Miscellaneous Ramblings

iBook? eBook? Whither Lombard?

Charles Moore - 30 April 1999 - Tip Jar

NOTE: This Miscellaneous Ramblings columnoriginally appeared on MacOpinion on April 30, 1999.It is republished here by permission of the author andMacOpinion.

Jeff Walsh of InfoWorld Electric posted an article last weekabout a PowerBook prototype shown "behind closed doors" to Appledealers who attended the National Association of BroadcastersConference in Las Vegas last week.

Walsh said the unit was reportedly

  • at least as thin as Sony's 0.9" Vaio
  • featured a PowerPC G4 processor with speeds starting at 400MHz
  • weighed three-and-one-half pounds
  • had a detachable display that can be replaced with goggles fora heads-up display.

The article unambiguously pronounced this computer as thelong-awaited "Lombard" PowerBook, which it is almost certainlynot.

Lombard, on the basis of manyleaked reports, is an evolutionary development of the 7.5 poundPowerBook G3 Series PowerBook G3machines.While it will probably shed a few ounces, having less than half thethickness and weight of WallStreet is not on the agenda.

Also, Lombard is expected to have copper G3 processors - not theG4, which will almost certainly be introduced in desktop machinesfirst, and a detachable screen on Lombard is also veryunlikely.

So what did the dealers see in Las Vegas? My guess is that itwas a very early prototype build or nonfunctional mockup of therumored eBook "executive" PowerBook that may roll out late nextfall in time for the Christmas season. At that point, Apple wouldhave three distinct PowerBook form factors - the big,desktop-in-a-portable-housing Lombard, the new "iBook" consumer PowerBook, and the"executive" thin PowerBook, which will probably share the iBook'sguts for the most part.

At the 1999 Apple Shareholders' Meeting, Apple iCEO Steve Jobsnoted that ultimately there might be three PowerBook markets: onefor a low-cost consumer model ("iBook"), one for professionals whowant a full-featured model that can do everything (Lombard); andone for "digital road warriors" who just want something light sothey can get email in their hotel rooms (the "executive"'Book).

An New York Times article by the' John Markoffmakes an interesting reference to Apple's forthcoming lightweightPowerBook, which he describes as having "a sleek, gray translucentcase and clamshell shape, according to those who have seen it, ...as radical an industrial design departure from the standard boxynotebooks as the iMac was from the conventional desktop PC."

That also sounds like the "eBook" that was shown privately atLas Vegas. O'Grady's PowerPage has posted a speculative feature setfor the eBook, which is described as "Apple's ultra-slimPowerBook, due Fall/Winter 1999," to fall between the newprofessional PowerBook (Lombard/101) and a consumer portable(iBook/P1). According to O'Grady's "well placed sources," eBookwill feature:

  • A Motorola/Thomson 500+ MHz AltiVec powered PowerPC G4processor
  • PCI I/O bus
  • 1-2 MB backside cache
  • 64 MB SDRAM
  • Max. RAM between 128 MB and 512 MB of SDRAM via 1 memoryslot
  • 10 - 14 GB Hard Drive
  • 10/100 ethernet onboard, IrDA, FireWire, USB
  • v.90 Modem
  • Single Type I or Type II CardBus PC card slot
  • 12.1" TFT reflective LCD display, 1024 x 768, 24-bit color,with resolution switching
  • Video subsystem based on the ATI Rage 128 Chipset
  • VGA video connector
  • 24x CD-ROM/4x DVD-ROM
  • Micro floppy drive
  • S-Video out
  • 1/8" speaker and microphone ports will be located below the PCcard
  • Dual stacked USB ports
  • Single IEEE 1394/FireWire port
  • 4 Mb/sec. IrDA
  • New style AC power outlet that will not require a powerbrick
  • Full size keyboard with inverted "T" arrow keys
  • US$2,500 - $4,000

Sounds delicious. As I've mentioned before here, I'm smittenwith the gaggle of "thin" PC laptops like the Sony Vaio and theMitsubishi Pedion. With the above feature set and a think formfactor, Apple should have a world beater.

