Charles Moore's Mailbag

Portable Mac as Primary vs. Secondary Computer, Looking at ThinkPad Design, and More

Charles Moore - 2008.09.17 -Tip Jar

Lessons Learned from the Macintosh Portable

From Henry:

Having collected most of the machines mentioned in the article(Bring Back theMacintosh Portable) after they became obsolete and cheapenough....

Macintosh Portable

Osborne 1The Mac Portable was a first shot -nobody really knew what a portable computer looked like in the '80s.When you said portable, people thought of a transportable fold-upplug-in suitcase, like a Compaq PortableCompaq Portable, anOsborne One, or aGrid "lunchpail". Apple figured a portable Mac needed to do everything adesktop Mac did, run all day on a battery charge, and generally becapable of serving a scientific expedition in the wilderness. Alot was dictated by available components. The 6V lead-acid battery heldmore amp-hours than the new NiCads. Grid CompassThe 9V transistor battery was there to powerthe Mac for a few minutes while the main battery was changed. It wasn'ta PRAM battery. A portable off or sleeping requires the main batteryand draws power from it to keep RAM alive.

The Conner 40 MB 3.5" drive was in 1988 the lowest power, smallestruggedized drive on the market. There were no 2.5" drives, though therewere rumors of such from Areal and Conner. The 640 x 400 active-matrixLCD was the first active-matrix LCD on the market, and it accounted formost of the $7,200 (with the hard drive option) price. At that price,this was a toy for executives and well-funded researchers. Remember,back then a McD's meal combo cost a buck.

Mac Portable and PowerBook 100What Apple learned from the Portable: most users would traderun time for size & weight. The buyers were traveling corporateexecs, and something that would fit into a briefcase would sell big. A16 lb. computer was a real drag running from one gate at O'Hare toanother. A couple of hours run time was okay. So they went to themasters of small, Sony, who had been making Apple's disk drives andWalkman portablegadgets, and Sony built a miniaturized version, the PowerBook 100 (right, next to a MacPortable). Later PowerBooks were introduced at lower prices by usingPC-style passive LCDs, which suffered from slow response time and poorcontrast but were much cheaper.

Duos are small and very portable,but crippled as portables. My 2300c is slow due to the narrowdata bus, runs for 50 minutes on a charge if you're careful not to usethe disk much, and has only a serial port and a modem jack unless it'sdocked. Docked, it's got better connectivity, but it's still slow. Notup to desktop performance. When docked, it can't use its battery as aUPS.

Pismo with drive bay devicesThe G3 PowerBooks (WallStreet, Lombard, and Pismo) were Apple's closestapproach to a portable desktop replacement. The option bays allowedswapping drives, batteries, etc. to match the system to almost anytask. They are still usable, and I run OS X Tiger on myWallStreet.

That said, I have everything built into my MacBook that I have plug-incards for for Wally. Wally needs a WiFi card, a DVDmodule, a FireWire card, a USB card, and two batteries to match thefunctionality of the MacBook. Conversely, the MacBook has no way tohook up a SCSI drive and needs a USB dongle for serial port or ADBdevices, but I never seem to need those.

If you're looking for a modular Mac which can ride out powerinterruptions, a mini with asmall UPS fits the bill. It's also easy to carry around if you don'tneed to move the keyboard and monitor along with it. For what it wouldcost to build a modular, upgradable Mac with desktop display &portable display, you can buy a MacBook and an iMac. Remember, these oldportables cost a ton of money. Still, your point is taken, Macs aremore focussed and less adaptable than they once were, except maybethe Pro towers.

Henry

Hi Henry,

Thanks for the detailed description and history ofthese old Macs. I mostly agree with your analysis too.

I used a PowerBook5300 with a passive matrix grayscale display for three years andfound it reasonably satisfactory until I got the Internet. I also usedan early edition WallStreet with a color passive matrix display forseveral months in late 1998 and found it no hardship, but theactive-matrix TFT display in the WallStreet I eventually bought wasdefinitely superior.

