20 Years Ago, Apple’s PowerBook Redefined Notebook Computing

Powerbook 100 with floppy drive
PowerBook 100 with floppy drive.

Twenty years ago, Apple introduced its first laptop computer – the 16 lb. Macintosh Portable was portable, but definitely not a laptop – and forever changed the face of notebook computing. Although we take it for granted that laptops have a trackpad mounted in front of the keyboard, that was a completely new design that arrived with the first generation of PowerBooks (the 100, 140, and 170) on September 21, 1991.

Today our staff looks back at the legacy of those first PowerBooks, as well as other ways that Apple has redefined notebook computing.

PowerBook 170
PowerBook 170

Dan Knight (Mac Musings): I worked in the local ComputerLand store when the first PowerBooks were introduced, and I remember the biggest problem was getting enough units to keep our customers happy. The top-end PowerBook 170 was especially popular, and when the PB 180 replaced it a year later, it had the same supply problem.

The PowerBook design really was revolutionary in 1991. PC notebooks often had blue displays, and if you wanted a pointing device, you could take along a mouse or find a clip-on trackball – which often had to be removed before you could close your laptop.

Contrast that with Apple’s front-and-center trackball, which meant moving the keyboard back and creating a built-in wrist rest.

That was only the start of Apple innovation. Apple had the first notebooks with color displays, stereo sound, trackpads, smart batteries, and WiFi. It introduced widescreen displays with the first PowerBook G4 in 2001, which was also remarkably slim at just 1″ thin. The first MacBook Air (2008) raised the ante for small and light computing, running circles around underpowered Atom-based netbooks with a true Core 2 Duo CPU, introducing a machined unibody aluminum case, and still managed a full-size keyboard. Two years later, the 11.6″ MacBook Air kept all of those advantages while becoming even lighter.

Apple has a long record of innovation, and most of its innovations in the notebook range have become normal features across the industry.

PowerBook 5300
PowerBook 5300

Charles W Moore (several columns): I missed the beginning of the PowerBook era by a year, becoming a Mac user in the fall of 1992, and initially with desktop machines. I played around a bit with 100 series PowerBook on rare occasions when I could get my hands on one, and it didn’t take long to decide that I really wanted one, but that didn’t happen until late 1996, when I picked up a remaindered PowerBook 5300 (the entry-level, grayscale display model at what seemed at the time to be an attractively discounted price of CAN$1,895 – how times have changed!).

In addition to being the first PowerPC PowerBook, the 5300 also has the distinction of being the most expensive laptop Apple ever sold. the PowerBook 5300ce, which at a suck-in-your-breath $6,500, (about $8,500 in Canadian dollars at the time) has the dubious distinction of being the most expensive Mac laptop ever, at a whopping $4,300 more than the entry level PowerBook 5300 that sold for $2,200.

The punch line was that both of these computers shared the same form factor, motherboard architecture, keyboard, and case plastics. For that extra $4,300 what you got was a 1% faster 603e processor (117 MHz vs 100 MHz), a very nice 10.4″ 800 x 600 active-matrix display instead of a 9.5″ passive matrix grayscale unit, a 1.1 GB instead of a 500 MB hard drive, and standard 32 MB instead of 8 MB of RAM. A bit of Apple profiteering I think, even at the astronomical RAM prices of the day (I hazily recall paying about $225 for a 16 MB stick to bring my 5300 up to 24 MB, which incidentally was enough to boot into a RAM disk that could hold a stripped down OS 8.x, MS Word 5.1, and some smaller apps, dispensing with even the hard drive noise while gaining some much-needed speed.
The PowerBook literally changed my life. It took me about half a day after I unboxed the 5300 realize that portables were the way I wanted to go with computing, and I’ve never really looked back except for a brief dalliance with a G4 Cube in 2001 and picking up a brand new Umax SuperMac S900 clone tower for an irresistible $300 in the early ’00s.

At the outset, I hadn’t expected the laptop to essentially replace my desktop Mac, but that’s what happened virtually overnight, leaving me wondering whether there was any logical case for most people to own a desktop computer at all. I wonder even more these days. Never say “never”, but I don’t perceive much likelihood that I’ll ever buy another desktop Mac, at least as my main workhorse computer. I’m really not comfortable anymore using a machine that doesn’t support battery-powered, portable operation.

The PowerBook/iBook/MacBook has always seemed “right” to me, even when used primarily as a desktop machine. Non-laptops, even small ones like the Mac mini, have the restrictive handicap of needing an umbilical to wall current. The compact, self-contained quality of the PowerBook allowed a lot more flexibility in terms of work venues, and a laptop workstation doesn’t dominate a room.

Powerbook 3400c
PowerBook 3400c

Another traditional advantage of the PowerBook was its quietness. Up until the PowerBook 3400c in 2007, PowerBooks didn’t have internal cooling fans, so there was no possibility of a noisy cooling fan droning away. Even after the PowerBooks got fans, they rarely cut in unless you were toiling in very hot conditions.

The PowerBook changed the paradigm for many of us from “do I really need a laptop?” to “do I really need a desktop machine?”

Some users really do need the power and expandability of a desktop Mac, but most of us discovered that we didn’t, especially after the G3 PowerBooks arrived in the late ’90s (followed by G4 PowerBooks in the ’00s) with enough performance to satisfy all but the most demanding power-users.