However, before we see the eBook, Lombard will be released(soon) and the lightweight consumer iBook, likely in the palette ofiMac fruit colors is expected by midsummer. Apple has trademarkedthe iBook name.

Specifications for the iBook are speculated to be:

  • G3 processor with 512 KB/1 MB L2 backside cache
  • 10/100 ethernet
  • 56K modem
  • CD-ROM drive
  • 32 MB of RAM
  • 4 GB or better hard drive
  • USB port
  • no floppy drive
  • 11 inch TFT display
  • weight in the four to five pound range

There's speculation that the iBook's lid will be able to opennearly 360 degrees, possibly allowing a "tablet mode" supportinguse with a handwriting recognition stylus. I think this is anextreme long shot, given the price point Apple wants to meet,presumably in the $1,299 to $1,899 range. That reality will ruleout such things as wireless connectivity, a DVD-ROM drive, andvirtual-reality style "heads-up" goggles, at least as standardequipment.

As for Lombard, I am reluctant to make any strong predictions,but OS 8.6 is ready to go, and we should see it soon now that Appleis effectively sold out of 300 MHz G3 Series II PowerBooks andsupplies of other PowerBooks are also getting scarce. Indeed,Apple's lean inventory policy is likely one of the major factors inthe Lombard delay.

Vimage Cuts G3 Upgrade Prices Again

Vimage Corporation has announced its second round of price cutsthis month for some of its G3 upgrade cards, including the VpowerPB 1400 G3/233 (512K of backside cache, 02.1 backside cache busclock ratio) upgrade for the PowerBook 1400 which is now $299.

MR Mailbag

Another bunch of interesting mail from Road Warrior readers thisweek.

From Nico Tripcevich:

Dear Charles

Do you have any insight into the design strategy with thePowerBook G3s that would lead Apple to put the CPU on adaughtercard along with the ROMs?

<

As I understand it, the CPU on a daughtercard makes futureupgrading easy, but putting the ROM on the card defeats the purposebecause only Apple is allowed to make the ROMs (since there is nomore cloning). Therefore if there will be any upgrading of thisPowerBook, it will be at Apple discretion.

As I have a PB G3 233 with no cache but a beautiful 14" TFTscreen I would love to hear that there are upgrade possibilitiesfor this machine at some point in the future. My speed scores areabout 1/3 less than the same machine with a 512k L2 cache(darn).

One idea was to try to find the daughtercard for a parted-out PBG3 300 MHz a few years down the road and just swap the CPU out.

As Nico is already aware, the ROMs are on the daughtercard, andsince Apple won't release the Mac ROMs to 3rd party manufacturers,chances of an upgrade for the G3 Series are slim to nil.

Apple would rather you buy a new PowerBook.

On the bright side, even though the cacheless G3 233 is slowerthan its stablemates, it's still pretty fast - about 50 percentfaster than a 3400-240 which was considered lightning a couple ofyears ago.

A 300 MHz motherboard swap-in probably could work, but I expectNico would be better off selling the 233 and buying a used 300.

Try adding more RAM as a cheaper and still effective performanceenhancer.

From Ross Cottrell:

Sir,

I am interested in buying a laptop. So far I have never ownedone, but they seem so useful and cool. I have been desiring to buya Mac for a long time, and now I think I can do it thanks to an IRSrefund check. I should mention that I have been a Windows user forabout 9 years, and I've never owned a Mac of any kind.

For the past 3 or 4 months I've been reading your informativecolumns, which I really enjoy by the way, and reading everything onthe web I can find. Now that the prices of the current G3PowerBooks have dropped so much I'm having a hard time holdingback. My questions are these: Is there any USB support built intothe motherboard of the Wall Streets? Do USB upgrades exist?

I am going to use my machine as a desktop replacement, and Ineed to keep it for at least 2 years. So I know I will be buying anew mouse for it. With USB such a prevalent technology now, I'dlike to be able to attach a USB mouse to the PowerBook. But fromwhat I've read, they have no USB ports or capability of anykind.

One last question: Can a G3 266 or 300 PowerBook run Virtual PCquickly? I've heard that this program is slow.

Thank you very much. Your Road Warrior columns have reallyhelped me to decide to buy a Mac at long last, I just need tofigure out which one.

