Apple's Quirky Powerhouse

The new PowerBooks come with a lot of oomph--and some curious omissions

The history of portable computing for Macintosh users has been almost as quirky as the history of Apple Computer itself. When the first portable DOS machines appeared in the mid-1980s, Mac users had to watch from the sidelines. When Apple finally released its laptop PowerBooks in 1991, they were technologically more advanced than anything else on the market. But in recent years, Apple allowed its portables to fall behind the Intel-based pack.

Good news has been mighty scarce for Apple fans watching the company's travails, but the newest generation of PowerBooks is at least a step in the right direction. Built with the PowerPC processor, they offer power equivalent to Pentium-based Windows laptops at competitive prices. But PowerBooks display the same mixture of brilliant touches and serious omissions that often make Apple products simultaneously fascinating and frustrating.

I wrote this column on the top-of-the-line model, the $6,000 PowerBook 5300ce, with a 117-megahertz processor, 32 megabytes of random-access memory, and 1.1-gigabyte hard drive. Other 5300 models line start as low as $1,799 for a unit with a 100- Mhz processor, 8 MB of RAM, and a monochrome display.

Like all Apple products, it is graced with a handsome and well-thought-out design that makes it a pleasure to use. But this is far from a perfect notebook. Although the display is bright and crisp, the 10.4-inch screen seems a little puny at a time when most Windows machines in this class sport 11.3-inch or even 12.1-inch displays. The tendency of early production units to burst into flames while recharging forced Apple to switch from a lithium-ion battery to less-advanced nickel metal hydride, which limits battery life to a skimpy 2 1/2 hours or so. The hard drive is not removable, and there's no provision for desktop docking. The only Mac to offer docking is the ultralight PowerBook 2300c/100 Duo.

The most grievous shortcoming, however, is the lack of a CD-ROM drive. Although the floppy drive can be removed, the bay isn't big enough for a CD-ROM, which is now an option even on many midpriced Windows laptops. It's easy to connect an external CD-ROM drive to the PowerBook, but the resulting setup isn't very portable. Since the most loyal Mac users are designers, multimedia programmers, and other creative types for whom the CD-ROM is an essential tool, this omission is nothing short of weird. Apple is planning a CD version eventually, but it will require an expensive redesign of the case--and probably more battery power.

PC CARDS. Although the PowerBooks trail Pentium laptops in some respects, there's still a lot the designers of Windows notebooks could learn from Apple. The tight integration of hardware with the Mac operating-system software avoids many of the compatibility problems that plague Pentium portables even under the much-improved Windows 95. For example, I was able to switch among PC card modems from Global Village, Megahertz, and TDK without installing any software. And the Global Village combination modem/Ethernet card gave me direct access to the office network simply by plugging it in and telling the PowerBook what sort of network I was using; I didn't even have to reboot.

For Mac users, the latest PowerBooks offer a welcome burst of computing punch on the road. But their elementary shortcomings illustrate one reason Apple has landed in so much hot water: a tendency to get things almost, but not quite, right.

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