My First Mac

Eight-Year-Old PowerBook Is Enough

Andrew Lawman - 2001.11.15

Back in late 1993, I got a job offer overseas, and rather than cart my desktop PC to South Korea, I decided to buy a laptop. Heading over to Circuit City, I saw all of these PC laptops with keyboards coming right to the front edge and clip on mice - then there was the PowerBook sitting off to the side by itself. I just had to have it. I knew little about computers and nothing about Macs, so I took home that PowerBook 145B $1,500 poorer but extremely excited. I found a copy of Word 5.1 and Excel 4.0, and PowerBook 100 SeriesI was in business. The following week I spent something like $150 on a 4 MB memory upgrade (now at 8 MB RAM with an 80 MB hard drive) and was on an airplane.

That machine was my primary computer for the next three years, two in South Korea and another year in the States, followed by two more years of service as an adjunct to a desktop Mac.

I learned a great deal about computers back then, and had my 145B optimized to the point where a 5300c-toting friend back said "How do you do that?" in awe when I typed a shortcut key and the PowerBook went to sleep instantly! I even got Word 6.01 to run fast once the application was launched by means of some cheats in the Options tab I had read about regarding reducing memory allocated to graphics. In short, except for the obvious limitations of a black-and-white screen and no external video, I had no problem doing anything the latest and greatest PowerBooks could do, not to mention a few things they couldn't, and usually quite a bit faster (old OSs rule).

A few things they couldn't? Try reading a color laptop screen outdoors in the sun; it just doesn't work. Try booting a modern laptop from a very small RAM Disk which also contains the primary application, Nisus Compact in this case. With the backlight off and a fresh battery, I ran that 145B for over five hours on a single charge once (processor slowed to 16 MHz, hard disk spun down, working entirely from RAM disk).

I've moved on since my 145B days, first to a 5300c (which only lasted for five months), then to the Wintel camp when I wanted a new, fast laptop with a TFT screen for under $2,000. (In 1998 all that Apple would sell me for that price was the passive G3 with no cache - no thanks.) I'm on my fourth Wintel laptop now, which in itself says a lot for the longevity of those old Macs.

I have a 700 MHz Pentium III that weighs only 3.4 lbs. and runs Windows 2000. It is stable, fast, and a delight to use, but with the exception of convenient ethernet (PC card) I really don't do anything on it today that couldn't be done on that old 145B. Microsoft Office 2000 is a lot nicer than 4.2.1 (or even the superior Word 5/Excel 4 combo) but really doesn't add any indispensable features. Ditto MS Outlook is a pleasure to use and sync with my Palm IIIc, but Palm Desktop Mac (based on Claris Emailer/Organizer) is just as good and works beautifully on an '030 Mac.

I haven't looked into MSN Messenger (they have a Mac version 2, but its PPC only, not sure if there ever was a version 1, and if it would work), ICQ works great, as does AOL Messenger. Netscape 4 runs is also fine on an '030. For someone who does online conferencing (text only), Web browsing, email, and a lot of word processing, the only real weakness of these older 'Books is that they won't display Web pages in color (toggling images off makes for very fast browsing, btw).

So what brought me to Low End Mac? My wife wanted to borrow my new Portégé, and as someone who depends on his computer everyday, I couldn't part with it, so I went onto eBay to get her her own laptop. I also have a desktop PC at home running Windows 98 and Office 97, but my wife likes to type on the dining room table, not in the home office, so her own laptop became an attractive idea. Looking at all of the Wintel and Mac machines available I thought about what she does with a computer, and the answer was word processing and email, with occasional Web browsing. I ordered her an 8-year-old PowerBook 145B.

How well can an 8-year-old PowerBook (based on 10-year-old technology) fit into a modern PC network running on ethernet? Very well. I have an old Asante EN/SC SCSI Ethernet adapter, and adding an extra cable to the network hub and leaving the SCSI adapter sitting on the desk, all she has to do to access the network is boot up with the adapter plugged in. This old PowerBook boots 7.1 very quickly.

The Windows 98 PC runs a three-year-old version of PC MacLan, and also using Conversions Plus, which includes the MacOpener driver, handles Mac format disks with ease. I put Mac CD ROMs into the desktop PC and then share them over AppleTalk, which the PowerBook opens in the Chooser and mounts on the desktop just like any other Mac volume, with the PC able to view the Mac in Network Neighborhood as well.

There are other easy options, as most of the software for old Macs is small. That same desktop PC can just move those files to a PC format Zip disk, then I plug my old SCSI Zip drive into the PB and install - or even boot from Zip. After installing the Macintosh driver for my HP LaserJet II onto the 145B, I can even print over ethernet, and while the ethernet is much slower than that of a PowerBook G3, it is infinitely faster than LocalTalk and an entirely serviceable way of sharing files. PowerBook File Utility (synchronization) even works, and the PC can access shared files on the Mac to boot!

Not bad for a PowerBook I bought for under $30. It boots right up into System 7.1 (update 3), although I've toyed with putting 7.5.5 on it like my old one used to have. I'm also hunting down a copy of Connectix PowerBook Utilities so that I can get that instant sleep function back.

Lastly, I just ordered myself a PowerBook Duo 280, as I've had a real ball setting up the 145B for my wife. I won't ever replace my Portégé, which is truly a delightful computer, with an ancient PowerBook, but it was so cheap that I can leave it in the trunk of the car with an AC inverter in the case and never be without an email/fax/Web/word processing capable computer - just the thing when the wife suddenly wants to shop and I forgot my laptop at home.

Looking back, those days in Korea with the PowerBook 145B as my sole computer were probably the best computing years I've ever had. I took real delight in discovering some new feature or capability, or trying out that new upgrade (and in the case of 7.5, downgrading right back). Today everything is so powerful that even the most bloated app can be fully installed on that 20 GB+ drive and forgotten about, but back then I had to try very hard to maximize just what I could do with my 80 MB drive and still have some space left over to save files and keep the drive from getting overly fragmented.

I seem to remember typically keeping around 20 MB free, and that was with a bastardized combination of 7.1 and 7.5, a variety of third party utilities, Word 6.01 and Excel 5, as well as a 3 MB persistent RAM disk (Maxima) with Word 4.0 and a minimal System Folder on it. That was one lean and mean machine that I used to create newsletters and other black and white documents every bit as flashy and impressive as the ones I do today on Office 2000.

Lastly, I've noticed that newer computers, Mac or PC, aren't any faster than those of 8-years-ago when we use them to do normal work. The Internet has sped up with faster modems and now broadband, but browsers have bloated up to match. OSs are so slick, but that bloat costs time in processor and more importantly, disk access. Finally applications have become richer, but no real lifesaving features have been added since Word 6 (actually Nisus Writer) brought us multiple levels of undo.

I'm not saying that I want to go back to monochrome screens, Config PPP, and nickle cadmium batteries, but with very few exceptions (I like to watch DVD movies on airplanes), today's hardware and software are just reasons to make us spend money and replace technology that still does the job every bit as well.

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