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|| News Item: Posted 2004-05-02

Does size really matter? Debating the 12 - Inch vs. 15 - Inch PowerBook
By Vincent Laforet, The New York Times

Photo by Vincent Laforet / The New York Times

Photo by Vincent Laforet / The New York Times

Does size matter? Comparing the 12 inch Powerbook to the 15 inch PowerBook.
I've been debating for months over a simple question: what Apple PowerBook to bring with me to Athens. I've owned both the older 15 - inch laptop and the current 12 inch models in the past - but I've had the chance to significantly expand my vocabulary for close to a year now, following my desk's switch to IBM T-40 ThinkPads.

Luckily --- I'm making the switch back to Mac. While the PC offered me some speed advantages, I never felt quite as comfortable with them - it's hard to throw away close to 15 years of Mac troubleshooting experience - only to find oneself (and others around you) completely inept when faced with a malfunctioning PC.

Therefore as I contemplate my return to Macs, I am faced with the following decision: a. do I go with the 15 inch - and take advantage of the larger screen and - I assume - superior performance to deal with the oodles of images I'll shoot on a typical Olympic marathon day or b. go with the smaller, lighter 12 inch - sacrificing performance for the smaller laptop that won't be as much of the burden in the oppressive Athenian humid heat.

The big question, ultimately is: (*besides finding a shrink to deal with such ridiculous technological and ultimately completely-irrelevant-to-your-quality-of-life-obsessions) how much of a sacrifice in performance we're talking about - not only in speed test, but also in dealing with the smaller screen/desktop space (and as a result ease of use/getting around) between the two models.

Luckily - our technology folks at The Times own all three PowerBook models (12inch, 15inch, the "*sherpa-available-separately" 17 -inch titan, and a G5 Tower - so I thought it would be nice to do some informal tests.

It's important to note that I did not do any extensive testing (I'm not doing 3-D video animations or complex web designs here (they make desktop machines for that ) --- I'm simply trying to get a freakin' image out as quickly and simply as possible on that impossible deadline! I simply chose to time (with a stopwatch) the basic steps we all tend to depend on, namely: copying over disks, batch captioning JPEG files while ingesting, simultaneously opening a series of files from our editing program into Adobe Photoshop, performing a few simple steps in Photoshop - that alone would give me a pretty good idea of the performance I'm interested in.

I didn't see the need to test the time it takes to caption a photo, save a JPEG file or to transmit it - that depends on how quickly you hunt and peck on the keyboard, and how many "high-mom-I'm-the-drunk-idiot-on-the-phone-endlessly-waving-at-the-tv-camera-from-behind-homeplate" freaks you're sharing your "high-speed" cellphone bandwidth with at the stadium...

I used three computers for the test (none were from the new line released a little over a week ago - but from the previous generation:) A 12 - inch 1GHZ laptop with 768MB of RAM with 32MB of VRAM (video RAM), a 15 - inch 1GHZ laptop with 1GB of RAM and 64MB or VRAM, and a Dual 1.8 GHZ G5 Tower with 1 GHZ of RAM all Running OSX.3.

I was really surprised to find the following: my assumption that there would be a significant drop in performance with the smaller 12 - inch model and the 15- inch (based on an assumed bias that smaller = slower) was completely false.

In fact I saw absolutely no significant performance difference (less than 5% to 10% differences in elapsed time on average) with all on the following tests:

The copying of a full 512MB CF card with 182 JPEGs via a USB 2.0 Zio Reader to a folder via the finder - was in fact 3 seconds faster on the 12 inch than the 15 inch model in the approx. 2 minute process. In fact the Dual 1.8GHZ G5 tower was all of 6 seconds faster than the 12 - inch ... quite insignificant.

I then tested ingesting the same disk over within Photo Mechanic 4.0 while applying a generic caption during the process --- and the 15 - inch was 12 seconds faster than the 12 inch (which was pretty insignificant w/ the avg. 2 mn 40sec results) - the G5 tower was only 30 seconds faster than the 15 inch.

I tested scrolling through contact sheets and images previews - for some strange reason - the 12 inch did better than the 15 - inch jumping from one image to the next within the preview window - even though the video card in the 12 inch had only 32MB of VRAM vs. the 64MB in the 15 - inch ... a very surprising result to me ... perhaps it just comes down to increased screen size and time it takes to draw each preview (the 12 - inch has a resolution of 1024X768 vs. the 15 inch's 1280X854, ergo more pixels to calculate on each preview --- I assume that if I were to reduce the size of the preview screen on the 15 inch to match the size of the smaller 12 - inch screen - the results would be identical.