Too bad Apple chose to retire the PowerBook name in 2006 in favor of the much blander MacBook branding. The hardware remained great, however, and the legacy of those first PowerBook 100s lives on in today’s Apple laptops – and indeed across the notebook computer spectrum. Notwithstanding the touchslab’s current popularity, for me the PowerBook set a bar so high that the essential concept has yet to be surpassed.

Kaypro II portable computer
Kaypro II portable computer

Allison Payne (The Budget Mac): I remember the first “portable” computer I ever used. Well, really, “luggable” would be more descriptive. It was a 30-pound monster that, when closed, was its own carrying case. The monochrome 9″ screen and two 5.25″ floppy drives were my gateway into personal computing at the age of five.

PowerBook 1400
PowerBook 1400

I never even saw an Apple laptop until college, fifteen years later, and by then Apple was well into the G3 “IceBook” era. I missed the entire 68K PowerBook era and only rediscovered the various innovations that we now take for granted in my mid-20s. Small form-factor, long battery life, swappable bays – heck, even the interchangeable BookCover on the PowerBook 1400 foreshadowed the trend to individualize laptops with screen-printed designs, laser-etching, and customizable skins.

Many of those innovations have faded into the background as Apple has streamlined its models and simplified its designs, but some of the core values still persist and are even making a comeback: ultra-portability, for example, with the newest MacBook Air models. And as with so many other things, where Apple leads, we see the rest of the industry scrambling to catch up and get a piece of the profits.

Dan Bashur (Apple, Tech, and Gaming): I once marveled at the ads for PowerBooks in the MacMall print catalogs that would arrive in our mailbox during my high school years, with some clear memories (later in college) of being absolutely blown away with the specs of the 3400c, which was touted at the time as the most powerful laptop in the world.

I could always dream, but as a family we were grounded to the beige desktop Macs due to the prohibitive cost of earlier PowerBooks which seemed to average between the $3,000 and $5,000 price point. I even remember the high-end variety of the 3400c released in 1997 that topped off around $6,500! Needless to say, no PowerBook (new or used) was within our family budget growing up, nor within my personal budget as a college student in the mid to late 90s.

Pismo PowerBook
Pismo PowerBook

That would all change as these machines hit the used market and became increasingly low-end during the Intel age. I now have a 400 MHz Pismo PowerBook G3, two 500 MHz Titanium Power Mac G4s (a resurrection project), and a 12″ 1.5 GHz PowerBook that replaced a 15″ 1.67 GHz Hi-Res PowerBook that I sold in order to obtain the 12″ and a Sony PlayStation 3. PowerBooks have been a part of my daily life for four years, and it would be hard to imagine being a journalist without one.

The name PowerBook says it all – a notebook filled with power. The power to create, the power to think different, and the power to be whatever you want to be. As great as the MacBook Pro is, its name will never have the panache and ring to it that PowerBook did. Here’s hoping that Apple brings back the PowerBook brand someday!

Simon Royal (Tech Spectrum): I jumped into the PowerBook market quite late. I had used Mac desktops for years, but I needed a laptop and at the time went with a Windows based Toshiba, but I just couldn’t bear to use it, so I started looking for iBooks and PowerBooks.

Lombard PowerBook G3
Lombard PowerBook G3

I picked up a Lombard PowerBook G3 in 2007, loved it, and upgraded it to the max. Then I moved on to 400 MHz Titanium PowerBook G4, which was a massive improvement over the Lombard. Since then I have owned over 15 various iBooks and PowerBooks – going all over the place in specs from iBook Clamshell (Indigo 366 MHz), iBook G3 (2x 500 and an 800 MHz), several Lombard PowerBook G3 (333 and 400 MHz), a couple of Pismo PowerBook G3 (400 and 500 MHz), a WallStreet PowerBook G3 (233 MHz), a PowerBook 1400cs (117 MHz), and Titanium PowerBook G4 (two 400, a 500 and 867 MHz).

12-inch iBook G4
12″ iBook G4

I am currently using a 1.07 GHz iBook G4. I have had desktop Macs in the meantime, but even armed with an Intel iMac (Early 2006), I preferred to use the even then aging Lombard.

PowerBooks hold a fondness for me, due to the high durability, quality build, longevity, and being so easy to upgrade. Installing a new hard drive takes only a few minutes and a handful of screws as opposed to iBooks, which take at least 30 min. and 30+ screws.

Macs have always been more powerful than their PC counterparts, and PowerBooks – being aimed at the business user – have always had a massive edge over the consumer aimed iBooks. Even the name tells you it is a beast of a computer. Switching to the MacBook name just is descriptive – it’s a Mac and it’s a ‘Book – but it doesn’t have the same assertiveness that PowerBook does.

I can’t see myself moving to a desktop ever in the future.

Austin Leeds (Apple Everywhere): As the owner of a PowerBook 180 (which unfortunately took a nasty fall onto concrete yesterday, but seems to have survived unscathed – good ol’ USA workmanship), and the former owner of a contemporary PC laptop (AT&T Globalyst), I can see quite clearly the impact that the PowerBook line made right off the bat, and the impact that the MacBook Pro line continues to make today. Apple is quite often at the forefront of innovation in the mobile field – whatever they don’t invent, they make affordable, reliable, and popular.

From the trackpad to colored screens, from WiFi to SSDs, Apple’s mobile devices have been the best in their field and will undoubtedly continue to be so for some time to come.

Further Reading