Powerbooks and DRM | November 21, 2005

Currently I share an iBook with my girlfriend. The laptop is essentially hers, but I use it whenever I need to. The problem is, at the moment I’m using it a lot more than she is. I’m doing a lot of travelling right now, running CSS courses for in-house development teams or visiting clients in London.

I have wanted to get my own Powerbook for some time, however the current specs are less than impressive. Pound for pound, the iBooks are just much better value for money at the moment.

I had hoped that the last round of updates would have seen a slight speed bump, but all we got was higher resolutions screens and an extra couple of hours battery life. A real sign that the current crop is “end of life”.

And so the perennial questions raises its ugly head. Buy a mac now, or wait for the next revision? The rumour mills are spinning at full tilt, and the word on the street is we’ll be seeing a new crop of Powermacs as early as the first quarter of 2006.

These won’t be ordinary Macs however. A small sticker with those two little words, “Intel inside” will see to that. And this raises a couple of fairly big concerns.

Firstly it is always a good idea to wait for the second revision of any new Apple product. In this case even more so as the whole Intel thing is a bit of an unknown. Will I have to buy all new optimised software? Will there even be the software available when the new laptops debut.

However that’s not my main concern. My main concern is DRM. It looks like the new Apple Intel chips will contain something laughingly known as “Trusted Computing”, which roughly translates as “Untrustworthy Customers”.

Now despite being relatively uninformed about the whole DRM issue, as a customer this isn’t exactly a feature I’ve been pestering Apple to add to my computer. Tinfoil hat or no, I have to admit that Cory Doctrow’s recent d.Construct presentation got me thinking.

With DRM built into the chipset, who knows what can of worms we could be letting ourselves in for. That innocuous “security update” you agree to without reading the terms and conditions could suddenly tie all the media you’ve purchased online to one individual processor. Want to watch lost on your laptop as well, then you need to buy a second licence. Computer on the fritz and need a new one, time to re-purchase all your old music.

A little OTT maybe, but I don’t like the idea of something with the ability to limit what I do built right into the system.

So the question is, buy an underpowered but DRM free laptop now, or wait till the new Powerbooks come out and potentially risk signing up to a new world order.

Somehow in writing this post, I may have answered my own question.

Posted at November 21, 2005 11:28 PM


Jeff Croft said on November 21, 2005 11:34 PM


How do you know the last software update that you agreed to the terms of without reading them didn’t do this?

My point: I don’t see what the difference between hardware and software DRM is. If you’re not concerned about DRM on today’s PPC Macs, then why are you in the new, Intel ones? Both can easily implement DRM, right?

Drew McLellan said on November 22, 2005 12:42 AM

Jeff’s point is fair. I’d also chip in that the current powerbooks are only underpowered if you have high-powered needs.

As a webdev, the slowest component in my setup is my brain. I mostly edit text files, run a web server and a database server, and do bits and bobs of graphics work on relatively small files. My 1.25GHz powerbook has plenty of oomph for those tasks.

The only times I wish I had a faster CPU is when I’m editing video or encoding audio files. But that stuff I do for fun.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that today a well spec’d 15” powerbook will set you back around £1500. That’s nearly £1000 less than mine cost me 18 months ago, and with the high res screen, higher spec bluetooth, memory, disk and CPU, is quite honestly a flippin bargain. Add to that that the current powerbooks are a mature, solid and stable product line.

So unless you’re going to need to be working on bill-board sized graphics files and such, the current crop of powerbooks are actually very well spec’d machines.

Dave S. said on November 22, 2005 1:00 AM

Re: Under-powered Powerbooks

As someone who has Photoshop open all day and frequently needs Illustrator and InDesign up and running as well, take it from me: the current generation of Powerbooks are WAY underpowered for what you and I need.

Gruber’s recent post about moving to a Powerbook full time was where I was a year ago. Now, I’d much rather have an underpowered laptop for travelling, and a killer desktop for day-to-day use. I’m moving to a dual G5 next, which will hopefully be soon.

