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A Developer's Perspective on Apple's 12-inch PowerBook

by Wei-Meng Lee

Editor's Note: We decided to take a look at the new 12" PowerBook because it seems like a tempting choice for developers "on the go" who want to upgrade from their iBooks. This notebook has some of the iBook's desirable features, such as compactness, good AirPort reception, and connections running along the left side instead of hidden in the back; and some of the benefits of a TiBook, most notably the G4 processor. Then, just for fun, there are the bonus features of an AirPort-Extreme-ready slot and integrated Bluetooth.

But a few PowerBookish things are missing too, such as a PC card slot, L3 cache, and Gigabit Ethernet, so I wasn't sure whether we could recommed this machine to developers or not. To help render a verdict, I asked Wei Meng Lee, who is a developer on many platforms and a writer for O'Reilly, to provide us with some insights from his "developer point of view" about Apple's newest addition to its current notebook lineup. Here's what he had to say.

Ever since Apple announced the availability of the two new G4 PowerBooks at MacWorld SF 2003 this last January, many folks have been eagerly waiting to try them out. Originally I was considering the 17" model for its large screen, powerful processor, and fast cache. But I got tired of waiting for actual shipment dates, and instead ordered the svelte 12" model, which cost me less and was more readily available.

Since this is my first Macintosh notebook, I was very anxious to put it through its paces to see how it performed. These are the features that jumped out at me.

The Innards of the 12" G4 PowerBook

The 12" model is powered by an 867MHz PowerPC G4 processor, with 256K of L2 cache memory. It comes with 256MB of PC2100 (266MHz) DDR SDRAM. The 12.1" screen supports a maximum resolution of 1024 by 768 and the NVIDIA GeForce4 420 Go graphics card comes with 32MB of DDR SDRAM. The PowerBook was loaded with Mac OS X 10.2.3.

The 256MB of memory consists of a built-in 128MB chip and 128MB in the SO-DIMM slot. The problem here is that if I were to upgrade the memory, I'd have to remove the 128MB module from the SO-DIMM slot and replace it with a higher-capacity one (currently the Apple Store offers a maximum upgrade of 512MB, bringing the total to 640MB, but rumor has it that Apple will offer a memory chip that will boost RAM to 1GB). So if I do upgrade, what do I do with the extra 128MB? Beats me!

In terms of hard disk storage, I went with the 40GB 4200RPM Ultra ATA/100. The drive provided by Apple is not the top end. Since at the spindle speed tops out at 4200RPM, the hard drive will most likely be a bottleneck for performance. I'd prefer a better-performing 5400RPM drive, and would pay a little more if one were offered from Apple at time of purchase.

For external storage, I opted for the SuperDrive over the standard Combo Drive, which allows me to write DVDs at the speed of 2X. The slot-loading SuperDrive is great, and I don't miss the clumsy loading tray, which is still standard on most notebooks, one bit.

Photo of PowerBook.
Figure 1. The SuperDrive located to the right of the PowerBook

For wireless networking, the 12" PowerBook is AirPort-Extreme-ready (meaning the card is extra) and is Bluetooth-enabled. AirPort Extreme uses the draft specification of the 802.11g (54Mbps) wireless standard. Unfortunately, the 12" model does not support existing AirPort cards, so if you want 802.11, you have to spend an extra 100 bucks US. But in all honestly, this is a price you need to pay, considering the proliferation of wireless hotspots these days. Besides Bluetooth, the 12" PowerBook also comes with the standard 56K v.92 modem and the 10/100 Base-T Ethernet connector (that's right, no Gigabit Ethernet as on the 15" and 17" models).

The various connectors are all on the left side of the PowerBook, providing both convenience and a very clean look.

Photo of PowerBook ports.
Figure 2. The various ports located on the left side of the PowerBook.

Figure 2 shows the layout of the various connectors:

  • Power
  • Modem Port
  • Ethernet Port
  • FireWire 1394a (400Mbps)
  • 2 USB 1.1 (12Mbps)
  • Video output
  • Microphone jack
  • Headphone jack
  • Slot for locking the PowerBook

One interesting thing to note: while most current PCs and Intel notebooks come with USB 2.0, it comes as a surprise that Apple is still sticking with USB 1.1. But as Derrick Story said in his weblog (see "Forget About USB 2.0 on the Mac"), one of Apple's reasons for not embracing USB 2.0 could be its threat to the IEEE 1394 FireWire standard.

Another notable missing feature is the lack of a PCMCIA card slot. This is not surprising, given the small footprint of the 12" PowerBook. Currently I'm not missing it too much, since most of the connections I need are already built-in or can be added via USB or FireWire. However, it sure would be nice to have a place for an IOGEAR USB 2.0 PC card to augment those two 1.1 connectors.

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Airport Extreme

Apple has made installing the AirPort Extreme card extremely easy (sorry for the pun). Simply remove the battery pack at the bottom of the PowerBook and open the cover to the AirPort Extreme card. Slide the AirPort Extreme card in, and that's it. There are no screws to remove, and it can be done in two minutes.

Photo of bottom of PowerBook.
Figure 3. The PowerBook with the battery removed to reveal the slot for the Airport Extreme card.

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