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Power PowerBooks Arrive

Today Apple announced the long-awaited upgrades to its well-designed but aging line of PowerBooks in the form of the PowerBook 5000-series, the PowerBook 2000-series, and the PowerBook 190. As you might expect from the extra zero in the name, the PowerBook 5000-series and 2000-series contain PowerPC chips, in this case, the PowerPC 603e, which combines high performance with low power requirements. For owners of the existing PowerBook 500-series and PowerBook 200-series, upgrades to the new 603e chip are available via a daughtercard for the 500s and via a new logic board for the Duos. Machines in the 5000-series will be available on 11-Sep-95, and the others should appear in mid-October. Apple expects some shortages in the first few weeks due to massive demand, but thinks their supply will be sufficient after the initial crush. Let’s hope they’re right for once.

PowerBook 5000-series — The 5000-series PowerBooks looks much like the current 500-series, although there are some differences, most notably the inch of depth that Apple managed to shave off the new models. The 500-series measures 11.5" by 9.7", whereas the new 5000-series comes in at 11.5" by 8.5". Weight dropped as well, with the new machines ranging from 5.9 pounds to 6.2 pounds, fully configured.

Useful features shared among the 5000-series models include lithium-ion batteries that Apple claims offer battery life in the three to five hour range, 8-bit color video-out, built-in speaker, 16-bit sound input and output, integrated microphone, expansion bay with an IDE connector for third-party storage devices (the floppy drive normally lives in the expansion bay), built-in infrared networking, and two PC Card slots (the artist formerly known as PCMCIA slots) that can accommodate two Type 1 or Type II PC Cards or one Type III PC Card. Standard ports include the infrared window for wireless networking, video-out port, stereo sound input and output, SCSI, LocalTalk/printer port, and ADB.

The differences between the four 5000-series models are based primarily on configurations:

  • First up is the $2,250 5300/100, which offers a PowerPC 603e chip running at 100 MHz, and comes standard with 8 MB of RAM, a 500 MB drive, and a 9.5" passive-matrix greyscale display.
  • The 5300cs/100 improves on the previous model with the addition of a 10.5" dual-scan color display, the choice of 8 MB or 16 MB of RAM, and either a 500 MB or 750 MB hard disk. Prices range from $2,800 to $3,700.
  • The next step up is the 5300c/100, which utilizes a 10.4" active-matrix color display that can display 256 or thousands of colors. It shares the 5300cs/100’s choice of RAM and hard disk, and prices range between $3,700 and $4,700.
  • Finally, we come to the 5300ce/117, which costs between $6,500 and $6,800, and is probably well worth the money if you need its features. It uses a 117 MHz 603e chip for faster performance, and its 10.4" active-matrix color display can display 800 by 600 pixels in thousands of colors. The only options for RAM and a hard disk are 32 MB of RAM and 1.1 GB drive, which helps account for the stratospheric price. Personally, I can’t imagine carrying around $6,500 worth of PowerBook and possibly dropping it.

New Features — Apple is emphasizing the expansion bay, the PC Card slots, and the infrared networking, and all for good reason. The expansion bay ships with a 3.5" floppy drive installed, but you can easily remove that and replace it with other devices such as additional hard disks or magneto-optical drives. The expansion bay also sports internal power connectors, so third parties like VST Power Systems will produce power adapters that are entirely internal to the PowerBook. To reduce weight by about seven ounces, you can replace the floppy drive with Apple’s PC Card storage module.

PC Card support is extremely important in these new PowerBooks, since they don’t offer built-in Ethernet or an internal modem, as did the 500-series. To add Ethernet or a modem, you must use a PC Card, and Farallon has announced plans to create (for December release) a combination card that includes both Ethernet and modem capabilities. Other vendors, such as Global Village, Dayna, Focus, Megahertz, and Newer Technologies have also announced various PC Cards for use with the 5000-series. Although this move away from Ethernet on the logic board and an internal modem connector seems like a mistake (you have to waste one or both of your PC Card slots to get the functionality built into the 500-series), I think it’s quite positive. After all, the 500-series on-board Ethernet required a transceiver so it wasn’t exactly free, plus there is only one modem available for the 500-series and it doesn’t do 28,800 bps! Opening these PowerBooks up to the PC Card standard means more choices and lower prices.

