilo more and be 50% thicker than the MacBook, which does rather reinforce my long-standing faith in the priorities of Apple’s designers.

The Acer does however have an 87Watt-hour standard battery, against the 60Watt-hour of the MacBook (50 Watt-hours for the final G4). This gave a battery life of 3hrs 47minutes on PC Magazine’s MobileMark 200 test. The Mac may have slightly better base consumption with its 1.83GHz processors (which I imagine to be the reason Apple chose them over the 2.0GHz variant), so I’d anticipate that, by the same criteria, the MacBook would deliver something over 2hours 30minutes. Not brilliant, not even good, but a deal better than my G4/1.25GHz manages. I guess I’m still missing the dual-battery Lombard G3…

The Dance of Decision…

There’s no doubt that this first generation of Intel Macs marks a major step forward in the whole price/performance boogie. But it is clearly a first generation machine – some aspects of the specification smack of a rush to market, and there are a few clearly backward steps in the dance. Will I buy one, though, or wait for the Rev. B machines (let’s say the Autumn for those)? The answer has to be, “almost certainly” – it may not manage the full tango for a while, but should do a very passable two-step.

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