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Talkin' Smack: The Viable Notebook, Phase 2

New PowerBooks with another creative edge By Dave Nagel
In the long-ago, far-away epoch before the advent of DV and FireWire, notebook computers were good for one thing: showing your friends and colleagues that you had enough money to afford one. Those of us wizened enough to remember all the way back to, say, the 1990s recall (as best we can in our senility) machines that could run little more than word processing programs, though many of us certainly did try to integrate them into our professional work. (Believe it or not, I was an editor putting out a weekly print magazine on a PowerBook Duo 210. It didn't last long ... the Duo, that is.)

It's always cute to compare old and new technologies like that. For example, one of the first-generation PowerBooks, the PowerBook 170, with a 25 MHz 68030 chip, a 40 MB hard drive and 8 MB maximum RAM, sold for $4,600. Yes, all that and a black and white screen for just $4,600. Which, if my math is correct, adjusting for inflation and carrying most of the ones, amounts to about 10 billion dollars in today's currency. But obviously technology is going to continue to improve (and hopefully get cheaper), and one day in the near future we'll look back at the machines we use now and snicker at their primitive specs.

But that's not the point. In the old days, notebook computers were technologies looking for a reason to be. They were too weak for serious graphics work and too expensive for word processing. They were neato, to be sure, but as those of us who tried like the dickens to adopt them quickly learned, they were essentially useless except as show items.

The useful notebook, Phase 1
But, as with desktop computers years earlier, Apple somehow managed to change all that. They took what was once a neato technology and turned it into a useful tool for serious creative production. The turning point was FireWire, coinciding with DV, faster hardware and, eventually, video editing tools that were both accessible and powerful. I hate to use the phrase "killer app," but that's just what this was for notebook computers: mobile editing on extremely capable systems.

You could say that this "killer app" has been under development for the last few years. We've seen better, faster hardware released, along with software that's been fine-tuned for mobile editing, including software-only real-time effects on even the lowliest of the current (and many past) notebook systems. Desktop workstations, of course, have outpaced notebooks all along in power and features, but Apple, more than any other manufacturer out there, has kept its notebooks relatively in line with their desktop counterparts.

Notebooks are certainly less expandable than desktops, but the Titanium G4 PowerBooks have, to date, held up incredibly well against desktops in performance on creative applications. Witness the now outdated PowerBook G4 800, which virtually equalled the mid-range desktop G4 933 in our own benchmark studies (http://www.creativemac.com/2002/06_jun/reviews/powerbook800.htm).

And so we've been treated to both utility and ever-increasing performance for the last few years. Let's call this Phase 1 in in the history of notebooks that are actually viable for creative production.

Phase 2
And now we come to Phase 2, which Apple has ushered in here in the waning weeks of 2002 with the introduction of its new line of PowerBooks. (As a side note, this announcement came as a huge surprise to everybody who counts on Apple never doing anything new this late in the year.)

So what's involved in Phase 2? Of course, I don't have a 1 GHz PowerBook G4 sitting here for testing. This model is still a couple weeks away from release. But what this model promises is not just improved performance, but also new and improved utility. New tools for creative professionals, more powerful hardware and a price tag $200 smaller than its predecessor.

The more powerful hardware comes in the form of a 1 GHz G4 processor with 1 MB level-3 cache and a more powerful graphics card, the 64 MB Mobility Radeon 9000. Couple these with the already powerful features of the Titanium PowerBook line--like integrated gigabit Ethernet, standard FireWire and widescreen LCD display, and you have yourself a fair dinkum of a decent mobile creative production station.

But the real advance to Phase 2, at least for creative production--and who cares about anything else?--is in the mobile SuperDrive. Now not only can you create and edit on the road, in the plane or on a train, but you can also burn your projects anytime you feel like it, giving you much more flexibility on the road and making it possible to create presentations for clients on the fly, basically. And it's not just that you have this kind of flexibility, but that you have this kind of flexibility built into the system.

Now, I've praised Apple's strategy for the creative market in the past. They've done incredible things for professionals in all of the creative fields--audio, video, print and the Web--from QuickTime to ColorSync to the new CoreAudio in Mac OS X. You name it, and Apple innovated it. And though Apple's innovations are always--always--ripped off by other manufacturers a few months down the road, still the company manages to stay at the forefront for the creative market.

When the new 1 GHz PowerBook is finally released a couple weeks from now, I believe there will be a clamor for it unparalleled in the PowerBook's history. What the first Macs did for print pros, what the G4s did for video pros, the new PowerBook will do for mobile creative pros. In short, they've done it again.

Contact the author: Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications. You can reach him at [email protected].

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