Embracing Obsolescence

PowerBook 1400 One of the Best PowerBooks Ever

- 2006.07.21

About six months ago I stumbled upon a Performa 6400 upgraded to the hilt (see Low-end Mac Treasure Trove Found on Craigslist), including the rather rare 500 MHz G3 Sonnet L2 card (clocked at 400 MHz in the 6400). Initially I was very excited by the prospect of having a legitimately fast older Mac with a built-in TV tuner. My digital jukebox project was in its infancy, and I thought I had found the perfect candidate.

Quickly realizing the 6400/6500 case was not Apple's best effort (nor worst, see the Quadra 800/840AV and Power Mac 8100/8500), I decided to take a different path. If I am to have an upgradeable tower design, my preference is to have a case that's easy to access. Additionally, a tower tends to take up a fair bit of space and is harder to integrate into my available workspace.

A nice desktop design with a flat top fit for stacking a monitor or other peripherals, such as the very respectably outfitted Power Mac 7600 from the same Performa 6400 expedition, was a perfect replacement. When compared to the 6400, the 7600 shone in several ways. Not being limited to thousands of colors (without a video card upgrade), having built-in ethernet, one extra PCI slot, OS X compatibility (with XPostFacto, a great application), and a far greater RAM capacity all contributed to my choice.

This enthusiasm dampening malaise settling about my feelings for the 6400 only increased upon the further realization that my LC 580 had similar color output and held more RAM, 136 MB vs. 128 MB.

Enter the PowerBook 1400

PowerBook 1400The point of this article is not to rehash old stories, but to give a backdrop to the entrance of my beloved PowerBook 1400c/133.

That very same 6400 may not have been up to my expectations, although it was a decent enough machine otherwise, but trading it brought forth a collection of Mac goodies - not least of all this fantastic PowerBook I continue to lavish praise upon.

How embarrassing for me to be so taken my a computer, but I am greatly impressed. Really, my expectations were set very high after years of reading how fantastic a PowerBook the 1400 was purported to be. Indeed, 2006 alone has brought forth five different articles related to the PowerBook 1400 on Low End Mac - six if you count this latest one.

What better way to validate my position that the PowerBook 1400 may be one of the best PowerBooks ever created than to point you to the cavalcade of authors who have already expressed their admiration. Please follow the links at the end of this article - all are good reads, and it's interesting to discover all the various ways we have come to acquire a PowerBook 1400 and found admiration for mostly the same reasons.

This particular PowerBook 1400 is a very well kept "c" variety (the means it has an active matrix display) powered by a 133 MHz 603e processor. Further particulars as follows: 48 MB RAM, an Apple video card, 8x CD-ROM module, 1.44 MB floppy drive module, and a lovely 6 GB hard drive.

The plastics are incredibly clean and free from any noticeable scratches. I am pleasantly surprised to find the active matrix display remains a crisp, blemish-free jewel, sublimely suited to long hours typing and reading.

The only quirk of note was the decision of the former owner to leave the fabulous photo of his dog under the clear plastic upper lid. Some people love the inherent customizability granted by this design characteristic, and some find it a bit goofy. Luckily, there was a normal gray lid for those preferring a touch of the minimalism found in the calming neutral swathe.

I didn't have the luck to get a choice between the clear and the gray cover. Still, I rather like the current photo anyway - it reminds me of my old childhood dog. I wouldn't mind finding a template for printing off more of these covers, but so far my Google kung fu hasn't been up to the challenge. If anyone in readerland has a lead, please shoot me an email.

The Keyboard

Since I already brought up elements of design, I have to make mention to the fabulous keyboard. All accolades previously written or spoken about the PowerBook 1400 keyboard are truly worthy. This is the finest portable computer keyboard I have used, and a far sight better than the iBook G3 or even the keyboard on my mother's new iBook G4.

The keyboard functionality entails a nice clickety clackety feeling with excellent tactile feedback. A large enough layout ensures my long, skinny fingers can tap their way through with great speed for a portable unit. It may not be up to the very high standard of my Apple Extended Keyboard II, but I can always plug that hefty thing in when the PowerBook is stationary.

