The View from the Middle

1998 July 3

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Comparing Apples to Pears

You're going to hear this a lot over the next few months - that Apple's new PowerBook G3 line (not to be confused with their one shot PowerBook G3 - apparently Apple can 'Think Different' but can't 'Name Different') blows away all PC notebooks. However, when you press for details, you'll find that this comes down to two things: the PowerPC 740 or 750 processor, which is a definite winner in raw performance, and MacOS.

While I do consider these two to be major factors, I'm also a prudent shopper and I want the most for my money - and when you take the time to check out the details, you quickly start to wonder what these people are smoking. The truth is that there are many PC notebooks at a lower price point which comes with a great deal more than the PowerBook G3.

These days, US$2000 is the starting point for 12.1" TFT screens on PC notebooks. In fact, over the past month or two, I've been seeing that price slide to US$1700 and US$2000 is becoming the point price for 13.1" TFT screens - which makes Apple's decision to include a DSTN screen on their "low end" notebooks nothing short of bizarre. Even on the PCs, the US$1200 to US$1700 market is being changed from DSTN to HPA screens, which give closer to TFT quality on lower cost LCDs.

Similarly, the non-brand name PC notebooks, desperate to carve a niche in their overloaded markets are adding truely amazing features in an attempt to distinguish their particular note book. Since the Chips and Technologies 65555 video controller, which is quickly becoming the de facto standard on PC notebooks, includes most of the hardware for video in and out, a growing number of these notebooks now include video out at the base level, and video in at a slightly higher level.

One big thing which differentiates PC notebooks from Mac notebooks is that many of the PC notebook companies design their machines to be completely upgradable - with the exception (usually) of the case and LCD screen. As a result, Intel has a standard for CPU daughterboard upgrades (MMO) which allows for exchange of the processor when a faster one becomes available. As well, the trend is to use stock DIMM memory rather than notebook specific memory.

The average notebook manufacturer has to cut their costs to a minimum using stock parts - there are very few exotics in a PC notebook. As a result, there is a surprising degree of consistency in PC notebooks and yet, almost paradoxically, a great deal of flexibility.

The large range of manufacturers also ensure a wide range of solutions from the large feature laden notebooks like the one I'll detail shortly to incredibly light compact devices like Sony's VAIO 505C - a frightening notebook made of magnesium, only 3/4" thick and comes in under US$2000.

True, it's unfair to expect Apple to compete with all of these other manufacturers at one time - but at the very least, they should be effectively competing against notebooks which fall directly into the same class as theirs. A new notebook shopper isn't going to walk into a store and think 'Hmmm, Apple is just one company with a lot of financial difficulties of late - let's be nice when we compare with these other notebooks' - they're going to look for the most features for the least price - which is the kind of basic comparison Apple tends to fail at, unless you're a diehard Mac fanatic.

And there are some real defects in the PowerBook G3 design - you can't click the mouse button without taking your hands of the home row (well, I can't - I admit, I'm no piano player, but my fingers aren't that unnaturally short). The thing is just too large.

My recommendations? First, kill off any G3 with a DSTN screen and use TFT in all of them. Next, make the CPU daughtercard easily upgradible - remove the MacOS ROM from the daughtercard. Third, lower the price by about 20% minimum. Fourth, make a smaller version. Yes, yes - I know - that's the eMac which is coming out next year - but given what I've seen with the iMac, I fear that this new "consumer notebook" will be equally stripped down and the basic fact is, with the PC, I don't need to settle for a stripped down notebook just to get the price down.

Apple may not like this - but that's the reality here.

The following chart compares Apple's PowerBook 233 in its most basic configuration against the Enpower EN801 line notebook computer with a 266MHz AMD K6 processor.

Items which are in a green box are the 'winners' in each category. Some are tied and have no winner. Explanations for the more contenious choices are given after the chart.

For the record, I have no affiliation with either Apple or EnPower. I don't own an EnPower notebook nor a PowerBook G3. No, no one paid me for this either (as if... :).