The time it took for the previews to pop up was still a bit slow for my taste on both models - there was a noticeable lag that had me waiting for the next frame to pop up every time ... the people at Camera Bits tell me that they are working on faster algorithms and updates to further minimize this delay to allow for closer to real-time previewing of un-cached images ... this was one test where the G5 tower blew the laptops out of the water - the drawing of previews was nearly instantaneous and allowed you to literally fly through frames.

It's worth lugging down a tower to the games in my opinion if you're an editor who's planning on being stuck in the media center for two weeks - there is a significant boost in your ability to fly through every single frame as quickly as you once did with a loupe on film - and therefore you can significantly reduce the chance that you'll miss a small detail that can't be caught by simply looking at a digital contact sheet...

Photo by Vincent Laforet / The New York Times

Photo by Vincent Laforet / The New York Times

Does size matter? Comparing the 12 inch Powerbook to the 15 inch PowerBook.
I then edited/exported/opened a selection of 20 images simultaneously into Photoshop - this too resulted in no significant difference between the two laptop models. The 15 inch took 1 second less.... (it had 232 MB of additional RAM than the 12 inch - which is a small factor in all tests of course...). Of course the G5 tower did better in this - almost 30% faster.

Lastly: with all 20 images still open in Photoshop, I picked on frame and up-sized it (interpolated it) to 650MB, and applied a 100% Unsharp Mask Filter to that file - the resizing of the images and sharpening filter results were almost identical - with a slight edge towards the 15 inch - but how often do you interpolate an 11MB file into a 650MB file and then sharpen it on the field - therefore once again - there was no significant performance advantage to the larger laptop.

So - I knew that my decision between the 12 - inch vs. the 15 - inch wouldn't come down to speed/performance - as the models were close to identical... in retrospect this is obvious - but smaller machines seldom match the performance of larger models even with the same published processor speeds - at least that's a bias I had become accustomed to.

I then had to ask myself - how much of a burden will the smaller screen be?

Well - it depends on what files you're working on and how the size up relative to your screen size. What do I mean? It depends on the size of the files you're working on and it relation/ratio to your screen resolution, and therefore the magnification settings that will result in Photoshop.


As you may know - when you open up a file in Photoshop - you can choose between a clean 25%, 50%, 100% magnification - with no degradation in the way the image looks on screen - or you can magnify the image to 33%, 66% or any of those odd steps that lead to jagged edges, weird noise patterns - and just an annoying way to judge the quality of the photo...

Here's the interesting thing I found --- if you're working with a Canon EOS-1D file (11.2MB) --- the 15 inch presents a clear advantage - as you can view the frame - the full frame - within the boundaries of the 15 inch screen (at 50% magnification.) While you could only view the same frame in its entirety at 25% mag (and half the effective size on the screen) on the 12 inch... you could make the image come close to filling up the screen space - but at the jagged 33% magnification for the 12 inch (and you'd still be looking at a smaller image than on the larger laptop screen.) This is not really a big deal - but something to consider - I personally find it very annoying... I like to edit/tone/sharpen images full-frame - jagged edges make that more difficult for me to do accurately.

However - with the larger Canon EOS-1D Mark II files (23.4MB) that many of us hope to be working with come August - the files fill 75% of the available screen space at 25% magnification on both PowerBook models- in fact the image appears slightly larger on the 12 inch screen than on the 15 inch...

Photo by Vincent Laforet / The New York Times

Photo by Vincent Laforet / The New York Times

Does size matter? Comparing the 12 inch Powerbook to the 15 inch PowerBook.
Therefore, in terms of working with images in Photoshop - I saw a clear advantage to the size of the 15 - inch model with EOS1-D files - but close to none when you deal with the larger Mark II files... I should note that the 12 - inch screen is slightly dimmer than the 15 - inch... but I've heard the newer series of laptops have eliminated that - I can't confirm that though as I haven't seen the two new models side by side.

I also had to consider how much easier will it be to edit the contact sheets within PhotoMechanic on the larger 15 - inch screen. Again, it's pretty insignificant depending on how large you like your previews. I like to have my previews pretty large - in the middle of the selectable size in Photo Mechanic and at that size I can see a grid of 3 images wide by 3 deep on either model. If you select a smaller preview - you can view 5X3 images on the 15 - inch vs. 4X3 on the 12 - inch laptop...

