Apple’s PowerBooks not only redefined the laptop computer industry, but also embodied a nebulous combination of style, innovation, and prestige – elements Apple has been trying regain. In this issue, we take real-world looks at the newest contenders: the PowerBook 1400 and 3400, the latter currently holding the title as fastest laptop in the world. Also, Adam raises some interesting questions about Apple’s decision to drop Open Transport in Rhapsody.
CDA Goes to Washington — The U.S. Supreme Court has begun hearings on the Communications Decency Act. I won’t pretend to analyze the results of the initial oral arguments, but I found reading the complete transcript to be fascinating. If you’re interested in how the Supreme Court justices queried the attorneys for both sides, check it out at the URL below. If you haven’t followed the issue over the last two years, the Communications Decency Act (passed as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996) attempts to limit "patently offensive" material on the Internet as defined by local community standards (see TidBITS-315). [ACE]
About Those R&D Numbers — Several readers wrote into comment about the numbers Apple was bandying around in relation to the research and development budgets. The Apple executives said that other PC vendors devote only 1 to 2 percent of sales to R&D. That may be true, but it doesn’t take into account the fact that other vendors pay licensing fees to Microsoft, in part to account for Microsoft’s R&D on Windows 95. In addition, I said that Apple was aiming to cut the ATG (Advanced Technology Group) budget to 5 percent of sales; I should have said that Apple plans to cut the total R&D budget to 5 percent of sales, since ATG is only a part of Apple’s overall research efforts. [ACE]
Macromedia Fixes Shockwave Director — On 19-Mar-97, Macromedia issued a fix for the security holes in Shockwave Director we reported on last week (see TidBITS-370). No other details were available, but note that you must download the complete Shockwave Essentials package to get the fixed version of Shockwave Director. The download is 1.1 MB. [ACE]
As many of you know from reading my article in TidBITS-370, Apple has announced that Open Transport will enter "maintenance mode" and eventually be replaced in Rhapsody by Unix BSD (Berkeley Standard Distribution) networking code. Open Transport will continue to exist within the "Blue Box," which is the compatibility layer for current Mac OS applications running within Rhapsody.
Response to this announcement from the Internet development community has ranged from confusion to frustration and back to confusion again.
For instance, Amanda Walker, who developed parts of TCP/Connect and InterPPP II for InterCon Systems (now owned by Ascend Communications) said, "I think that not porting Open Transport (which is essentially Mentat Portable Streams – one of the fastest and most flexible Unix networking stacks) to OpenStep (which uses a good, but slower and less flexible 4.3 BSD-based networking stack) is stupid and shortsighted. I will be amused if the classic Mac OS ends up being a better server platform than Rhapsody."
Some Questions — Other developers voiced similar concerns, but the common theme among them were the numerous questions that came up. Replacing Open Transport with BSD networking (I’ll refer to it merely as BSD from now on) is not a trivial decision, and it affects the Mac both at a low level and at a user administration level. Avoiding the truly technical issues, here are a few questions about the future of networking on the Mac whose answers will affect many of us. These questions may not have answers yet; any Mac user who relies heavily on Open Transport should be concerned about the fact that Apple didn’t have answers ready when they made the announcement.
Do note that I’m not interested in hearing speculation about the answers – the only people who can answer these questions are the Apple engineers working on the Rhapsody networking transition.
Open Transport deals well with multiple TCP/IP configurations, making it easy for Macintosh users to switch between multiple ISPs and even multiple methods of connecting to the Internet (modem, network, etc.) without rebooting. BSD was designed for Unix workstations that never move and don’t have to change their networking configurations multiple times per day. How will BSD deal with, as a friend noted, "the diversity of messed-up network configurations" that Open Transport handles with ease?
Open Transport may not have a perfectly simple interface, but it’s pretty easy. Will BSD networking be as easy for a novice user to set up and reconfigure if necessary? Will Rhapsody have to ship with your own personal Unix guru?
Numerous Macintosh developers have invested a great deal of time, energy, and code in developing for Open Transport. Does it make sense to "trade" those developers, all of whom are interested in developing for the Macintosh, for a new set of Unix and Windows developers (BSD comes from Unix, and WinSock in Windows is based on BSD), few of whom have any interest in developing for the Mac? As Amanda Walker says, "If I’d wanted to develop for a niche Unix machine, I’d have been a NeXT developer."
Open Transport supports (of course) AppleTalk. BSD has no built-in support for AppleTalk. How will Apple add support for AppleTalk to BSD? Wouldn’t it be ironic if Apple had to buy an AppleTalk stack for Rhapsody from an outside source?
What happens with plug & play networking under BSD? Will you still be able to plug in an Ethernet card and have it work without fuss? For instance, on a PC, if you so much as move an Ethernet card from one PCI slot to another, you have to reinstall the drivers, something that would be laughable on a Macintosh. Also, what about LocalTalk support? Vast numbers of Macs rely on simple LocalTalk networks for sharing files and printing.
- IPv6, which encompasses the next generation Internet addressing scheme (since the Internet is running low on IP numbers), has been demonstrated under Open Transport. IPv6 is a big deal for higher education institutions working on Internet II, the very-high-speed Internet connection between these institutions. What’s the story with IPv6 under BSD?
How will Open Transport in the Blue Box and BSD in the Yellow Box (which is the layer where native Rhapsody applications run) share networking resources such as modems or Ethernet cards? For instance, if you make a PPP connection using FreePPP in the Blue Box, can you use an Internet application that only runs in the Yellow Box over the same connection?
In Apple’s testing on a 10 Mbps Ethernet network, Open Transport could sustain throughput of 9.6 Mbps. In contrast BSD could only sustain 7 Mbps (and the venerable MacTCP could only do 2.3 Mbps). That may not sound like a huge difference, but what about a 100 Mbps Ethernet network? Open Transport has been shown to sustain 40 Mbps on those networks – how well will BSD do? Wouldn’t it be ironic if existing applications running on Open Transport in the Blue Box significantly outperform future applications running on BSD in the Yellow Box? (This isn’t an Internet issue since throughputs on the Internet are so slow in comparison with Ethernet networks that even users with T1 Internet connections would be unlikely to notice the difference.)
- Open Transport supports filters such as SurfWatch, one of the programs that prevents users from seeing "objectionable" sites. Without getting into the issue of defining "objectionable," what does BSD offer in terms of filters?
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.
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.
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.
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.