Apple's PowerBook G3 can be a dangerous machine for a journalist with scruples. I've been looking over a 292-megahertz version on loan for evaluation, and I don't want to give it back.
With its gentle curves; crisp, giant 14.1-inch screen; hot-swappable batteries and storage bays (meaning you can exchange components without powering down); comfortable keyboard and pleasing audio, this box has earned me the envy of anyone who sees me using it. (OK, so a few of those sidelong glances may have been from victims of Apple's inability to meet demand, a problem the company claims to have nearly solved.)
This PowerBook shows off Apple at its best as the premier builder of premium computers. The top G3s target a key Apple constituency: publishers and artists who need top performance and visuals even on a notebook.
What's more, Apple just dropped the price on its big-screen PowerBooks, so if I've caught you drooling over the newspaper as you read this, bear in mind that you can finally get one without that second mortgage on your house.
The price drop also confirms what we've known about Apple for a long time: It does not aspire to compete on price.
So for the overextended or hopelessly pragmatic out there, here are some numbers to consider: $324 and $740. That's the premium you'll pay for a PowerBook G3, running at 233MHz and 266MHz, respectively, over nearly feature-identical, top-rated Windows notebooks.
The 233-MHz PowerBook, after the addition of a floppy bay, is $2,898. (A 12.1-inch-screen, modem-less, floppy-less version will set you back only $2,000.) The Gateway Solo 5150 SE, with a 233-MHz Pentium II processor, will set you back only $2,574. Apple's 266-MHz version costs $3,797 with a floppy bay, compared with $3,084 for a Gateway Solo 9100 LS, or $3,057 for a Dell Inspiron 7000, both of which use 266-MHz Pentium II chips.
It's worth considering that $740 will buy your kid a fully functional, reasonably fast, refurbished Windows PC.
Are these PowerBooks compelling enough to warrant the higher cost? If you're wed to the Mac OS, stop here and pull out your checkbook. For everybody else, much of the answer depends on speed, the critical factor for power-hungry publishers and artists.
If you've been reading this column for a while, you know that I view manufacturers' performance claims as next-to-worthless.
Apple purports that its new iMac, which uses a 233-MHz G3 chip, runs far faster than PCs based on the fastest Pentium II chip, which runs at 400MHz. Apple's statement is based on benchmark testing of the chips. Unfortunately, chip speed alone rarely reflects real-world performance.
Independent testing experts agree that overall performance involves the interaction of a computer's memory, system design, storage drive and other components, as well as how a particular application was written. (For example--surprise!--Microsoft applications generally perform better on Windows machines.)
Serious testing shows that desktop Macs win in some cases and lose in others. But contrary to Apple boasts, they are nowhere near twice as fast as Windows boxes.
However, notebooks are different. Intel has had a hard time squeezing its chips small enough to conserve power and reduce heat--the twin challenges of mobile computing. And the 266- and 300MHz PowerBooks feature a whopping 1-megabyte cache--the short-term memory that greatly speeds performance--twice as much as Pentium II notebooks offer.
I didn't benchmark the new PowerBooks, nor have I seen detailed, credible performance tests against comparable Pentium II notebooks. But with the caveat that 300-MHz Pentium II notebooks have just hit the market, my anecdotal experience echoes that of other reviewers: The PowerBook G3 seems substantially faster for the very things that big-screen notebooks exist for: creating or showing off graphic arts, Adobe Photoshop and other "desktop computer replacement" jobs.
If your needs are like most of us, though, sit tight. Apple's promised a consumer notebook in 1999. I'm betting it will be like the iMac--costlier than the competition but easier, more stylish and more fun. Another premium machine that should justify the premium.
Times staff writer Charles Piller can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.