Apple 17-inch PowerBook G4 review: Apple 17-inch PowerBook G4

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CNET Editors' Rating

4 stars Excellent
  • Overall: 8.1
  • Design: 9.0
  • Features: 9.0
  • Performance: 8.0
  • Battery life: 7.0
  • Service and support: 6.0
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Light for its size; wide, bright display; backlit keyboard; Bluetooth, Wi-Fi networking; plenty of high-speed I/O and video ports.

The Bad Expensive; free phone support lasts only 90 days.

The Bottom Line At 6.9 pounds and 1 inch thick, this PowerBook is the lightest fully loaded desktop-replacement notebook ever--certainly worth its high cost.

CNET Editors' Choice Nov '03

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Review summary

Editors' note: The exact configuration of the 17-inch Apple PowerBook that CNET originally reviewed is no longer for sale, but you can find prices and specs for a similar version here.

Since Apple introduced the world's first 17-inch notebook earlier this year, other wide-screen portables have appeared on the scene. But the revamped 17-inch PowerBook G4 holds its own against the competition, with its unique backlit keyboard, gorgeous display, and relatively light weight. For instance, at 6.9 pounds, it's 2.7 pounds lighter than the HP Pavilion zd7000, and it runs cooler. Plus, this top-of-the-line PowerBook sports the same sleek anodized aluminum found on the smaller PowerBooks and is packed with features. Sure, at $3,000, it costs $400 more than the HP and Apple's 15-inch PowerBook. Still, the 17-inch PowerBook is one of the best desktop replacements around. At a mere 1 inch thick, the 17-inch PowerBook is the thinnest of Apple's PowerBooks. The wide-screen display delivers a 1,440x900 resolution, the same as the 17-inch iMac, which is big enough to have two documents open side by side without having to squint. There's also a generous, responsive, 4-inch-wide trackpad. At 15.4 by 10.2 inches, this PowerBook is a bit large for lugging through airports, but it's light enough (6.9 pounds) and cool enough to keep on your lap.

The display produces bright, sharp images with stunning colors. As with the 15-inch PowerBook, the 17-inch screen will amaze you in dark conditions, because the screen brightness adjusts and the characters on the keyboard illuminate--both automatically. Turn on the lights, and the screen readjusts and the keyboard backlighting turns off. The full-size keyboard has a nice feel and is completely firm, without sag. The front-facing DVD-R/CD-RW drive is slot-loading--no tray to worry about. Plus, the lid now contains internal antennae for AirPort Extreme, otherwise known as 54Mbps IEEE 802.11g wireless networking.

The 17-inch PowerBook gives you flexibility in connecting to peripherals, too. It offers multiple options for external displays through its two video-out ports. DVI and S-Video ports connect you to digital displays and TVs, and each port comes with a converter cable: one for VGA monitors and one for composite video. You can run an external monitor to display exactly what's on the built-in display; or to extend your viewing space, you can drag windows between them (a longtime desktop Mac feature). The PC Card expansion slot, the I/O ports, and the two USB 2.0 ports are conveniently located on the sides. There are also two FireWire ports: one at 800Mbps and one at 400Mbps.

The three built-in speakers have improved since the last version's set, and they sound quite nice by notebook standards. You can also connect external speakers to the headphone port, and there's an audio-in port that will digitize analog audio. In this incarnation of the 17-inch PowerBook, Apple boosted the processor speed, the graphics hardware, and the memory architecture. Standard specs include a 1.33GHz PowerPC G4 processor, 512MB of DDR SDRAM, and an ATI Mobility Radeon 9600 graphics chip with 64MB of DDR SDRAM. The system bus runs at 167MHz. In addition to the optical drive, you also get an 80GB hard drive, AirPort Extreme wireless networking, Gigabit Ethernet, and Bluetooth hardware. The model we tested ran Mac OS X 10.2.8, but the unit is now shipping with Panther (Mac OS X 10.3).

Although the PowerBook can hold only one battery, you can change the battery without shutting down the system. Close the lid to put the PowerBook to sleep, and it will retain the contents of RAM for three minutes after you remove the battery. You can also see how much power you have without booting the system; press a button on the outside of the battery to read an external gauge. (We've always loved an external battery gauge, but few notebooks carry this handy feature.)

In our tests, the PowerBook worked flawlessly with Apple's new wireless keyboard and mouse. (They're separate items and cost $69 each.) We didn't even have to install the software that came with the devices. Just choose Setup Bluetooth Device from the Bluetooth menu and select the type of device; within a minute, the keyboard or mouse is functional.

