Reviews; Apple’s new PowerBook easily could be the only portable editing system you need

Reviews; Apple’s new PowerBook easily could be the only portable editing system you need

Rick Shaw

Through a tantalizing offer from Apple, I was asked to look at the new 500MHz PowerBook machine. On top of this, the company threw in a copy of Final Cut Pro 1.2 just to see what I thought of the idea of using this setup as a portable editing system. I’ve lived with the PowerBook for a couple of months and have grown accustomed to it. I now think that I don’t want to send it back!

The first question everyone will ask is: What about a G4 laptop? At the time of this writing, there wasn’t a PowerBook G4 available. Apple officials typically are very tight-lipped about the whole G4 matter, but the 500MHz G3 i s no slow poke and is much more than just an interim solution. I compared it to our other notebooks: an Apple Tangerine iBook, a PowerBook G3 (300MHz), and a Compaq Presario 1670. Apple calls this new iteration of the G3 PowerBook simply PowerBook. Needless to say, the new 500MHz processor performs rings around the others; yet there are some interesting differences. More or less, the differences are about convenience and functionality; and, in the performance category, this new PowerBook wins hands down.

Besides the 500MHz G3 processor, Apple includes a 100MHz system bus. If you want, you can cram up to 512MB SDRAM into this machine. This is the 144-pin variety, also running at 100MHz.

The PowerBook is a nicely built machine. Its construction looks like the latest series of PowerBook G3’s that Apple has been making since May 1999. The unit has a large, white translucent Apple logo on the lid that is illuminated by the active matrix display. The hinge on the cover is designed so the power indicator for the computer can be seen with the lid open or closed, and when sleeping this indicator pulsates, almost as if it’s breathing. A curvy, inlaid portion on the lid has a rubbery feel and keeps the PowerBook firmly in your hand as you tote it around. The AC-power adapter looked to me like the same one used on the iBooks. It’s a round, silver object resembling a ’50s flying saucer. As cool as it is, the length of each cord was a little too short. I also would have appreciated a simple power-on LED somewhere on the supply. On an iBook, a ring around the power port on the computer itself glows when power is supplied.

On the left side of the PowerBook, there is a slot for a battery module that slides into place. It has four LEDs on the side and a small button for testing while it’s still in the computer. I was impressed with the battery life of this machine. It beat the Compaq 1670, which also uses Lithium batteries but doesn’t hold up nearly as long as Apple’s laptop. According to Apple, you have up to 10 hours of battery life, but this figure obviously doesn’t hold true with constant use of the DVD drive. The right side of the machine has a slide-in area for the DVD module, but it can be removed if desired, which allows you to place a second battery in the PowerBook. Apple’s Control Strip indicates just what is in each bay, as well as each battery’s level.

The DVD drive also plays audio CDs and CD-ROMs. Drag a disc to the trash, and Apple’s drive ejects it. Apple has included a nice utility for playing DVD movies on the Power-Book. You get a round interface that has all of the transport buttons, plus timing information, and other features, which can be hidden via a keystroke or menu command. The Power-Book easily plays DVDs at full screen, and I spoiled myself watching movies late at night in bed with headphones. The 14.1-inch display is very sharp, and it’s an amazing experience to have this type of power and portability in a laptop.

One feature you will like is that the PowerBook has an amazing number of ports. You’ve got built-in FireWire, (two ports) S-Video out, audio in and out, Ethernet 10/100BASE-T, an external montior output, two USB ports, and a phone jack for the built-in 56kbps modem. A new snap-open cover shelters these items from dust, and it appears to be much more durable than the flimsy ones that immediately broke off of Apple’s old 5300 series laptops. Outside of the door is a power port (a hefty jack that looks like an RCA connector), but it has a different center-pin configuration.

The only downside to viewing any multimedia offering on the PowerBook is its puny, built-in speakers. One might think that Apple would have taken some hints from Compaq as the Presario has two built-in JBL speakers in the palmrest. These speakers also have hidden bass ports under the front edge of the machine. This is great for plopping it down on a table and playing back a demo without having to bring along extra speakers. I’ve never heard a better sounding laptop than the Presario, and Apple’s speakers had practically no low end. The iBook only has one speaker, so it’s mono sound is totally out of the running in that department. I would have expected more from Apple.

The DVD drive vibrated a bit when playing discs. I’ve noticed that some laptops have drives that seem more sensitive to this than others. The Compaq Presario seemed more solid in this area. The PowerBook also got quite hot on the bottom during DVD playback, but in comparison, the Compaq gets rather warm as well. To combat this, Compaq includes a miniature fan on the back of its machine, and this seems to help keep the machine cooler. However, it also pulls extra juice from the battery, so I guess this is a tossup. I would place the PowerBook on a hard surface so air can circulate around the machine, especially when playing DVDs.

Apple also placed the headphone jack on PowerBook behind the rear door with the other connectors. I would rather have seen it on the front or side where you don’t have to fumble for it. In this configuration, I was constantly asking, “am I plugged into the Mic or Headphone jack?” Also, because Apple has always made Mac computers elegant and easy to use, the company could take a few hints from Compaq when it comes to features of convenience. The Presario has dedicated audio level controls near the trackpad, a vertical scroll control, four dedicated keys that are programmable for Internet use and for starting applications, and a headphone jack in front. Apple simply had the trackpad and a large thumb button for clicking. For screen and audio adjustments, Apple has normal function keys at the upper part of the keyboard. There are a couple of tabs that can be used to flip up the keyboard and remove it, which allows quick access to internal components of the PowerBook or to add RAM.

