Best Buys in Used Macs

BlackbirdPowerBook 540c

2000.01.02

We're sorry, but these are very old, very dated articles. Best buys in used Macs is such a moving target that we simply can't keep up to date and have given up even trying. Please read these in their historical context, as some of these articles were written in the early years of Low End Mac.

The "Blackbird" series was Apple's first departure from the fairly angular PowerBook 100 series. The PowerBook 520, 520c, 540, 540c, and 550c all used the same case, varying only in screen and CPU. The 520s were built around a 25 MHz 68LC040 processor, while the rest of the line ran at 33 MHz - and the 550c used a full 68040 processor.

The "c" models had 8-bit color screens (with a 16-bit option in 640 x 400 mode); the non-c machines had either a 4-bit (520) or 6-bit (540) grayscale screen. All screens were 640 x 480, a step up from the 640 x 400 used on earlier PowerBooks.

Innovative features of the PowerBook 500 series included function keys, the trackpad, an ethernet connection, two battery bays (for up to four hours of power), automatic sleep when the lid was closed, stereo speakers, and an internal microphone.

Each machine had 4 MB of memory on the system board. Memory modules as large as 32 MB could be added, bringing the total to 36 MB.

Finally, the entire Blackbird series was designed to accept a PowerPC upgrade.

So why does the 540c get the nod as a best buy? First, because both it and the 550c used the superior active-matrix color display. Second, because the 550c was only available in limited markets, so it is relatively rare. And third, because you can often find a refurbished 540c with 20 MB of memory for about US$600 - or a used 12 MB one for around US$350.

Then why not the PowerBook 190, which offered the same speed in a newer package? Because the PB 190 didn't include a modem or ethernet port - you had to buy a PC Card to add either or both of these features that came standard on the Blackbirds. Further, there were problems with the PowerBook 190. It's not a bad machine, but the ability to install a clean system without worrying about finding drivers for third-party modem and network cards make the 500 series more desirable.

If you are in the market for a solid PowerBook, don't need a PowerPC processor, and won't need more than 36 MB of memory, the 500 series deserves a serious look, especially the 540c with its active matrix screen.

With the 32 MB memory card selling for US$99-119 these days (see ramseeker for current pricing), it's a recommended upgrade unless you have the 20 MB configuration. And even then you may want to consider it.

And if you want a bit more power at the cost of some battery life, replacing the 33 MHz 68LC040 processor with a full-featured 68040 is supposed to be quite easy.

If you need more speed, a bigger screen, or an internal CD-ROM, consider the PowerBook 1400.

<go to Best Buys index, Blackbird page, or 540c page>

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