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Apple Announces the PowerBook 1400

From a customer and public relations standpoint, the PowerBook 5300s may have been the most disastrous set of Macintoshes Apple ever made, although many dedicated 5300 owners have stuck with Apple and have had good luck with their machines. First, the series earned the nickname "HindenBook" when production was halted to correct a potentially explosive problem with its original lithium-ion battery (see TidBITS-295). Next came a series of software compatibility problems, a system update, a quiet hardware recall, more updates, and then a massive advertising venture with major Hollywood movies just as Apple pulled the 5300 series from dealer shelves and instituted a "repair extension" program (see TidBITS-331).

After all that, it’s not surprising Apple isn’t looking to turn the laptop world on its ear with the PowerBook 1400 series, a conservative followup to the PowerBook 5300 that aims to provide a high-quality, reliable laptop that addresses critical shortcomings in the previous PowerBook line. The bad news is that the PowerBook 1400s don’t look to be speed demons or dirt cheap; the good news is that they can handle a CD-ROM drive, have flexible expansion capabilities, and preliminary reports indicate they’re solid and well-engineered.

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The Basic Specs— The PowerBook 1400 series picks up where the top of the 5300 line left off, with a PowerPC 603e processor running at 117 MHz, and a high-end PowerBook 1400 with a 133 MHz 603e processor due in January. The low-end PowerBook 1400cs features a dual-scan passive matrix display with no processor cache, while the higher-end PowerBook 1400c features an active matrix display and a 128K Level 2 cache.

The displays measure 11.3 inches diagonally, and features 800 by 600, 16-bit color. Although passive matrix displays are generally dimmer and less sharp than active matrix screens, reports so far indicate the 1400’s passive matrix display is quite respectable, surpassing the quality of the passive matrix screens in the 5300 series.

The PowerBook 1400 series sports a 5.5-inch, front-loading device bay, which can be used for a floppy drive or (at long last!) a 6x CD-ROM drive. None of the expansion bay devices for the PowerBook 1400 series use SCSI: along with the internal hard disk, they all use a less-expensive but speedy IDE bus. The expansion bay can also hold a spare battery, but unlike the 5300s it’s only passive storage. However, PowerBook 1400s also sport a small, rechargeable lithium backup battery, so you can put a 1400 to sleep and swap its batteries without losing data or a RAM disk. You can also swap devices in and out of the front device bay while the PowerBook sleeps.

Unlike previous PowerBook models, PowerBook 1400s do not feature flip-out feet to tilt the keyboard forward if you’re using it on a flat surface like a table. The reason is that removable media devices in the front-loading bay – like a CD-ROM drive – can’t open properly if the PowerBook is tilted forward.

PowerBook 1400s feature the same PC Card expansion capabilities as the 5300 series, with room for two Type II cards or one Type III card, and the internal expansion slot accommodates Ethernet and/or video cards. Also like the 5300s, the 1400s use nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries with reported real-world battery lifetimes of two to three hours.

According to Apple, the PowerBooks 1400 series will ship with System 7.5.3 pre-loaded (rather than the recently-released System 7.5.5 – see TidBITS-346) along with ClarisWorks, Apple’s Internet Connection Kit, Apple Remote Access, and other utility software.

BookCovers — Perhaps the most talked-about new feature of the PowerBook 1400 is its removable lid panel, called a BookCover. Apple will ship the PowerBook 1400’s with a standard grey cover and a transparent cover: the basic idea of the transparent cover is that you can slip a bit of pre-printed, laminated card stock under it to give your 1400 a distinctive look. Apple will reportedly include a number of card-stock designs with the 1400 – think of them as the PowerBook equivalent to Desktop Patterns, except these kill trees – or with a little ambition you could certainly create your own "CoverWear." I’ve seen reports of third-party replacement lids, some offering functional enhancements like stereo speakers, and some offering… well, something else entirely. Imagine a celebrity BookCover line painted by Ringo Starr, and you get the idea.

