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 the Macintosh Portable) after they became obsolete and cheap enough....

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-up plug-in suitcase, like a Compaq Portable, an Osborne One, or a Grid "lunch pail". Apple figured a portable Mac needed to do everything a desktop Mac did, run all day on a battery charge, and generally be capable of serving a scientific expedition in the wilderness. A lot was dictated by available components. The 6V lead-acid battery held more amp-hours than the new NiCads. Grid CompassThe 9V transistor battery was there to power the Mac for a few minutes while the main battery was changed. It wasn't a PRAM battery. A portable off or sleeping requires the main battery and draws power from it to keep RAM alive.

The Conner 40 MB 3.5" drive was in 1988 the lowest power, smallest ruggedized drive on the market. There were no 2.5" drives, though there were rumors of such from Areal and Conner. The 640 x 400 active-matrix LCD was the first active-matrix LCD on the market, and it accounted for most 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.

What Apple learned from the Portable: most users would trade run time for size & weight. The buyers were traveling corporate execs, and something that would fit into a briefcase would sell big. A 16 lb. computer was a real drag running from one gate at O'Hare to another. A couple of hours run time was okay. So they went to the masters of small, Sony, who had been making Apple's disk drives and Walkman portable gadgets, and Sony built a miniaturized version, the PowerBook 100 (right, next to a Mac Portable). Later PowerBooks were introduced at lower prices by using PC-style passive LCDs, which suffered from slow response time and poor contrast but were much cheaper.

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

Pismo with drive bay devicesThe G3 PowerBooks (WallStreet, Lombard, and Pismo) were Apple's closest approach to a portable desktop replacement. The option bays allowed swapping drives, batteries, etc. to match the system to almost any task. They are still usable, and I run OS X Tiger on my WallStreet.

That said, I have everything built into my MacBook that I have plug-in cards for for Wally. Wally needs a WiFi card, a DVD module, a FireWire card, a USB card, and two batteries to match the functionality of the MacBook. Conversely, the MacBook has no way to hook up a SCSI drive and needs a USB dongle for serial port or ADB devices, but I never seem to need those.

If you're looking for a modular Mac which can ride out power interruptions, a mini with a small UPS fits the bill. It's also easy to carry around if you don't need to move the keyboard and monitor along with it. For what it would cost to build a modular, upgradable Mac with desktop display & portable display, you can buy a MacBook and an iMac. Remember, these old portables cost a ton of money. Still, your point is taken, Macs are more focussed and less adaptable than they once were, except maybe the Pro towers.


Hi Henry,

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

I used a PowerBook 5300 with a passive matrix grayscale display for three years and found it reasonably satisfactory until I got the Internet. I also used an early edition WallStreet with a color passive matrix display for several months in late 1998 and found it no hardship, but the active-matrix TFT display in the WallStreet I eventually bought was definitely superior.

The Duo 2300c is kneecapped by internal engineering inherited from the original 68030 Duo 230. Apple could have reengineered it and made it a better performer, but by that time had lost interest in the Duo concept.

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

I would be happy - no ecstatic - with a machine that offered as much upgradability and versatility as those old G3 Series PowerBooks.


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 very important. 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? A mini 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 that offered as much upgradability and versatility as those old G3 Series PowerBooks."

Yeah, I hear that. They'd be expensive, though. Right now, there's not 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 for audio and video. Hard drive and RAM are easy to upgrade. What am I going to want to do with my laptop? Or has innovation moved to the pocket 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 MacBook does most everything now that I'm retired from programming professionally, but the G4 tower with its terabytes of storage and 2 studio displays is still important. Latest toy is a Cube, which I've spent more on than it's worth, but with upgrades to CPU, RAM, hard drive, and video card, it's fast as well as pretty.


Hi again Henry,

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

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

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


Portable as Primary or Secondary Computer?

From Jeffrey:


As usual, you raise an interesting point. Where is the best balance between portability and capability, where capability includes such things as upgradeability and expandability? Today, I would never choose a MacBook, "Pro" or otherwise, as my sole computer because I'd find it too limiting with regards to expansion options. However, a modern incarnation of a WallStreet or Duo might be just what I'd need to make a portable my one and only Mac. Given a choice of only one, I'd take my Quicksilver over a TiBook any day.

