Not-So-Big Love

12" PowerBook

I had no idea. I had no idea that there was so much free-floating love out there for the late 12″ PowerBook. But the appearance of the MacBook Air has clearly wafted that familiar perfume back in the air, causing Mac geeks all across the world to adopt thoughtful, misty-eyed expressions that their wives/husbands/girlfriends/boyfriends will never understand. It seems like each and every day I come across another love poem to the long-lost 12″ PowerBook, rendered in fussy tetrameter.

You are now expecting me to say something bitchy about these people.

I totally see that. Clearly, you’ve been paying attention to these writings of mine. But…no. I have Mad Love for many unique old beasties of the computerological persuasion and when we both happen to be checking into the No-Tell Motel with our vices at the same time, I think there’s a certain gentlemanly agreement not to bring it up at church when we’re with our wives. Or under any other circumstance.

Still, I don’t get the affection for the 12″ PowerBook. By a lucky coincidence, I happened to have 12″, 15″, and 17″ PowerBooks in the house at the same time that I was shopping for Lilith 7. I spent a whole week round-robining between the three and I came back to the 15″ every single time.

The 17″ was fab, but traveling with it wasn’t practical. As for the 12″…it gave nothing and took plenty.

It was a smaller screen, so I didn’t have that extra 3″ of width that I depend on for tool palettes and drag-and-drop areas. It was a cramped little keyboard and I had to slow down my typing. And the damned thing was just 12″ wide. I know that this fact was made plain in the packaging and advertising, but facts is facts: a niddley-narrow little notebook is fine if you’re working at a desk, but unless you’re about 11 years old, it’s impossible for actual lap use unless you’re willing to keep your knees clamped together tighter than a female PR rep forced to enter Gene Simmons’ hotel room to discuss the next day’s radio promotions.

Actually, not even then. Even when I had it on a table, my hands seemed to overwhelm the thing. I kept looking for places to insert AA batteries into the machine.

For all that, the smaller size offered me no advantages of any kind. It’s nice to have a compact machine, but honestly, it wasn’t as though I was being forced to jam my Titanium PowerBook into my laptop bag via the narrow end just to make it fit. A narrow notebook is a bit lighter, sure, but isn’t necessarily more portable.

But when you make a machine thinner? That I can work with. It means that I can fit more stuff into my laptop bag; in some cases, it means I can get by with just one carry-on. It makes the machine easier to grip, easier to tote, harder to drop.

So: I don’t get it. The MacBook is prolly the best compromise between size and practical concerns. It certainly fits into more bags than Lilith 7. I’m pleased that I can finally take my beloved 10-year-old Tenba bag out of storage and press it back into daily service. The 15″ sort of fit inside it, but the bag accommodated it only under protest. But the MacBook’s narrower profile costs me nothing (in a practical sense) in screen or keyboard real-estate.

Give me a MacBook. Or give me a MacBook Air, with its fullsized keyboard and screen and cleaver-thin profile. Keep your 12″ Slab-O-Mac. I hope you two are very happy together.

27 thoughts on “Not-So-Big Love

  1. Tim Robertson

    I am with you, Andy. But I also know a LOT of people with the 12″, and they really love them. I find them too small, my palms have no place to sit. The 15″ MBP is about perfect for me: fast, portable, and powerful enough to do anything I need in a hotel room.

  2. Ed K

    I love the idea of the MacBook Air, but have to question if it can handle serious travel. I just bought a new macbook, and frankly and quite thrilled with it’s size and weight. I love the idea of the think notebook, but can’t help but wonder if the AIR can handle the abuse of being stuffed into a backback with a book and a can of coke. I’m afraid I’ll break the thing.

  3. JohnG

    I have to say, I loved my 12″ Powerbook while I was in college. I think the part that I really like about it was that I could slide it into a sleeve, then slide that into my bag. It could go anywhere in my bag (as opposed to having to be near the “back” of it), and most of all it fit on those small desk-chair-things really well (with room for a paper/small book even).

    Now a 12″ Macbook Air, that’d be the ticket. Large-book sized footprint with envelope thinness. Mmmm…yes please.

  4. RM

    I think a big part of it was that it was a pro mac, with small size. I believe all of my 12′ PB lovers would be very happy with a 13 in MacBook that had a real video processor and other “pro” niceties.

    (also to needlessly quibble, it was less than 12″ wide, since that was the screen’s diagonal measurement.)

  5. ShameyReed

    Still a proud owner of a 12″ Powerbook, and it is still my primary machine. Four hard drives (all failures caught w/ disk utility before data loss) and two optical drives but still ticking.

    I still love love love it. What can I say, when I first unwrapped it in 2005 it just looked exactly like the laptop that I had always dreamed of. The 12″ just looks so precious or something.

    Full disclosure– I am 5’6″ and my hands are like bear paws–all palms with ity-bity fingers. I am holding out for the laptop/tablet you have been describing on MBW.

  6. Gen


    I love my PowerBook 12″, I do all my video editing, sound editing, Flash programming, Maya modeling and animation, play WoW, web design, run Apache, and so on. The small screen is actually a plus when you are a heavy expose user where you have the hot corners more accessible.

