Monday, 2 October 2017

Apple PowerBook G4: The Aluminium Models

Let's have a look at the aluminium Apple PowerBook G4. A while back I wrote about the titanium-bodied PowerBook G4 of 2001-2003, but I've never owned an aluminium model, and when one popped up on eBay in good condition I decided to have a look. You know how sometimes you write something, and it comes out smoothly and there's nothing wrong? This is not one of those times. I have written and rewritten this post several times but it still feels like a mess. I'm sorry.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s Apple's laptops were made of plastic. White at first, then grey, then black, with the late-90s iBook G3 briefly dayglo translucent, then eventually off-white with the early-2000s iBooks and MacBooks. From 2001 onwards however Apple started to use metal. The first metal Macintosh was the titanium PowerBook G4 of 2001, although it still had some plastic bits around the edge. During its three-year lifespan the titanium PowerBook had three specification bumps, but it was only ever available in one size, 15.4".

In 2003 the titanium model was replaced by the aluminium PowerBook, which was available in three sizes. The twelve-inch ultraportable and seventeen-inch desktop replacement models were launched simultaneously in January 2003, followed by a fifteen-inch PowerBook later in the year. They all had the same design, and for a short period Apple's laptop range was a model of clarity. The 12" or 14" iBook for students, the 12" PowerBook for business travellers, the 15" PowerBook for most people, the 17" for plutocrats and film directors. Alas this was not to last, and Apple's modern-day portable range is muddled, but that's another story for another time.

The PowerBook remained on sale until 2006, with speed bumps and specification improvements roughly every year. Mine is one of the very last, a 1.67ghz 17" model. It was released in late 2005 and was notable for its high-resolution 1680x1050 screen, which was very impressive in 2005 and is still not bad today for a non-Retina laptop.

An aluminium PowerBook sitting atop its titanium predecessor, now looking very battered. They were all one inch thick, which was impressive at the time. The aluminium PowerBook's cooling vents were inside the hinge rather than being dotted around the side and rear.

The G4 laptops were powered by IBM's PowerPC 7400 chip, which was starting to run out of development potential by the time of the aluminium PowerBook. IBM had already developed a replacement - the PowerPC 970 "G5", which Apple adopted in 2003 for the Power Macintosh G5 desktop and iMac G5 all-in-one - but it was too hot and power-hungry to fit into a laptop.

Meanwhile Intel had built a new mobile chip, the Pentium M, which seemed like the wave of the future, as indeed it was. After what must have been some disappointing meetings with IBM, Apple announced in 2005 that it was going to abandon the PowerPC chip in favour of Intel's forthcoming, Pentium M-derived Core Duo. The transition to Intel took place in 2006, at which point the PowerBook name was dropped. "PowerBook" actually predated the PowerPC - the first ever PowerBooks used Motorola 68000s - but Apple wanted a fresh start.

Apple had an irritating habit of giving things non-standard names, such as "Airport" for "wi-fi adapter" and "SuperDrive" for "DVD-writer". This particular model writes 8.5gb dual-layer DVDs. My recollection is that writeable DVDs were never very popular - pound for pound it was cheaper to use an external hard drive.

The high-res 17" model was launched in October 2005 at a price of £1749, which was inconsequential if you had half a dozen credit cards, like everybody in 2005. At the time I was a PC person, but I've always had a soft spot for Apple products. I don't actually recall seeing or thinking about the aluminium PowerBooks at the time. Despite the success of the iPod, Apple in 2005 was still just another computer company rather than a massive consumer electronics giant. Its revenue in the fourth quarter of that year was $3.68bn, versus $46.9bn in the same period of 2016. It was, in 2005, possible to live a full and rewarding life without ever thinking about Apple or seeing an Apple product in the flesh, which is not the case any more.

The titanium PowerBook G4 had a simple non-gesture touchpad. As you can see the keyboard font was Univers, which stretched back to the early days of the Macintosh.

The aluminium G4's keyboard and surprisingly small trackpad. The silver-on-silver colour scheme was unique to the aluminium models. I'm not fond of it; the titanium keyboard is more legible.