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

If there as a choice between taking all of my capability everywhere (the Mac Portable approach) or taking some of my capability everywhere but retaining full capability at home (the Duo approach), I'd be inclined to lean towards the modular solution. I can imagine something like an iPod touch or something with a keyboard like an NEC MobilePro for portable use 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. With OpenCL, I wonder whether it will be possible to incrementally expand the processing capability of the system when docked?


Hi Jeffrey,

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

For me, a 17" MacBook Pro would exceed my actual needs by many magnitudes, but it would be a much higher consumer value machine, especially over the long haul, if it was more expandable and upgradable - like the old G3 Series PowerBooks were.

FireWire and USB 2.0 along with the ExpressCard slot have mitigated the lack of internal upgrade potential somewhat, but there is still the matter of processor obsolescence and the lack of an upgrade path for video support (the latter afflicts the G3 PowerBooks as well, of course).

The modular motif still appeals to me as the ideal compromise.


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 the ThinkPad 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 hard drive.
  • Docking port . . . and you could get PCI expansion slots in the biggest dock.

And the ThinkPad has a much better keyboard than the current Apple laptops. I notice the Mac Portable had a ridge around the lid to keep foreign objects away from the screen when the lid is closed. That's another feature I miss from my ThinkPad.

I think you have a typo there . . . "the WallStreet G3 Series PowerBook back in 1978" 1998, surely?

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

Hi Peter,

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

Addressing your list, Apple actually had all those points covered except for the docking port in the 1998 WallStreet without any need to reference IBM/Lenovo technology.

I know some folks are really smitten with the ThinkPads, but the attraction eludes me. I had an early '00s vintage ThinkPad running Windows XP here for a while last year, and I was surprised how pedestrian it seemed to me compared with my slightly older Pismos. I'll give it credit for robust build quality and solid feel. The Pismo is a flexible flyer by comparison. The ThinkPad is a brick (and heavy as one too). However, I much prefer the Pismo keyboard (or, for that matter, the one in my 17" PowerBook G4 - which is still 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 the ThinkPad to boot.

To each his own, and whatever floats your boat, but the ThinkPad mystique evaporated for me upon exposure and comparison.

Thank you for your comment.


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

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

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

Hi Peter,

I'll have to defer to your greater knowledge and frame of reference with ThinkPads. Windows (including Vista on a 2.6 GHz Core 2 Duo tower) always underwhelms me for a variety of reasons. ;-)

IBM Japan built the subcompact PowerBook 2400c for Apple in the late 1996/97.

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

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


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

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

Hi Peter,

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

Hope you get your power back soon and that you didn't suffer a lot of damage. Ike missed us here. Thankfully, all we got from it was a breeze and a light drizzle that hardly wet the ground.


Upgrading a PowerBook 5300

From John:

Yes, Charles, I noticed your "Great 'Books" article on omitted the 5300. I see though that Dan Knight on Low End Mac says that OS 8.1 makes the 5300 "rock solid."

I got these two really cheap and untested, figuring that I could revive them and sell them later. Both look and work great, though one has the common loose power port. I found that DMS Electronics is selling the Focus Enhancements 16MV-EN combo 16-bit video/ethernet card for $2 each! I ordered several of those to make the 5300s more attractive machines. I've sold a number of computers and components on eBay over the years, so we'll see how these do.


Hi John,

It's not my intention to disparage the 5300. Mine served as my main workhorse for nearly three years, and then another three as my daughter's high school and freshman year university computer. 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 it shipped with was an improvement. I preferred System 7.5.5 as the best compromise, but 8.1 was also reasonably stable (by standards of the day). The 5300 will actually boot OS 9, but you wouldn't want to.

A lot of folks really loved their 5300s, and it could still be a useful laptop today for (very) basic computing chores, but the 1400 was a vastly better machine.


Another Free Tool to Assure that Routine Maintenance Is Run

From Sumeth Chaochuti:

Hi Charles,

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


Hi Sumeth,

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


Another Vote for

From Michael:

I'm with Jonathan.

I also use, as you can see, and have since 2004. During that time their server(s) have been down only one time for a very brief period. The service is exceptionally fast and secure. I've never lost a mail message.

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

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


Hi Michael,

You make a forceful case. Perhaps I'll get around to experimenting with IMAP one of these days and become a convert too.


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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 and a columnist at If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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