What About Expansion? Opening and working inside the PowerBook 1400 is reportedly simple, especially in comparison to the tortuous innards of previous PowerBook models: just remove a panel above the keyboard, lift out the keyboard, then remove the heat sink and some conventional screws. This also reveals one of the primary changes in the PowerBook 1400: a more complicated (but more flexible) RAM configuration. The 1400 comes with 8 MB soldered to the motherboard, and there’s space for three memory add-on boards. Apple will include either a 4 or 8 MB module on one side of the bay, leaving two slots empty. Memory from one side of the bay can’t be used on the other side, but you can install stackable memory modules on the empty side without removing the memory Apple installed for you. The PowerBook 1400 currently tops out at 64 MB of RAM: two 24 MB stackable modules on one side, one 8 MB module on the other, and 8 MB on the motherboard.

A number of vendors have announced products specifically for the PowerBook 1400 series. For the front storage bay, VST Technologies will produce additional hard disks, ZIP drives (next year), and magneto optical devices. Magneto optical devices are expected to start at 230 MB, moving to 640 MB in mid-1997. Focus Enhancements <[email protected]> and Newer Technology have announced internal Ethernet adapters. Moreover, Newer Technology will ship a spate of additional products, including stacked memory modules, a 16-bit video card, and (notably) a 200 MHz processor upgrade (with 128K of Level 2 cache). I’ve heard that both Apple and Focus Enhancement will offer video options as well.



Perhaps the most clever 1400-related product is the PowerCover from Keep It Simple Systems. I’ll just mention "BookCover" and "solar," and leave the rest to your imagination.


Performance — The PowerBook 1400’s 117 MHz 603e processor might seem paltry now, especially when 240 MHz versions of the same processor are shipping in desktop units from Power Computing, and Apple is shipping its own 200 MHz 603e machines in the Performa 6400 line. Preliminary tests show that the PowerBook 1400’s performance is right in line with its predecessor, the PowerBook 5300 – certainly no speed demon. The PowerBook 1400’s CPU is on a removable daughter card, and Newer Technology has already announced it will provide 200 MHz CPU upgrades for the PowerBook 1400.

However, before buying a PowerBook 1400 and thinking you’ll be able to improve its performance significantly via a processor upgrade, consider that its system bus runs at 33 MHz, and is only 32 bits wide. This is half the speed (and half the width) of busses found in current high-end desktop machines, which means that a processor will spend a lot of its time waiting for the rest of the PowerBook to catch up. Some tasks – particularly CPU-intensive actions – can be improved with a processor upgrade, but don’t expect dramatic, system-wide performance improvements.

Pricing and Availability — Although there’s plenty of hoopla about the PowerBook 1400 series right now, actual units aren’t expected to be available until mid-November, and Apple is already warning it will be difficult to purchase a PowerBook 1400 until at least mid-January, when they’ve completely ramped up their manufacturing capability. Although this typical for PowerBooks, it would be nice if Apple actually had PowerBooks available for customers when the machines were introduced.

Pricing for the PowerBook 1400 series is likely to disappoint many users, especially after months of rumors low-end PowerBook 1400s might come in at less than $2,000. Apple is currently estimating a floppy-only version of the 1400cs with 12 MB of RAM and a 750 MB hard disk will retail for about $2,500, while a fully-loaded 1400c with a CD-ROM drive, 16 MB of RAM, and a 1 GB hard disk will retail for around $3,500.

What About Hooper? If you’re not satisfied with the PowerBook 1400, your patience might be rewarded. Apple expects to ship higher-end laptops, codenamed Hooper, in the first half of 1997, with processor speeds of at least 200 MHz and a built-in PCI expansion slot. There’s also a chance that we’ll see Macintosh clone vendors introduce Mac OS compatible laptops during 1997, particularly once the Mac OS is available for PowerPC Platform (PPCP) machines.

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