Now this is the kind of mail I really enjoy getting.

Congratulations to Ross on his decision to forward migrate tothe Mac platform. That IRS windfall (so to speak - it was Ross'smoney to start with) couldn't have come at a better time, with theG3 Series prices so low.

Several PC Card USB Adapters are waiting in the wings, and somemay be shipping. I know for some units, the holdup has been theintro of OS 8.6, which went Golden Master last week, and should beout around the end of the month as a free upgrade for OS 8.5 users.One of these adapters should do the trick nicely. The new Lombard'Book will have onboard USB support, but will cost many $$$$ morethan a current G3 Series II.

The G3 Series 'Book is as close to a desktop machine in aportable form factor as you can get, and it should serve admirablyin that role. Ross needn't worry about "growing out" of it in twoyears. There are many 10 year old Macs still in commercialservice.

My favorite mouse is the MacAlly 2-button programmable jobbie,and it is so cheap, the USB support would not really be much of anissue in that context. It's available in both USB and ADB. I'd justbuy the ADB model to use with a Wall Street - (in fact I did!)

As for Virtual PC's speed - or lack of, think in theneighborhood of 125 - 150 MHz Pentium. Not fast, but usable. For PCsoftware that forward migrators want to keep using, at least duringthe transition, VPC (or SoftWindows) is a good solution.

And now for a letter that I didn't enjoy (but did appreciate)receiving.

From Matthew Schultz

Have you heard any juice about these continuing andescalating quality issues? It's reached epidemic proportions withour customers. We're extremely concerned...

I just got off the phone with a customer of mine whom Irecommended buy a PowerBook G3 in December. She bought the 233/14.1model.

She took it into XXXXXXX XXXXXX, Apple authorized service dealerhere in Littleton. The power supply board caught fire and burned upthe laptop, as well as the top of her desk. It could have been atotal disaster had the fire spread. She is in shock.

Earlier this week another friend of mine lost all her data andher PowerBook would no longer start. Dead hard drive, dead powersupply. She bought it in September. It's also in the shop, they'vetold her about 3-4 weeks. My experience is that it'll take aminimum of 2x - 3x that estimate.

There have been a continuing quality problems associated withthese units. I have four friends whose PowerBooks have died for onereason or another over the last 6 months and eleven customers whohave had a slew of problems and down time. My own company has hadextensive problems with four separate PowerBook G3 units.

Please be very careful with your new PowerBook. back up, backup, back up. DO NOT leave it powered-on unattended. If there's away you can possibly get a refund, I would urge you to do so.

This is distressing stuff, although I hasten to add that itlooks like Matt's friends and customers are experiencing atypicalreliability problems with their PowerBooks. The one that burnedsounds like a different occurrence than the one or two Doug Landryat the PowerBook Zone was able to confirm in his series aboutblazing G3s.

I forwarded Matt's letter to a contact at Apple tech supportrequesting comment, and thus far have not received any. I alsoasked Matt if he could supply names and email addresses of theindividuals he referred to, and received this response:

Thanks, Charles, it would be helpful knowing what youdiscover.

I will ask each individual. I know several of them have had tosign NDAs, so they are under legal restrictions (I refused to signthe NDA). Three of them, a doctor, a sales rep and a nurse, nolonger have email since their computers are shot. The nurse is asweet lady, she's an angel of mercy, really, and the fire in herlaptop has her so upset (she was crying when she called me), Idon't believe she will ever turn on a computer again. There's noway that PowerBook's going back into her house, whether Appleservice fixes it or not. I'm kinda feeling really bad about it,it's mostly my fault, I told her to buy the thing.

We've stopped recommending the machines to our customers untilwe get some sort of indication that the quality and reliabilityissues are being tackled. It is also my contention that the heatgenerated by these units, which I have measured at typically 50-60%greater than what our Dell and IBM laptops here generate (sometimessignificantly more, on the order of 2x to 2.5x), MTBF and/or L10 onmany components will suffer. This will equate to long term productfailures which because of life expectancy curves, will fall outsideof the warranty window. There is really no debate about this.Nothing kills electronic circuitry like constant heat. That'sanother reason we can't recommend that our customers purchasethem.