  Apple PowerBook G3/233

(Basic configuration)
Enpower EN266X-801
CPU 233 PowerPC 740 266MHz AMD K6/MMX
MaxMem 192MB 128MB
Cache None. 64K L1 + 512K L2 Pipeline
FlashROM No. Yes.
Floppy No (Optional). Yes.
CDROM 20x 24x
Hard drive 2.0GB IDE 3.1GB IDE
Screen 12.1 STN 13.3 TFT
Video Mem 2MB 4MB
Max Depth 16Bit 24Bit
Max Resolution 800x600 1024x768
2D Acel Yes. Yes.
3D Acel Yes. No.
Video In No. Yes (NTSC/PAL).
Video Out No. Yes (NTSC/PAL).
Monitor out VGA VGA
Sound 16 bit in and out 16 bit in and out
Speakers Stereo Stereo
Microphone Yes. Yes.
Line In No. Yes.
Input Devices
Pointing Device Touchpad Touchpad
Keyboard 76 Key 88 Key Win95 standard
IrDA 4Mbps IrDA/IrTalk 4Mbps IrDA/FIR
Ethernet 10Base-T None.
Serial 1 1
Parallel 0 1
Device Bus 1 ADB 2 USB, 1 Game/MIDI
KB/Mouse (via ADB) PS/2 Keyboard/Mouse
CardBus 2 II or 1 III + ZV 2 II or 1 III + Zoom Video
Port Replicator No. Yes.
AC Adaptor Yes. Yes.
Line Voltage 100-240V 100-240V 
Line Freq 50-60Hz 50-60Hz
Battery 1 49WHr LiON 1 45WHr LiON
Est Bat Life 3.5Hr Unknown
Max Batteries 2 2
Device Bay 2 Drive or Battery 2 Drive or Battery
True Multibay No. Yes.
Carry case No. Yes.
Upgradable No. Yes.
Modem None. None.
Size 12.7"x10.4"x2.0" 12.4"x10.2"x2.18"
Weight 7.6 lbs 8.4 lbs (Bat/CD/FDD)
Optional Hardware
LS-120 No. Yes.
DVD-ROM Yes. Yes.
ZIP Drive No. Yes.
Car/Air Adaptor No. Yes.
External Charger Yes.  Yes.
Docking Station No. Yes.
Extra Battery Yes. Yes.
Extra Adaptor Yes. Yes.
Extra Bay HD No. Yes.
Bay HD Kit No. Yes.
Included Software
  MacOS 8.1 Windows 95
Now Contact  
Now Up-to-date  
US$2299 US$2199
Total Wins
Hardware 4 24
Software 5 0
Other 0 1
All 9 25
"True Multibay" This means all bay peripherals can be used in all bay ports. The PowerBook's battery can be put in either, but the floppy and CDROM cannot be used in both bays.
"KB/Mouse" Technically, this should be a point to the Enpower since it has a port the Mac doesn't, but since this isn't a limitation for the Mac I didn't give the Enpower a win. (Technically it is though, since most devices don't include an ADB passthrough, but the keyboard does, so attaching a keyboard and mouse is possible although it prevents any further devices on the ADB without a Y adaptor).
"Upgradable" While the PowerBook is technically upgradable, Apple has not officially indicated that it is, nor are any of the add-on features for the PowerBook available after purchase. (Except the modem, which has to be purchased as a 'repair' upgrade.) The Enpower can have any feature upgraded or added after purchase except for the LCD screen.
"Weight and Size" The two machines are very close to each other in size while the Enpower is slightly smaller overall and slightly lighter.
"Battery" Apple's specs now list their battery as a 49WHr battery, but earlier reports have it as a 45WHr. Given the uncertanty and the closeness, I awarded no stars to either.
"Software" The original information Apple had on their website listed the following software as being included with the PowerBook G3: Office 98, Filemaker Pro, Director, Eudora Pro Email and MacSoft "Unreal", but the official Spec sheet only lists the software above. Technically, the FaxSTF software is only useful if you have a modem, which isn't included at this level, and may not even be included on the CD for this specific machine, but there's no system specific software list, so I'll include it anyway and give it a win.

I've given a win to MacOS over Win95 and some may argue that this is unfair. I've used both. It's fair.
"Keyboard" While the Enpower has more keys, more keys doesn't necessarily make a better keyboard so I do not give it a win here.