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BUSINESS COMPUTING / RICHARD O'REILLY

THE CUTTING EDGE: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Few Missing Pages in PowerBook Evolution

October 18, 1995|RICHARD O'REILLY

What Apple Computer really needs in the wake of Windows 95 is to have its Macintosh computers catch fire with the public. But the fires that broke out in the lithium battery of its new PowerBook notebook computers was not exactly what the trouble-plagued company had in mind.

The problem, which came from batteries supplied by Sony Corp., was easy enough to fix, though it did delay delivery of the product for a few weeks. Apple substituted tried-and-true nickel metal hydride batteries and gave up an hour or so of battery life.

And the virtues of these new computers are in the tried-and-true category as well. The Macintosh operating system in some respects remains superior to Microsoft's new Windows 95, and the new 5300 series PowerBooks are strictly an evolutionary, not revolutionary, advance.

These are the first Apple PowerBooks to use the high-performance PowerPC microprocessors, which makes them roughly the equivalent of Windows-compatible, Pentium-equipped notebook computers. The PowerBooks use a low-voltage version of the PowerPC chip called the 603e. Like all PowerPC chips, it does more with fewer instructions, earning its RISC (reduced instruction set computing) label.

In practical terms, that means you get greater performance, but to take full advantage of the improvement you need software written for the new chip.

The PowerBook 5300 family comes in four basic configurations, with prices ranging from about $2,200 for the gray-scale screen 5300 model with 8 megabytes of RAM and a 500-megabyte hard drive, up to about $6,800 for the top-of-the-line high-resolution color 5300ce with 32 MB RAM and a 1.1-gigabyte hard drive. Most models have a 100 megahertz PowerPC 603e microprocessor, but the top model has a slightly faster 117-megahertz unit. All can be expanded with up to 64 MB of RAM.

I tested the mid-range 5300c with a large, bright 10.4-inch active matrix color screen. Its 256-color, VGA screen is actually low-resolution in today's color graphics world, and it won't drive an external monitor at any higher resolution. However, video memory can be enhanced to display about 32,000 colors, which is enough for photo graphics.

All of the 5300 PowerBooks come with a track pad on which a stroke of the finger directs the cursor. It works fine, though I don't happen to like it as much as a track ball. But you can also plug in a regular mouse if you wish.

The machines feature built-in stereo sound, though there is only a single speaker, which negates the stereo effect. The sound is quite good nonetheless, and there also is a built-in microphone.

The back of the PowerBook 5300 comes with an infrared LocalTalk connection: PowerBooks facing each other back-to-back within a range of about six feet can thus automatically recognize each other and transfer files through a special guest folder that pops onto the screen. It doesn't communicate with Apple's Newton, but a software enhancement due later should let it connect with infrared-equipped PC notebooks.

Apple has been forced over the years to make the Macintosh easy to connect to PC-compatible computers, and the PowerBook 5300 takes that to its next logical step with the inclusion of PC Card slots, also known as PCMCIA slots.

A common usage is for modem cards, and the PowerBooks, include software drivers for many of the popular PC modem cards. You can also install Ethernet network cards, memory cards, hard disk cards, even higher definition color display cards.

The floppy drive, which easily handles both Mac and PC-formatted disks, can be removed to lighten the computer slightly, and it can also be replaced with an expansion device such as additional hard drive or magneto-optical drive. (A more common way to expand the machine, however, would be through the standard Macintosh SCSI interface connector on the back.)

The biggest thing these Macs have going for them is the same as it is for all Macs: simple connectivity and expandability. It is very easy to hook three or four Macs together and share files and a printer among them. And it is very easy to add a large capacity external hard drive or other storage device into the mix. But that is a slow network, not suitable for heavy-duty graphics work. Setting up a small, fast network is about the same effort whether you use Macs or Windows 95 PCs.

As a stand-alone machine, most people find the Mac easier to navigate among folders and files than Windows 95. Certainly, the feature that has always allowed Macs to recognize when a floppy disk is inserted and add its image to the desktop is nicer than Windows, which cannot do that.

But I find the new automatic menu displays of Windows 95 easier. I also really dislike having to hold down the mouse button to scroll through program menus on the Mac.

When it comes to notebook computers, I've always favored the palm rests built into the PowerBooks, though some PC notebooks now have that feature, too.

What I don't like about the PowerBooks is their reduced set of cursor movement keys compared to PC notebooks. It was more work to write this column on the PowerBook keyboard than it would have been on any PC notebook keyboard.

But what was nice was being able to save the text on a PC diskette inserted in the PowerBook and then open the file without a hitch on my PC at the office for final editing. The credit for that goes to Apple, because, unless I buy special third-party software, there is nothing on my PC or in Windows 95 that would let me do the same thing with a Macintosh disk.

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