Jan Brasna said on November 22, 2005 1:00 AM

Andy, I bought a G4 iB recently and I don’t feel it was a bad choice, I decided not to wait any longer and go with PPC, I didn’t want another x86.

rob said on November 22, 2005 1:11 AM

Get yourself a G4 powerbook and enjoy it.

This suggestion in accordance with the “buy the best kit you can afford at the point when you need it - not before, not after.” principle.

Nick Cowie said on November 22, 2005 2:33 AM

Unless you really need the grunt for running multiple CS2 apps, get a powerbook or ibook now. I would also wait for a few months after release before getting the intel chipped version.

I am still using my 4 year old 550Mhz with 512Mb RAM on a daily basis, great for working during the daily commute and doing demos in and out of the office.

Like Drew, most of my work is web dev, so web server, database server, couple of different browsers and text editors running without a problem. Image editting is handled by PS7 which runs as fast on the powerbook than my slightly better spec’ed PC desktop.

I will replace it with an intel powered Mac at some stage, it probably be the 12”, because I will take it everywhere and it will not be the first release.

I have just upgraded one of the first model blue and white G3s to do some of the webserver stuff I normally do on the powerbook. There are a number of problems specific to that model and it’s IDE channels that almost drove me crazy. (limitations on number of drives, speed and size).

Patrick H. Lauke said on November 22, 2005 2:46 AM

you’re already embracing software DRM when purchasing anything through iTunes…and if Apple want to force the DRM coolaid down your neck, they can do it at OS level with or without (although slightly more convoluted) the evil Intel inside…

Simon Clayson said on November 22, 2005 7:08 AM

There’s a good supply of ex-demo/refurb Powerbooks around at the moment if you are not bothered with the battery life or resolution. As others have said, it depends on what you want it for, but the 15” is worth going for.

Geert Leyseele said on November 22, 2005 8:36 AM

You shouldn’t be that paranoid, yes there will DRM but that’s just because of all those early waiting PC freaks to run OS X on their DELL. If in some distant future Apple does other things whith “Trusted Computing” I trust Apple’s judgement in meeting us half way. iTunes DRM isn’t that bad and linking to 5 computers is fair in my opinion. Apple knows how their customers think and act in many cases and I’m sure they will get it right. Btw Apple is not the one you should be worried about, but organizations like RIAA and their narrow minded and money filling thoughts.

Another misunderstanding is that your software will not run just like it does now. All apps will run just fine, maybe a little bit slower (still very uncertain) but they will work. Any company with the right attitude will just sell their software like any other update even when it is now Intel optimized. The era of Quark and their sky high prices when we switched to PowerPC are long gone. The Pro line will be last to get the Intel chip and I am pretty certain that will happen end 2006 beginning 2007, so that should say something about compatibility. And Dave S is right the PowerBook isn’t a desktop replacement, when doing graphics heavy work nothing beats a Dual G5. It all depends what you want from it, designing large posters (think 3mx1m) for example isn’t something pleasant on a PowerBook, but web work or presentations will work. If I would buy one now I would max out the RAM and put in a fast HD.

Stuart Langridge said on November 22, 2005 8:45 AM

I can’t see you going for this, but I’m contractually obliged to suggest it: you could buy a Powerbook and then install Ubuntu Linux on it. No DRM there.

Rick Hurst said on November 22, 2005 9:33 AM

I use a 12 inch powerbook 1.3ghz with 700 and something mb ram. plugged into a proper monitor/mouse/keyboard I find it more than adequate for everything I do to make a living As a full time web designer/ developer.

I don’t use illustrator but usually run with photoshop, firefox, mail and textwrangler plus various servers running in the background with no problem.

I chose a 12” for portability and battery life when out and about.

I have also dropped it several times and it is is only slightly bent!

Jon Hicks said on November 22, 2005 9:37 AM

Geert has dealt with the DRM issue - its just for keeping OS X on Apple Hardware.

Now then, this underpowered business. Just because they didn’t get a speed bump this time around, doesn’t make the underpowered. I run all 3 CPU hungry Adobe CS apps, as well as Fireworks (another hungry one), Browsers, Mail etc. I have a lot of apps open, and it performs just fine. Especially if you opt for the faster HD option. I have to disagree with Dave too, I have no problems running apps - its as fast as my G5. In fact I just don’t use my G5 anymore.

iBooks are fine too though. If you’re just doing presentations, text editing and mail/surfing, they’d probably do you. They are underpowered though, the HD’s are slower, and can’t be upgraded as much as the powerbooks. They’re cheaper, but I’m not sure about better value.