Technically the last ever PowerBook was the 1.5ghz 12" model, which was discontinued in May 2006. However the high-resolution 1.67ghz 15" and 17" PowerBooks were introduced a few months after the 12" model - they were discontinued a few weeks earlier - so it's debatable which was truly the last PowerBook.

Also, have you ever read about the Basque language? As with Korean it's unrelated to any other living language, but whereas the Korean people exist on an isolated peninsula, the Basques are surrounded by the French and Spanish, so the survival of their language is even more impressive. The Basque word for "book" is "liburu", which is a beautiful word. It's a sexy word as well. Imagine Scarlett Johansson slowly saying the word "liburu".

The aluminium PowerBook's keyboard has a fade-in-fade-out backlight. It only turns on when the lights are low. As you can see Apple also switched fonts to VAG Rounded, which they replaced only recently with San Francisco.

Alas that is something I can only imagine. The PowerBook name died in 2006, but the aluminium case lived on. The first few generations of Intel-powered MacBook Pro models used essentially the same case, with minor modifications, right up until 2008. Sadly almost all of the aluminium-bodied models - PowerBook and MacBook alike - are obsolete nowadays and can't be upgraded to run MacOS High Sierra. The PowerBooks are obsolete because Apple dropped support for the PowerPC back when they launched OS X 10.6; all but a handful of the aluminium MacBook Pros are obsolete either because they had 32-bit processors, or 32-bit firmware, or just because.

The only way to buy a PowerBook now is on the used market, which essentially means eBay. eBay is flooded with broken old Macintoshes that are in theory useful for spare parts, but why not just buy the parts themselves, hmm?

My hunch is that eBay sellers throw away broken PC laptops but try to sell broken PowerBooks because they think that Apple fans are suckers who will buy any old tat. As I write these words eBay here in the UK has 45 PowerBook G4s for sale, of which only eight are intact and in working condition, and one of those listings appears to be spurious. There's just no point buying a broken PowerBook. You can't fix it economically, and even if you do, you won't be able to sell it again.

For comparison's sake, the titanium PowerBook G4. The titanium model was designed by Jory Bell, Nick Merz, and Danny Delulis, although lazy writers tend to credit Jony Ive, because he's the guy at Apple who designs everything. I have no idea how much work Ive did on the aluminium model.

What's the aluminium model like? For writing I loved the titanium model's keyboard and wristrest, but as an internet surfing machine even the fastest titanium PowerBook is very sluggish. The slim design was striking in 2001 but has never grabbed me - the fussy hinges and plastic border let it down, although the thin bezel around the screen is still very impressive even in 2017. In contrast the aluminium PowerBook's keyboard feels a bit spongy. The silver-on-silver colour scheme looks a bit naff, the keyboard letters are hard to see in daylight, the backlighting isn't very visible at night. On the other hand the smooth metal wrist rest is surprisingly comfortable, but I'm worried I'll eventually cause the thin plastic border at the front edge of the case to pop off when I rest my wrists on it.

The 1680x1050 screen is, as mentioned up the page, still pretty good. It's a bit dim and yellow - I'm not sure if that's age, or dated technology - but when hooked up to an external monitor it makes for a genuinely useful second screen. Only the very last PowerBooks had a resolution bump - the 15" model's display was increased to 1440x900 - and if you want to try one out, bear in mind that they were preceded by a pair of non-high-resolution 1.67ghz models.

The first MacBook Pros had the same basic specification as the high-resolution PowerBooks, although the 15" model slightly lowered the screen resolution to 1440x900 (the screen itself was a little bit shorter). For the record the last 17" MacBook Pro was released in 2011, with a 1920x1200 screen. Apple then decided to opt for smaller, but higher-resolution retina displays, and the company apparently has no plans to re-introduced a 17" model.

A comparison of resolutions. From top to bottom 1280x854 (late TiBook), 1440x900 (unibody MacBook Pro), 1680x1050 (17" high-resolution PowerBook), 1920x1080 (1080 HD). The aspect ratio goes from 3:2 to 16:10 to 16:10 to 16:9.