Apple provides the same stellar software package as with its 15- and 12-inch PowerBooks. You'll get the excellent iLife bundle--which includes iDVD, iTunes, iPhoto, and iMovie--as well as iSync, iCal, OmniGraffle, and OmniOutliner, GraphicConverter, QuickBooks for Mac New User Edition, EarthLink TotalAccess 2003 (with 30 days of free service), a FileMaker Pro 6.0 trial, and Microsoft Office X Test Drive. That's a fine package, but we would have liked to have seen Keynote included (the PowerPoint replacement). The 1.33GHz 17-inch PowerBook outpaced the older 1GHz 17-inch model in CNET Labs' application tests. Its performance gains were a bit less than what we expected, however, seeing as the newer 17-inch PowerBook sports a 33 percent faster processor.

CNET Labs uses three different applications (Photoshop 7.0, iMovie 2.0 , and iTunes ) to test Apple notebook performance. We perform a number of common, processor-intensive tasks in Photoshop; in iMovie, we convert a large movie file into QuickTime; and in iTunes, we convert a music file into MP3, timing each procedure.

The new 17-inch PowerBook puts its faster processor to good use in iMovie 2.0, as the system improved by 20 percent over the older 1GHz version. This performance trend gets better with iTunes; the new PowerBook saw a 25 percent performance increase over the older model.

We did not report the results of our Adobe Photoshop 7.0 tests here because we were unable to get reliable scores--a phenomenon we've seen with other recent desktops and notebooks running Mac OS X 10.2.7 or 10.2.8. We are investigating this with Apple, but until we get to the bottom of it, we'll set aside the Photoshop 7.0 tests.

Performance analysis written by CNET Labs assistant lab manager Eric Franklin.

iMovie test  (Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time, in minutes, to convert a movie to QuickTime  
PowerBook G4 1.33GHz 17-inch
2.2 
PowerBook G4 1GHz 17-inch
2.6 

iTunes test  (Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time, in seconds, to convert a CD track into an MP3 file  
PowerBook G4 1.33GHz 17-inch
41 
PowerBook G4 1GHz 17-inch
52 
The new PowerBook 17-inch lasted about two hours and 40 minutes in our DVD battery test. This is about 20 minutes longer than the older 1GHz PowerBook 17-inch, which had a 55WHr battery compared the newer system's 58WHr battery. These relative battery specs mean you'll have more time for watching full-length (and then some) DVDs.

To drain the battery of an Apple notebook, CNET Labs plays a DVD movie in full-screen mode with the sound on.

Battery life analysis written by CNET Labs assistant lab manager Eric Franklin.

DVD movie battery-drain test  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
In hours  
PowerBook G4 1.33GHz 17-inch
2.7 
PowerBook G4 1GHz 17-inch
2.4 

System configurations:

Apple PowerBook 17-inch G4 1.33GHz
Macintosh OS X 10.2.7; PowerPC G4 1.33GHz; 512MB DDR-333 SDRAM; ATI Radeon 9600 64MB DDR; 80GB 4,200rpm

Apple PowerBook 17-inch G4 1GHz
Macintosh OS X 10.2.4; PowerPC G4 1GHz; 512MB DDR SDRAM; Nvidia GeForce4 440 Go 64MB; 60GB 4,200rpm
Apple's warranty is a fairly standard one year for parts and labor, though the free telephone support lasts only a meager 90 days. You can extend both the warranty and the phone support to three years for an extra $349. Apple does, however, put resources into self-help. The PowerBook comes with an Apple Hardware Test CD to help diagnose hardware problems, and Apple's Web site includes an extensive knowledge base section and a large discussion board. The 120-page paper manual provides good information on connecting to the Internet and to peripherals, adding memory, and replacing the battery, and it includes various troubleshooting topics.

To find out more about how this product's warranty really stacks up and what you should look for in terms of service and support, take a look at CNET's hardware warranty explainer.

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Where to Buy

Apple 17-inch PowerBook G4

Part Number: M9110LL/A Released: Sep. 16, 2003

MSRP: $2,999.00

See manufacturer website for availability.

Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Sep. 16, 2003
  • Installed Size 512 MB
  • Weight 6.8 lbs
  • Hard Drive 80 GB HDD
  • Optical Drive CD-RW / DVD-R - fixed
  • Graphics Processor AGP 4x - ATI Mobility Radeon 9600 - 64 MB DDR SDRAM
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