'Book Value

A Used 17" PowerBook as a Budget Notebook Alternative

Charles Moore - 2008.12.02 - Tip Jar

For the past several years, I've been recommending the 12" aluminum PowerBook as a best buy in a low-end Apple laptop with enough muscle to still serve as a workhorse computer. Prices for used 12-inchers have dropped into the $400 to $650 range depending upon model and condition, which makes these machines a relative bargain, and they are still the only comprehensively-featured, reasonably modern subnotebook Macs, given the MacBook Air's manifold compromises and deficiencies as a serious work platform and the lack of FireWire support in the new Unibody 13" MacBooks. All 12" PowerBooks are supported by Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" (although the early 867 MHz model only by the skin of its proverbial teeth).

17" PowerBook G4

However, if you have a few more dollars to spend and/or are less interested in light weight and compact dimensions for easy carrying as opposed to desktop substitute priorities, the larger aluminum PowerBooks are worthy of consideration too. Prices for both 15" and 17" PowerBooks have now dropped well below $1,000, making them an attractive option for the budget-minded notebook user.

Personal Experience

I'm speaking empirically here. Thirty-three months ago, I bought a 1.33 GHz 17" PowerBook G4 to replace a G3 iBook as my main production computer, and I haven't regretted it for a moment. The 17-incher, an Apple Certified Refurbished unit acquired from TechRestore, has been both flawlessly reliable and a delight to use. It's close to marginal for some tasks running Leopard, but still falling on the acceptable side of the margin in my estimation.

While I'm not smitten with its trackpad response and would prefer that the cooling fans ran less frequently, that's pretty much it for complaints. It's been a better machine than I had dared hope, and while it's bulkier and heavier than the old 12" iBook or a 12" PowerBook, I've found it quite reasonable to lug around on road trips or use in the car parked outside the local (24 mile round trip) library, whose WiFi hotspot is my only reasonable access to broadband in this neck of the woods.

17" PowerBook G4I'm not quite a widescreen junkie, but I'm more of one than I once was. Although I'm still fairly content working on the 1024 x 768 Super VGA display in my old Pismo PowerBooks, having the extra screen real estate on the BigAl is no hardship, and truth to tell I would miss it - at least the 1440 x 900 resolution, which is matched by the late-revision 15" PowerBooks and the 15" MacBook Pro.

Features and Reliability

From statistical reports I've seen, the 17-inch 'Books (both PowerBook and MacBook Pro) are among the most reliable recent Apple portables, and my own experience doesn't contradict this. I expect that having more space to accommodate and cool the internal bits helps, and perhaps Apple applies just a bit more rigorous quality control to its flagship models, although that is just a deductive surmise on my part.

However, one fact about buying a top-of-the-line unit is that you get the most comprehensive package of features that Apple chose to offer at the time of manufacture - all the bells and whistles that usually take a while to filter down to more prosaic Mac hardware.

Value and Benefits

A good analogy is buying a used Cadillac or Lexus as opposed to a brand-new econo-box. I had a neighbor who always drove older Caddys. He would chuckle about people who would tell him, "It must be nice to be able to afford a car like that," then hop into their new Toyota or Honda that had cost two or three times as much as he'd paid for his used Cadillac.

17" PowerBook G4While I could have bought a new MacBook a few months later for what I paid for the 17" PowerBook in February, 2006, I wouldn't have a backlit keyboard or a PC Card slot or FireWire 800 (missing from the original 15" MacBook Pro) or the cachet and swish looks of the BigAl.

I also wouldn't have a built-in modem or Classic Mode support (in Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger", which I still have installed on one of the 17-incher's hard drive partitions, although I have to concede that it's been nearly a year since I booted into Tiger on this machine).

While Apple sometimes has Certified Refurbished (ACR) MacBooks listed as low as $750 to $800, and anyone shopping in this price range should seriously consider an ACR MacBook as a pretty awesome value in terms of cost/performance, there's still a case to be made for a PowerPC 'Book for a while yet - especially one of the last-revision 1.5 GHz or 1.67 GHz models.

It's certainly an alternative that has worked out splendidly for me, and with a bit of tweaking.

For example, Wegener Media currently offers the first four models of 17" PowerBooks with a 60 day warranty, spanning a price spectrum of just $110:

  • 17" PowerBook G4/1 GHz, 512 MB RAM/60 GB hard drive/SuperDrive, $789.99
  • 17" PowerBook G4/1.33 GHz, 512 MB RAM/80 GB hard drive/SuperDrive, $829.99
  • 17" PowerBook G4/1.5 GHz, 1 GB RAM/100 GB hard drive/SuperDrive, $859.99
  • 17" PowerBook G4/1.67 GHz, 1 GB RAM/100 GB hard drive/SuperDrive, $899.99

PowerBooks of all sizes are thinning out somewhat in the used channels, but you can certainly find others with a bit of digging, perhaps on eBay if you like auction-buying.

So which is the best 17" PowerBook pick as a low-end machine? The easy answer would be the last-revision 1.67 GHz model with the high-definition display, and that's the one I would recommend if your budget is amenable, although I again would be remiss if I didn't suggest also considering a refurb. MacBook in this price range.

In lower-priced models, I'm extremely pleased with the service and performance I'm getting with my 1.33 GHz 17-incher, and I've never heard anything bad about the original 1 GHz model. All the 17-inchers seem to have been pretty solid and reliable machines in general, although as with any mass-produced product, especially one as complex as a portable computer, there will inevitably have been the odd lemon, I suppose.

For more information on the BigAl PowerBooks, see Low End Mac's Compleat Guide to the 17" PowerBook.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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