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My main computer, 2004 versus 2011

In 2004, I bought my first Mac. I'd used Macs for decades before that, but those Macs always belonged to someone else. The first Mac that I called my own was a 233 MHz PowerBook G3 I bought off eBay for the princely sum of US$205. It quickly became my main machine, which thrilled my wife because it meant she could have her PowerMac G4 all to herself again.

A few weeks ago, I bought an iPad 2. I had barely used an iPad before dropping $829 on one, but after two years of using various iterations of the iPhone, I expected a certain level of familiarity. Today, the iPad 2 performs most of the tasks that my MacBook Pro used to handle. In fact, besides editing and posting on TUAW, downloading files and photo editing, I barely use my Mac anymore -- and considering that it has a history of breaking and is now out of warranty, that's probably a good thing.

Now the fun part: comparing my first Mac -- the PowerBook G3 -- to the iPad 2. As expected, the iPad 2 is superior in almost every way. Check out the details below, noting how much the "limited" iPad, a machine that some pundits hesitate to call a "computer," has to offer compared to the state-of-the-art from 1998.

I'll be comparing the 1998 PowerBook G3 against the iPad 2 not only in its base configuration, but also with its specs after I upgraded its RAM, CPU, hard drive, and added some other random bits and bobs to it. That machine got me through my last couple of years of undergraduate study, but it didn't come with me to New Zealand; it's sitting in a cupboard in Las Vegas.

Cost:

  • PowerBook G3 = $2799 (1998)
  • PowerBook G3 (used model, with several upgrades): ~$1100 (2004)
  • iPad 2 (64 GB Wi-Fi + 3G) = about $900 with Smart Cover and Camera Kit

CPU:

  • PowerBook G3: 233 MHz G3 CPU, Geekbench score 122
  • PowerBook G3 upgraded: 500 MHz G4 CPU, Geekbench score 292
  • iPad 2: 1 GHz A5 processor, Geekbench score 750

This is the stat I find most incredible. According to the benchmarks, the iPad 2's A5 processor has over 250 percent of the processing power of the 500 MHz G4 CPU upgrade, which cost me $450 for in 2004.

RAM:

  • PowerBook G3: 32 MB
  • PowerBook G3 upgraded: 512 MB
  • iPad 2: 512 MB

In 1998, the base configuration PowerBook G3 shipped with as much RAM as the third-generation iPod had in 2003.

Storage:

  • PowerBook G3: 2 GB, 4200 RPM HDD
  • PowerBook G3 upgraded: 60 GB, 5400 RPM HDD
  • iPad 2: 64 GB SSD

The 2 GB hard drive that came with the PowerBook G3 wasn't even large enough to install Mac OS X.

Video:

  • PowerBook G3: 1024 x 768 resolution, 14", 4:3 screen; 4 MB video RAM (graphics acceleration unsupported in Mac OS X); unable to decode H.264 video; display out via VGA or S-Video (mirrored only)
  • iPad 2: 1024 x 768 resolution, 9.7", 4:3 screen with LED backlighting; full 3D graphics acceleration; H.264 output up to 1080p; display out via HDMI, VGA, Composite, or Component (through connectors) or wirelessly via AirPlay

The PowerBook G3's video performance in Mac OS X was abysmal. Fullscreen video was barely possible if the video's resolution was low enough, but I was never able to get the device to play H.264 video at an acceptable framerate regardless of resolution. It also wasn't able to play DVD video in Mac OS X, though OS 9 would with an additional decoder card.

Connectivity:

  • PowerBook G3: 1 ADB, 1 Serial, 1 SCSI, 1 Audio in, 1 Audio out, 10BASE-T Ethernet, 56k modem, 2 CardBus ports, hot-swappable 1.44 MB floppy/CD-ROM/DVD-ROM drives
  • PowerBook G3 (upgraded): All of the above plus 2 USB 2.0 ports (via CardBus card)
  • iPad 2: 30-pin dock connector (limited USB functionality via adapter), Audio in

The iPad 2's scarcity of physical connection ports is why most übergeeks resist calling it a standalone computing solution. While it's true that the iPad 2 doesn't offer many ways to accept a cable, check out how it stacks up in wireless connectivity versus the "power user's" Mac of 1998.

Wireless Connectivity:

  • PowerBook G3: Infrared port
  • PowerBook G3 (upgraded): Wi-Fi 802.11b/g (via CardBus card)
  • iPad 2: Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n, quad-band 3G, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, assisted GPS

The difference between these two design philosophies couldn't be clearer. In 1998, connectivity was all about how many different types of wires you could plug into something. In 2011, wireless connectivity is where it's at. The iPad 2's lack of USB ports is barely an issue for me, but without Wi-Fi, it'd be a beautiful but nearly useless brick.

Input Devices:

  • PowerBook G3: 77-key full size keyboard, trackpad, internal microphone
  • iPad 2: fullscreen Multi-Touch keyboard, internal microphone, front- and rear-facing cameras, digital compass, accelerometer, 3-axis gyroscope, ambient light sensor

The PowerBook G3's keyboard is still the best keyboard I've ever used. Typing on the iPad's virtual keyboard isn't the chore some people make it out to be, but it's definitely nowhere near as efficient as a physical keyboard. I average 77 WPM on a "real" keyboard versus about 48 WPM on the iPad. That said, the PowerBook G3's tiny trackpad feels like a relic compared to the iPad 2's Multi-Touch screen.

Battery:

  • PowerBook G3: 49 Watt-hour battery with up to 3.5 hours runtime (which had degraded to 15 minutes by the time I got it)
  • iPad 2: 25 Watt-hour battery with up to 10 hours runtime on Wi-Fi (9 hours on 3G)

the progress that's been made in power efficiency over the years is astonishing. The iPad 2's processor is over six times as powerful as the processor that shipped with the PowerBook G3, but the iPad 2's battery, with roughly half the rated Watt-hour capacity and a vastly smaller size, gives nearly three times the rated battery life of the PowerBook G3.

Dimensions:

  • PowerBook G3: 2 x 12.7 x 10.4 inches, 7.8 pounds
  • iPad 2: 0.34 x 9.5 x 7.31 inches, 1.35 pounds

It would take nearly six iPad 2s stacked on top of one another to equal the thickness and weight of the PowerBook G3.

PowerBook G3 vs. MacBook Pro. The iPad 2 is as thick as the MacBook Pro's display.

I realize this isn't entirely an Apples-to-Apples comparison. The PowerBook G3 was a great machine in 1998, but it was already pretty much obsolete when I bought it six years later on. Today, it's a dinosaur, so the brand-new iPad 2 is obviously going to come out ahead in many ways. They're also devices with completely different form factors, and they're ostensibly targeted to different users. From this user's perspective, though, the iPad 2 feels far more functional than the PowerBook G3 ever did, and with only few exceptions it suits me fine as a one-stop computing solution.

What's been most intriguing to me as I've compared these two computers is how much power Apple's managed to squeeze into such a (by comparison) tiny device. I'm looking forward to seeing how the hot new Apple device of 2024 stacks up against the iPad 2.

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