Miscellaneous Ramblings

PowerBook 1400: A Very Likable Legacy 'Book

Charles Moore - 2002.05.20 - Tip Jar

I spent much of last weekend setting up my daughter's "new" PowerBook 1400cs/117, which we picked up for the friendly price of Can$225 (about US$120), complete with CD-ROM and floppy drive modules, a Megahertz YJA3288 28.8 Kbps PC Card modem, and 36 MB of RAM.

Deirdre has been wanting a color PowerBook to replace her faithful, but ancient and slow. PowerBook 5300, and a bit more speed isn't unwelcome either, although 17 MHz is not a major jump in that category. What she would really like to have is a dual-USB iBook, but for now, the 1400 fits her budget better.

I've been enjoying playing with the 1400. I'm a PowerBook 5300 fan, and the 1400 is a lot like the 5300, only more robust and without the 5300s sometimes flakiness and bad habits. It has a much better keyboard, and the bigger, a 11.3" color screen is nice, too. I don't mind passive matrix LCD screens, and find them restful on the eyes. This is as good a one as I have used, even better, I think, than the 12.1" dual scan screen in the MainStreet G3 PowerBook that I used for several months back 1998-'99.

I partitioned the 1 GB hard drive in Deirdre's 1400 and have installed both OS 8.1 and OS 9.1 on two of the three partitions. Both systems work okay, but OS 8.1 is definitely livelier on the 117 MHz machine - and probably the more sensible choice for production work. With a leaned-down (but by no means Spartan) system heap selected in the Extensions Manager, OS 9.1 wants 14.4 MB of RAM (virtual memory on), which still leaves more RAM free than the total (24 MB) Deirdre has in her 5300.

I'm impressed by how robust (and heavy!) these old PowerBooks are. Our Lombard and Pismo G3 PowerBooks, and even my big WallStreet, feel a bit flimsy compared with this solid old 1400. I guess there's no substitute for "road-hugging weight" in imparting the impression of ruggedness, and I would say that the 1400 has the highest weight to physical size ratio of any PowerBook I've used. The only problem I discovered on this old machine is that the Caps Lock LED doesn't work - not a big deal.

Of course, a 117 MHz 603e isn't up to much speed-wise by today's standards, and indeed it was no barn-burner even when this model was introduced back in late 1996. The later 133 MHz and 166 MHz 1400s, which have a 256K L2 cache, are more attractive performers.

You can also swap in a 333 MHz or 466 MHz Sonnet Crescendo G3/PB processor upgrade card and give your Sonnet Crescendo G3/PB1400 are real shot of rabbit elixir. Sonnet's Crescendo G3/PB upgrades replace the PowerBook 1400's original 603e processor card with a G3 card running at 333 MHz with a 512K or 1 MB backside cache, or 466 MHz/1MB. The Sonnet cards use a specially configured, low-power copper IBM G3 processor which can extend the PowerBook 1400's battery life of the by up to 30%.

The Crescendo/PB G3 is compatible with your existing hardware, software, RAM, and peripherals, and supports up to Mac OS 9.1. Prices:

  • Crescendo/PB G3-333-512: G3/333 MHz 512K/167 MHz - $199.95
  • Crescendo/PB G3 -333-1M: G3/333 MHz 1MB/167 MHz - $219.95
  • Crescendo/PB G3 -466-1M: G3/466 MHz 1MB/186 MHz - $299.95
Crescendo G3/PB benchmarks

However, an upgraded 1400 is still not going to be equivalent of a 333 MHz Lombard. The big bottlenecks are a slow 32-bit system bus, and mediocre, non-upgradable video. The 1400 also needs a PC Card modem and ethernet support. An internal expansion slot can accommodate video-out or ethernet, but not both. The 1400 only supports a maximum of 64 MB of RAM, so there is no hope of OS X support, which is a moot point since the 1400 is technically a NuBus machine.

Back in the plus column are a full set of legacy PowerBook ports (ADB, SCSI, serial), built-in infrared, a flip-up keyboard for convenient internal access, and two piggy-backable RAM expansion slots. The expansion bay is nice, too, although devices to fit it are a bit thin on the ground.

What doesn't show up in any list of specs, though, is how likable this little PowerBook is. I can understand why people will spend the money for those Sonnet G3 upgrade cards to get more usable life out of these machines.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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