Old Mac of the Month: The 12″ PowerBook G4

Editor’s Note: This “Old Mac of the Month” entry is by Shadoe Huard, the writer of SmarterBits, where he covers the world of Apple.

Neil Gaiman:

You will hear that she has left the country, that there was a gift she wanted you to have, but it is lost before it reaches you. Late one night the telephone will sign, and a voice that might be hers will say something that you cannot interpret before the connection crackles and is broken.

Sometimes I struggle to find the perfect set of tools. At least where gadgets are concerned, I can be rather erratic. Case in point, my road setup for an entire college semester in 2005 consisted of a Palm Tungsten E with an attachable keyboard as my computer. At the time, it seemed like a perfect, and frankly much more portable, alternative to the secondhand, requires AC power to function, Dell Latitude I had at home. Before the notion of combining an iPad and a bluetooth keyboard sparked lightbulbs into millions of minds, Palm was offering a similar combination, with all the accoutrements a student might need for school: Dataviz’s Documents to Go and solitare.

Solitaire is great on a Palm Pilot.

In all the wrong ways, my setup was ahead of its time. While I’m all for eccentric setups, the lack of bare necessities (MSN messenger at the time,) was increasingly becoming a deal breaker. Eventually, I purchased a Compaq Presario laptop in lieu of my Palm Pilot, but that just opened up a whole new can of worms. You could pick your poison with the Presario: battery life, weight, cords and cables,performance. None of them provided a pleasant experience for an arts student who spent most days away from home and needed a computer that could keep up. For many students growing up in the mid 2000s, most of this must sound all to familiar.

Little did I know at the time that Apple already had all the right answers for me.

Power is not a means, it is an end

2003 was a productive time for Apple. It may not have seemed that way at the time but, with the help of hindsight, it’s hard to ignore the importance of that particular year. To wit, here is a brief list of products and technologies Apple introduced in a 365 day span: The PowerMac G5, Keynote 1.0, iSight Camera, iTunes Music Store, Safari 1.0, Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, Airport Extreme, FireWire 800, the iLife bundle, Final Cut Express, Xcode 1.0, and last but certainly not least, the 3rd generation iPod.

Apple had power and it had it in gobs.

(Just consider the legacy of these releases. The iTunes Store revolutionized entire industries single handedly. Safari and it’s Webkit underpinnings now power the majority of mobile smartphones (not to mention desktop browsers) in the world today. iSight cameras are now built into most Apple computers. Xcode fuels one of the biggest growing developer communities in the world and is of course built right into Mac OS X, an operating system that is still pushing the bounds of traditional computing even today. For conspiracy theorists, there’s a case to be made for pinpointing 2003 the year Steve Jobs’s started his global domination of anything having to do with technology.)

Amid all these landmark advancements, there is one other 2003 offspring that may be even more fondly remembered than the aforementioned: The 12-inch PowerBook G4, a device of many firsts in its own right. Apple’s miniature workhorse(and its 17-inch brother) ushered in Apple’s love affair with aluminum along with technologies like FireWire 800 and 802.11g networking. Launching only into Mac OS X, Apple’s then smallest notebook laid the groundwork for the next decade of Mac notebooks.

Ultra-compact. Full Featured.

Those were the words chosen to describe the 12-inch PowerBook on Apple.com’s product splash page. “Uncompromising” might have been an even simpler descriptor. Featuring the same internals as its bigger siblings, this PowerBook made little sacrifice to achieve its tiny footprint. Ever so slightly thicker than the 15 and 17-inch PowerBooks (Hey, you gotta fit all those components somewhere.), this 12-inch notebook provided everything a creative professional could need on the road: Superdrive DVD burning, dedicated graphics, a long-lasting removable battery, Airport Extreme networking and a then generous 1024 x 768 matte display. The MacBook Air may now be the reigning most portable Mac notebook but in its heyday, the 12-inch PowerBook was the pinnacle of both size and power, something the Air still can’t claim.

I’d be remiss in not mentioning the classic and unmistakable all aluminum design co-introduced by this computer. Encased in stunning silver, the simple and elegant design of the PowerBook endures even today, while also serving as the blueprint informing the unibody construction of the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air.

