Quick Review of 1 GHz PowerBook G4

By Juha Haataja

This review was written for my personal purposes only. I replaced my desktop with a portable, which may not be a good idea, but time will tell. I need to make presentations, attend meetings, etc., where a portable is necessary. So why to have two machines instead of one?

I tested the 1 GHz PowerBook G4 introduced by Apple in December, 2002. (See the specs at Apple.) The tested machine is the DVD-R/CD-RW model with 512 MB of RAM and 60 GB hard disk.

I wanted to find out if the new PowerBook is a good replacement for a desktop machine. And the conclusion? Yes, you can replace your desktop with this portable, with some reservations.

First impressions

The keyboard is a bit different from the iBook, which presents some problems. Especially problematic at first were the < and > characters. Also, the tested PowerBook had the English keyboard but I was using the Finnish system version. I had to remember not to look at the keys and keep on touch-typing.

One positive thing was at once apparent: the new PowerBook doesn't run much hotter that the iBook. The fan is luckily also quiet, although not as silent as the iBook, which makes almost no noise at all. There are two modes for the fan. The first one is almost silent, you have to really try to hear it. The second one is audible, but the sound is pleasing, like deep breathing, and doesn't disturb at all.

When charging the battery, the bottom of the machine gets a bit hot (and the fan is on). When running on the battery, the fan doesn't come on even during two hours of active and continuous use.

This machine is fast compared with my 450 MHz G4 desktop Mac, which is as expected. I'll try some computer-intensive applications (see Benchmarks below) to see how the machine performs.

The visual user experience is nice, which is partly due to the high-end video card running the display of the portable. The display is bright and gorgeous at the 1280x852 maximum resolution. There is plenty of room on the screen, and the size of the text is just right for the eyes. Later on I'll be testing also dual-display use, and video projectors.

For comparison, I tested also a high-end Windows XP portable in the same price category. I relyed on the advice of PC experts, who reviewed the options for me. The tested machine was an IBM ThinkPad T30. The comparison review appeared in a Finnish PC magazine.

Starting to use the PowerBook

Starting to use the PowerBook G4 is straightforward. I just opened the cover, and the system started up. I created a new account, so that I can easily remove any traces of my testing the machine. I installed Chimera for web browsing. This browser is much handier than the standard browser, Internet Explorer 5.2.

I installed the RealOne player for testing the wireless networking. I used the machine on the local WLAN network continuously for two hours, and the system performed smoothly. I carried the PowerBook around the floor and watched a RealOne video through the WLAN network. There were some breaks in the transmission. That might been due to the problems in the WLAN setup at the campus area, and not the PowerBook.

Perhaps I'll compare the WLAN performance with my iBook, which has an exremely good performance thanks to the antenna build-in around the display. But the new PowerBook performs on WLAN at least as well as the PC portables used here.

Benchmarking the PowerBook

I tested the speed of the 1 GHz PowerBook G4 using the Mathematica benchmark (see a review of Mathematica 4.2). The machine is running Mac OS X 10.2.2, and the Mathematica version was 4.2.

At first I had some applications running in the background (Radio UserLand, for example), which caused a bit of overhead. Despite this the total time was only 287 seconds, which puts this system on the same level as a dual-processor 800 MHz desktop G4 system. In comparison, my desktop machine (450 MHz G4 PowerMac) used up 565 seconds. Thus the 1 GHz PowerBook G4 is (at least) twice as fast as the 450 MHz desktop system.

As indicated above, I first tried running Mathematica with several other applications running (Radio UserLand, Mail, Chimera Navigator, Terminal, System Preferences). After that I used a system with less background processing and without other applications running. Running in an 'emply' system the benchmark took 270 seconds. Thus having other applications runnin only caused about 6% overhead. This is impressive and probably due to the Unix foundations of Mac OS X.

Does running AirPort/WLAN cause any CPU overhead? I tried to run the benchmark also with AirPort switched off. There was no difference, I got again the 270 second result from the benchmark. I did the test four times, and the run time was between 269.5 and 270.8 seconds.

I looked at the detailed results of the benchmark and noticed that Macs are doing really poorly in FFT and in the graphics display categories. This is perhaps due to suboptimal optimization of the Mathematica application.

Note: this Mathematica benchmark was done just for demonstration purposes. If you are running an cpu-intensive application (Photoshop perhaps?), then you should do your testing with that application. My needs are modest, I'm not planning on doing fluid dynamics on my portable. Also, the bottleneck usually is on the network, not inside the computer or in the cpu. Using a current computer is like driving a Ferrari in a traffic jam in a 40 km/h zone.

Further experiences

As indicated above, I had at first trouble with keeping up the AirPort/WLAN connection while playing a RealOne video at 800 kb/s. I tried the same experiment again, and walked round the office floor here. The video worked perfectly keeping up the stream at 800 kb/s for the whole time. I also tried looking at the video using WLAN networking in several conference rooms. The streaming video worked nicely, although a few times the speed dropped to 225 kb/s, and speeded up a bit later to 800 kb/s.

