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Review: Apple Polishes the PowerBook Line

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Apple Computer Inc.'s PowerBooks have long been considered the Rolls-Royce of laptops with their stylish looks, powerful engines and hefty price tags. But with two years passing since its last major update, the line was at risk of being eclipsed by upstarts running on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows platform.

Any fears that Powerbooks' reputation as the best in the business might have been eclipsed were put to rest after the revamped lineup appeared on Jan. 31.

The company even cut prices on most models a bit.

The machines haven't undergone a total transformation. They're still powered by PowerPC G4 processors, not the newer G5 found in most of Apple's desktops. The bump-up in speed isn't tremendous either, though the latest PowerBooks are anything but laggards.

Prices start at $1,499 for a model with a 12-inch screen, 1.5 gigahertz processor, a combo DVD reader and CD writer, and a 60 gigabyte hard drive. The priciest model, for $2,699, features a 17-inch screen, 1.67 GHz processor, a souped up DVD-CD burner and a 100-gig drive. Previously, prices ranged from $1,599 to $2,999, with speeds starting at 1 GHz and topping out at 1.33 GHz.

Besides lower prices, the new PowerBooks sport new standard features that often cost extra with other Apple computers and those in the Windows world.

All come with a minimum of 512 megabytes of memory _ twice as much as what was included with the previous generation. Mac OS X runs smoothly with the extra memory, and there's plenty of room to run other programs like the included Apple digital lifestyle suite for organizing and editing pictures, videos and music.

Out of the box, all the new PowerBooks can immediately connect to a wireless Internet network as well as devices that support the Bluetooth wireless standard. In wired environments, these laptops support regular Ethernet connections at up to gigabit speeds with the higher-end models.

All of the models are encased in a silvery aluminum alloy that feels rugged and is visually appealing. The white Apple logo, on the reverse of the screen, glows when the laptop is in use. The full-size keyboard illuminates in dark rooms on the models with 15- and 17-inch screens.

I tried out a PowerBook with a 1.67 GHz processor, 15-inch screen and $2,299 price tag.

I was impressed with the new ``TrackPad'' touchpad, which performs two different functions depending on how many fingers are used. With one finger, it serves as a pointing device. With two fingers, I could scroll through an active window vertically and horizontally, depending on the motion.

Apple also has revved up the speed of all the hard drives, improving data access.

There's also a new ``Sudden Motion Sensor'' that detects when the computer has been dropped and takes action to protect the hard drive from damage.

I tested it out by dropping the unit onto a cushion. The video that was playing stopped, indicating the machine sensed the fall. Without slamming the PowerBook into concrete, it would be difficult to tell if the drive's data would have been protected.

There are several other minor touches as well, including a power cord that breaks into two segments, one of which can be used as a shorter cord when a longer one isn't needed.

In terms of battery life, my PowerBook lasted slightly less than three hours before losing all its juice as I surfed the Internet wirelessly, checked e-mail and played DanLabGames' addictive Mahjong Solitarus.

But it didn't last as long when playing a DVD movie, shutting down after just 2 hours and 15 minutes of continuous play.

Still, it quit very elegantly, first warning that the battery was low and then going into sleep mode. Once I plugged it back in, the laptop awoke and all windows and other settings were restored. That's not always the case with Windows laptops.

Compared with the longer-lasting batteries and faster processors in many non-Apple laptops, it might seem that PowerBooks are lagging.

They're not _ at least not yet. Apple has focused on evolutionary improvements, but sometimes the little touches can add up to something big.
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