What else? The screen hinge mechanism is greatly improved from the titanium model. The lid pops open and is balanced so that you can raise and lower it with a fingertip. The machine also feels surprisingly light. I learn from EveryMac that it's heavier than the titanium model, but perhaps because it looks so much larger it doesn't feel heavier. And it doesn't even look that large - in terms of physical volume it's only slightly bigger than the 15" unibody that replaced it.

Unfortunately the 17" model has a few problems. It falls between a few stools. As a mobile machine it's unwieldy, and although my battery is still in good condition replacement batteries are very expensive, so over time it will be impossible to use it on the move even if I wanted to. As a desktop replacement it's too slow, and as a casual internet surfing machine the only modern internet browser still available for PowerPC machines - TenFourFox, a fan-made PowerPC port of FireFox - is sluggish. Opening a few tabs causes the browser to freeze, as does using anything Web Two-y such as Google Drive.

As a writer I need a good keyboard, a big screen, a browser with masses of tabs, and the machine has to work as quickly as I think, e.g. lighting-fast, but sadly the 17" PowerBook G4 only ticks one of those boxes (the screen). On a purely visual level I've always thought that the design looks odd - the huge expanse of aluminium makes the keyboard seem comically small. As far as I can tell the 12", 15", and 17" models all used the same keyboard; it's a shame Apple couldn't have added a numeric keypad to the 17" model, or moved the keyboard towards the user slightly.

Ultimately for serious work the G4 is in the position of being good enough but frustratingly slow, so why bother? I have to say that I haven't upgraded the hard drive to an SSD, and if TenFourFox were made faster the PowerBook would be transformed. It's striking how much has changed since 2005. Nowadays the computer is an internet browser whereas in 2005 the internet was still, just, an optional extra, but I'm digressing into the realms of philosophy here.

You're supposed to review the footage, work out a timeline, and then write a script that fits the timeline. Or you can speak as quickly as possible and then slow down, which is what I did.

Upgrades? Memory is easy, as above. The hard drive involves some fiddly cable-pulling, but isn't conceptually difficult. The aluminium G4 models used old-fashioned IDE PATA drives, the last models running at 5400rpm. The cheapest, easiest upgrade option is to buy a 7200rpm IDE PATA drive and clone your existing drive onto it, followed by cloning your drive to an MSATA SSD (£25 or so) mounted in a SATA-IDE adapter (£5 or so from Hong Kong), followed by using one or two Compact Flash cards in an adapter, followed by an actual IDE SSD (not really worth it). Beyond that lies the realm of esoterica. Replacing the 17" model's keyboard requires essentially stripping the machine down, whereas the 12" model is a bit easier. Unlike the titanium models, the aluminium G4 supports modern wi-fi encryption, so you can use the internal Airport wi-fi card with your home network. The aluminium models also have Bluetooth, and the last models have FireWire 800 ports.

My suggestion? The 17" model is a physically impressive talking point, but if you want something genuinely practical buy the best-condition 1.5ghz 12" model you can find with the longest-lasting battery, then upgrade the memory and replace the hard drive with an SSD. Along with the contemporary G4 iBooks the 12" PowerBook was the archetypal blogging-in-Starbucks machine, but without the iBook's reliability problems.

With a 12" PowerBook you can stride into Starbucks and use their wi-fi to blog about Valerie Plame and/or Peak Oil and/or Terri Schiavo and/or Howard Dean, and chicks will dig you (I guarantee this). Bear in mind that the other side - people who blogged about Ward Churchill and "Pallywood" and Dan Rather - they didn't visit Starbucks or use Apple PowerBooks. They blogged at home, with desktop PCs surrounded by cigarette butts and bottles of pee, drinking Mountain Dew.

Contemplate how many words were written about those issues; contemplate how they were mostly wiped from the public's mind when the financial crisis hit a few years later; contemplate how little anybody cares about them now, with the possible exception of Peak Oil, and contemplate how little anybody will care about you and the things you write in a few years, assuming anybody cares at all today. Lost in time like tears in the rain. Humbling, isn't it?