I tested two different external video projectors with the new PowerBook. You have to use an adapter for plugging the PowerBook into the display connector. This is a (minor) nuisance, since you have to remember to carry the adapter with you (and to remember not to leave it on the connector!).

The PowerBook and the two video projectors recognized each other nicely, and I was able to use side by side the LCD screen of the portable and the video projector screen. Thus the menu bar was visible on the LCD of the portable, and the video projector showed only those windows which I dragged there. I tested an Adobe Acrobat document, and the 'maximize' button maximized the window to fill the video projector screen. Also, a RealOne video displayed nicely on the projector.

I tried several different resolutions on the two video projectors. For the other, the 1024x768 resolution at 90 Hz was the best for picture quality, although I could go up to 1280x1024 at 80 Hz. For the other projector, the 1024x768 resolution at 85 Hz was the best for display quality. This projector could show up to 1920x1024 at 60 Hz. For this display, I had to change the color calibration to RGB, because the default colors were a bit too dark.

The fan of the PowerBook came on during the testing of the video projectors, but the sound was quiet and almost unnoticeable. The video projectors were much louder.

I installed the miniVigor ISDN driver from Draytek on the Powerbook. I used the machine from home connecting to internet with this USB-based ISDN terminal adapter. This worked flawlessly. This machine has quite a few other possiblilites for connecting to the net: gigabit Ethernet, built-in AirPort/WLAN, and the built-in modem. Also Bluetooth is supported, but you have to buy a USB-based receiver.

A Smartdisk FireLite hard drive (30 GB) worked fine with the PowerBook. This hard drive gets its power from the FireWrite connector, which makes it a good companion to a portable computer. I have been using this disk for backups and for transferring files between computers. This time I used the hard disk for transferring my Unix configuration files (shell, ssh etc.) from my iBook to the test system.

Testing the battery

I tested the battery by running a 62 minutes long DVD on the system in full screen mode with maximum screen brightness and max volume on the audio output port. I had some other applications running at the same time, consuming a couple of percent of cpu time. After viewing the DVD the battery level was at 47% and the estimated time remaining was 53 minutes. Thus, a two-hour DVD is perhaps possible to view on a single charge of the battery. Reducing the screen brightness and stopping other running applications will lengthen this time a bit.

Of course, viewing a DVD is one of the most battery-draining tasks on this machine, so two hours is a lower bound on the battery capacity. I'm not sure about the upper bound, but perhaps 3 hours and 15-30 minutes is about it, if you are doing any useful work at all. Have to test this a bit more.

The battery can be replaced on the fly. Just put the machine to sleep, and you have three minutes to replace the battery with a spare one. Then wake up the machine again.

Installing Unix software

I decided to install the X Window System on the PowerBook G4. Previously I have used Fink for installing Unix software on Mac OS X, but because this is a test system, I decided to use the XonX version, and the OroborOSX window manager. Then I added SSH Keychain for making it easier to maintain several ssh connections.

This combination worked nicely. The installers were easy to use, although you had to run them in the right order to get X11 working on Mac OS X 10.2. I tried running a remote X11 application on the PowerBook using ssh for tunneling the connection. This worked all right, as expected.

I decided not to install additional Unix packages on the system. Fink doesn't currently have a working binary installer for Mac OS X 10.2, and I don't like to wait for the source code to download and compile.

Replacing a desktop

The new PowerBook can work with the lid closed attached to an external display. First you have to attach an external keyboard and mouse to the USB ports. Then you close the lid to make the system go to sleep. After this, you attach the external monitor to the PowerBook. (The system has to be connected to the power adapter.) Then just press a key on the external keyboard, and the system wakes up. The LCD screen of the portable will be switched off, so you can keep the lid closed.

This is nice. All the video memory is available for running the external display, up to 2048x1536 resolution with millions of colors.

At home I have already replaced a desktop machine with a portable. A year ago I decided to try the iBook instead of a desktop system, although I had a lot of reservations. Would the screen be big enough, and what about speed, or ergonomics?

I bought the 600 MHz model with 384 MB of memory and a 30 GB hard disk. This machine has been a fine match for my home needs. I can store it up on the bookshelf, so that our small childen don't reach it. It doesn't need room on the desk, so we can have flowers there. And writing ergonomics is good. In fact, I started to bring the iBook to work and used it instead of my desktop machine.

For a couple of months I even played games on the iBook. I had an overdose of computer games some years ago, and couldn't touch them for years. But the iBook made me addicted to gaming for a while.

However, the iBook lacks the capacity to run dual displays, and it is not good with video projectors. Based on my five-day test experiences, the new PowerBook is what I'm looking for in a portable which can replace a desktop machine.


The 1 GHz PowerBook G4 is a good choice if you want speed and portability.

The PowerBook could be a replacement for a desktop machine. You should investigate the ergonomics of the system before taking the plunge and removing your desktop system. A separate display, a mouse, and an external keyboard may become essential accessories, if you are planning to replace your desktop with a portable.

Replacement completed

Based on my test experiences (and comparison with the IBM ThinkPad T30) I took the plunge and replaced my aging G4 tower with the PowerBook. The replacement machine is the same 1 GHz model which I reviewed.