When Apple introduced its first family of laptop computers, the PowerBook 100, 140, and 170, the machines were hailed as capable and feature-rich, and were attractive and usable to boot. With additions to the 100-series PowerBook family, and then the advent of the Duo and 500-series PowerBooks, Apple managed to maintain its reputation. But in recent years the offerings have been limited, and it wasn’t until the release of the PowerBook 1400 that Apple had another winner on its hands.
Overview — As the second generation of PowerPC-based Apple laptops, the PowerBook 1400 family sports a stunningly large display, clean design, and the first built-in CD-ROM drive in a PowerBook. When it was introduced last year, the 603e-based 1400, running at 117 MHz, was considered a shade slow compared to other current Macintosh desktop computers and PC laptops. Apple’s February release of a 133 MHz model provides a perfect bridge for those who would like a solid performer but don’t need (or can’t afford) the wicked-fast PowerBook 3400 (see Marc Bizer’s review of the PowerBook 3400 next in this issue).
Look & Feel — Though Apple’s first PowerBooks weren’t that visually exciting, they lived in an era when computers weren’t trying to be works of art. The 500-series machines were sleek, making it clear that aesthetic design had been considered in their production, so the PowerBook 5300 family was especially disappointing in its tendency toward visual doldrums. I was delighted to see a visually appealing laptop the first time I encountered a 1400 in a local dealer showroom, and in the month that I’ve owned one, I’ve continued to be happy with its looks.
Accessible layout is at least as important as aesthetics, and Apple has succeeded again in producing a machine that’s easy to approach. The display offers easy-to-reach brightness and contrast controls (they’re on the right side, but are as reachable with the left hand as with the right), and though the catches that open the PowerBook and release the battery and CD-ROM or floppy drive seemed "backwards" at first (requiring a press in the opposite direction from my old PowerBook 100), I adapted quickly. The battery and drives can be removed with the same hand that releases the catch, important if you’re holding the PowerBook with the other hand or, for whatever reason, have only one hand available.
Apple’s new PowerBook keyboard is a wonderful improvement over past models. The twelve function keys (F1 through F12) are small but usable, and so far I’ve found nothing that insists upon the higher-numbered keys being available. (I’ve remapped Microsoft Word’s word count feature, which uses F15, to F12. Yes, I can live without a double-underline keystroke.) Unlike some laptop keyboards, this one doesn’t slow down my fairly fast typing pace, and so far I’ve accidentally hit the wrong key on only a few occasions; certainly no more than on my desktop keyboard. My only wish is that there were a right-hand Command key, so I could, with a single hand, hit the Command-Shift-9 SignatureQuote FKEY I’ve used for years. I suspect I can either get used to doing it two-handed or select another FKEY number for use with Rick Holzgrafe’s invaluable shareware tool. (I now do virtually all my email from the PowerBook, and I’m not giving up SignatureQuote.)
The trackpad has a clickable button, but I find myself hardly ever using it, relying instead on the trackpad’s tap, double-tap, and drag capabilities Apple has added to the trackpad since earlier incarnations. These features are adjustable, so you can turn them off if you prefer to click using a physical button, or if you prefer to be able to tap but not drag on the trackpad.
Accessibility — The twin bays in the front of the PowerBook 1400, below its now-familiar wrist rest, hold the battery on one side and the swappable CD-ROM and floppy drives on the other side. I expected to have to complain that the floppy drive and CD-ROM drive couldn’t be swapped at any time without a restart – but it’s not so! These two drives are "hot-swappable," so they can be inserted or exchanged at any time whether the computer is on, off, or asleep. (If a CD or floppy happens to be mounted when you remove the drive it’s in, the computer will ask you to put the drive back and dismount the item before trying again.)
I wouldn’t be surprised to see other modules for the PowerBook 1400 in the near future, such as a DAT drive, or a DVD drive, or just about any other storage device. A much-delayed Zip drive is scheduled for release by VST Technologies in "second quarter 1997."
Meanwhile, the twin Type II PC Card slots (formerly called PCMCIA slots) on the left side of the computer serve my telecommunications needs, working fine with Global Village’s PowerPort Platinum Pro or with Dayna’s CommuniCard Plus, each of which offers both 33.6 Kbps modem and 10Base-T Ethernet capability. These slots can be used for hard disk storage, too, and the modem or Ethernet tasks can be relegated to the computer’s internal expansion slot.
The expansion slot, located in the back of the computer under the speaker grille, is unbelievably easy to access and use. I needed to read the instructions that came with my video card before I could determine that sliding the speaker grille to the left would release it, but the rest of the installation process was self-explanatory. A small Phillips-head screwdriver is needed, which renders my specialized T-8 and T-10 screwdriver tips obsolete. (They were necessary to get into earlier PowerBook models, and a modicum of luck was needed to get out of them.)
I was surprised that video output and Ethernet are both optional, but I can understand Apple’s desire to avoid crowding the PowerBook with features that not every user will use. If both could be added internally without the use of a PC Card, I’d do it, but I’ll settle for having internal video and PC Card Ethernet.
My only accessibility complaint is that the PowerBook 1400 takes a tad too long to wake up to suit my tastes, between 20 seconds and a minute, averaging around 30 seconds. This is much faster than starting up from scratch but ought to be nearly instantaneous. A modern computer often needs to do much more upon waking up than the earliest PowerBooks, but it ought to be able to perform those tasks more quickly, or perhaps simultaneously rather than sequentially.
Battery — Apple’s 500-series PowerBooks cleverly allowed the use of two batteries at once; one battery could be replaced by an optional PC Card cage. Although you can store a spare battery in the bay designed for the CD-ROM and floppy drives, that battery can’t be active, surprisingly enough. Two batteries in tandem last longer than two batteries used one after the other, so it would be useful for Apple to build battery contacts into this bay. The single nickel metal hydride battery is rated for two to four hours, but seems to last up to an hour and a half in standard use, with occasional CD or floppy access, and the color display’s backlighting at a comfortable level. Of course, conserving power through actions such as turning down the display brightness will make the battery last longer, perhaps even over two hours.
Sound & Display — Shorter battery life may not be such a bad trade-off, considering the bright, attractive, 11.3-inch, active-matrix color display on the 1400c. Its 800 by 600 display (the resolution can’t be changed) is slightly smaller than the same display on a 16-inch color monitor, but not enough smaller to make it at all uncomfortable, and the image is sharp across the entire display without any visible split lines.
The optional video output card, which comes with the same adapter cable required for Apple’s earlier video-capable PowerBooks, supports a variety of monitors and up to thousands of colors (16-bit color).
Sound is not a key feature of the PowerBook 1400, though its capabilities are adequate. The machine includes a mono microphone, built into the display, and a small mono speaker which doesn’t do justice to audio CDs. However, the audio jack on the back of the computer supports stereo headphones, battery-powered external speakers, or speaker-equipped monitors.
The Verdict — Apple’s PowerBook 1400 isn’t a raw powerhouse like its big brother the 3400, but neither does it carry the 3400’s price tag. With a range of speeds from 117 to 133 MHz, a range of storage, video, and expansion options, and good standard features, the PowerBook 1400 is a good choice for those who need a Mac laptop for a reasonable price (roughly $2,500 to $4,000, depending on configuration). For more information about the 1400, see Geoff Duncan’s overview article in TidBITS-350.
DealBITS — With the purchase of a PowerBook 1400 or 3400, Cyberian Outpost is offering TidBITS readers free copies of Aladdin’s Spring Cleaning 1.0 and FWB Software’s HSM Toolkit 1.0.