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Apple's New Laptop Is a Peach


This time, Apple Computer (AAPL) got it right. A few months ago, I took Apple to task for the Cube, a desktop Macintosh that stresses high-concept design at the expense of functionality. But the new PowerBook G4 Titanium notebook offers brains, beauty, and brawn in one slick package. At up to $3,500, the Titanium is, like other Apple products, pricey, but this one gives good value. Apple has once again launched a powerful innovation--and could literally reshape the laptop.

Until now, if you wanted a very thin notebook, you had to make an important sacrifice: There was no room inside the box for a removable media drive, such as a CD-ROM, or DVD. That means adding an external drive, which I find so clumsy on the road that the benefits of a thin, light notebook aren't worth it.

Apple squared the circle by squeezing a DVD drive into the inch-thick Titanium. That wasn't their only trick. As the name suggests, the PowerBook's case is made out of titanium, a light metal that remains extremely stiff even at almost foil-like thicknesses. The case is thinner and lighter than one made from reinforced plastic or magnesium, and the lid gives adequate protection to the big display, despite being less than a quarter-inch thick.

The Titanium is visually stunning, despite being a basic rectangular box. The difficulty of fabricating the metal ruled out the swoopy curves that have been the hallmark of recent PowerBooks. When closed, it is an unusually wide silver box with a beautiful finish and a white plastic Apple logo in the lid. The width is a clue to another unusual feature: The 15.2-in. diagonal screen is half again as wide as it is high, instead of the 4:3 ratio of a standard display.

Wide-screen laptops have flopped before, but this one makes sense. Titanium's key audience is the likes of Web page designers, artists, videographers, and photographers. Running a program like Adobe Photoshop, the display offers a big central area for the art being worked on, with lots of room on the side for tools and palettes. It's almost like working with two monitors, as is commonly done in studios. The Titanium's dimensions pay dividends for business fliers, too, since it's easier to open on a laptop tray when the seat in front has reclined.

There's a trade-off. The big display means the Titanium isn't tiny and light like a Sony VAIO Z505. The 13.4-in. width of the laptop will be a squeeze in some briefcases, and the 5.3-lb. weight is about the same as an IBM ThinkPad T21.

WATCH OUT, INTEL. Still, Apple somehow managed to squeeze an awful lot of power into that thin case. Apple's claim that the PowerPC G4 processor in the top model makes the PowerBook more than 30% faster than the fastest Windows laptop is based on some highly selective tests, but the speed is easily a match for anything Intel (INTC) can offer. The stated battery life of five hours is optimistic, but I got four or more, outstanding for a product in this class. Like all current Mac models, the Titanium has a built-in antenna for wireless networking requiring only the addition of a $100 AirPort card, though the difficulty of removing and replacing the bottom cover of the case argues strongly for professional installation of the card.

The Titanium is not without flaws. To save a few precious millimeters, Apple used a slot-loading DVD drive of the sort used in car CD players. Thus, you don't get the option of a CD recorder that a modular design would give. In addition, there's no way to eject a disk manually if the drive fails. The G4 processor puts out a lot of heat, and the bottom of the case can get quite hot. The keyboard panel could also stand some stiffening--it tends to flex a bit, especially when keys in the middle are struck. But these are quibbles.

I don't expect this design will start a stampede to titanium cases, if only because the world's fabricating capacity is limited. But the thin and wide design is extremely appealing because it leaves just enough room for an internal drive. Displays are the shape they are for the bad reason that the designers of the first televisions used the aspect ratio of pre-World War II movie screens, and that's the shape picture tubes have always been made. Once again, Apple is forcing a useful rethinking of some badly outdated assumptions. By Stephen H. Wildstrom, tech&you@businessweek.com


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