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Road Testing the PowerBook Ti 667

by Derrick Story
11/20/2001

I was sitting in the press section of the keynote ballroom when Steve Jobs introduced the Titanium G4 PowerBook in January 2001 at MacWorld SF. Even from that distance, I could tell that this was a Mac bound for greatness.

Later that day, I remember photographing the TiBook at the Apple booth and wondering to myself, "I wonder how well this notebook performs?"

During the months that followed, I had conversations with developers who commented that the TiBook was as beautiful inside as it was on the out. One of those developers, James Duncan Davidson, wrote about using the TiBook 400 MHz for Java programming. He is now working on the second edition of O'Reilly's Learning Cocoa book. Just recently, we were talking about how these machines are better suited for the mobile lifestyle than earlier PowerBooks. Features like instant sleep and wake-up (thanks to Mac OS X), along with durability, slimness, and reasonable weight, means that you can take them just about anywhere -- work or play.

So when Apple updated this product line and released the 667 MHz Titanium PowerBook G4, I figured that it was time to road test this beauty, to see if it truly lived up to its reputation of a power user's dream machine.

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Even though I'm interested in the computer itself, I was also curious about the process of buying directly from the Apple Store. Many of us have become online creatures who don't necessarily need the security of a brick and mortar store for hardware shopping. But buying a USB hub online is one thing, an expensive computer quite another. Or is it?

So the starting line for this road test is the Apple Store, and the finish line is a fully configured TiBook glowing on my office desk, ready for work.

If you're not interested in online shopping experiences, crushed FedEx deliveries, and gregarious Apple customer care reps, then you might want to jump over to Firing Up the Ti Roadster and get right under the hood. I've also dedicated a full section to the Display, Keyboard, and Track Pad. But if you like a good customer service story, stick around, cause I've got one for you.

Leg one of the test drive: the Apple Store

Comment on this articleTitanium PowerBook owners: do you have anything to add that I missed in my review?
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I liked shopping at the Apple Store. It's well-organized and easy to navigate. You can configure your computer just about any way you want, and they will build it for you according to your spec.

The store also allows you to personalize your account so that you can track the various stages of your order and review your account history. I placed my order for the custom PowerBook on Oct. 17, it was shipped on Nov. 8, and I received it on Nov. 12.

At the time I placed my order, it was taking Apple about three weeks to get the TiBooks out the door instead of their normal two weeks. I wasn't notified about the delays, but read about them at MacNN. Based the turmoil caused in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, I considered this reasonable, but was anxious to see the delivery arrive.

Finally, I received a call that I had been waiting for: "Derrick, I have good news, and I have bad news." The good news was that the TiBook had arrived.

Scoring for leg one of the road test: 8 points out of 10. The Apple Store was a pleasure to shop at, and the order tracking through the production process was helpful. Had I received notice of the delayed shipment, the score would have been higher.

Leg two: a crushing experience

So what was the bad news? Well, one corner of the box had been severely damaged, and FedEx had strapped it back together with copious amounts of packing tape. When I asked how bad the damage was, the response was, "Well, you're going to have to look at it yourself. It doesn't look good to me."

"Oh, swell!" I thought to myself.

I was told, however, that "the FedEx delivery person was very nice and noted the damage. He said to be sure to contact FedEx if the computer was inoperable."

Damaged box This was my first view of the Titanium PowerBook. The corner of the box was severely damaged during shipping.

A few hours later when I saw the box firsthand, my heart sunk. I took a few pictures and then slowly unpacked the contents, hoping that the penetration didn't reach the computer. The end result was that the outer box was wasted, the inner box was severely damaged, and the styrofoam holding the computer was cracked. Whatever hit this box, it packed a real wallop.

I dislodged the Titanium from the styrofoam and inspected the exterior. Fortunately, there were no scratches or marks. I held by breath, opened the lid, and pressed the power button.

The familiar chimes rang out and the screen lit up. So far so good. I proceeded to test the hard drive, optical drive, and other basic functions of the computer. No noticeable problems. My first impression of the Titanium: this is one tough computer.

Scoring for FedEx on how they handled my delivery -- 2 points out of 10. The only reason I gave them any points at all was because the delivery man was nice and made an effort to note the damage in his report. I had chosen the "Second Day Shipping" option because I had heard that the packages are handled better. Thank goodness I didn't choose "Ground."

Leg Three: Apple customer service

As weird as is sounds, I wanted a new box because if I ever sell the computer, having the original box to go with it is a big deal. Plus, I wanted to lodge a complaint against FedEx for their rough treatment of my package. So I did what any red-blooded Mac user would do: I called AppleCare.