The entirely new infrared networking capabilities are most interesting. All the PowerBooks have an infrared window in the back panel, and the included Apple IR File Exchange software makes transferring files simple. IR File Exchange automatically recognizes other IR-equipped machines in the vicinity (up to six feet away with a 30 degree angle) and creates guest folders for sharing files securely. Of course, standard File Sharing works as well for password-protected access to a hard disk. IR File Exchange supports multiple simultaneous infrared connections, and can automatically complete a file transfer after the beam is broken and re-established. For connecting to a desktop machine, Farallon will provide the Farallon AirDock. I don’t currently know the speed of the infrared connection, but it’s unlikely to be any faster than standard LocalTalk, if even that fast. The IR networking functions as a standard network connection, so you have to change connections in the Network control panel if you want to switch to Ethernet or LocalTalk. Of course, the best part of the infrared networking is that it enables you to play Spaceward Ho! or other network games in meetings. And just think of the note-passing possibilities in the K-12 market….

PowerBook 2000-series — Less innovative, but no less desirable is the new PowerBook Duo 2000-series, which is primarily a processor upgrade from the 680×0 line to the PowerPC 603e chip. There’s only one machine in the 2000 line right now, the PowerBook Duo 2300c/100, and it sports a 100 MHz 603e processor, 8 or 20 MB of RAM, a 750 MB or 1.1 GB hard disk, and a 9.5" active-matrix color display capable of displaying thousands of colors.

The main physical change to the Duo 2300c/100 is the replacement of the tiny trackball with an improved trackpad that can be used without a button (although the button is present). This new trackpad, available only on the Duo 2300c/100 and the PowerBook 190/66, enables you to click, drag, and double-click by tapping on the pad. According to Apple, the new trackpad isn’t yet included in the 5000-series because it might have hurt availability; it will undoubtedly be in future models.

The Duo 2300c/100 should be available in mid-October at prices ranging from $3,500 to $4,700. Existing Duo owners will be pleased that the Duo 2300c/100 is supposedly completely compatible with all existing peripherals for the current Duo series, and all previous Duo models can be upgraded in mid-October to the PowerPC 603e chip via a new logic board for about $1,300.

PowerBook 190/66 — Last, but not leased (since they’re cheaper), come the PowerBook 190/66 and 190cs/66, which combine the form factor and design of the 5000-series with the basic functionality of the 500-series. They include the new clickable trackpad and have the same expansion bay and PC Card slots as the 5000-series, but run on a 33 MHz (Apple calls it 66/33 MHz) 68LC040 processor. The difference between the two units is the screen – the 190 has a 9.5" passive-matrix greyscale screen and the 190cs has a 10.4" dual-scan color display. The 190-series uses a nickel-metal-hydride battery instead of the lithium-ion battery of the 5000-series. Prices range from $1,650 for a 4 MB/500 MB 190 to $2,300 for an 8 MB/500 MB 190cs, and both models will be available in mid-October.

Upgrades are plentiful for the 190-series. A logic board swap will get you a PowerPC 603e processor, and once you’ve done that you can add a 10.4" active matrix color display. Other upgrade possibilities are lithium-ion batteries, infrared networking capabilities, and a video-out port. Once you start looking at the possibility of upgrades though, you have to decide if it isn’t worth paying extra up front and buying a 5300 instead.

The 190-series sounds like a decent basic PowerBook, unlike the 150, which felt hamstrung. I think many 190 users will be confused by the labelling on existing products that claim they’re for use with the "100-series" – since the 190 models are very different from the previous machines – but Apple wanted to show that the 190 models were in the "value line" by using that number.

Overall Thoughts — I think these machines are going to be a big hit, in large part because of the expansion bay, the PC Card slots, the infrared networking, and the performance of the PowerPC 603e chip. They’re good, solid upgrades to the PowerBook line and Apple should be proud. However, I do feel a certain letdown in that the 5000-series is too much like existing PowerBooks. Apple took over the notebook market with the first PowerBooks, which were light-years ahead of the competition at the time. Since then, the PC notebooks have improved significantly. For example, the IBM ThinkPads have infrared networking and those extremely cool butterfly keyboards that expand out when you open the top. I have yet to see a PC notebook with a pointing device as good as any of Apple’s trackballs or trackpads, and the infrared networking in the 5000-series is no doubt much easier to use because it uses Macintosh software, but these machines aren’t a home run, and they won’t give Apple back the lead in the notebook market. Still, they do qualify as a solid double, and Apple has more at-bats delight its fans with some truly revolutionary new machines. (My apologies for the baseball analogies; I’m reading a book about the 1964 baseball season, and it’s hard to escape the terminology.)

A hint to Apple: a desktop machine that could sleep like a PowerBook would be at least a triple, if not a four-bagger.

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