The new screens are fantastic too.

I think the key here is RAM. I have 2gb on this machine, you need as much as you can get.

David said on November 22, 2005 10:37 AM

So… my new 15” Powerbook arrived last Thursday, and I absolutely love it. Seriously man, just buy it now. You won’t be disappointed. I have never ever owned such an exciting piece of engineering.

Small Paul said on November 22, 2005 11:00 AM

I dunno: might be worth waiting to see what January brings, as then you might be able to get an actual report on the DRM potential fo the machines, as opposed to the speculation we’ve got now.

Then again, I love my early 2005 PowerBook like a family member. Although yup, the iBooks do seem better value for money.

Barry Bloye said on November 22, 2005 11:21 AM

There’ll always be this problem with computers, and technology in general. You just have to accept that something better will always be around the corner. Just look at the iPod range over the last three months!

Of course, that never eases the gear lust…

Andy Budd said on November 22, 2005 11:42 PM

To be honest, Apple have constantly been changing the licensing arrangements on iTunes after updates including the number of computers you play your music on.

I agree that software DRM isn’t good either. However at least it can be treated as a software bug (which it is) and get patched. Hardware inhibiters seem much more nefarious.

As I said I’m no DRM expert, however there must be a difference between software and hardware DRM, or else content providers wouldn’t be so keen to get it installed.

It’s the whole thin end of the wedge argument really. They may not be doing anything particularly bad with it at the moment, but what is to stop Apple locking down your whole computer if it detects activity it deems to be suspicious.

Talking of specs, you’re right that the Powerbooks are much cheaper than they were 18 months ago. However this is because they haven’t changed significantly in 18 months while other laptops have.

And I think this is an important point. As an Apple fan, you can start to live in a closeted world where you basically just accept what you are given. Yes, the powerbook is still reasonably fast, but it is nowhere near the top of the line pro laptop it once was.

Speed isn’t always to do with what you want to do at this moment in time, it is also to do with longevity. I’d like to get at least a couple of years life out of a new laptop before I feel the need to upgrade. It may be up to the job of current apps, but who knows what the requirements of future apps will be.

People don’t buy a fast car to do 120 on the way to the shops. However the speed of a car is also an indication of its general performance and handling, and it’s quite nice to know that you can go from 0-60 in under 6 seconds if you need to.

I don’t really play computer games as I never have the time. However if I’m buying a new pro laptop, I’d like it at least not to be redundant for the current crop of games at the time of purchase.

But you are right, it’s more about the RAM than the pure processor speed.

Another issue is size. I currently like the fact that my 12” powerbook is so small and portable. However the screen just isn’t big enough for Photoshop (or even word) pallets. The 15” Powerbook looks nice, but is a little on the big side. I hear rumors of a 13” iBook which would be nice, especially if it was high-def.

bob said on November 22, 2005 11:57 PM

Holy crap. I’ve never met anyone who’s more self-important in my life! I’m in London..I’m teaching CSS…get off your own ego. If you were that important or successful, you wouldn’t be blogging about a simple piece of equipement..you would just go out and pick up one. It’s not like you’re buying an island or even a house…sorry dude, just keeping you honest….you’re not that important.

Ian Lloyd said on November 23, 2005 9:15 AM

@ bob & andy …

Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!

Andy Budd said on November 23, 2005 9:28 AM

I think you are mixing up self importance with an explanation of what I’m doing, thus setting the scene for my post about needing a new laptop. The fact that I’m doing a lot of training and travel is pertinent to my choice of laptop. Basically I want something fairly small and compact that I can use comfortably on the train and isn’t a pain to lug around.

But you are right about one thing. If I thought I was important or successful I’d probably be blogging about how important and successful I was, rather than wanting a new laptop. Lucky then that I’m neither.

