Collection Spotlight

PowerBook 540c: Still the King of Notebook Computers

- 2007.09.04 - Tip Jar

PowerBook 540cThe PowerBook 540c. What can I say other than this is the best of the best of my collection. It's a real favorite of mine and many others.

The PowerBook 500 series is a system of may firsts: the trackpad, dual intelligent batteries, PCMCIA expansion, built in ethernet, and 16-bit stereo sound, something very few other 680x0 Macs can do natively.

The PowerBook 500 "Blackbird" series was released in 1994 and was designed as a high-end family of notebooks, not something to replace the PowerBook 1xx series. The 1xx series was kept around as Apple's mid- to low-end range for another year.

There were five Blackbird models, one being exclusive to Japan (something Apple did again later with the 240 MHz Mighty Cat PowerBook 2400c). There were the 520, 520c, 540, 540c, and 550c. As Apple had done before, "c" designates color, so any model without it had a black and white display. All of them could drive an external color monitor through the video port on the back.

Models also differed in CPU speed. The 520s used a 25 MHz 68LC040, the 540s used a 33 MHz 68LC040, and the 550 had the Mac daddy full 68040 at 33 MHz.

Unless you lived in Japan or had friends there, the 540c was the top of the line with 33 MHz of blazing CPU power and an active matrix 640 x 480 color LCD. It makes a great little Web browser even today, thanks to the built-in ethernet (so long as you can find the AAUI transceiver).

They also offered great expansion for the first time on a PowerBook. You had dual batteries, and the left one could be swapped out for a PDS-based PCMCIA cage. The CPU was upgradable, so you could even drop in a full-fledged 68040 or a PowerPC 603. Apple also broke the 8 and 14 MB RAM limits of the 1xx series, offering support for as much as 36 MB!

About the only sour note on these machines is the really poor keyboard. It's thin and stiff, and as it ages, it gets brittle and hard to type on. To make things worse, Apple used this keyboard on the PowerBook 5300 and PowerBook 190 and 190cs. Other than that, these are still great machines.

My PowerBook 540c

So what is my machine like? For starters, it has the RAM maxed to 36 MB, something I was lucky to find, as memory for these things is rare today. It has the bog standard 320 MB SCSI hard drive, on which I have installed Mac OS 8.1 (the last version of the Mac OS for 680x0-based model - and it runs great on 36 MB) and a bunch of games (Marathon Series works great).

About the only thing I wish I had for the machine was the AAUI transceiver so I can get this baby online.

The stereo output is awesome, even with the built-in speakers. I have a mini playlist of MP3s on my hard drive, and it plays them great.

About the only things wrong with mine is that both batteries are beyond resurrection, whether by Apple's Intelligent Battery Reconditioning utility or EMMpathy. I don't think anything short of re-celling them will make them work again. They make great weights to keep the PowerBook on the table, however.

My power adapter's casing also frayed apart when I got it, so I wrapped it in duct tape, and it works fine, but I wish they had kept the older barrel plug instead of the proprietary power jack, as it makes it hard to find a replacement adapter. (This adapter was only used for the Blackbird PowerBooks.)

I would say this is the all around perfect PowerBook for the collector: Plenty of power under the hood, color screen, oodles of RAM, Internet ready (you can even go wireless with a WaveLAN card and a Revision C card cage).

It also broke the design barriers of the boxy PowerBook 1xx series and Wintel notebooks - kind of like the Mercury Sable of the computer world. Those curves are just irresistible.

About the only other thing I dislike about this machine is the weight. It is not light at all, weighing almost 8 pounds with the power adapter and two batteries. If you're looking a light 'Book for your collection, get a Duo.

These things were road warriors. If you want the King of PowerBooks, this is it. LEM

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