Apple’s Flaming PowerBook Fiasco

If you’ve been following the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 nightmare, you know it’s given Samsung a serious black eye. Kudos to Samsung for doing the right thing and recalling the entire production just weeks after its introduction.

But did you know that Apple once dealt with a similar problem? It was over 20 years ago, so maybe not. But Apple’s new PowerBook was coming out, its first notebook with a PowerPC processor and intelligent lithium-ion batteries. It brought a whole new level of performance to Apple’s PowerBook line.

And it could have ended up giving Apple a serious black eye, but Apple avoided the worst.

The PowerBook 5300 was Apple’s first notebook to go beyond the 680×0 technology and enter the world of PowerPC, the new RISC architecture that Apple had introduced with its first Power Macs in March 1994. PowerPC was supposed to catapult Apple beyond what Intel had to offer at the time.

PowerBook 550cAnyhow, Apple’s PowerBook line had defined notebook computing, and its PowerBook 540c raised the bar in May 1994 with a gorgeous active matrix color display, 33 MHz 68LC040 processing power, two battery bays, “intelligent” NiMH batteries, stereo sound, built-in ethernet, and a trackpad – the first on a notebook computer. The first PowerPC notebook had to raise the bar even further.

The PowerBook 5300 was introduced in August 1995 and ran a PowerPC 603e CPU at 100 MHz or 117 MHz and came in greyscale and color versions (as had the PowerBook 500 series). The top-end 5300ce had an 800 x 600 pixel active matrix display, a big step forward from 640 x 480 on the PowerBook 540c and lower-end 5300 models.

PowerBook 5300 had a role in My Best Friend's Wedding

The PowerBook 5300 was featured in several 1996 and 1997 movies.

Apple did a lot of work with product placement for the roll-out of the 5300. It played a prominent role in Independence Day, and it was also seen in Ransom, Jingle All the Way, My Best Friend’s Wedding (right), The Saint, Free Willy 3: The Rescue, Home Alone 3, and Volcano.

That Darned Battery

The 5300 was smaller and lighter and faster than the PowerBook 540c, and it was supposed to be the first notebook computer with lithium-ion battery technology. This would have increased battery life by nearly 50%, but two of the Sony lithium-ion batteries had overheated and burst into flames. Sounds kind of like the Galaxy Note 7, doesn’t it?

Anyhow, the batteries had burned while they were charging, not while a PowerBook 5300 was in use. In fact, because of those two batteries, Apple immediately switched to NiMH batteries, so no PowerBook 5300 ever burst into flames outside of the factory.

Still, the story got out there, and it gave Apple a black eye.

But that’s not the whole PowerBook 5300 story.

Other Issues

Apple had problems with the plastics used for the 5300 case, and it could get brittle and crack. Not good on a $2,300 notebook, the price of the entry-level PowerBook 5300. And not good at all on the $6,800 top-end PowerBook 5300ce.

Over time, some developed hinge problems, including cracking plastic hinge covers and the internal ribbon cable that connected the display to the rest of the machine cracking (the PowerBook 500 series had the same problem with ribbon cables).


There was also a performance issue. Even though the 5300 had 100-117 MHz PowerPC 603e processors, itself a significant improvement over the earlier 603, the 5300 had no Level 2 cache, so PowerBook 5300 performance was less than expected, especially in comparison to desktop Macs with the same speed 603e CPU.

The other compromise was that, due to its goal to produce as small a PowerBook as practical, there was no way to squeeze in a CD-ROM drive while providing two battery bays. (This design issue was finally fixed with the WallStreet PowerBook G3 Series in May 1998.)


Apple did a good job designing the PowerBook 5300, and many owners got years and years of reliable work from their 5300s, but the cracking plastic, ribbon cable problems, and legendary stories of flaming batteries gave it a bad reputation that it has never been able to escape.

In the end, Low End Mac gave the PowerBook 5300 the Compromised Mac label (it had originally been called a Road Apple, but in comparison to Apple’s worst Mac designs, it wasn’t so bad).

Further Reading

Keywords: #powerbook5300 #flamingbattery #compromisedmac

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