Within minutes I was telling my story to the customer service rep. He said that he couldn't get me a new box, but that he did want to add the shipping history to my customer file. He thought that the Apple Store might be able to help and gave me that toll-free number, then offered me a couple of upgrades and pitched the extended AppleCare coverage. I passed on the offers and thanked him for his help. It was a pleasant phone call, and he made a sincere effort to be helpful.

The folks at the Apple Store number were also quite friendly. Again, no box, but they opened a complaint about FedEx where Apple would act on my behalf. I should know more about that outcome within 10 days, and I'll post a TalkBack with the results.

Neither AppleCare nor the Apple Store knew that I was a writer working on a story, so I can assume I received the same amount of attention anyone else would.

On leg three of this road test, Apple customer service scores 8 points out of 10. Had they been able to provide me with a box, the score would have jumped to a perfect 10.

Leg four: firing up the Ti roadster

Even though the outside of the TiBook remains its same beautiful self, Apple has made a number of changes under the hood. Interestingly enough, many of these changes haven't made it to the advertising pages of notable Mac distributors who were still listing incorrect specs at the time of publication; the most overlooked improvement was the new graphics card.

If you haven't reviewed the improvements yet, hop over to the tech specs on Apple.com. You'll notice that the enhancements for the Titanium 667 include:

One other slick improvement that I want to mention is the new, square power adapter that fits in your pocket or in the corner of your bag. It's quite ingenious and a welcome change for road warriors.

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So how do these enhancements translate into real world performance? That depends on how much your computing depends on disk-drive activity.

I had been using a 400 MHz G3 bronze-keyboard Pismo with Mac OS X 10.1, 384 MB RAM, and a 20GB hard drive spinning at 4200 rpm. Moving from the Pismo to the TiBook (OS 10.1, 667MHz G4, 512MB RAM, 30GB 4200 rpm hard drive) for normal operations such as opening the System Preferences window, there wasn't a world of difference, but there was improvement. Here are the results from a few typical tests:

(Note for non-OS-X-users: the Dock resides at the bottom of your display in Mac OS X, and on it holds your designated application icons. When you launch one of those applications, the icon "bounces" while the program is loading. The fewer the bounces, the faster the launch.)

What about something a little more heavy-duty? I exported a 45MB QuickTime file using the Sorenson 3 and Q Design 2 codecs, adding a sharpening filter for good measure, and got these results:

Even though a 30-percent increase in speed is nothing to sneeze at, you'd think that it might be even more when you compare a 400 MHz G3 processor (with slower bus, etc.) to a 667 MHz G4 configuration. In part, this can be explained by what I consider the achilles' heel of laptops -- the hard drive.

If you check the TiBook specs, you see that the 20 and 30 GB drives spin at 4200 rpm. Compared to the 7200 or even 10000 rpm drives that you can get for desktop computers, 4200 is pretty slow. So if the function you're testing requires lots of hard drive activity, it's going to hold back some of the speed improvement that you might see otherwise.

If you demand the best performance from your TiBook, then I would recommend upgrading to the 48GB, 5400 rpm hard drive available at the Apple Store. But it will cost you and additional $300 over the price of the 30GB, 4200 drive.

I do, however, want to heap praise on Apple for upgrading the graphics card to the ATI Mobility RADEON. Graphics performance is stunning. I downloaded a demo version of Cro-Mag Rally 2.0 from the software folder in my iDisk, and played the game at full 1152 x 768 resolution. It was truly an immersive, and impressive, experience.

The bottom line, in terms of raw performance, is that the 667 TiBook is a solid upgrade from previous G3 notebooks. The graphics performance is outstanding. But if you're under the impression that it is going to blow away your existing G3 laptop on disk-intensive activities, then you'll be disappointed, unless you pony up the extra dollars for the faster hard drive.

Scoring for leg four of the Ti road test -- 8 points out of 10. The 667 PowerBook does what it's supposed to do: perform fast and steadily. Graphics are stunning. If Apple could find a way to include a really fast hard drive in this speedster, then the score would jump even higher.

Leg five: display, keyboard, and track pad

If there's one aspect of the Titanium PowerBook G4 that separates it from every other laptop on the market, it's the screen. I cannot say enough good things about this 1152 x 768 display, especially now that it's powered by the ATI Mobility RADEON with 16MB of DDR RAM video memory.

The edge-to-edge brightness is outstanding. The colors are rich. The sharpness is excellent. When I put this notebook next to the G3 Pismo, I notice that the Pismo's whites aren't nearly as clean, nor are the colors as rich.

