The Webb Chronicles

The PowerBook 3400: Surprisingly Useful and Spry with the Classic Mac OS

- 2006.05.16

In this modern age, we have become accustomed to high powered computers capable of running any app we could imagine and more. But let's analyze the other end of the spectrum for a moment.

No, I'm not talking about the PC market, but rather the aged, yet still useful, PowerBook 3400c.

Several months ago, I wrote an article about the "MainStreet" PowerBook G3 and how it was still good for basic use despite its "underpowered" CPU and abysmal screen. In this article I'd like to talk about how the 1997 PowerBook 3400c, despite being from an even earlier CPU generation, is a better performer in today's world.

The 3400c was introduced in 1997; at the time it was considered one of the fastest laptops in the world - with a price tag to match. Its PowerPC 603e processor was available in 180, 200, and 240 MHz speeds, making this one of the best desktop replacement PowerBooks of its time.

To complement the impressive CPU, Apple also included a beautiful 12" active matrix LCD screen built onto a robust, if not a little bulky, body. Add four speakers, an infrared (IR) port, and a hot swappable drive bay, and you've got one versatile little Mac for US$4,500-6,500.

The model I used has a 200 MHz CPU, 72 MB of RAM, and a 2 GB hard disk.

The Right OS

PowerBook 3400Firstly, let me talk a little about my OS choice. After frequenting system7today.com message boards for some time, I decided to start this PowerBook with Mac OS 7.6.1 to see how it went. I typically don't work with anything below 8.1, and it had been quite a while since I had worked with any version of System 7, but it was worth a shot. OS 7.6 needed more fine tuning then newer OSes, but everything worked more or less the way it should.

For comparison purposes I decided to bump up to Mac OS 8.1. I noticed little to no speed difference, but I ran into hurdles when some of the graphics apps I wanted to install didn't work.

Lastly, I moved up to Mac OS 8.6, my favorite flavor of the Classic Mac OS. The system took longer to boot, but once it was up and running it felt as fast as 7.6 and 8.1 - and it seemed much more stable than either. So for now OS 8.6 is my OS of choice for this model.

Software

The 3400c is very limited in today's world. Pretty much all you can do with it is word processing and maybe some web editing and photo manipulation using older software. Microsoft Office 2001 was a little too slow for my taste, but Office 98 ran much better.

If speed is really an issue, ClarisWorks 5 is the way to go. I found myself using ClarisWorks much more than Office for this reason. Photoshop 5 also ran adequately, given the limited amount of RAM (144 MB maximum). And, of course, a quick game of Sim City 2000 is no problem on this machine.

Connectivity

With the addition of a WaveLAN Gold 802.11b wireless card, I connected the 3400c to my home network and wireless Internet. Using Internet Explorer 5 can be rather sluggish at times, but it's tolerable. A better solution is iCab, available for free, which is a modern browser popular with owners of classic Macs.

Connecting to my Power Mac and PowerBook via AppleTalk was interesting, to say the least, but after some tweaking things worked out nicely.

I was fortunate enough to receive a good battery with this unit; it gives me a good two hours or so depending on what I'm doing.

In comparison to the cacheless MainStreet PowerBook G3, the 3400c is superior in almost all aspects. For starters, the active matrix screen in the 3400c is far better than the cheap passive matrix found on the MainStreet. And despite having a 603e, the 3400c's 200 MHz CPU is a better performer than the cacheless 233 MHz G3 in MainStreet.

Shortcomings

The four speakers (two on the lid and two above the keyboard) aren't that good by today's standards, but they get the job done.

What I don't like much about this model is the proprietary memory slot, which makes for expensive and hard to find memory upgrades. Also, PC Card expansion can be troublesome due to the lack of CardBus compliance out of the box. This means that USB expansion requires modification of the logic board to accommodate newer cards, and this can result in a nonfunctional PowerBook if not done properly.

For an average price of US$30-100, the 3400c is a solid choice for word processing, browsing, and other basic needs. This ten year old laptop was built to last, and it still has some spunk left in it. LEM

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