The 'Book Beat

New Tech Parallels and Perils: PowerBook 5300 and MacBook Pro

- 2006.02.06

After much hype and speculation, the Intel Macs are here. It's easy to forget that we've been here before though - when Apple switched from Motorola's 680x0 processor family to the PowerPC line.

Then, much as now, the first machines to switch were desktops, with laptops following at a later date. Apple may have lifted the lid on the new MacBook Pro, but they were not quite ready for release when Apple unveiled them.

Has Apple has learnt the lessons from the last time they unveiled a "next generation" laptop, the PowerBook 5300.

The PowerBook 5300

PowerBook 5300The PowerBook 5300 was Apple's first laptop to include a PowerPC processor, and great things were expected of it. Apple had made the switch to PowerPC because it used a "Reduced Instruction Set" that was believed to have greater potential for faster clock speeds.

The PowerPC's relatively simple design meant that as fabrication technology improved, the chip could be scaled up without the complications Motorola's 680x0 processors (and also Intel's x86 series) suffered from.

The PowerBook 5300 looked good on paper. Starting at 100 MHz, it should have been a super fast machine. Even the lowest end model had a 640 x 480 active matrix display (albeit black and white), and there were all the sorts of connections you'd expect - SCSI, ADB, serial - even infrared and PC Card slots.

The list of problems was just as impressive. First and foremost - the infamous batteries. The 5300 was built with the intention of shipping with Lithium Ion batteries to avoid the horrendous memory effects suffered by other batteries used to that point. Not only would Lithium Ion batteries recharge for more cycles before needing replacement, but they would also run longer between charges.

One laptop on the production line exploding into flames later, the Lithium Ion batteries were pulled in a public relations disaster. Traditional Nickel Hydride batteries were used instead, but they couldn't provide the anticipated power, resulting in a disappointing battery life.

Further problems with the sleep mode on the machine meant that even in "low power" mode it gobbled up the stored charge.

Surely you could run the 5300 from the mains instead.

Not exactly. Firstly, the power connector is horrendous. It doesn't fit properly, and over time the connection becomes so bad that you can no longer run it from the mains. When I inherited my PB 5300c, an elastic band was being used to keep the connection alive. Even assuming that you have an uninterrupted power supply, if you loaded the machine with peripherals you'd still be caught short since the power supply wasn't beefy enough to power all the various add-ons you may wish to use.

Performance was lackluster, too. The lack of a Level 2 cache on the motherboard and a barely adequate Level 1 cache in the PowerPC 603e CPU made for poor emulation of 680x0 code, so non-PowerPC apps ran poorly. The PowerPC may have been a better choice of processor in some ways, but it didn't feel like it with the 5300.

Before stopping, let's not forget the hinge. That awful, dreadful abomination at the bottom of the screen. Bits drop off. The case comes apart. Video cables become exposed and break. It's loose and springy to the slightest touch. Horrible.

Oh yes, there's no built-in ethernet....

Comparisons with the MacBook Pro

That was 1995. Eleven years later the MacBook Pro is ready for launch. Have Apple learnt from their mistakes?

Strangely, battery life seems to be an issue once more. Apple has been strangely quiet about what kind of battery life the new MacBooks will offer. Rumour has it that the new machines will be the first Apple laptops to use Lithium Polymer batteries. This all sounds worryingly familiar, and the lack of information on Apple's website suggests that they haven't quite found the answers themselves yet.

The power cable looks a much better option though. Already Apple's power leads are already much more sturdy than what we saw on the 5300, although the centre pin of the modern connectors seem all too willing to snap off if someone trips over your cable. The new MagSafe plug shows that Apple has learnt from that one.

Performance is another tricky one. Whilst no real trials have been done on the MacBook, we have already seen that the new iMac Core Duo isn't as dramatically fast as Apple has claimed. Particularly with PowerPC code, it seems that pre-Intel Macs have the edge. This is again very similar to where we were with the 5300 and pre-PowerPC software, and it probably says more about the nature of emulation than the nature of the hardware.

The hinge shouldn't be a major problem, since Apple have been refining their laptop designs for years. If it's like the PowerBook G4's hinge, it should be fine, although it can be noted that the AirPort antenna is now located in the hinge. If the hinge does prove problematic, you could probably kiss good-bye to your wireless connection.

Trouble in Store?

Deep down, I doubt we'll see anything like the problems that plagued the PowerBook 5300. Even if there were major issues, Apple is in a financially secure position these days and could take it on the chin. But there are a lot of eyes watching these machines, and even a small decrease in battery life could have a damaging effect upon their reputation.

If Apple produces the goods though, they'll be sending an important message to the computer industry at large - something that I'll be coming back to in my next column. LEM

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