Home > Hardware > 12" PowerBook Review

12" PowerBook Review

February 11, 2005
Ben Hall

Update: I've had a few interesting e-mail exchanges that elaborated a bit more on this system. They're linked below, or you can read them here.

Update: Tiger's been out for a while now. I upgraded and then downgraded a month later. Here's why.

I received my new build-to-order 12" G4 PowerBook on Tuesday, February 8 - just one week after Apple updated the lines. My previous system was a 12" iBook with a G3 processor and 640MB of RAM. The new machines specs are as follows:

- 1.5GHz G4 Processor
- 768MB RAM
- 100GB 5400rpm HD
- 8xSuperDrive
- 64MB nVidia 5200 4xAGP video
- Airport Extreme
- Bluetooth 2.0
- USB 2.0, Firewire

Most of this is the stock configuration, I upgraded the RAM to 768MB and the hard drive to 100GB. After the price drop, this configuration ended out costing the same as the previous combo-drive PowerBook.

The new PowerBook arrived exactly a week after I had ordered it. I'll admit that I was quite excited when I got the call, a real departure from the trepidation that I felt when purchasing my original iBook. That purchase was a nerve-wracking one for me, as it was my first foray into Apple territory. This time, I was a returning customer. As such, I was looking for the little things that differentiate an iBook from a PowerBook: A faster CPU, a faster, bigger hard drive, the SuperDrive, abetter video card with spanning and, of course, audio-in.

Software bundle

The PoweBook comes with an impressive software bundle. Where the iBooks include games, AppleWorks and Quicken, the PowerBooks feature a more professional software bundle: OmniGraffle, OmniOutliner, QuickBooks NUE, iLife '05 and a trial version of Microsoft Office.

It always perplexes me that Apple doesn't include AppleWorks on all of its products. Sure, it is only a lightweight, dated office suite but it's better than nothing. Apple ships AppleWorks with their consumer lines, the eMac, iMac and iBook all ship with it. The PowerBooks and PowerMacs ship with a trial version of MS Office instead. It's great that Apple bundles this demo but I'd rather have AppleWorks or the new iWork suite. Perhaps they could even bundle NeoOfice/J, a free Java-based port of OpenOffice.org. Actually, just about anything would be an improvement over a trial version of the only $400 office suite for Mac OSX. Lucky for me, my iBook came with AppleWorks, so I could just copy it across. Anyway, I use NeoOffice/J most of the time.

As I just mentioned, Apple now includes OmniGraffle and OmniOutliner. OmniGraffle is a drawing program that best exemplifies what makes Mac OSX such a fantastic environment to work in. It's is a strange cross of a vector drawing program and Visio that, for me anyway, is more flexible than either. I use OmniGraffle to do network diagrams, web site design, CD cover design and office/home layouts. In short, when in doubt, if it's graphical in nature, OmniGraffle can handle it. OmniOutliner is, you guessed it, and outliner. I haven't used it much yet but am looking forward to trying it out. The Omni Group has been around since the NeXT days and have been producing cool software for years. It's great to see Apple acknowledging these fantastic products.

Apple also includes a lite version of QuickBooks, Intuit's venerable small-business accounting package. While I was initially very interested to use QuickBooks, after trying it I've abandoned it in favour of a small cocoa application called iBiz that accomplishes many of the same tasks as the NUE of QuickBooks in a more elegant and Mac-like fashion. I'm sure that QuickBooks is a very capable program, but for the small bit of consulting work that I do, iBiz is a better fit.

Finally, there's iLife. I'm certain that there are better reviews of it out on the 'net. iLife is Apple's renowned digital-hub software. it includes iMovie, iPhoto, GarageBand, iDVD and the free and famous iTunes.

I've played a bit with iDVD. It seems to work quite well, though I'm a bit disappointed with Apple's limited bundled themes. iDVD is the only application I've used that has made the new PowerBook feel a little slow, unsurprising considering the nature of the beast. I'm sure I'll use it, but overall it seems to me as though iDVD should be a little more flexible and responsive.

I've never had occasion to use iMovie, but I've read that it is great at what it does. The same goes for GarageBand. I'd really like to play with it a bit but this may be difficult as I'm not a musician. iPhoto is vastly improved over iPhoto 3, the version that came with my iBook. The slideshow works well and you can actually have nested albums finally! It even works well with GalleryRemote. I had never been a big fan of the old version of iPhoto but I think I'm going to quite enjoy this new version. All told, iLife '05 seems to be much more complete than iLife '03 that was bundled with the iBook.

