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Putting Power Back in the PowerBook

March 10, 1997|CHARLES PILLER

Seven months ago, I wrote that Apple's PowerBooks were in deep trouble. After using a new PowerBook 3400c for a few days, I can sum up my current assessment in a word: Wow. Things are looking brighter on the notebook front.

You've no doubt seen Apple's ad blitz that calls the 3400c the fastest notebook ever. It is. That's one of several reasons I can't remember being more impressed with any previous Mac. And not a moment too soon, given Apple's current challenges.

Even if you work with a fast desktop Mac, this machine will not disappoint. The 3400c comes in models that feature 180 MHz, 200 MHz and 240 MHz versions of the PowerPC 603e processor. (The 240 MHz version won't be available until April.) Macworld magazine tested the 200 MHz version against a 150 MHz Compaq LTE 5400--a relatively speedy PC laptop. The PowerBook was nearly twice as fast.

Moreover, the new PowerBooks use speed to emphasize a core Mac strength: multimedia. They've created the best content creation and presentation portable on the market.

The 3400c comes with a 12.1-inch active-matrix color display--though equaled by many competitors, that's the best screen for standard-size notebooks. Apple adds a Zoom video port; with an add-on card you get full-screen, full-motion video, a TV tuner and video capture.

The stereo sound system features two high-frequency speakers just above the keyboard and two mid-range speakers at the sides of the display. To my ear, there's no better notebook sound on the market.

Like all top-quality notebooks, the 3400c offers a bay that accepts various storage drives. The options aren't quite as diverse as some PC laptops that can house a second battery in the drive bay, but the 3400c supports hot-swapping--you can exchange the CD player for the floppy without putting the machine to sleep--something I've never seen a PC notebook manage.

High-performance laptops usually suffer from short battery life, but credit Apple with finally offering a high-quality lithium ion battery. You'll still need an extra for that transcontinental flight, but at least you can expect about the same battery life as previous Power-Books, with vastly better performance.

The 3400c does suffer from a few imperfections. To understand one of them, consider this joke first: How many Apple employees does it take to screw in a light bulb? One hundred engineers to design a better, slightly nonstandard bulb, 100 engineers to design a better, slightly nonstandard socket, one part-time contractor to market the product and one manager to screw the bulb project when it fails to meet sales projections.

True to nature, Apple gave the 3400c an expansion slot that's probably faster than any PC laptop's, but deviates from the industry standard. So don't hold your breath for developers to create many new graphics cards. (Apple did, however, equip the 3400c with an industry-standard infrared transceiver, making it easier to connect with Windows PCs.)

Chips change fast, but the new PowerBooks have the CPU soldered on. So choose carefully--you won't be upgrading, even from the 180 MHz to either of the faster processors. (In fairness, there is some logic to this approach: the 3400c system board won't support speeds above 240 MHz.)

Feeling strong? At 7.4 pounds (with CD-ROM), this is the heftiest PowerBook ever--hardly a selling point, even if it's comparable to other high-performance notebooks.

The 3400c's chubbiness points out a crying need for a more diverse product line. Apple no longer sells a sub-notebook or true economy notebook. I'd guess that few of you will dash out to plunk down $4,500 to $7,000 for a 3400c; even the more modest 1400-series units cost more than $2,000. Notebook clones could come to the rescue. Yet, despite its inability to meet demand for PowerBooks throughout 1996, Apple hasn't given clone makers the green light.

The 3400c may not be for everyone, but is it a good buy? I priced the 3400c/180 against the Gateway 2000 Solo S5-166, a comparably equipped, top-quality PC notebook that's close to the 3400c/180 in speed. The Solo--with only two speakers and no hot-swap abilities, but a faster CD drive--sells for about $500 less. Ouch. Then again, the PowerBook also offers the Mac OS.

Charles Piller can be reached via e-mail at

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