Smallest Powerbook Has Style, Size, Price To Make Apple Shine

MossbergApple Computer recently announced two new models in its PowerBook laptop line. The one that drew the most attention was the industry’s first laptop with a gargantuan 17-inch screen. But the company also announced its smallest laptop ever: a petite PowerBook with a 12-inch screen and a mass-market base price of $1,799. Apple also rolled out a slew of new software, including a Web browser called Safari.

I’ve been testing the small PowerBook and the Safari browser for nearly a week now, and I like both of them.

The 12-inch PowerBook is one sweet little laptop. Sheathed in an aluminum case, it has the feel of a finely made camera. And it’s the smallest notebook I’ve tested that sports a full range of features, including one I’ve never seen on a compact laptop. Yet it’s significantly less expensive than some comparable Windows laptops.

This PowerBook is slightly smaller than Apple’s low-end laptop, the iBook, but is powered by the more potent G4 processor that drives the larger PowerBooks. Apple has omitted a few standard PowerBook features — including a special memory cache that speeds things up — to protect sales of the older PowerBooks. But in my tests, the little PowerBook felt speedy and sure on every task I threw at it.

This new PowerBook isn’t in the lightest and smallest category of laptops, the sub-three-pound models that lack an internal optical drive, such as a CD or DVD drive. Instead, it’s meant to compete with laptops like Toshiba’s Portege 4010, which have an integrated CD or DVD drive but still weigh under five pounds.

Apple’s base model has 256 megabytes of memory, a 40-gigabyte hard disk, and a built-in “combo” drive, which can play CDs or DVDs and record CDs. It has a full complement of ports, including USB and FireWire connectors, a modem and an Ethernet networking jack. Bluetooth short-range wireless connectivity is built in and Wi-Fi wireless networking is a $99 option. For $200 more you can even get an internal drive that records DVDs, something I’ve never seen in a small laptop.

Despite Apple’s reputation for costliness, this little laptop is aggressively priced. To match its base configuration, plus Wi-Fi, for $1,899, you’d have to pay a whopping $2,399 for a Portege 4010 at Toshiba’s online store.

At 4.6 pounds, the 12-inch PowerBook isn’t the lightest full-featured notebook. The Portege weighs 4.2 pounds and Fujitu’s Lifebook P2000 weighs just 3.4 pounds, though it cheats a bit with a puny 10.6-inch screen and a cramped keyboard.

But the new Apple model is the most compact laptop I’ve reviewed with an integrated optical drive and a full range of ports and networking features. It’s about 111 cubic inches. Even the tiny Fujitsu is 118 cubic inches and the Toshiba is 135 cubic inches.

The machine abounds with the kind of clever design touches for which Apple is known. CDs and DVDs are sucked into the machine through a slot, like in an auto CD player, so there’s no protruding tray. The rear hinge dips down so the screen sets lower than on other laptops, making it even more compact for use in tight spaces.

In my home, the machine’s Wi-Fi wireless networking range was very good, and Apple’s new Wi-Fi card and base station can handle the new “G” flavor of Wi-Fi, fives times the speed of the original. Battery life was also strong. Apple claims up to five hours, but my tests indicated a likely life of around four, still excellent.

I found one notable drawback in the new PowerBook: Like its larger siblings, it gets pretty hot because of its metal skin.

All in all, the 12-inch PowerBook is a dandy laptop — small, relatively inexpensive, yet powerful and beautiful.

Apple’s new Safari Web browser is aimed at nothing less than replacing Microsoft’s Internet Explorer on the Macintosh platform. It’s the first all-new browser from a major company in years, and I like it a lot. It has a slimmed-down, clean user interface that leaves more room on the screen for Web-page content. But it also sports several cool features: a built-in field for entering Google searches, a built-in popup-ad blocker and a system that automatically opens files you download.

The coolest new feature is called Snapback. This allows the user, with a single click, to jump back to the first page of a site, after digging down through multiple levels.

Safari’s main goal was to be speedier than the Mac version of IE, and it is. In my tests of five popular Web sites, Safari beat the Microsoft browser in rendering a page every time, sometimes by seconds, other times by huge margins.

There are a few rough spots in Safari, still considered a “public beta,” or test. These mainly involve compatibility with a few types of sites and pages. The browser includes a button you can click to report these to Apple.

Like the 12-inch PowerBook, Safari shows Apple’s deft sense of design and dedication to ease of use. Both products will help make the Macintosh platform an attractive alternative to Windows.

Walter J. Mossberg, a reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal since 1970, has been named as the most influential journalist writing about computers for seven years in a row, from 1995 to 2001, by Technology Marketing magazine. He is the recipient of numerous other awards for his columns on technology and electronic gadgets, including the 1999 Loeb award for Commentary, the only technology writer to be so honored. E-mail Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com.