    I took it with me from Tokyo to Okinawa on my bike trip 2 years ago, and whenever I didn’t camp under the bridge, I edited the video I took on my digital camera and posted up on YouTube. Without this little guy, it wouldn’t have been possible! :) I just want an Intel version of this.

  7. Kris

    I sold my 12″ PowerBook on eBay shortly after getting my pizza box, I mean my 17″ MacBook Pro. Don’t get me wrong, I do love my MacBook Pro, but my god is it hard to travel with. When the buyer showed up to pick up the PowerBook (we both happened to live in San Francisco), he looked at me like I was nuts for selling it. I thought, “This guy is buying a 15 month old used G4 PowerBook for $1,000? ha ha ha.” Well, he was right. I was nuts.

  8. ~bc


    If you have your 12″PB still hanging around you might want to pull it out for a moment: its keyboard is exactly the same size as the 15″ PB/MBP. There are speakers on the side and the extra palm rests in the space below the speakers, but I don’t see how that qualifies the keyboard as “less cramped.” Besides you should type with your wrists in the air, anyhow. :-)

  9. Ihnatko Post author

    Yeah, but there’s no place to rest your fingers; it kept feeling like I was on a tiny cartoon island. If I didn’t keep my hands bunched together on that tiny piece of real estate, they quickly lost their position on the keyboard.

    When my MacBook is on my lap (as it is right now) it’s as carpal-tunnel-safe as can be…sitting here on the sofa with my ankles crossed, my upper forearms are supported by my legs. Try to do that with a 12″ PowerBook and the damned thing drops through to the floor.

  10. STrRedWolf

    Now I’m tempted… to buy a 12″ Powerbook and see what’s what. I mean, I remember the commercials with the guy who played MiniMe toting a 17″ and Yao the basketball player toting a 12″ meeting up on an airplane. Just how small and thin this is?

    The thing is, though, is can we get a MBA in a similar form factor as the 12″ Powerbook, and call it the MacBook Feather?

    I think we can. I’m toting around a 15.4″ Dell E1505 with the same resolution as the highest-end MBP (1680×1050, 129×126 dpi according to Meanwhile I’m looking at the near-minimalist keyboards from Dell, how they wrap around the keys with the minimal ammount waste, and still be functional and decently stylish. That 12″ Powerbook (assuming the graphic above is one) also proves the point. If Apple can cram the Air’s motherboard into a 10″ wide, 12″ Powerbook-like notebook, as thin as the Air itself, and keep the same features as the Air, then it has a good product which will be worth the $1800 early adopter fee.

  11. Ross B

    I agree about it not sitting as comfortably on your lap as a 15″ would, I’ve often thought this when using it. I still use my PB 12″ as my primary computer though and love it, I’ve always thought the keyboard was one of its strong points and don’t have the problems you mention. Replaced the hard drive a few years back, just got a new battery off ebay for $80, the optical drive doesn’t work any more but I’ve got an external DVDR for when I need it.

    I’m keeping an eye on the current PB line for a replacement, but they will really have to put something impressive out to make me ditch the 12″. The Macbook Air does not appeal to me at all, I would never need a laptop any thinner than my 2003 PB, never mind paying dearly in terms of both cost and loss of key functionality (yes my 12″ has a broken optical drive but I didn’t just pay a cool grand for it!).

    Oh and like someone mentioned above the narrowness of a 12″ is priceless when it comes to ditching the laptop bag altogether and just popping it in a sleeve and throwing it in a regular backpack. I’ve never owned a laptop bag and like it that way. I’m not sure how the 13″ compares to this but think it would be a much less comfortable fit.

  12. Paulio

    I’ve got a 12 inch ibook and access to larger ibooks and macbook pros yet by choice it’s the smaller model that I use all of the time.

    Basically I hate the MBPs keyboard, never found myself getting used to it, disllike the new ibook keyboards either. The 12 inch ibook is the better keyboard for what I do (write books on busses mainly but all sorts of all sorts.

    Anyhow the Macbook Air was the biggest of missed ops for me. I want something small and tidy that I can use at a moments notice and sling in the bag. That thing is a EEE pc which I prob will pick up sometime soon. I wanted a Mac mini portable. I wanted a new 12 inch ibook. What we got was something that looks superficially beautiful, extraordinarily fragile, underpowered for power use, overpowered for simple pick up and play… What is it? It’s the Apple supermodel. Beautiful but dumb as. High maintainance target missing.

    I’ll wait for the Macbook Air Nano (the Apple MAN) which, I hope, is an Asus EEE pc size piese of design beauty with OSX. Of course it’ll be double the price but hey, that’s a given. The Air? I don’t see the love, nor the need. The 12 inch fits in the bag I use next to my sketchpads and note books and all that so until they replace it I’m not going to.

  13. Bill

    My iBook G4 12-inch (purchased two days after the MBP was announced) is my favorite computer, EVER. It’s small enough and light enough to travel anywhere, has a full-size keyboard that is a joy to type, and yet has enough power to do some lightweight Pixelmatoring and XCoding. It certainly isn’t a Cray supercomputer or anything, but for what I need on the run, whether on campus, on the road tethered to my Treo, or simply sitting on my porch or in front of the TV away from my primary system, it gets the job done fantastically, and at $800 cheaper than an MBA.

