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PowerBook 170 Review

My initial reaction to the PowerBook 170 was WOW! So, I thought I might use it for a couple of weeks before writing down my impressions. Now that I've used the PowerBook 170 long enough for the initial dazzle to wear off, my considered impression is WOW!

One of the first things I did was run a Speedometer comparison of the PowerBook 170 and the IIci (with cache card). The statistics are nearly dead even. The PowerBook 170 also has a 16 MHz "power saver" mode for lengthening the usable life of a battery charge. The statistics for power saver mode are a close approximation to those recorded for an SE/30 (16 MHz with FPU and black and white display).

I've taken the opportunity to cycle (full charge to "I'm going to sleep, ready or not") the battery several times in both 25 MHz and 16 MHz modes. A battery life of about 2.5 hours in normal use at power saver speed seems a realistic expectation. Using the modem which the manual says consumes extra power) even without power saving, the battery delivers the low end of the promised "2 to 3 hours." At 16 MHz, the battery lasts longer, but not an hour longer (at least not the way I use the PowerBook). Word processing sessions, with infrequent saves, permit the hard drive to power down and prolong the usable battery life. Sticking to tasks which rarely access the hard drive may provide close to three hours of computing before recharging. Even though the internal floppy drive gobbles power, I have been able to duplicate floppy disks at user group meetings for more than 1.5 hours without depleting the battery.

The PowerBook provides ample warning when the battery charge gets low. There's roughly a half-hour left after the first warning, and perhaps ten minutes after the second. The third warning occurs only 10 seconds before the PowerBook drops into sleep mode. Fortunately, memory contents are preserved (at least for awhile). Plugging into an AC outlet restores programs to where they were when the system went to sleep.

Commands which activate the drive once it has fallen asleep take a little getting used to. The delay while the drive comes up to speed is a clever imitation of a system freeze. The Portable Control Panel has an option that keeps the drive active while plugged into an AC outlet.

Galen Gruman's review in the February Macworld (pg. 258) complains a great deal about the PowerBook keyboard. While I too prefer the Apple Extended keyboard to the PowerBook's built-in keyboard, I find the Macworld review overly critical. In my opinion, the "wrist rest" design is more comfortable than the keyboards of other (MS-DOS) notebooks. Possibly, my more positive view is affected by my hand size (not large), and the fact that I'm not a flash typist (I do touch type, but at something on the order of 40 words per minute). I've also used a lot of keyboards, so I'm not habituated to a particular feel (the PowerBook has it all over a 33 KSR teletype :-)).

The review expresses a lot of frustration about trying to find a comfortable placement of the keyboard. I've also found the average table or desk too high. Tables and desktops also place other computer keyboards at a greater height than a typewriter (or computer) table. Even at typing stand height, the PowerBook keyboard feels odd. It's likely I haven't adapted to using a PowerBook on a fixed surface because I rarely do so. The real reason for a notebook computer is portability. The PowerBook's wrist rest design is the best literally "in-my-lap" keyboard I've ever used. My preferred PowerBook typing position is in a recliner. I've tried putting an Apple Extended Keyboard in my lap; in that position, I prefer the PowerBook.

Unlike Gruman, who doesn't like trackballs, I prefer them. Hence, I adapted to the PowerBook's "thumb ball" rather quickly. Gruman had trouble pointing accurately on a subway. I experienced similar difficulty riding home over two lane roads as a passenger in a pickup truck. However, I generally was able to keep on computing (and typing) in the truck, in the dark. I'm sure using a PowerBook on a commercial airline will not be a problem.

Gruman evidently runs a very spare System. The claim that 7.0.1 requires a megabyte less memory than 7.0 isn't borne out by my experience. With all extensions off, 7.0.1 only squeezes down to 1.3 megabytes. The addition of a modest number (for me that's about a dozen) of utilitarian extensions (Apollo, ShortCut, BeHierarchic, a printer driver, and so forth) results in a System of 1.75 MB. With 4 MB of RAM, I have room to run an application which requires 2 MB (SPSS), but I have to quit before PrintMonitor has room enough to print the application's output.

It's difficult for most users to justify the expense of a PowerBook as a second Macintosh. Hence, a reasonable question is how capable is the PowerBook as a primary computer? First, I would recommend purchasing a separate keyboard to plug into the ADB port for regular desktop use. Placing the display in a comfortable location relative to an external keyboard probably will make the built-in trackball difficult to reach. An extra trackball or mouse could prove handy. For many of us, a 40 MB hard drive also is limiting. The PowerBook on a desktop works very nicely with an external drive, and 40 MB or even larger external drives have dropped to quite reasonable prices. One doesn't really need to take every application and document on the road.

The active matrix display is at least as nice as the venerable 9" screen of the compact Macs. In fact, the PowerBook screen is wider than that long-time Macintosh standard. If color really is essential, there are third party devices that permit attaching a PowerBook to a color display.

The PowerBook 170's price is slightly less than for a 5 MB IIci with 80 MB hard drive (without keyboard and monitor). The PowerBook 140 and IIsi are likewise comparably priced. Anyone in the market for a IIsi or IIci might find a PowerBook with external keyboard and third party external hard disk worth considering. I believe the PowerBook 170 is worth every penny of the premium over the model 140. The most valuable differences are the internal fax/modem (about one-third of the price difference if purchased separately) and the FPU (floating point unit). Many people don't realize the extent to which the math coprocessor accelerates calculation and display of graphics. An FPU is a worthwhile addition even for users who don't crunch a lot of numbers. The other noticeable difference between the 170 and the 140 is the active matrix display. I find the 140's passive LCD quite satisfactory, but the active matrix looks and acts a lot more like a CRT. LCD displays have a relatively narrow viewing angle that makes it difficult for more than one person to have a clear look at the screen. The active matrix display has a viewing angle the equal of a CRT.

In short, if buying a IIsi seems sensible, buying a PowerBook 140 should seem sensible. If a PowerBook 140 seems sensible, then finding the extra dollars for a 170 is not a farfetched notion.

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