We've seen problems associated with hard drives, LCD's, powersupply cards, connectors, power cables, LCD cables, modems, CDmodules, floppy modules and one instance where the battery baylatch just wouldn't work (when the unit was picked up and tilted,the battery would just fall out). One 266 unit I bought was DOAright out of the box (power supply). I immediately shipped it backto the distributor for a refund ... after much arguing with Appleand having to put a stop payment order, etc. - in contrast, when weasked Dell to return 2 of the 16 laptops ordered, we received thepaperwork via Airborne the next day, no questions asked.

But it's not just the frequency of the issues that's bothersome,the response has been poor in our opinion. 11 weeks for a harddrive. Four weeks to receive a third modem (the 1st two died). Wehad one unit die when the hard drive was corrupted by a MacOSsoftware update. One gentlemen told me that he waited 20 weeks foran LCD replacement. He was infuriated at us for our council and wehave lost an important long term customer. I owned a 250/13.3/192MB for 27 weeks, 15 of which the machine was inoperable. Once itwas finally repaired (at my expense... no NDA, no service), I soldit. It got to the point that we couldn't run our business anymoreand we had to go out and buy some other laptops.

I'd hate to see Apple lose it's momentum because of quality.Especially since they killed Motorola & Power Computing[clones], there's no MacOS alternative. I think they're going aftermarket share - volumes - instead of quality. Although we moved ourbusiness to Win98, most of us still have Macs at home.

So, enough rambling! It would be great to hear what you'vediscovered and I will ask these customers and my friends if theycan and would be willing to share specifics and details withus.

Thus far, I have not heard from anyone else on this issue.

There will be people who will criticize me for publishing Matt'sletters. However, it would be irresponsible not to. If problemslike these exist, they need to be out in the open, not wallpaperedover or swept under the rug.

On the other hand, the fire hazard appears to be extremely rare,and has bee attributed to either shorted RF shielding and/or abatch of bad capacitors. I have not heard of any G3 Series IImachines being affected, so the units currently being sold shouldbe OK. We have two G3 Series IIs in the house, both of which getheavy use and which have been problem free - one since lastNovember and one since January. While they get pretty warm, theinternal cooling fans rarely cut in, and I'm assuming that Appleengineers factored in the heat issue in designing the internalcomponents.

As for Apple's commitment to quality, in the New York Times piece by John Markoff that Ireferred to above, Markoff notes that "Apple's designers take aSWAT-team approach to fixing bugs.

When the company's innovative iMac computer firstshipped last year, [Apple chief hardware engineer Jon] Rubinsteinattended a midnight store-opening celebration in Palo Alto. By thenext morning, after hearing consumer complaints at the store and onMacintosh enthusiasts' Web sites, he knew that the machine had someproblems - the worst being that the computer did not work with anewly designed Epson printer.

A software patch was created in a matter of days and widelydistributed with the aid of the Internet, sidestepping apotentially serious public-relations stumble for the new iMac.

However, it would be more reassuring if Apple would reply to theconcerns Matt Shultz has cited here.

A reader identified only as gober writes:

Dear Mr. Moore,

For the last three years in the springtime I always enjoy theintroduction of the new Apple lines of PowerBooks. Every year I sayto myself that this is the year that I am going to purchase one.This year more than any other year I have been following the pricesbecause I DO plan on purchasing a PowerBook.

The problem is that as an educator in a school district that islow wealth and low income most of my computer and computer relatedpurchases are purchased for the use of my students at school out ofmy own funds.

Most of these purchases are usually a year or more after theyare introduced so the price is low enough that I can afford topurchase them, but yet still have enough power to make themworthwhile. So for my purposes I do not need the exact top of theline models.

>Last year when the WallStreet (Series I) was introduced itlooked like it was a winner! In September though Apple came outwith the Series 2 PowerBook and prices fell. In January of thisyear through today, the prices seem to be still going down withevery supplier coming up with its own price for the WallStreet.