Continuing a rich tradition of leaving the past behind, the 12-inch PowerBook was the first Mac computer to boot exclusively in Mac OS X, originally shipping with Mac OS X 10.2. Future revisions hit in stride with the releases of 10.3 and 10.4, melding its state of the art hardware with a desktop operating system itself maturing into arguably the best OS around. Truly a long-tail machine, later generations of the device were even powerful enough to install and run Leopard, the last revision of OS X supporting the PowerPC architecture.

The 12-inch PowerBook was finally retired in May of 2006 upon the release of the 13-inch white MacBook. The little PowerBook’s particular blend of size, power and versatility hasn’t been reincarnated in an Apple notebook since.

More Neil Gaiman

Several years later, from a taxi, you will see someone in a doorway who looks like her, but she will be gone by the time you persuade the driver to stop. You will never see her again.

Even today, I still act erratically in search of the perfect workflow, though I’ve come to embrace that aspect of my personality. Five years after my Palm Tungsten, I finally got the machine I should have had all along. Needing a quick and cheap laptop to carry to and from work, I picked up a 12-inch PowerBook off of Craigslist — five years after its official retirement, and put it to work full-time as my writing and publishing machine. Having missed each other 6 years ago, the reunion is bittersweet; the PowerBook having been left behind in the past next to the ever growing demands of technology. The experience of it will never be the one we were truly meant to have.

In many ways, my 12-inch PowerBook is a pleasure to use. Easy on the eyes and still as portable as it ever was, writing articles in WriteRoom or Text Editor is a breeze. HD content is perhaps too much to ask of the dated G4 processor, but simple email and web browsing on Safari doesn’t pose too much of a threat, so long as it isn’t overwhelmed by graphically intense sites. If you’re patient, you can even power through some light Photoshopping. In short, for the right person, even an ancient PowerPC notebook can be a serious computer in 2011.

Yet, so much of the PowerBook reminds us how far we’ve come since the “year of the notebook”. Notebooks today are even thinner while simultaneously having longer lasting batteries. The boxing of the 12-inch PowerBook, beautifully packaged and designed by most standards, seems bloated and decadent compared to the minimalist, environmentally conscious packaging of MacBooks today. Perhaps worst of all, most third party software has moved on from the PowerPC era. Finding apps to fill my PowerBook involves an equal mix of hope and prayer, if not persistent sleuthing through the annals of the internet. Despite the ravages of time however, my square-ish notebook endures, thanks in part to the legacy of its pedigree.

The 12-inch PowerBook, more than any personal computer I’ve ever owned, is an object which people really emote with. As a newly minted owner I’ve had the chance to witness this first hand, observing the fond and gleeful reactions of strangers, co-workers, friends and Mac enthusiasts. I can understand; since becoming my full-time publisher slash typewriter, I’ve grown to appreciate the personality of my PowerBook: discrete, reliable, and austere. For former owners, when PowerPCs were de rigeur, it might have also felt otherworldly; a portent of a future only beginning to realize itself.

Back in its 2003 introductory commercial, Apple paired up its smallest PowerBook with one of the biggest sports figures of that year, Yao Ming. While pairing the world’s tallest sports celebrity with the smallest Mac has great comedic potential, Apple couldn’t have guessed just how revolutionary this duo would become in their respective arenas. Both were once-in-a-generation phenomena in their fields: awe inspiring blends of size, agility and power. They offered us a glimpse into the future, Yao ushering in a new era of globalization in the NBA and the 12-inch PowerBook paving the way for a new breed of powerful compact notebooks. Finally, it’s possible there has never been two more beloved ambassadors of a large community of people. Or nation, if you’ll indulge the hyperbole.

I’m uncertain there’s any one distinguishing feature of the 12-inch PowerBook that could explain its enduring popularity. Perhaps the answer lies in it’s adeptness at striking through almost any bullet-point feature list one could imagine; it’s hard to come up with any Achilles heel it could have had at the time. Of course, there’s a good chance I’ll never find out for myself, having missed out on its prime years. Yet as I sit here, typing away on my PowerBook outside a cafe on a breezy summer afternoon, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever having needed anything more.

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