As powerful as the new PowerBook is, it’s pleasantly lightweight — only 6.1 pounds with a DVD drive and battery. Drive space up to 18GB is available using an Ultra ATA/66 hard drive. It worked quietly and flawlessly.

The trackpad does take a little getting used to when it comes to editing. Since there is a lot of clicking and dragging, you might want to put the PowerBook on a desk and hook up a mouse. I think it makes editing a little smoother, especially during an all-nighter. The display is capable of 1024×768, and you’ll need every inch of it for Final Cut Pro. Contrast on the active-matrix screen can be enhanced by tilting it until the blacks look darker.

Some folks, as well as I, have had minor problems using Mac OS 9. That’s what came with the PowerBook, but Apple advised me to do an automatic Internet update to 9.04, which I did. OS 9 adds the capability to keep many more files open at one time than 8.6, but it creates a few incompatibility problems in the process. I had a few annoying dialog boxes appear that would tell me something inconsequential. For example, a window told me that I had to log-on to use the Internet, even though I was working on something totally unrelated. There is a new control panel in OS 9 that allows you to automatically update your system software anytime you’re on the Net, which is supposed to be helpful. While you can run AOL on PowerBook, Apple’s Internet Setup software doesn’t have a selection for AOL during the setup phase, which can cause problems for novice users.

The new version of Sherlock requires the PowerBook to update the Index at the most inopportune moments — even while I was viewing a DVD. I found that feature annoying. I did like the new Sherlock though, and if you’ve never tried it, you don’t know what you’re missing. Sherlock is Apple’s way to search several search engines at the same time. It’s the best way to find almost anything on the Net quickly and more easily than manually going from one search engine to another.

I’ve reviewed Final Cut Pro before (See “Apple Computer’s Final Cut Pro,” page 118, September 1999), so let’s talk about how it worked on the PowerBook, and I’ll also update you on version 1.2.

I loaded the massive Final Cut Pro application, which requires you to have more than 100MB of disk space. After typing in a convoluted serial number long enough to gain access to Fort Knox, the program came to life.

I have two DVCAM camcorder setups. One is a broadcast Sony DSR-130 with a Fujinon 18X lens, and the other is a Sony miniDV, TCR-TRV-7, with a flip-open viewfinder. Since the larger DVCAM doesn’t have a FireWire port (most broadcast DVCAM equipment doesn’t), I used the TRV-7. Final Cut Pro immediately looks for a FireWire connection and a camcorder when you boot up. It initializes the link automatically at that time.

Few editing systems I’ve used work the very first time you boot them up, but this configuration of PowerBook, Sony camera, and Final Cut Pro did, which was a pleasant surprise. I had immediate deck control of the camcorder, and the swing-open viewfinder made monitoring through the camera appropriate in a portable situation. I began by digitizing some of the video I taped using the TRV-7 into Final Cut Pro.

You can either log clips or digitize on the fly. Final Cut Pro’s digitize window seems a little overly complex for this task, but it worked fine. It was actually a little weird to hear the tiny built-in hard drive whirring away as it captured full-screen miniDV footage. It was enough to make me smile, remembering the days of huge, dedicated drives with less storage space that had trouble capturing broadcast-quality video without dropping frames. Here I was doing it on a six-pound laptop with no problem. Anyone can do this. There’s only one wire to connect, and Apple has made it incredibly easy to use. It really isn’t a toy.

The system only crashed once during digitizing, but this was entirely my fault. The DVD player was in pause mode in the background, and Final Cut Pro didn’t like that very much.

After digitizing, I played the footage back on the flip-open viewfinder and also viewed it on the Mac screen. At times it was hard to tell what was playing from tape and what was coming from the Mac. If I watched it through the camera, I really couldn’t see any differences. This is the beauty of IEEE-1394 video. While it’s not DigiBeta, it’s good enough for many video projects and you don’t lose any quality when you digitize.

I continued along editing, previewing, and adding clips in the timeline. Everything played back fine with no rendering, unless I was adding a title or dissolve. The 500MHz processor helped a lot with this process, but Final Cut Pro is still painfully slow when it comes to rendering titles or second-layer effects. I would think that anyone wanting to use a PowerBook for nonlinear editing would be thinking about doing short projects anyway. Final Cut Pro is a little better at creating titles than the last time I reviewed it, but positioning them is still a bit difficult. I’d also like to see some rudimentary drawing tools.

The windows in Final Cut Pro on the Apple monitor played back at what appeared to me to be 15frames/s, and the chroma looked a little weak on the PowerBook. However, the real monitoring should be done through the camcorder, and that always looked terrific.

Final Cut Pro 1.2 has a few new innovations. One of them is Apple’s optimization of the DV Codec for the PowerPC G4’s Velocity Engine. This is supposed to give higher performance on G4 towers, but I doubt if that feature helped at all on the PowerBook.

I also could send my completed sequence immediately back to tape, or export it to a streaming media format. Sorenson still took forever to compress, but the other streaming selections went a bit faster. Compressing for streaming media still is a time-intensive prospect, but the G3 processor helped in that aspect.

Except for the slower rendering issues, this system worked amazingly well during the normal editing process, actually better than I had anticipated. I think it would work well for news situations, producers that would like to test an idea on the way to the real studio, or anyone that wants to create streaming video for the Internet. The idea of having this kind of power — wherever you are — offers tremendous freedom. It’s also for someone who doesn’t mind smaller working environments and can live with DV and FireWire camcorders. I think I’d want to take it with me to some beautiful place overlooking the beach and edit in the laptop of luxury — with a good pair of headphones, of course.

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