    Apple needs to put out another low-end “ultra-portable” like the 12-inch iBook. I never understood the point of the 12-inch PB. It was a tiny bit faster, a tiny bit smaller and lighter, and cost $500 more. While I’ve only seen one or two 12-inch PBs out in the wild, I’ve literally seen dozens of them on the prowl on campus (and yes, they are iBooks and not the twin sister MacBooks.) They were cheap, rock-solid, powerful enough for student use, and small enough to throw in your backpack. The ultimate college machine.

  14. Marcus Müller

    Greetings exalted one,
    i think, if you keep this crazy talk, you will be a much less beloved technology columnist than you are today…since nobody agrees with you on this point.

  15. Ihnatko Post author

    well, my point isn’t that you’re all foolish for liking the 12″…just that its not a fetish that I happen to share…!

  16. Greg Perham

    Why is this an argument? A lot of people like their 12″ laptops. A lot of people like their 13″ or 14″ laptops. Could it be that both would like their respective choice of diagonal resolution to have a .76″ thin undercarriage? The real issue is not who’s crazy for their taste in laptops, but why Apple doesn’t respond to both sets of demands. People who have their practical reason for wanting/needing a 12″ laptop are not going to buy a 13″ just because it is thinner. Apple could make the Merlins _and_ Andys of this world happy, if the Great Jobs so chose.

  17. Ihnatko Post author

    @Greg – I think “a lean and mean product line” is part of Apple’s corporate culture. During the Dark Ages, there were dozens of different Mac model numbers in the product line, as damned-near-identical Macs got different numbers and different names depending on whether or not it had a CD or whether it was intended to be sold in computer stores or Sears.

    Today…I mean, even civilians can clearly name everything Apple makes. MacBook and MacBook Pro. Mac Pro, iMac, Mac Mini. It’d seem to be a simple thing to do a MacBook Mini, but there might be some basic, prejudicial blowback.

    Just found out that I’m finally getting an ASUS Eee PC for review shortly. Talk about compactness…

  18. ShameyReed

    Hey I can’t fault a big guy for not getting the same experience out of a 12″ PB that I do. There are some new plane seats that are just a bit long in the seat which make a short leg guy like me feel real uncomfortable. It’s a scale thing is all.

    Pundito- I’d love to know what you think of the 12″ PB on purely aesthetic terms. I still think it is the purdiest pb so far.

  19. ShameyReed

    OMG, I think that the Mac fanboy species has actually mutated and begat an even rarer subspecies- the 12″PB Mac fanboy….
    This climate change crap has got to stop.

  20. Mary

    Because I am an unapologetic fangirl of Mr. Ihnatko and his celestial body (of work), I am willing to sacrifice and take that damnable 12″ powerbook off his hands. Your work is too important to have you tripping over an old laptop. Let me know if I can do this humble service for you.

  21. Jes

    Dear Mr. Andrew Ihnatko,

    Darling Andy, of course your MANLY half-inch digits cry when using a piece of artwork as my PBG-412 (people in Pitt think I love the town when they see my screensaver. ha. fools!). You probably have the type of hands your local cosmetologist refuses to even look upon to provide a manicure, but screams you out the door with repeated “go see a surgeon”.

    So Precious, if you are unable to comprehend or even see the beauty remove it from your cache. Donate it to a worthy cause.

    Yours truly,


  22. Austin Baird

    Well, as a retired fire-fighter living on a pension I’m more than happy to pay the postage if you want to do a little house-cleaning and decide to send me your 12″er :)

  23. Andrew

    I was and remain a HUGE fan of the 12″ PowerBook, and while I still have my 2003 model (1.0 GHz) it has been replaced by a 2.2GHz Black MacBook. The MacBook is MUCH faster, has 4GB of RAM and runs for an extra hour on a battery charge. While it is wider, the other dimensions (depth and thickness) are almost exactly the same, meaning I can use the MacBook on an airplane just as easily as the 12″ PowerBook.

    I even like the MacBook’s odd-looking keyboard. I didn’t expect to, and still find it strange-looking, but I type faster and more accurately on the MacBook than I ever did on my PowerBook. Only IBM or Lenovo ThinkPads (almost any from the last 17 years) have better keyboards.

  24. Tami

    um…i think it helps to be a girl. with small hands. which i am. i loved my 12″ powerbook…probably a bit too much. i took it to a conference in australia with me and it was the perfect size to pull out in a stadium conference setting, while everyone else was whippin’ out their pad-n-pens or bigger laptops. i get what you’re saying about thinner making it easier to tote. agreed. but the narrow width helped too. hubby had a 17″ powerbook at the same time i had my Itty Bitty, and i remember handing them back and forth. i was always afraid i’d drop his.

    the only things i didn’t like about my 12″: 1. no magnetic power cord – i busted my ‘book up pretty good a few times, 2. not enough memory (which could’ve been rectified) and 3. no backlit keyboard.

    *sigh* still miss it, though.

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