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Opinion: Apple's picture-perfect package

Latest PowerBook is a sight for sore eyes

They heard me.

For a while now, I've railed about Apple's refusal to bump up the resolution of its PowerBook line - especially in light of the higher-resolution screens widely available on Windows laptops.

Whenever I asked Apple officials about the issue, the standard answer was that the company wanted to keep its screens at about 100 pixels per inch for readability reasons. At high resolutions, they said, text can get tiny.

Well, it looks like tiny text is in.

Last month, Apple finally came through for me - and for all of those high-res fans who've wanted the same thing. The company unveiled a tweaked 17in PowerBook boasting a screen resolution of 1,680 by 1,050 pixels, 36 percent more than before and essentially the same resolution as the company's popular 20in Cinema Displays. The 15in-model screen was also changed and now sports almost the same resolution as the old 17in one. (Both models now support Apple's 30in Cinema Display, in case you want even more screen 'real estate'.)

In addition to using new screens, Apple boosted battery life in the midrange and top-end PowerBooks by about an hour, although battery-life estimates are like miles-per-gallon claims on new cars. A lot depends on how you drive.

While the 12in PowerBook remains basically unchanged, Apple did make its SuperDrive standard and dropped the price on its entry-level model to £1,099 including VAT. The 15in PowerBook now sells for £1,399, with the 17in iteration going for £1,749. All three include 802.11g wireless cards and Bluetooth 2.0, and on the pricier models, illuminated keyboards.

The upshot is that in what may very well be the last of the G4 processor-based PowerBooks, Apple has created its best overall laptops yet. True, the processor speed is stuck at 1.67GHz, something unlikely to change until the company moves to Intel processors over the next year or so. But no one buys a PowerBook expecting a speed demon. You buy it for Mac OS X, for the seamless integration of hardware and software, and for the elegance of Apple's industrial design.

For the past month or so, I've been using a new top-of-the-line PowerBook on loan from Apple. I also talked with Gail Nishimura, senior product manager for PowerBooks at Apple, about the changes to the lineup.

"This product line is all about higher-resolution displays, higher battery life and making the SuperDrives standard," Nishimura said. "We're very proud that we were able to give people the extra resolution and the battery life, without having to change the size [of the PowerBook itself]. A lot of people really love that [screen] real estate."

Apple also announced that the new screens are as much as 46 percent brighter than older PowerBooks, something made possible by the use of prism light-guide panel screens, incremental changes to pixel design and the lamp refractor behind the screen, according to Nishimura. I can't tell you from personal use whether the new screen is actually that much brighter than the old screen. To my 44-year-old eyes, they look equally bright, depending on the viewing angle. (In fact, the new screen seems to have a bit more of a colour shift than the older screen when you look at it from different angles.)

But for me, what really counts is the higher resolution.

"Customers - particularly creative professionals - wanted that and longer battery life," Nishimura said. "We looked long and hard at what is the optimal [viewing] experience. I think there's a point where you have to balance it with comfort so that people aren't squinting and people can find the icons. I really feel like we've hit it right."

Equally important, she said, is the added battery life.

"We've done that without making the battery larger or making the housing larger," Nishimura said. "We use a more energy-efficient chip set, better power management with the AirPort [wireless hardware], and by using software to throttle back the [system] to an even slower speed. If you don't need the full processor, it will throttle back to 417MHz."

She noted that the DDR2 RAM now used in the 15in and 17in models runs at a lower voltage, and the graphics processor also throttles back depending on what's happening on the screen. Those little changes combine to save juice.

In day-to-day use, the new PowerBook does indeed last longer on battery, though I didn't see a full hour of improvement. I managed to get an extra half hour to 45 minutes on battery power, which is still substantial. But I also tend to keep the screen brightness all the way up, and I turn off most of the battery-saving features in the energy saver control panel unless I'm really away from a power source. Even the earlier model lasted substantially longer than the superhigh-resolution 17in Sony Vaio I bought earlier this autumn. I'm lucky to get an hour and a half on that one.

Speaking of that Sony, I was curious to see how the new PowerBook stacks up against my Vaio behemoth. In short, the Sony has two things going for it: the XBrite screen and the Intel processor. With a 1,920x1,200 resolution, I can squeeze a lot of windows and web pages onto what is a very bright screen. And with a 2GHz Pentium processor tucked inside, it's certainly a zippy laptop.

It's also ungainly and heavy, has poor battery life, and runs Windows. Sitting on a desktop, it's fine. Slung over my shoulder in a case, it feels very heavy at 4kg - and it's about twice as thick as a PowerBook. So while it's fun to dabble in the Windows world and enjoy that higher-resolution screen, I still have my last-generation 17in PowerBook.

So should you buy one of these PowerBooks? Simple question, easy answer. If you need one, buy it. You're getting a great deal on a solid setup. And if you're buying, do yourself a favour by opting for the faster 7,200rpm drive Apple offers as an option. You give up 20GB of storage space, but the faster drive will certainly make a difference in some operations.

If you don't need a PowerBook right away, then do as I'm doing. Wait a while.

With its latest model, Apple has partially closed the hardware gap between its laptops and those that run Windows. Sure, I'd love to see a 1,920x1,200 screen on my next PowerBook, but I won't hold my breath - and the current model is already high enough for those who wanted more onscreen real estate.

All Apple has to do now is start building PowerBooks with those snappy Intel processors, and I'll be the first in line.


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