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Tweaking the PowerBook G4

The new Titanium PowerBooks are selling like hotcakes, but many are more fragile than their titanium shells would suggest. Mac Advisor hed: Tweaking the PowerBook G4 dek: the new Titanium PowerBooks are selling like hotcakes, but many are more fragile than their titanium shells would suggest. dek: the PBG4 is far from perfect, but its few flaws all have workarounds. by Dennis Sellers

I think Apple’s new Titanium PowerBook G4–or PBG4, for brevity’s sake–is the best laptop the company has ever made. Its titanium shell and 15.2-inch screen are simply elegant.

Now if only Apple had made it perfect. Unfortunately, the PBG4 has a few flaws. Thankfully, all of its flaws have simple workarounds. Also, note that your G4 laptop may not experience all of these problems. Heck, it may not experience any of them.

Perhaps the most aggravating of the problems–and the only one that I’ve personally experienced–is a battery-related glitch. If you carry or use the portable at a slight angle, it may suddenly shut off and reset the system date to Jan. 1, 1904.

If this problem is severe on your PBG4, you’ll notice it. Oh, how you’ll notice it. The glitch became glaringly apparent to me when I took my shiny new PowerBook to my daughter’s softball practice, intending to finish this article. The story didn’t get completed at the time because every time the PBG4, sitting on my lap, was tipped the slightest way in any direction, it would shut off and reset the system data.

If your PBG4 has a less severe case of the problem, you may not have noticed it yet. Here’s a test to see if you’ve got a low-grade version of the battery blues. Turn on the portable with the AC adapter unplugged. Pick it up with your right hand by the right hinge (near the power switch) and your left hand at the diagonal corner. Gently twist the PowerBook so the corners under your hands move up, and the other corners move down. (Be careful not to actually bend the machine or you may have really bad problems.) If the PBG4 shuts off, you’ve got a situation you’ll want to address.

The culprit isn’t a power circuitry problem, but battery contact failure. The PBG4’s battery contacts have been changed from the PowerBook G3 design; they don’t work when the PowerBook is at an angle. Apple supposedly is considering a fix that will improve battery contact.

Meanwhile, as first reported on the MacFixIt Web site, PBG4 owner Richard Chang has found a simple, inexpensive, and easily implemented solution.

“The idea is to add a bit of heat-shrink insulation to one of the posts holding the battery in. The extra thickness may be enough to hold the battery in,” Chang says. “It worked for my two batteries. Your mileage may vary. In any case, it only takes five minutes to try.”

You’ll need your battery, a small section of heat-shrink insulation or tubing (which you can get for less than a buck at any electronics store). Cut off about a quarter-inch section of the insulation. Put it over the post closest to the connector. Use a hair dryer on the insulation until it shrinks over the post, and then trim off any excess. Apply the hair dryer again for good measure. Put the battery back in the PBG4, and you should be good to go.

If you can do without your PBG4 for a few days, you may wish to return it to Apple for a more traditional fix. If you decide to do this, pry off the insulation and tubing first. Also, if the steps in this repair are confusing, Chang has posted the repair steps and accompanying pictures online.

There are also other reported problems with Apple’s new portable. Some of the first PBG4s out the door had a DVD misalignment problem with the slot-loading DVD drive. The problem: improperly installed rubber bumpers on the bottom of the DVD drive. Not only are the rubber bumpers a problem, but the dust guard on the slot-loading DVD drive, when new, also causes problems. If you have this problem, Apple will fix it for you. Heck, you can even call Apple tech support and have them tell you how to fix it over the phone.

Other folks have reported DVD playback problems. If you’re having trouble watching your new flick on the PBG4, turn off virtual memory and all applications, then restart. Watch the DVD without running any apps, so that the DVD player will have your system resources’ full attention. And if you hear clicks during playback, try turning off the Platinum sound effects in the Appearance control panel.

There are also sporadic reports of headphone problems. When some users have plugged headphones into the PBG4, then removed them, no sound came from the laptop. Playing around with the headphones (removing and re-inserting them), fiddling with the Sound Control panel, trashing preferences, and similar steps have no effect. Other users have reported annoying popping sounds in the headphones. If you’re experiencing such problems, there seems to be no option but sending the PBG4 in for repair.

On the other hand, if you’ve noticed that you hear no sound after the machine wakes from sleep, there is a workaround. Go to the Sound control panel and see if Mute is checked. Uncheck it, and sound should reappear instantly without a reboot. Bad news: You may have to do that after each sleep/wake. Good news: This means it’s a software glitch, not a hardware problem, so Apple will (we hope) release an operating system patch that addresses the issue.

Finally, there’s a problem that may be real or merely perceived. Some PowerBook owners swear that putting the PBG4 in a crowded backpack can squeeze it so tightly together that the keys leave small scratches on the screen. Others say that the “scratches” are merely filmy smear from residual fingerprint oil on the keyboard.

If it’s oil, you can remove it with a product such as Klean Screen. If there are indeed scratches, you can’t remove them, but you can prevent them in the first place. Go to an art supply store and buy a very thin sheet of foamcore (a rubber-like material). Measure your PBG4 keyboard and cut out a section of foamcore that can be placed atop it and serve as a buffer between the keys and the screen when the portable is closed. Voila! No scratches, no oil smears.

There also have been reports that the PBG4 gets excessively hot. However, in comparing mine to other PowerBooks that I’ve owned, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Plus, in Macworld magazine’s test of the new laptop, both the PowerBook G3 and G4 were placed on a heat analyzer and ran for several hours “under the most demanding circumstances possible.” They both reached the same maximum heat level-between 115 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

While my PBG4 rarely gets too warm to sit comfortably on my lap, it’s possible that for some folks, the G4 may simply get a bit too toasty on the outside because the titanium is a better conductor of heat than the plastics used in previous PowerBooks. If so, you may want to check out a “sleeve”-a small slip-over cover-for your PBG4. Spire and Madsonline make some nice, reasonably priced sleeves.

Or you can check out one of my favorite PowerBook accessories: the Podium CoolPad from RoadTools. The $29.95 product is a small, portable platform for the PowerBook that provides the ability to tilt the keyboard, pivot the laptop 360 degrees, and dissipate heat by natural convection.

The CoolPad has supports that work like Legos, meaning you can raise or lower the angle pretty easily. The stackable risers let you adjust the keyboard of your laptop’s incline by half-inch increments. The base plate’s trapezoidal shape and the Lexan risers provide a base for typing, as well as the aforementioned heat dissipation.

With its ability to pivot, the device makes it easy to share the display when you want to show another person or persons what’s on your PBG4. And the CoolPad’s design lets it “grab” snugly onto airplane tray tables. It measures 10.5 inches wide at the front edge, 8 inches wide at the back edge, 1.25 to 2.75 inches tall (depending on how you adjust it); and weights approximately 15 ounces.

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