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Four and Twenty Blackbirds

The 68LC040 PowerBooks, code-named Blackbirds, are expected to swoop down onto dealers’ shelves sometime in the second quarter of this year, and the latest word suggests Apple plans to officially announce them on May 16th. In addition to the Blackbirds, look for the Duo line to discard its 68030 models in favor of two new 68040 models.

In essence, the upcoming PowerBook lineup will consist of six PowerBooks, with three main types, and each type coming with either a color or a grayscale screen. It appears that four of the PowerBooks (the Blackbirds) will be based on the 140/170 line and have a 16-bit bus. The 520 and 520c will use a 25 MHz chip and passive matrix screens; the 540 and 540c will sport 33 MHz chips and active matrix screens. The new Duos 280 and 280c have 33 MHz chips, active matrix screens, a 32-bit bus, and carry on the Duo tradition with a light weight, docking paraphernalia, and no floppy drive.

New Features — The Blackbirds offer several new innovations, whereas the Duos merely add a faster chip. The Blackbird PowerBooks replace the trackball with a Trackpad, which you operate by moving your finger on a pad located where you’d expect a trackball. I haven’t tried a Trackpad, but of four people I know who have used one briefly, three found the Trackpad easy to learn and seemed quite enthusiastic. The fourth person didn’t like the Trackpad but also dislikes trackballs.

Other changes in the Blackbird PowerBooks include onboard Ethernet, larger screens, room for two batteries, slots for two PCMCIA cards, and optional stereo speakers. Battery life on the new machines should range from two to six hours, though adding a second battery increases run time along with weight. Rumor has it that some or all of the new machines will have a row of function keys across the top of the keyboard.

Power Mac PowerBooks — It looks as though there will be various methods of upgrading the new PowerBooks to the PowerPC 603 chip, which promises to lighten your wallet and supercharge your PowerBook. Given that the 603 chip won’t be available for several months and that the upgrade won’t come cheap, I tend to question the validity of worrying too much about the upgrade if you are an individual buyer. For example, say you buy a 520 now and then a year later decide to buy the update. You get a new PDS card or a maybe a new logic board, but your original screen, keyboard, power system, and so on are still the aging original equipment. I’d be inclined to hang on to that 520 for a little longer and then sell it when the second round of PowerPC 603-based PowerBooks arrives. In the features checklist war, the capability to upgrade to a faster chip gives the new PowerBooks an edge since vendors are not yet commonly promising Pentium upgrades for 486-based notebooks. Now that would be a lap-warmer!

New Docks — Existing docking equipment should work with the new Duos, but Apple will release a Duo Dock II that will work with old and new Duos, offering Ethernet and fancier video. The new dock reportedly includes an onboard cache and a floating point unit (only the 68030 Duos can use the FPU, and even then it helps only some applications) to speed applications when the Duo is docked. Apple may offer an upgrade so that older docks can become Duo Dock IIs. I wonder if Apple has something in mind for the MiniDock market as well? The Duo Dock may provide a more organized looking desktop, but it is expensive and bulky; a MiniDock provides a docking station that you can easily pop in the PowerBook bag for travel, and it enables you to use the Duo’s screen and an external monitor at the same time, a fabulous productivity boost for people addicted to multiple monitors.

Wrap-Up — No matter how you slice the Blackbird pie, it looks like the new models will be a pleasure to use. Preliminary price estimates suggest that the cost will range from $2,000 up to about $5,000 for a loaded 540c. If you find yourself in a low-budget situation, watch for prices on the various 68030 models to drop as the new machines roll out. Rumor has it that almost all of the old models will disappear, with the possible exception of the budget-friendly 145B and 165B.

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