My concern is that I do not know what to do at this pointregarding a PowerBook purchase. Yes it is true that I am waitingfor the price to possibly drop more, but I am not waiting orspeculating about future products (Lombard) as Fred Anderson,Apple's chief financial officer suggests may be happening withpurchasers. If that was true then I would wait to purchase the lowend Lombard which will have as more in it then the top of the line300 MHz WallStreet, at about the same price. If I could purchasethat 300 MHz for the price listed for the purchase of 10, I woulddo it in a heart beat. It would be a worthwhile investment. Withthat being said I wonder if the Lombard will be a better machine. Ihave read reports that it runs cooler than the WallStreet in whicha few have even been known to "flame-up". If I have to spend morethan I originally intended, than I want to be sure that what I amgetting is a good value for that money.

This is probably why I haven't purchased a PowerBook yet! Themore information I get the more confusing it is for mydecision.

Thanks for taking the time to hear me out.

First I assure you, even a 233 MHz Wall Street has more powerthan most normal people need, at least for the foreseeablefuture.

Secondly I think G3 Series II prices have probably aboutbottomed, because they are running out of stock.

Lombard uses a copper chip, which will definitely run coolerthan the chips in the Wall Streets. However, I haven't found theheat especially onerous on my 233. The ones that smouldered/orcaught fire were not due to heat from the processor, but ratherfrom an electrical short circuit in the RF shielding and possibly abatch of faulty capacitors.

Whatever and whenever you buy, desktop or laptop, 6 months lateryou will be able to get something faster and with more features forthe same or less money. The trick is to decide what you need andpick the right time to buy. Now is the right time for Wall Streets.The Wall Street is a fantastic machine. Lombard will be even morefantastic, but you'll have to wait 10 months or so for the lowprices to return.

From Troy Lewis:

I recently purchased a 5300cs PowerBook through auctions.yahoo.comfor $600. It has a brand new 2 gig drive, a color 12" screen Ithink not sure about size at 256 colors, 24 megs of RAM which I nowhave tripled and 100 MHz 603e chip.

It also came with a Color StyleWriter 1500 with both black andcolor cartridges, two power bricks for the PowerBook, and the first2X speed CD-ROM, I think Apple ever made, but hey it works with mycomputer. It also came with MacOS 8.1, but I am now working on the8.6 build 9 and am having no problems. (All of this for $600) Ialso got a 33.6 PC card modem with it, but I have since upgradedwith a $50 V.90 X2 card that works flawlessly.

>When I first got it I went from 7.5 to 8.0 and then suddenly hadto reinitialize but that didn't bother me since I hadn't putanything on it myself yet. Oh yes, some part of the monitor hadbeen recently replaced before I bought it, all in all, its workingfine. No explosions, no meltdowns, and I am hoping this continuesthis way. I am also looking on advice on upgrading this machine,can a new motherboard be installed with a faster PowerPC chip???What's the max ram I can upgrade to as I already have 24 megsinstalled, and are there any cheap CD-ROM drives I can get that arefaster than 2X?? Thank you for your time and if anyone found abetter deal on a 5300, could you drop me a line and let meknow??

Sounds like Troy got a great deal on the 5300cs. With the stuffincluded, $1000 would be not have been out of line. By the way,that screen is a 10.4" unit, not 12".

PowerBook 5300s don't explode or melt down. Only two machineswere even affected, and it was the Sony LiIon batteries, not the5300 itself that was the fire hazard. All of these batteries werereplaced (only 100 machines ever reached consumers with the badbatteries, and none of these caught fire).

You can go to 56 or 64 Megs of RAM with a 5300. Depends on RAMcard. You'll have to remove the 16 MB upgrade. If you can find a56k card, that will give you 64 megs. They are rare. I included apiece about a company that makes 5300 Ram in a MiscellaneousRamblings a few weeks ago. Can't remember which one, but you cancheck in the archived columns on MacOpinion. I imagine the chancesof finding a used 56k card are slim to nil. A 48 MB card will giveyou 56k - also tough to find used. Most Ram outlets carry 40 MBcards for the 5300.

The only motherboard swap that's practical would be the 117 MHzfrom the 5300 ce, and it would hardly be worth the trouble.

MacWarehouse and others sell reasonably cheap 24x and 36x CD-ROMdrives. I am rather partial to the old slow drives. They're quietand don't vibrate.

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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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