Build quality and hardware details

Back to the PowerBook. What can I say, I love it! I had poured over the specifications and thought I knew the details, but the unit really has surprised me. For starters, it's much smaller than I had anticipated. I owned a 12" iBook and have seen a first rev 12" PowerBook, I think that this revision subtly different. I just assumed that the iBook and the new PowerBook would be the same size, I was wrong! The PowerBook is noticeably thinner and smaller. The keyboard and screen are the same size, Apple has just managed to reduce the extra space around the screen and keyboard.

The keyboard is also much different than the iBook keyboard. With the iBook, the Airport card and RAM were installed under the keyboard. This was efficient, but it also meant that the keyboard was also mushier and springier than one would expect. The PowerBook, on the other hand, is very solid. When I purchased my iBook, it was the slickest most solid laptop I had ever seen. While the differences are subtle, the new PowerBook blows the iBook away as far as build quality is concerned.

The smaller size of the PowerBook really surprised me. It's so small, in fact, that it is virtually the same size as my Sony Vaio Z505.

Not only is this PowerBook small, it's also very snappy. I haven't had the opportunity to use any of the new dual G5 PowerMacs, but I can certainly attest to the fact that the G4 1.5GHz processor is orders of magnitude faster than my old G3 700Mhz iBook. Applications in OSX launch almost immediately. Smaller apps like TextEdit, Preview and even Safari open almost instantly. It honestly reminds me of BeOS in its responsiveness.

The performance advantages over the G3 appear to come at a slight cost in battery life. The PowerBook still seems to be able to last for more than five hours on a single charge when doing light work with the screen dimmed a bit. It is rated for 4.5 hours with the 12" iBook rated for 5. The battery life is still quite impressive, especially considering the size of the laptop.

This seems an appropriate time to bring up heat and fan noise. The PowerBook certainly is warmer than the iBook but it never seems too warm to the touch. I was a bit worried about this, as a friend of mine with a first rev 12" PowerBook often complains about the temperature. It appears as though Apple has figured this one out. The fan comes on occasionally depending on what you are doing. Ripping CDs and using iDVD seems to fire up the fan consistently. As long as you're not doing processor or disk-intensive work, the PowerBook should remain virtually silent.

The optical drive is a slot-loading DVD+-RW drive. This is a great improvement over the old iBook - it only had a CD-ROM drive. There were many times that I wished it had both a DVD reader and a CD writer. Slot-loading is a lot slicker than the old tray-based CD-ROM, the drive seems to be fast and is certainly unobtrusive.

The speakers are a huge improvement over the iBook, but are still among the worst available in laptops today. This continues to baffle me. You'd think that the company that brought us the hugely successful iPod would get speakers right. They don't. I've owned and used Compaq, Toshiba and IBM laptops with better speakers. In fact, the only laptop I've used with worse speakers than the old iBook is my Sony Vaio.

The screen also seems to be an improvement over the iBook. The colours are deeper and the image sharper. Honestly, this could just be that the iBook is now two years old. I've never had a complaint with its screen. This PowerBook also introduces two new features for Apple: A scrolling trackpad initiated when using two fingers and a motion sensor that will park the hard drive if the PowerBook is dropped. I hope never to use the latter but the former is a nice addition that I am getting used to.

The overall build quality of the PowerBook is by far the best I've seen in a laptop. The laptop feels completely solid, like a single piece of metal. The lines are clean, the finish perfect. I know that this all sounds a bit frivolous but it's not. Apple creates the best quality laptops I have ever seen and this bears mention. The whole unit seems perfectly designed. Everything serves a purpose, everything is extremely well built and integrated. It's very difficult to go from this system to a Dell or HP laptop with their large extraneous plastic bits and cheap feeling keyboards.


The 12" PowerBook is an amazing value. The unit as configured cost me $2100CDN. While it's true that you can get Intel laptops new for under $1000CDN, similarly configured laptops cost well over $2500CDN before you bump the RAM and add the bigger hard drive. Trust me, I've done the research. Sony and Asus make comparable laptops but they cost more and compromise in areas like the video card. This to say nothing of the fact that you can't run OSX on an Intel laptop. Honestly, this is an extremely compact laptop that has ample power for almost any use. On a scale of one to ten, I'd give the PowerBook a 9.5. If they fixed the speakers and added the option of a backlit keyboard, it'd be a perfect 10.

  • Fast
  • Very, very small
  • Extremely high build-quality
  • Runs Mac OSX beautifully
  • USB 2.0, FireWire, unparalleled wireless etc.
  • Comes with a great software bundle (OmniGraffle!!)
  • Great value for the money

  • Battery doesn't last quite as long as the old iBook
  • The speakers aren't great
  • No backlit keyboard option
  • Airport Extreme card won't work in Linux UPDATE: Someone has reverse-engineered the chipset and WiFi works now.

Oh, and the cat still likes it. ;-)