A Pumped Up Powerbook

The 3400 fills a big gap in Apple's laptop lineup and restores some of its luster

Apple Computer, bouncing from crisis to crisis, hasn't given its fans much except bad news lately. But the legions of Mac maniacs finally have something to cheer about. With its well-designed and superfast new laptop, the PowerBook 3400, Apple has reminded the computing world of the technology leader it once was and perhaps can become again.

On a more mundane level, the 3400 solves a critical problem for Apple and its customers. Leading-edge products for a mobile lifestyle have been a gaping hole in the Mac product line. The new PowerBook should slow the defection of laptop-starved customers to Windows.

Apple's recent notebook efforts have been a disaster. The PowerBook 5300 series, which hit the market months late in 1995, was the first to use the PowerPC processor. But it lacked an internal CD-ROM drive, featured a battery that had a tendency to burst into flames while charging, and included cover hinges that cracked after a few months of use. Not surprisingly, about the only folks who bought the 5300 were people who desperately needed a Mac notebook, and even they did it unhappily.

BRIGHT AND SHARP. Late last year, Apple provided some relief with the competent but unexciting 1400 series. Its price tag alone, as low as $2,500, made it attractive. The 3400, starting at $4,500, is something else. The base model is built around a 180 megahertz PowerPC chip. Although Apple vs. Windows performance comparisons are difficult, the 200 Mhz PowerBook that I tested felt faster than any Pentium notebook and probably is fair competition for a 200 Mhz MMX Pentium desktop. Next month, Apple will ship a blazing 240 Mhz model.

There's more to the 3400 than raw speed. Industrial design has long been an Apple strong point, and the new PowerBook marks a return to the elegance that has been missing from recent Mac notebooks. The sculptured case is handsome where most laptops are purely utilitarian. It's marred only by a flimsy door that covers ports at the back for printers and other devices. The door tends to fall off whenever it is opened--a common problem on laptops. The main hinges that were so troublesome on the 5300 seem well-designed, though only time will tell.

The 12.1-inch active matrix display is bright and very sharp. And the keyboard is about as good as a notebook can get. Because Mac users don't depend on cursor-movement keys, such as PageUp and PageDown, Apple can simply leave them off the PowerBook keyboard. This leaves room for full-size, comfortably spaced keys; only the rarely used F1 to F12 keys are half-size.

The 3400 takes good advantage of the PowerPC, which draws less power and runs cooler than an equivalent Pentium. This is the first laptop I've actually been able to keep on my lap for extended periods without it becoming downright hot. And it gets 2 1/2 hours or more off a battery charge, good for a fast unit these days.

About the only serious fault I can find in the hardware is the lack of a docking station that the PowerBook could slip into for desktop use with a bigger monitor or keyboard and a network connection. Although partially mitigated by a built-in Ethernet network connection and that good keyboard, the lack of a way to attach to a printer and other desktop accessories with a single connection is a nuisance.

If only the software were up to the hardware. The Mac operating system may still have the simplest and most intuitive desktop screen of any system. But even in its new System 7.6 incarnation, the software is showing its age badly. The biggest problem is the lack of multithreading, a feature that lets Windows do several things at once. For example, while waiting the several minutes it can take for a complex image to appear in Adobe Systems PhotoShop, it might be nice to check your E-mail or play a game of solitaire. The Mac won't let you, at least not until a new version promised for later this year shows up.

LOW PRIORITY. Application software is an even bigger problem. Except in such Mac-centric realms as desktop publishing and image editing, the Mac has become a low priority for most software publishers. Many programs, especially business-oriented ones, are Windows-only. If Mac versions come, they hit the shelves months later. Microsoft Word and Excel for the Mac, for example, are two major versions behind their Windows counterparts, though Microsoft promises a Mac edition of Office 97 by fall.

In the movie Independence Day, Jeff Goldblum uses his trusty PowerBook to save the world from alien invaders. By itself, the 3400 isn't going to save Apple from the company's deep-seated problems. But it serves as a welcome reminder that there's some creative life left in the company whose inventiveness played such a large role in the creation of the personal computer.

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