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Apple 12.1-inch PowerBook G4 review: Apple 12.1-inch PowerBook G4

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MSRP: $1,799.00

The Good Smallest, lightest Mac; relatively fast processor and graphics; DVI and analog outputs; excellent keyboard; Bluetooth onboard.

The Bad Few configuration options; Apple AirPort Extreme costs extra; no PC Card slot; no backlit keyboard; runs hot.

The Bottom Line Apple's petite PowerBook gets a boost of power and a few new features. Pound for pound, it's the best PowerBook.

Visit for details.

8.1 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9
  • Battery 6
  • Support 6

The arrival of the 12-inch PowerBook G4 at the beginning of this year was big news. The Apple faithful finally got an ultraportable; in fact, the 12-inch PowerBook was (and still is) the smallest notebook ever to come out of Cupertino. But to pare it down to size, Apple cut a few corners from the original. This update retains everything we like about the design, but it addresses many feature shortcomings by adding a faster processor and graphics, room for more memory, and analog and DVI outputs. Bargain hunters will find that the just-announced 800MHz iBook offers similar portability and features (not to mention longer battery life) for $500 to $700 less, but pound for pound, no other Mac offers as much as the 12-inch PowerBook.

The 12-inch PowerBook is the smallest and lightest notebook available from Apple, albeit by a slim margin. It measures 1.2 by 10.9 by 8.6 inches and weighs 4.6 pounds. The more affordable 12-inch iBook is a few tenths of an inch bigger in all dimensions and weighs just less than 5 pounds.

Like most Apple notebooks, the 12-inch PowerBook resists categorization. It is notably heavier than most Windows-based ultraportables, such as the Dell Latitude X300, the HP Compaq nc4000, and the IBM ThinkPad X31, which also carry 12.1-inch displays. The comparison is misleading, however, because the 12-inch PowerBook has an internal media drive, putting it in a similar league as thin-and-lights, which despite the name, are slightly bigger and heavier than ultraportables. No matter how you look at it, the 12-inch PowerBook strikes an excellent balance between portability and features.

The anodized-aluminum case feels very solid and seems to resist scratches better than the old titanium cladding. Some users have reported that the metal case gets toasty, but we didn't find it to be unusually hot. The 12.1-inch display, with a 1,024x768 resolution, opens and closes on a sturdy hinge. You can adjust the display brightness from the keyboard or in System Properties.

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The keyboard is superior to that of the earlier PowerBooks, the current iBooks, and possibly even Apple's desktops.
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The trackpad is large and responsive.

Aside from the size and weight, the best design attribute of the 12-inch PowerBook is its keyboard. It's superior to that of the earlier PowerBooks, the current iBooks, and possibly even Apple's desktops. A good touch typist can really fly on this full-size keyboard, which offers good response, has comfortably shaped keys, and does not flex at all. The trackpad is large and responsive, as well. Sadly, this model still doesn't have the cool keyboard backlighting found on its 15- and 17-inch counterparts (with SuperDrives).

The 12-inch PowerBook doesn't come with Wi-Fi either, but you can insert a $99 AirPort Extreme card by popping out the battery on the base of the notebook. To add more memory, you unscrew an adjacent panel.

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Apple has added a mini-DVI output port.

The updated 12-inch PowerBook now comes in two standard, and virtually identical, configurations. Both include a 1GHz PowerPC G4 chip, 256MB of memory, and a 40GB hard drive, expandable to 60GB or 80GB. The key difference is the optical drive: the model with the combo CD-RW/DVD-ROM starts at $1,599, and the one we tested with the SuperDrive (CD-RW and DVD-R/RW) costs $200 more. Beyond that, there are few configuration options.

Nevertheless, most users won't find the 12-inch PowerBook lacking, especially since Apple has addressed the few weaknesses in the initial version. You can now increase the memory to 512MB, 768MB, or 1.25GB. And both models use a faster graphics processor: the Nvidia GeForce FX Go 5200 with 32MB of DDR SDRAM. There's still no L3 cache, but Apple insists that typical users will never miss it, and we're inclined to agree.

Though the original 12-inch PowerBook had a mini-VGA connector for connecting to analog monitors, projectors, and composite-video devices, such as TVs and VCRs (via an included adapter), it lacked DVI or ADC outputs for digital flat panels such as the Apple Studio and the Apple Cinema displays. Apple has corrected this by adding a mini-DVI output. The corresponding mini-DVI adapters for analog (VGA) and digital (DVI) displays are in the box; a mini-DVI-to-video adapter for S-Video and RCA (composite) video gear is an extra $19. The remaining connectors include audio in and out (headphone), two USB 2.0 ports and one FireWire 400 port, and 100Mbps Ethernet and modem jacks.

While these changes are significant, the 12-inch PowerBook is still missing a few features found in the larger and costlier 15- and 17-inch models, including FireWire 800, standard AirPort Extreme networking, a PC Card slot, and standard-size video outputs (VGA, DVI, S-Video, and RCA). An AirPort Extreme card will cost you another $99, but at least the 12-inch model includes Bluetooth.

Finally, the model we tested ran Mac OS X 10.2.7. Panther (Mac OS X 10.3) is also available for $20 until December 24, 2003. (Apple sends you the Panther discs; the installation is easy.) After that, the notebook will ship with Panther. The 12-inch PowerBook also has the usual assortment of Apple software, including the iLife bundle and third-party trialware.

On most CNET Labs test, the 12-inch PowerBook delivered the performance boost we expected to see: it was on a par with or slightly faster than the previous 867MHz model on our iTunes and iMovie 2.0 tests. (In iMovie, we convert a large movie file into QuickTime, and in iTunes, we convert a music file into MP3, timing each procedure.)

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. Even when we upgraded to Panther (10.3), the 12-inch PowerBook's scores were slower than we anticipated, especially on filters such as Despeckle, Lighting Effects, and Sharpen Edges. We're investigating this with Apple, but until we get to the bottom of it, we'll set aside the Photoshop 7.0 tests.

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