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PowerBook 3400: The Ultimate Laptop?

I was overjoyed to have been selected as a seed site to test a new PowerBook, the much-anticipated machine code-named Hooper, which Apple shipped on 17-Feb-97 as the PowerBook 3400. I had no idea how Hooper had been named – did it mean the laptop would jump through hoops which no other portable computers had jumped before? All I knew for sure was that I was eager to try Apple’s fastest portable ever.

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General Impressions — Taking the unit out of the box and opening its lid, I was amazed at how large its 12.1-inch screen seemed in comparison to the 9.5-inch display on my PowerBook 540c. My initial physical impressions were positive: its active-matrix screen is bright and sharp, displaying 16-bit color at a resolution of 800 by 600, and its keyboard feels just right. Although the 3400 resembles a large 5300, the unit feels much sturdier; it is a pleasure to touch and behold. The placement of the microphone and sound-out jacks on the left side of the computer is convenient; I can’t say as much about the ADB port at the back on the left side, since it could be inconvenient for right-handed users who attach devices like mice or numeric keypads. I found the 3400 to be a speedy performer, approximately in the range of a Power Macintosh 8500/150 except for video. Software installs speedily from the built-in 6x CD-ROM. Reviewers complain that the PowerBook 3400 weighs over seven pounds, but it felt lighter in my carrying case than my PowerBook 540c, perhaps because its power adapter is lighter than the 540c’s.

One disappointment was the wakeup time. Since the 170, I’ve found PowerBooks to have an annoyingly long wakeup time, and the 3400 is no exception. Ideally, wakeup should be almost instantaneous. I know that Apple’s engineers are making efforts in this area.

Configurations — The PowerBook 3400 comes in four configurations, three of which are shipping. First of all, there are two units with a PowerPC 603e processor running at 180 MHz. One is a $4,500 stripped-down version which comes with neither the ingenious PCI-based Ethernet/modem card nor the 6x CD-ROM drive which fits in the 3400’s expansion bay. Both feature a 1.3 GB IDE hard disk. The second 180 MHz configuration costs approximately $5,000 and includes the CD-ROM and the Ethernet/modem card.

For approximately $5,500, Apple offers a 3400 with a 200 MHz 603e, the same 6x CD-ROM and Ethernet/modem card, and a 2 GB hard disk (which is somewhat faster than the 1.3 GB hard disk in the 180 MHz configurations. Finally, in April, Apple plans to ship an ultimate high-end notebook, a 240 MHz 3400 with a 12x CD-ROM drive and a 3 GB hard disk for approximately $6,500. In other words, these machines are not cheap.

All configurations come with 16 MB of RAM soldered to the motherboard, which leaves the one non-stackable memory slot free. A memory card holding up to 128 MB can be installed, which brings the maximum capacity of the 3400 to 144 MB of RAM, more than double the capacity of the PowerBook 1400.

Given that the built-in Ethernet/modem PCI card (absent in the low-end 180 MHz model), takes up the single PCI slot, those who wish to install third-party PCI boards will have to remove the modem. One wonders how many third-party boards will be developed for the 3400’s miniature PCI slot; even though it uses PCI, it’s a non-standard size.

Hardware Characteristics — The PowerBook 3400 uses the basic architecture of the 7500/8500/9500 desktop PCI Power Macs: it has a 64-bit data bus between processor and memory (and a 40 MHz bus speed); 256K of high-speed L2 cache; DMA (Direct Memory Access) for I/O; its single serial port is a GeoPort; and a first in PowerBooks, it uses high-speed EDO (Extended Data Output) RAM more common to the Intel platform. A Chips & Technologies video chip, typical on high-end PC notebooks, offers limited QuickDraw acceleration (rectangle copy and fill). The lower PC card slot accepts "zoom" video cards, giving them direct access to the 3400’s video hardware and thus permitting full-motion full-screen video.

The sound quality from the four built-in speakers is mediocre: when playing music, it sounds tinny, with no bass whatsoever. It is fine for multimedia presentations, however, and headphones completely alleviate this shortcoming.

Design — Though its internal architecture is much more advanced than that of the relatively old 5300/1400 architecture, the physical design of the 3400 lags behind that of the 1400 in some significant ways: for example, in the 1400, Apple has done away with Torx screws and gives complete and easy accessibility to memory, expansion cards, and the hard disk.

Usage — I used the PowerBook 3400 at least seven hours per day for two months with no problems whatsoever and few crashes. This is a testament to the robustness of the hardware and the stability of System 7.6. Battery life (using lithium-ion batteries) is adequate but not stellar at about two hours even under relatively severe conditions (i.e. no RAM disk, PowerBook control panel set to "maximum conservation" with backlight dimming set to turn off completely, Ethernet connection, but no CD usage). The Ethernet/33.6 kbps modem card automatically switches between the modem and Ethernet functions depending upon whether a standard telephone or Ethernet cable is plugged into it; the 3400 ships with a dongle allowing both modem and Ethernet connections at the same time. I learned from Cary Lu’s Macworld review of the 3400 that this is Apple’s first PowerBook to include a fan (not mentioned in Apple’s technical documentation). This surprised me; although the palm rest area to the left of the trackpad could get fairly warm, which I actually appreciated in chilly Parisian libraries (did Apple borrow this idea from Saab cars?), I’m fairly certain that the fan never came on during two months of operation.

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More Features — The 3400’s modem, based on the Rockwell 288 chip, offers good reliability (twice I inadvertently picked up the phone handset while I was connected to the Internet, without dropping the line) and good performance. The modem does not have flash ROM, so it will not be upgradable to upcoming 56K technologies. It can be used either with AppleFax or FaxSTF software (bundled).

I understand that the 3400 is the first PowerBook with active termination on the external SCSI bus, and this relieves it of some of the "sensitivity" which some users may have experienced while using previous PowerBooks with improperly terminated SCSI devices. I had no trouble connecting an Iomega Jaz and an external Apple CD 600e CD-ROM drive to the 3400.

The 3400 does video mirroring, a feature where the PowerBook display also shows on an external monitor or, more likely, on a big screen via an overhead projector. The 3400 can drive an external monitor at 1024 by 768 pixels, however, it can only do so with 256 colors, which may be unacceptably low for people who need such a high-end laptop. The 3400 needs more VRAM, at least 2 MB, which is becoming standard on high-end PC laptops. Unfortunately, the 3400 cannot drive two monitors in non-mirror mode – a feature many PowerBook 3400 owners will surely miss.

The Right Idea — Although it lacks a few features, most notably in the video support, the 3400 is the consummate PowerBook with an emphasis on the word "power." It is by far the most comfortable and usable laptop I have tried. The bad news is that I’ll have to sell my car to buy one.

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.

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