By Jason Snell
November 30, 2020 9:00 AM PT
20 Macs for 2020: #5 – Titanium PowerBook G4
Note: This story has not been updated since 2020.
Imagine a slideshow of images of every portable Mac Apple has made, displayed in chronological order. It starts with the Macintosh Portable and ends with two M1 MacBooks.
For a while, the slides are of chunky plastic laptops in light gray, dark gray, and black. The G3 iBook appears briefly to provide some needed color.
And then, 12 years into Apple’s portable Mac journey, you see it. You might want to pause the slides for a moment, because the computer on the screen is undeniably a modern Apple laptop. It’s thin (at least for the time) and boxy and sheathed in silvery metal instead of plastic.
When you resume the slide show, silver metallic laptops will alternate with cheaper plastic models for a little while, but during the final decade of slides, they’ll all settle on this one basic design.
It all started with the Titanium PowerBook G4. But Apple still had a lot to learn.
With Steve Jobs firmly in charge at Apple and Jonathan Ive and his team of designers rethinking every single one of the company’s products in turn, it was time for Apple to go back to first principles when it came to its prestige laptops.
First, they had to get the PowerBook line stabilized. The introduction of the “Wall Street” PowerBook G3 in 1998 brought a curvy black plastic case that was far more appealing than the drab plastic of the previous model. It had matte and shiny elements, including an enormous white Apple “crystal” on the top cover. (That logo, which seemed awfully aggressive at the time, is another defining characteristic of Apple laptops that hasn’t abated in two decades.)
But the PowerBook G3 was a dressed-up and stylish version of the old Apple laptop design philosophy. With the arrival of the first laptop with a next-generation G4 processor, Apple wanted to redefine the look of Apple laptops, too.
They started with a commitment to making the laptop as thin and light as possible. Two decades of Apple striving to push thinness and lightness make that seem like a given, but at the time Apple was lagging behind laptops like the Sony Vaio, which was the archetypal ultra-portable computer of the early 2000s.
Clearly, Jobs wanted Apple to beat the Vaio at its own game. In his introduction of the Titanium PowerBook G4, he continually compared the new laptop to Sony’s. (He also repeatedly refers to Sony’s laptop as having “the sex,” and says that Apple’s laptops have offered “the power, but not the sex.” I’m deeply uncomfortable with using sexual metaphors to describe technology of any kind, and Jobs’s repeated use of the phrase “the sex” seems beyond weird today.) Sony’s laptops offered a level of visceral appeal that Apple’s just didn’t match. They were powerful, but big and heavy.
The other big move was the one away from plastic, at least on premium laptops. (Keep in mind, every single Apple product in 2001 was completely wrapped in plastic, from the Power Macs to PowerBook to iMac to iBook.) Eventually, Apple would migrate every Mac to a metallic design, and this is where the move started.
Ive and his design lab had been experimenting with interesting materials for a while now. The obsession with translucent plastic originally evinced in the eMate and some late-model beige Power Macs led to the iMac and Blue and White Power Mac G3. But there were other materials in the mix. The Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh had an aluminum stand and leather wrist rests, and even its plastic body had a metallic sparkle.
So the decision was made: The new PowerBook G4 would prioritize thinness and lightness, and would be sheathed in metal, not plastic. And Apple chose to use a very light metal— titanium—to build it. “It’s stronger than steel, yet lighter than aluminum,” Jobs said on stage when introducing the laptop. “Like they build airplanes out of.”
It was a mistake.
The Titanium PowerBook G4 was a mind-blowing product when it was announced. It looked great, offered enormous power for a laptop, and everyone wanted one. But it turned out to also be a great teacher for Apple.
Titanium is light, but it also proved to be brittle. The PowerBook’s hinges had an unfortunate tendency to snap. My daughter, who was a toddler at the time, grabbed the top of my Titanium PowerBook G4 one day and snapped it clean off.
And to get the two-toned look that Apple wanted, the computer was painted silver and white. Titanium is not that great at holding paint or resisting scratches, so the surface of the laptop eventually became marred by scratches and flaked-off paint. Companies began selling color-matched Titanium PowerBook paint for touch-up jobs.
Having learned its lesson, Apple shifted gears a couple of years later and released a PowerBook G4 sheathed in aluminum. Over time, Apple would become one of the world’s most expert companies in working with aluminum, and every Mac would get an aluminum shell. At the time, the choice of using aluminum probably came down to its strength and lightness. It was also possible to anodize it, creating a nearly impervious surface coating that doesn’t require any paint. Color can even be added as part of the anodization process, a feature that Apple would use across several generations of the iPod mini and nano later in the decade.
Though it was hampered by quality issues that would emerge over time, the Titanium PowerBook G4 was an immediate hit, showing Apple that it was on the right track. Though a laptop that’s an inch thick and weighs 5.4 pounds seems ridiculously chunky today, in 2001 terms it was shockingly thin and light. (The PowerBook G3 it replaced was 1.7 inches thick, and about half a pound heavier.)
It also feels like a trailblazer in terms of the display itself. It was Apple’s first real widescreen laptop, and the bezels around the display are small even by today’s standards. The screen is also impressively thin, even viewed from 2020.
Finally, in another example of style over substance, the Titanium PowerBook G4 was the first Apple laptop to reorient the Apple logo on the back of the display so that it was upright when opened. At the time, the orientation of the Apple logo on laptops was heavily debated. Some people felt it was too weird to have the Apple logo upside-down when you were using it, while others took the view that it was weird to have the logo upside-down when you were reaching to open it up.
Guess which one looked better on television and in movies during product placement, as well as in cafes full of potential laptop buyers. Who knows how many products that glowing Apple logo1 on the back of a laptop sold over the years?
Today, Apple’s laptops are still silvery and metallic and are constantly striving to be thinner and lighter. And while the Titanium PowerBook G4 is clearly a product from a company that hadn’t quite figured out what it was doing, it was the first step along a path that Apple has continued on for two decades.
I’ll be back next week with number four.
- Alas, no longer glowing on modern Macs. Bring it back, Apple! ↩
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