The Duo 2300c is kneecapped by internal engineeringinherited from the original 68030 Duo 230. Apple could have reengineeredit and made it a better performer, but by that time had lost interestin the Duo concept.

I've thought of a Mac mini as a possible solution, buttwo things hold me back. First, by the time you price it out with adecent display, you're in the same price ballpark as a MacBook, which,as you say, is a pretty versatile portable, although I've gotten kindof addicted to the 17" display in this PowerBook. Secondly, you wouldhave to get a really gonzo big and expensive UPS to provide the hoursof runtime off the grid that a laptop with a couple of extended lifebatteries can provide. My G4 upgraded Pismos give me roughly 10 hourson two batteries with a bit of conservation implemented.

I would be happy - no ecstatic - with a machine thatoffered as much upgradability and versatility as those old G3 SeriesPowerBooks.

Charles

My understanding is that a mini is essentially a headless MacBook.It won't need a huge UPS for itself, so the display's draw will be veryimportant. Desktop displays aren't as stingy (2 lamps vs. laptops' 1)with power. Do you really lose grid power for 10 hours at a time? Amini doesn't quite tickle my fancy either. Maybe as an "upgrade"replacement guts to some old Mac?

"I would be happy - no ecstatic - with a machine thatoffered as much upgradability and versatility as those old G3 SeriesPowerBooks."

Yeah, I hear that. They'd be expensive, though. Right now, there'snot many accessories I'd want a bay for, but there's always the future.Will I need 8 cores in my CPU? Blu-ray? It's already good enough foraudio and video. Hard drive and RAM are easy to upgrade. What am Igoing to want to do with my laptop? Or has innovation moved to thepocket gadget?

I've generally had a top-line desktop as my main "developer's"system and a laptop selected for easy carry. I'm finding the MacBookdoes most everything now that I'm retired from programmingprofessionally, but the G4tower with its terabytes of storage and 2 studio displays is stillimportant. Latest toy is a Cube, which I've spent more onthan it's worth, but with upgrades to CPU, RAM, hard drive, and videocard, it's fast as well as pretty.

Henry

Hi again Henry,

Oh yes. A 10 hour power outage is not especiallyunusual here. We had one last fall that lasted 19 hours. I live in apart of the world that is routinely affected by both the remnants (andsometimes more than remnants) of Atlantic hurricanes, plus ice stormsin the winter. However fairly lengthy one last summer (2007) started ona nice warm sunny afternoon with no wind to speak of.

Upgradability case in point: my 500 MHz PowerBookPismo was a pretty formidable and capable laptop back in 2000, but ifit had not been upgradable, I would have long since retired it.However, thanks to a processor upgrade to G4, an 8x dual-layerSuperDrive expansion bay module, and WiFi and FireWire 400 PC Cardadapters, it's still in daily service along with a second Pismo.

I don't gainsay that some folks need the raw power andexpandability of a desktop machine, but I haven't really used a desktopfor much more than a backup since 1996, although I did have a 450 MHzCube for a few months in mid-2001 (I traded it even for my firstPismo).

Charles

Portable as Primary or Secondary Computer?

From Jeffrey:

Charles,

As usual, you raise an interesting point. Where is the best balancebetween portability and capability, where capability includes suchthings as upgradeability and expandability? Today, I would never choosea MacBook, "Pro" or otherwise, as my sole computer because I'd find ittoo limiting with regards to expansion options. However, a modernincarnation of a WallStreet or Duo might be just what I'd need to makea portable my one and only Mac. Given a choice of only one, I'd take myQuicksilver over aTiBook any day.

I own, and still regularly use, a PowerBook Duo today. Once upon atime, it was quite capable as my only Mac. Today it has 56 MB of RAMand a 1 GB CF in an internal IDE/CF adapter. It runs OS 7.6 whenon the road (undocked), quite briskly I might add, when it functions asa lightweight/compact electronic organizer and notebook (via ACTAClassic). Bring it home and dock it, and it runs OS 8.6 from a SCSIdrive in the dock while providing a larger display, access to morestorage, more ports, and two NuBus card slots. Too ancient to be aprimary machine, it still functions quite well as a mobile supplementto my Quicksilver, while several more recent laptops have come andgone.