The extra real estate on the TiBook is a big deal. It's like moving from a crowded restaurant counter to your own table. There's room to operate, and it takes about 15 minutes to become totally spoiled. Plus, watching movies in letterbox mode on the 1152-pixel-wide screen is truly enjoyable.

If you are picky about the rendering of type and graphics, and you need extra screen real estate on your laptop, then the 667 TiBook is in a class by itself.

The keyboard has also been vastly improved. Before typing the first time on the TiBook, my favorite keyboard had been the IBM ThinkPad 600X's. And I would go so far as to say that I strongly disliked the bronze keyboard on the Pismo -- it felt way too flimsy, like sitting on a bed with lousy box springs.

Apple has certainly changed all of that with the keyboard on the TiBook. It is solid and a joy to type on. Onlookers have asked me if it was comfortable to use, because it has been moved so close to the screen. The answer is a resounding yes. I love typing on this machine.

The track pad, however, is another matter. The tracking area is much larger than the Pismo's, and there's no gap between the pad and the clicker. If you accidently put two fingers on the track pad at the same time, the mouse pointer careens wildly across the screen. Usually, the culprit is your thumb creeping forward as you track with your index finger until it accidently touches the pad at the same time.

Pismo's Track pad
The Pismo has a raised clicker and space between it and the track pad.
Titanium's Track pad
The TiBook's clicker is nearly flush to the case, with no space between it and the track pad.
 

When this first happened to me, and the mouse pointer went into an spastic fit, I thought to myself, "Damn those FedEx guys! They broke my track pad during shipment."

After a little nosing around on the Web, I discovered that I wasn't the only one who felt like he had two left thumbs. One interesting thread on the subject was on a MacSlash posting titled, TiBook Track pad Blues. My favorite comment on the thread: "You'll get used to it." :)

To the right of the track pad, on the front of the computer, is the slot-loading optical drive. I love it and never want any other type of drive on a laptop ever again.

Headphone jack and cardslot
Small things make a big difference. The headphone jack is now on the side of the laptop instead of on the back panel. Does this make iTunes life easier? You bet it does.

And since it's now easier to insert and eject CDs and DVDs (BTW: the F12 key is a handy eject button that saves you from the hassle of dragging the CD down to the dock to discard it), why not make it easier to use the headphones, too? Well, the designers moved the headphone jack from the back of the laptop to the left side. It is now much more accessible. Thank you!

The other ports are still in the back as before, but now they're behind a stylish drop-down metal door. Since we're back there, I should also mention that the power adapter plug for the TiBook is smaller than those for the G3s, so your collection of old brick adapters won't be of service here.

The last thing I want to mention, and many who have inspected the TiBook have commented on this, too, is the excellent machine work that is very apparent from every angle. The power button, hinges, and screws all scream quality.

The "open" latch is handsome, but takes some getting used to. Simply push it in and let the lid pop up a half inch or so. The PowerBook will awaken and then you can lift the lid up all the way to viewing position. I recommend that you either use two hands to raise the lid, or lift it from the center using only one hand.

The bottom line for usability: this is a very user-friendly machine. The display is the best I've ever used, the keyboard is solid and responsive, and the slot-loading optical drive is a true convenience.

Scoring for leg five of the Ti road test -- 9 points out of 10. I'm still getting used to the track pad, or it would have been a perfect 10.

Bringing it home

I spend a lot of time every day working at the computer, and I've discovered that I'm enjoying my work more than ever while using the TiBook. It's solid, portable, beautiful, and performs with quiet strength. It's virtually silent (except when the fan kicks in for short periods of time every now and then) and the display is very easy on my eyes.

I was also impressed with the way Apple has handled the entire buying experience, from their excellent Web site all the way through the interactions I had with customer service reps. This is a philosophy that Saturn has pioneered -- it's not just the product that customers respond to; it's the total experience.

Even though I dinged Apple a point because the delivery took longer than two weeks, I'm fully aware that parts shipping is a mess in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. My impression is that their delivery track record has been good during the last year, and that they will rebound from the disruptions in commerce just like everyone else.

My overall rating for the Titanium experience is 8+ points out of 10. Apple is proving that they are worthy competitors in a tough computer market. They are focusing on every stage of the customer experience -- from designing functional, beautiful products to their delivery.

During his MacWorld keynote address, Steve Jobs said that the Titanium PowerBook combined sex with power. After having used it for a while, I want to add that part of the allure results from having Mac OS X rendering the graphics, keeping the performance stable, and sleeping and waking with the speed of a PDA. In my opinion, it's Apple's new operating system that has elevated the TiBook from a good computer to a great one.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.


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