Big Notebook, Little Notebook

Apple G4 computer with 17" screen
When it comes to notebook computers, big is good but so is little. A big screen, big keyboard and big hard drive are all desirable features, but if you plan to carry the machine around, small and light are also very important.

You can't exactly have it both ways. To make a notebook machine small, manufacturers have to -- at the very least -- avoid some of the larger screens. Some companies also cut size and weight by adding a smaller keyboard or leaving out some features such as a CD or DVD drive.
On January 7, Apple Computer addressed the "big" vs. "little" PC issue by unveiling two new laptop machines.

One, the 17-inch PowerBook G4, boasts the largest screen of any notebook computer on the market. The 17-inch display on this machine is similar to the 17-inch screen on Apple's iMac desktop machines, however this machine weighs only 6.8 pounds and is 1-inch thick. It's by no means the lightest notebook PC on the market, but it is very lightweight considering what it comes with.

Aside from the extra-wide screen, the new machine also has the Apple "SuperDrive," which can read and write DVDs and CDs. It has a 1 gigahertz processor, which by Apple standards is quite fast. The processor also has a 1 megabyte "L3 cache," which improves performance by helping to move data and program codes very quickly between the memory and the processor.

One of the coolest new features is its "backlit keyboard with ambient light sensor" that lights up as the ambient room light goes down. I can think of many occasions when I would have loved this feature as I attempted to use my PC in a dark lecture hall only to make more than my fair share of typographical errors because I couldn't see the keyboard.

At $3,299, it's priced competitively with other high-end laptops.
Like many new notebook PCs, the new Mac also comes with a wireless network connector, but unlike most, the Mac uses a new industry standard called 802.11g, which is about five times faster than the older 802.11b standard used by most wireless network adapters.

You won't get that extra speed unless you're connected to a wireless network that supports it. The good news is that it's backwards compatible with 802.11b, which means you can use it with older equipment, albeit at the slower rate. Before you start salivating over this new standard, be aware that even the older standard is at least five times faster than any Internet connection you're likely to get. Most people won't even notice or appreciate the faster speeds.

The other "big" news from Apple comes in a small package.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs also used his MacWorld keynote address to introduce the new 12-inch PowerBook G4. At 4.6 pounds and 10.9 inches wide, 8.6 inches deep and 1.2 inches thick, the $1,799 machine is the smallest and lightest notebook PC Apple has ever released but it's not, as Jobs claimed, the "smallest full featured notebook in the world." I'd have to give that honor to Fujitsu's 3.4 pound LifeBook P2000, which, like the new Mac portable, has a built-in DVD drive that can also read and write CDs.

Also like the Mac, it comes with a wireless network connector. At $1,699 for the version with the DVD and the wireless network, it's actually a bit cheaper than the Mac. I've carried this Fujitsu notebook on several trips and I love it. I feel like a pack mule whenever I have to carry anything larger.

Still, Apple's little new laptop is impressive. Unlike the Fujitsu and most other laptops, it features Bluetooth connectivity, which allows it to share data with other Bluetooth-equipped products such as some cell phones and handheld organizers.

It also features that faster 802.11g wireless networking as well as a very fast graphics processor. Apple claims that it gets up to five hours of battery life, but I haven't been able to verify that. That level of battery life, as Apple admits, depends "on system configuration and usage," which means you probably won't get it in real life applications.

With these new machines, Apple is once again the leader in cutting-edge laptop technology, but it never takes long for the competition to catch up. Even as Steve Jobs was speaking, hundreds of company representatives were on their way to Las Vegas for the annual consumer electronics show for demonstrations of all sorts of new technology, including -- you guessed it -- some powerful new notebook PCs. Stay tuned.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

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By Larry Magid