If you learn to use the "Apple + Tab" key combination to cycle between your editing program, Photoshop, and your FTP program - you won't really suffer from the lost screen/desktop space if you chose the 12 - inch over the 15 - inch model... while I would hesitate to edit a Final Cut Pro document on the 12 inch - in terms of editing still images - there's no significant reason to go with the 15 - inch model if you're working on Mark II files in my opinion.

Oh and of course how much of a difference in size/weight is there really between the two models? In my opinion, the size difference is really significant ... I'd really hesitate to travel w/ the 15 - inch anymore given the space constraints airlines impose on us... also the 12 - inch is so much easier to handle with one hand, so much easier to put under your arm and walk up a flight of stairs (on a carrier for example - I loved the mobility the 12 - inch offered me in the tight quarters of the USS Abraham Lincoln a year ago) and it's so much easier to sneak the 12 - inch into a packed camera bag, or shoulder bag ... you can't do it with the 15 - inch with most bags. I'm not sure the 1 pound in weight difference between the two models is all that important in the end - but it sure "feels" significant when you're carrying around a 12 inch vs. the 15 inch ... could all be in your head though.

But - there is one significant thing you need to consider, especially if you are thinking about the future of mobile technology - the lack of a PCMCIA card slot on the 12 - inch. Here are the reasons:

1. It's great to have one of those new Delkin high-speed card adapters always sitting in that slot - either as your primary way of copying over files (you therefore don't need to worry about a dangling card reader if you have to move your laptop... or send pictures standing up) or as a backup should your external reader be lost/damaged/not working/or in the bag you just ditched... (I've done that for years - and it's saved me quite a few times... but it's probably not the best thing to leave it in all the time, as it leaves that little dust/dirt door wide open.)

2. For those of us who depend on PCMCIA card to jump onto Verizon's Express Network or Sprints high speed network with AirCards - there is no way to use those cards on the 12 - inch... no external adapter exists. That's a pretty significant drawback for me as we currently depend on the use of those cards at our paper. A few large wireless companies are due to release high-speed WiFi services in major cities within a little over a year - and all services will depend (it seems) on the use of a PCMCIA card to access their network ... so you'll once again be stuck w/ the 12 - inch.

3. The lack of a FireWire (800) port may be significant to some. I can attest to the fact that the newer version is indeed twice as fast as FireWire (400). That means it takes half the time to copy over those files or to backup to an external HD. So after all of this, while the PowerBook 12 - inch model is the perfect computer for the photojournalist/sports photographer on the road in my opinion --- and the perfect one for me --- I may have to go with the 15 - inch as a long-term investment. (We're going to keep these puppies for at least 3 years,) Because we can't afford to lose that PCMCIA slot due to our dependency on the Verizon PCMCIA Air Cards and our anticipation of the upcoming WiFi services that may require similar cards ... is why I wrote this piece I guess --- maybe someone out there can better make a decision on the best model for their needs ...

One quick thing to share: I've also been looking at the new Samsung i700 phone that Verizon is supporting on their Express Network

The i700 is both a phone and PDA/Pocket PC and that supports Idruna's Pocket Phojo software, but there's on kink: the phone only has an SD card slot ... and a Compact Flash to SD card adapter doesn't seem to exist ... which is OK if you're using a Mark II that takes the little suckers... but what does everyone else do?

Well - you can buy an adapter: and use the SD cards with cameras that only have Compact Flash slots. Why else would you want to consider doing such a thing? Because, much to my surprise, the transfer rate of the average SD cards is 8MB/sec and the fastest Compact Flash cards today rarely reach 4MB/sec.

This begs the following question: with the number of similar phones that will most likely be released in the upcoming years most of which will probably also lack the bigger Compact Flash slots, why continue to buy compact flash cards???

Especially if these little buggers are twice as fast as their sluggish big brothers? Just an idea: we're not doing anything radical yet at our paper - but I'm thinking that as we order some new cards for the Mark IIs - perhaps it would be wise to order SD cards, not compact flash cards. It's something to consider if you're thinking long term I guess ...

(Vincent Laforet is a staff photographer with the New York Times and a regular contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter.)

Related Links:
Vince Laforet's member gallery

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