If there as a choice between taking all of my capability everywhere(the Mac Portable approach) or taking some of my capability everywherebut retaining full capability at home (the Duo approach), I'd beinclined to lean towards the modular solution. I can imagine somethinglike an iPod touch or something with a keyboard like an NEC MobilePro for portableuse that could be docked to a base with USB, FireWire, dedicated GPU,ExpressCard/34 slots, and such for use at home or at one's desk. WithOpenCL, I wonder whether it will be possible to incrementally expandthe processing capability of the system when docked?

Regards,
Jeffrey

Hi Jeffrey,

Thanks for the comment and interesting observations.For reasons I've elucidated many times over the years, I'm not likelyto ever go back to a true desktop computer, but I have no quarrel withfolks who prefer them. Different strokes.

For me, a 17" MacBook Pro wouldexceed my actual needs by many magnitudes, but it would be a muchhigher consumer value machine, especially over the long haul, if it wasmore expandable and upgradable - like the old G3 Series PowerBookswere.

FireWire and USB 2.0 along with the ExpressCard slothave mitigated the lack of internal upgrade potential somewhat, butthere is still the matter of processor obsolescence and the lack of anupgrade path for video support (the latter afflicts the G3 PowerBooksas well, of course).

The modular motif still appeals to me as the idealcompromise.

Charles

Look at the Design of the ThinkPad

From Peter:

I agree, though they don't need to make a 15 pound monster to do it.If they got together with IBM . . . I mean Lenovo. . . again and brought out a Mac laptop based on theThinkPad T-series that would just about do it:

  • Two PC-Card slots.
  • Easily swappable hard drive.
  • Swappable optical drive bay that can take an extra battery or harddrive.
  • Docking port . . . and you could get PCI expansionslots in the biggest dock.

And the ThinkPad has a much better keyboard than the current Applelaptops. I notice the Mac Portable had a ridge around the lid to keepforeign objects away from the screen when the lid is closed. That'sanother feature I miss from my ThinkPad.

I think you have a typo there . . . "the WallStreet G3Series PowerBook back in 1978" 1998, surely?

PS: I did use my original 128K Mac as aportable for many years. :)

Hi Peter,

Yes, ugly typo. :-b [Editor's note: Alreadyfixed!]

Addressing your list, Apple actually had all thosepoints covered except for the docking port in the 1998 WallStreetwithout any need to reference IBM/Lenovo technology.

I know some folks are really smitten with theThinkPads, but the attraction eludes me. I had an early '00s vintageThinkPad running Windows XP here for a while last year, and I wassurprised how pedestrian it seemed to me compared with my slightlyolder Pismos. I'll give it credit for robust build quality and solidfeel. The Pismo is a flexible flyer by comparison. The ThinkPad is abrick (and heavy as one too). However, I much prefer the Pismokeyboard (or, for that matter, the one in my 17" PowerBook G4 - which isstill used in the MacBook Pros), and I absolutely detest the trackstick. The Pismo(albeit with a G4 processor upgrade) running OS X 10.4 " Tiger"was a lot livelier too. I couldn't believe how long it took theThinkPad to boot.

To each his own, and whatever floats your boat, butthe ThinkPad mystique evaporated for me upon exposure andcomparison.

Thank you for your comment.

Charles

Apple's worked with the ThinkPad people before, for one of theearlier PowerBooks. And I'm sure any "ThinkBook" would have a touchpad. . . most ThinkPads do. You don't need to use theTrackPoint.

Some ThinkPads are bricks; others aren't. If the one you were usingwas heavy and didn't have a trackpad, you haven't been able to give ita fair comparison . . . and how long it took Windows toboot would hardly be relevant. :)

The WallStreet had a standard optical bay you could swap out asecond hard drive or battery in? That's a killer capability.

