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The PowerBook Purist

Billy Steinberg dislikes frills. This becomes most evident in PBTools, his package of PowerBook utilities marketed by Inline Design and supported by Microseeds. PBTools offers elegant, basic, PowerBook functions without loading the program down in order to compete in the current industry featuritis epidemic.

PBTools has four sections, PowerWatch, SafeSleep, PowerControl, and PBKeys. The PBTools window provides four buttons corresponding to the four sections, and the section title itself is a pop-up menu for alternative access to the different sections. PBTools places a single battery icon, monogrammed with the initials PB when you’re running on battery power, in the menu bar to the left of the Balloon Help icon. Rather than provide several icons and changing cursors and all that, PBTools packs a ton of information into that single icon. The icon has three visually distinct states – battery power, AC Fast Charge, and AC Slow Charge. Two dots appear over the battery when AppleTalk is on, and a broken bar appears over it all while the drive spins up. While the drive spins normally, the bar shows solid. An up arrow icon does replace the battery icon when the Caps Lock is on, but does anyone use Caps Lock seriously? In each state, a fully charged battery is entirely black, and as you use power the black drains out. This works well, although I find it hard to see the PB in the battery picture when it’s on battery power and about half full. The thick and thin lightning bolts for fast and slow charging work better visually.

PBTools provides a menu from its menu bar icon. The menu offers commands for Sleep (an immediate sleep that doesn’t ask about AppleTalk), Wake/Sleep Hard Drive, and AppleTalk On/Off/On at Restart, along with a shortcut for opening the PBTools Control panel and a menu that lets you select which battery is in use. More on multiple batteries in a bit.

PowerWatch — Unlike other PowerBook utilities which tell you battery percentage or estimated time remaining, PBTools simply displays battery voltages, the only real numbers available. This might sound overly technical, but the PowerWatch part of PBTools displays a graph over time (you can change the time length from three to 96 hours by clicking on it) of battery usage so you can easily see which voltages correspond to which icon states. PBTools lets you track up to four batteries and calibrate the icon displays (how many volts equate to which display for a given battery). I only have one battery, so I couldn’t play with this much, but for people with several batteries, this will be useful since all batteries are different and change over time. You can even export your battery tracking log to a tab-delimited text file, but I think Billy momentarily lost track of his goal of simple elegance there. I can’t imagine wanting to analyze such a log further. PBTools is smart about different types of PowerBooks, and automatically chooses the proper battery type depending on the PowerBook.

[PowerWatch helped last weekend with my new Duo 230. I plugged the Duo in all Friday night, but Saturday morning the battery was almost completely run down. As Saturday went on, the battery still didn’t charge. PBTools indicated that the battery was stuck in slow (trickle) charge mode and that the voltage was decreasing slightly over time. Subsequent troubleshooting and a call to Apple revealed something wrong enough to warrant repair, but it was great to have the PBTools information while speaking to Apple’s tech support person. -Tonya]

You can turn off the PBTools menu from within the PowerWatch section, and there’s also a ChargeAlert function that alerts you if the charger is plugged into the PowerBook (not necessary on Duos) but doesn’t appear to be charging the battery, probably because it’s not plugged into the wall. Handy, since Apple’s Battery DA just notices the fact of the charger being plugged into the Mac.

SafeSleep — The SafeSleep part of PBTools is the least interesting to me, because it lets you password-protect your PowerBook. When you install PBTools, you can enter your name, address, phone, and reward information should you lose the PowerBook. You can enter anything you want in those six lines and they display whenever PBTools asks for your password at startup or wakeup. You can also set PBTools to just request a password, and you can have it accept any key as a password (which is good if you want to display the owner information, but aren’t concerned with protection). PBTools will clear the screen either before sleeping or on wakeup so no one can see your work, and you can always change your password and change the timeout length, after which PBTools puts the PowerBook back to sleep if the correct password hasn’t been entered. This password protection is not serious – booting with the shift key down circumvents it, but it’s fine for basic privacy. I don’t like having passwords, and much of the PowerBook’s attraction is instant access to my work, so I turned SafeSleep off entirely.

