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PowerBook Panegyric

Definition: PowerBook 100 – a terribly nice Macintosh sometimes mistaken for a low-end, powerless laptop.

What happened to the PowerBook 100? It came out in September 1991 at an unaffordable price. About one year later, Apple discontinued it and sold it at fire sale prices. Why such a short lifetime? It wasn’t like the 140, which Apple realized could support a faster processor, and it wasn’t like the Mac Portable, which died of obesity. In talking to people in the know, I’ve pieced together this story; consider it an eulogy to the PowerBook 100, a pleasant machine with only a few problems, a machine on which I type at this moment.

Apple wasn’t the only player in the PowerBook 100 development, because although Apple designed most of the PowerBook 100, consumer electronics giant Sony was slated to do the manufacturing. Apple wanted to work with Sony in part because Sony excels at inexpensive manufacturing, and in part because the collaboration was well-received in both the U.S. and Japan, a market in which Apple does well and wants to do better.

But then Sony discovered it couldn’t make the PowerBook 100 as cheaply as it had estimated and in fact, the cost would be approximately double early estimates. Apple realized early on that the price would be unacceptable, but the public relations coup of the Apple/Sony collaboration was more important. Apple decided to manufacture a relatively small quantity of PowerBook 100s. As consumers purchased the PowerBook 100 in the fall of 1991, Apple placed the final orders. Those final units rolled off the production line in late June of 1992, completing the installed base of over 100,000 PowerBook 100s.

As to the rumors that Sony might bring it back, no more PowerBook 100s have been manufactured since, and given the cost, I doubt any more will be, especially given that the Duos fit many of the same niches. Those of us who want a serial port, a power plug, and no floppy drive (I’ve hooked ours up maybe five times in six months) will stick with a Duo for future purchases. Sources indicate that we will never see a PowerBook 100 again in the U.S., but apparently there is a chance that something resembling the PowerBook 100 might appear elsewhere.

The PowerBook 100 had a short life, and Apple had no chance to correct its few problems, as it did with the 140 and the 170. Perhaps the worst problem is the mediocre trackball. It’s small, and because of the plastic posts on which it rests, occasionally hard to move accurately and smoothly. Some of that can be alleviated by moving the left blue roller further down, and the bottom blue roller further right. The idea is to lessen the pressure on the ball so it rolls more smoothly. Some people have also had luck roughing the ball’s surface slightly with cleaning powder – don’t use heavy duty sandpaper.

Apple is known for its well-crafted prototypes, and it turns out that the PowerBook team made about thirty PowerBook 100s with modified trackball mechanisms from Logitech. These modified mechanisms use the same ruby bearings that the Duos use, and as a result they feel much smoother. Evidently Apple used the "Pepsi & Doritos" test, wherein they mixed up a slurry of Pepsi and Doritos and poured it into the trackball before testing it. The jeweled bearing trackballs passed with flying colors. A few lucky souls have these jeweled mechanisms, but unless someone can convince Logitech that the existing base of PowerBook 100 owners is a large enough market, the rest of us will have to suffer with the standard trackball. However, if a new version of the PowerBook 100 does appear outside of the U.S., U.S. users would almost certainly see jeweled trackballs become available, and they might even make their way into repair stock.

The only other problem the PowerBook 100 might have been accused of was lack of speed. The 100’s peppy 16 MHz 68000 destroys the 8 MHz 68000 in my Classic, but it is no match for the 68030 chips in the other PowerBooks. For basic word processing, which is probably the primary use of the 100, I doubt most people notice. I don’t. But what if, in an alternate universe, the PowerBook 100 had a 68030? You’d only have to go to Cupertino to find that alternate universe, because Apple made at least two 68030 prototypes. The prototypes imply that the ROMs can handle a 68030 chip, which helps verify a recently-rumored third-party 68030 upgrade for the 100. Of course, the limited market of the 100 may curtail such plans, but what would you pay for a 68030 upgrade? I’m happy enough with our PowerBook 100 that the upgrade would have to be cheap, and from what I’ve heard, many other 100 owners feel the same way. Any new version of the PowerBook 100 will use a 68030 chip in place of the slower 68000, if only because the 68030 is cheaper now.

The most memorable feature of the PowerBook 100 must be its glory days in the bargain basement. When Apple dropped the prices to clear stock, the PowerBooks flew out of Price Clubs and dealers alike. No one had seen a computer sell like that, which shows that if you price something like a PowerBook right, you’ll have to beat the buyers away with a stick. It appears the 100’s legacy will be this method of cleaning out old machines to judge from the way Apple discontinued the IIsi and dramatically lowered IIsi prices. I think it’s a great move on Apple’s part, and I hope they keep it up. Those fire sale prices allow people to buy a Mac who, for one reason or another, probably never would have bought one then otherwise. On that basis alone, the PowerBook 100 was a smashing success, and as I type on our sub-$1000 8 MB/20 MB PowerBook 100, I see nothing but that success.

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