Hi Peter,

I'll have to defer to your greater knowledge and frameof reference with ThinkPads. Windows (including Vista on a 2.6 GHz Core2 Duo tower) always underwhelms me for a variety of reasons.;-)

IBM Japan built the subcompact PowerBook 2400c for Apple in the late1996/97.

Yes, you could put batteries or a variety of 3.5"devices in the WallStreet's left expansion bay. The left-hand bay couldaccommodate a battery, a 3.5" floppy disk drive, a third-party IomegaZip drive, or a third-party add-on hard drive. The right hand bay waslarger and could accommodate all of the above plus a 5-1/4" opticaldrive (CD-ROM or DVD-ROM). Unfortunately, this level of versatility waslost with the introduction of the Lombard in 1999. The Lombard andPismo can accommodate batteries in either or both bays, but drives onlywork in the right-hand bay on those models.

There's an excellent resource on what will work withwhat in older PowerBooks: The Complete andUtter Guide to PC Cards and Expansion Bays on the PowerBook.

Charles

Well, yes, but what does Windows have to do with a hypotheticalThinkPad running OS X? :) :)

Sorry for the slow response, I have no power at home since thehurricane.

Hi Peter,

Well, not a whole lot I guess, but my point was thatthe crappy performance of the ThinkPad running XP made me wonder how itever developed the loyal following it has.

Hope you get your power back soon and that you didn'tsuffer a lot of damage. Ike missed us here. Thankfully, all we got fromit was a breeze and a light drizzle that hardly wet the ground.

Charles

Upgrading a PowerBook 5300

PowerBook 5300FromJohn:

Yes, Charles, I noticed your "Great'Books" article on PBcentral.com omitted the 5300. I see thoughthat Dan Knight on Low End Mac says that OS 8.1 makes the 5300 "rocksolid."

I got these two really cheap and untested, figuring that I couldrevive them and sell them later. Both look and work great, though onehas the common loose power port. I found that DMS Electronics isselling the Focus Enhancements 16MV-EN combo 16-bit video/ethernet cardfor $2 each! I ordered several of those to make the 5300s moreattractive machines. I've sold a number of computers and components oneBay over the years, so we'll see how these do.

John

Hi John,

It's not my intention to disparage the 5300. Mineserved as my main workhorse for nearly three years, and then anotherthree as my daughter's high school and freshman year universitycomputer. It's been back here for several years now and still boots,although the hard drive makes ominous noises.

However, it took a lot of stroking to keep it working.All OS upgrades from the original, execrable, System 7.5.2 that itshipped with was an improvement. I preferred System 7.5.5 as the bestcompromise, but 8.1 was also reasonably stable (by standards of theday). The 5300 will actually boot OS 9, but you wouldn't wantto.

A lot of folks really loved their 5300s, and it couldstill be a useful laptop today for (very) basic computing chores, butthe 1400 was a vastly bettermachine.

Charles

Another Free Tool to Assure that RoutineMaintenance Is Run

From Sumeth Chaochuti:

Hi Charles,

I haven't seen anyone mention PseudoAnacron, which isthe app I find quite useful and hassle-free. You just install andforget about those routine. It's a startup item which will quit itselfonce it's done performing its task.

Regards,
Sumeth

Hi Sumeth,

Thanks for the tip. I hadn't heard ofPseudoAnacron. Sounds like it might be the ideal solution.

Charles

Another Vote for fastmail.fm

From Michael:

I'm with Jonathan.

I also use fastmail.fm, as you can see, and have since 2004. Duringthat time their server(s) have been down only one time for a very briefperiod. The service is exceptionally fast and secure. I've never lost amail message.

I use email client, not the web based interface others may prefer. Idownload all mail messages to my computers (3) as well as leave copieson the server. This makes searching much faster and long-term securitymore certain.

The magic of IMAP and the reliability of fastmail.fm make for a nearperfect email solution - no matter which computer I am using.

Thanks,
Michael

Hi Michael,

You make a forceful case. Perhaps I'll get aroundto experimenting with IMAP one of these days and become a converttoo.

Charles

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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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