PowerControl — Here’s the part of PBTools that Billy Steinberg feels most appropriately handles settings for system sleep, drive sleep, and backlight dimming. Unlike other utilities which provide lots of options and let you create sets of different settings, PBTools only has time limits for system sleep, drive sleep, and backlight dimming based on whether or not the PowerBook is plugged in or running from battery. When plugged in, two additional checkboxes determine if PBTools will protect the LCD (a matter of inverting the screen once per minute after an hour of inactivity) and if it will allow the CPU to rest, which isn’t necessary with AC power.

There are four other functions in PowerControl. A checkbox controls if AppleTalk loads at startup; if it doesn’t load, you save 250K of RAM but have to restart to use it. If you have an Express Modem, you can turn on a setting that ensures that the PowerBook won’t fall asleep while the Express Modem is working, something that might happen otherwise and cause great consternation. Another checkbox lets you thicken thin cursors to make them more visible – why this is in the PowerControl section I couldn’t tell you. Finally, a Deep Discharge button claims to do the best deep discharge of any software product for those of you with nickel-cadmium batteries.

PBKeys — The final section, PBKeys, lets you define shortcuts for the standard PowerBook functions, system sleep, drive sleep, find cursor (a circle flashes around the cursor), and oddly enough, drive wake. Why would you want to wake your drive manually?

PBTools can disable caps lock, although a sub-checkbox provides access with shift-caps lock. Another option makes PBTools beep if you press the caps lock key, my favorite for the "key most in need of being moved off of the keyboard" award. A final checkbox remaps the arrow keys when the control key is down, so control-up arrow is PageUp, control-down arrow is PageDown, control-left arrow is Home, and control-right arrow is End. Handy, I suppose, but Nisus has similar commands internally, as do most word processors. [The controls work great in Eudora! -Tonya]

What’s not there — PBTools doesn’t have a lot of features in this day and age; however, many of the "missing" features are easily found elsewhere or frivolous. The free SuperClock does clock-functions admirably, and I see no need for the airport wakeup feature common in other packages since it’s easier and possibly safer to put your PowerBook through the X-ray machine (set it well into the machine, away from the roller motor).

I admit that I’m fond of CPU’s sticky menus. You could argue that such a feature is out of PBTools’s design range, but every PowerBook has a trackball, and every third-party trackball I know of comes with a click-lock function. Sticky menus seems like a function every PowerBook should have, and thus appropriate for PBTools. In addition, I would like to see a keyboard shortcut for cycling among applications. Many utilities offer these options, but I like to run as small a system as possible on the PowerBook. Finally the one keyboard shortcut I’d like to see added is one that toggles AppleTalk on and off (or of course, PBTools could do it automatically).

Overall — For the minimalist who wants the most from the PowerBook with the least distraction, nothing comes close to PBTools. If you like playing with lots of settings, you’ll like the PowerWatch battery tracking graphs, but another of the packages may provide more buttons to push, menus to choose, settings to set, and displays to watch.

PBTools has some of the best balloon help I’ve seen, and perhaps the biggest balloon I’ve seen (it describes all the possible icon states). If you get PBTools, turn on balloon help and explore; you won’t regret it. The manual is equally as refreshing in that it provides background as to why and when you might want to use the various features in different situations. With PowerBooks as different as they are from desktop Macs, the information about power usage in the manual is extremely welcome.

If you use CompuServe or ZiffNet/Mac, Billy provides tremendous tech support in various forums when PBTools questions arise; I hope Microseeds is as good on the phone. Fortunately, there’s not much that can go wrong in a package as elegant as PBTools. Highly recommended – it’s what we use.

PBTools lists for $99 and is probably available for a good bit less (and you can sometimes find it bundled with Inline Sync). If you already own an older version of PBTools, there is an updater to 1.1 online on the commercial services and on <> as:


Inline Design — 203/435-4995
Microseeds — 802/879-3365 — 802/879-4602 (fax)
[email protected]

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