Ben Ward said on November 23, 2005 10:22 AM

Although, buying a topical island for clear:left headquaters might not be such a bad idea. Maybe the shouty man had something to offer after all.

I only have an iBook 12” and I’ve gotta agree with your point that the low resolution is a show-stopper for doing anything overly creative on it.

If I were in your position I think I’d simplify it down just to ‘how long can I wait?’. If you can keep operating the way you are for (guess) 8 months until the Rev.B Mactels then you’ll be getting a faster machine, if not then I’m pretty sure the PB line is OK for what it is (and Mr Hicks does seem very enthusiastic about those new screens).

With Apple’s uncertain release schedules, purchasing based soley on time and need are the only ways I’ve ever found to actually buy something.

Gordon said on November 23, 2005 4:56 PM

Unfamiliar with the Mac world but could you wait until the Intel laptops come out then grab a non-Intel PB on the cheap(er)??

Side note to “bob” - NO-ONE is that important, so why should anyone listen to you! ;-)

Andy Saxton said on November 23, 2005 8:13 PM

@Gordon: Problem is with Apple the “old” hardware doesn’t usually go on to be sold on the cheap or even much cheaper really.

I am unsure at the moment. I though that a 14” iBook is what I wanted but if I want to do a little video editing or something like that, I don’t want to be caught short in the power department.

Although I don’t want to spend 15”Powerbook money, which I would have to, as the 12” would be too small.


Rob... said on November 24, 2005 8:37 AM

Buy a 12” Powerbook with a nice large TFT for real work at the desk.

Apple’s cinema displays are supposed to be nice, but anyone else’s 21” or so flatscreens should work just fine I’d have thought.

The key thing is that you don’t want the resolution of the laptops screen to be the determining factor. For portability the 12” models are great, but everyone needs more pixels than 1024×768 for major work!

Doors said on November 24, 2005 10:20 AM

I must agree with Bob, some of these Web 2.0 disciples are getting delusions of grandeur and their pretensions know no bounds, their so called love of web standards is just an excuse to line their pockets.

Matt keogh said on November 24, 2005 5:24 PM

Thought you might find this">http://www.we-make-money-not-art.com/archives/007478.php">this interesting…

Nice Paul said on November 30, 2005 12:01 AM

“I’m in London… I’m teaching CSS…
get off your own ego”

Bob, many people blog about their lives, the fact that they’re in London, the fact that they teach CSS (I teach CSS every day at work to some degree). They’re not exactly highly glamourous things to boast about, so I don’t know how you can interpret them as egotistical!

Jeff Croft said on November 30, 2005 5:43 PM

“I agree that software DRM isn’t good either. However at least it can be treated as a software bug (which it is) and get patched. Hardware inhibiters seem much more nefarious.”

The hardware has to be controlled by software. That hardware does nothing at all unless some piece of software tells it to. In other words, the hardware DRM could be switched on or off just as easily as the software one — they’re both controlled by software.

I understand your concern — I just think you concern should be equal for both hardware and software DRMs. They’re almost exactly the same thing. Using software to emulate a piece of hardware is nothing new — we do it now with virtual memory, RAM disks, and Virtual PC. Software always controls hardware. For example, you might have 1GB of RAM in your machine, but the OS could be configured to only look for 512MB. Then you’d have a 512MB RAM stick in your computer doing nothing at all. The exact same thing could happen with this DRM. It would be enabled or disabled by software.

My point is this: the fact that there is an actual chip on the motherboard doesn’t make the DRM any more permanent than when it’s in the OS kernel or in iTunes. Apple (and every other computer maker) is going to put in their DRMs, whether you like it or not. You’ll probably always be able to find some way to hack around them (but it will be unsupported, illegal, and probably not work very well). This is always going to be true — no matter whether the DRM is in hardware or software.

Tom Simcox said on December 11, 2005 3:50 PM

Ouch, my head is spinning! So many options so little money to afford any of them :-) Up until now I’ve mainly been PC based but I’m seriously thinking of switching. I love the look of Tiger and just the poser cred you get from having an ibook or powerbook is almost reason enough to make the change.

How bad is it that you work in web design/development and your wife has an ipod and is considering an ibook and I have neither!