Alps GlidePoint KeypadAbove all, the only feature I miss is a numeric keypad, as offered to the far right on almost any desktop keyboard. I'm debating purchasing a clearance Alps GlidePoint Keypad from We Love Macs. For $4.95 plus shipping, I'm willing to take a chance on this item. I'll report back once I receive it.

Build Quality

The build quality alluded to carries over to the solid chassis, port door cover, LCD hinges, battery module, drive module, and various miscellaneous buttons. Nothing feels terribly creaky or flimsy. The overall measurements of the 1400 (11.5 x 9.0 x 2.0") are not so different from my mother's 12" iBook G4 (11.2 x 9.05 x 1.35"). Clearly, the iBook G4 weighs far less and is much thinner, but the depth and width are very close in size.

While the 1400 is cased in the familiar mid nineties PowerBook gray and the iBook has the lovely minimalist white design of new millennium Macs, I definitely see a family resemblance. It may not be the sexiest design ever, but I find the 1400 pleasantly simple. Some may apply the boring label in comparison to more modern AppleDesigns, but I can appreciate the simple fender flare on either side near the front if one were commencing to engage the PowerBook for operation.

If one were a simple onlooker from afar, a gander at the nice clear customizable upper case lid plastic would reveal the lone bout of whimsy. Again, it's easily hidden if one is of a more dour persuasion than I, given the possession of the plain gray lid cover.

Not Perfect

All is not perfect with the PowerBook 1400 design; otherwise why would anyone need to use any other Mac.

Every user has different requirements, and even I will fluctuate amongst what key features are most sought after in any given portable computer. To be honest, I'm not terribly picky and often make due with whatever current computer I have scavenged.

A key goal of mine in using personal computers is to identify any given one's particular strengths and wring from it the most productivity possible. For my own use, the 1400's greatest limitation is not it's tepid processor speed - easily remedied by the expenditure of a nice chunk of change on a G3 upgrade (up to 466 MHz).

The lack of CardBus compliant PC Card slots, limited VRAM (unaccelerated thousands of colors at 800 x 600 resolution is decent enough for email, typing, the occasional MP3, and a little web browsing), and even the fairly hefty weight don't bother me. Even the lack of and internal modem and ethernet was fairly easily rectified either by an external solution or extra expansion card.


No, the biggest issues I have is a far too low RAM ceiling. I can make 64 MB RAM work, but I would prefer 128 MB - even 96 MB would give me some room to grow. As it is, I'll make due with 48 MB because the jump to 64 MB doesn't seem that big a gain for the expenditure required.

I can get Mac OS 9.1 to run, and most of my applications demand very little in the way of system resources, but Mac OS 8.1 or 8.6 are most likely better choices - especially for those 1400's lacking at least the 48 MB RAM my own model was blessed with.

Parting Is Sweet Sorrow

If I love using the PowerBook 1400c/133 so much - how could I possibly list it for trade on the LEM Swap List? Two words: LocalTalk networking.

Still confused? How about one more word? Slowwwwww.

No Luck with Asante

The PowerBook 1400c came with an Asante 10Base-T PC Card, but neither the person who traded the unit nor I could figure out which driver would make the card function. I tried each one listed on the Asante support site, but no luck.

When I inserted the card, every version of the Mac OS I attempted this procedure with was able to see the card and warned me that the appropriate software was missing. I could only cancel or eject the card.

Worse yet, I could not accurately identify exactly what card I had in my possession. None of the numbers on my card corresponded to any numbers listed on the Asante support site. The PC Card identification PDF was not wholly useful either. Of the four options listed, the front of my card matched one of the listed cards - and the back of my card matched another.

I gave up after the fourth round of installing and removing drivers didn't yield success.

One of the drivers seemed to be the correct version, because the OS stopped prompting me for software when the card was inserted. Yet I was not able to successfully establish a network connection - not with AppleTalk or TCP/IP over the LAN or with Internet access. Maybe the dongle or slot where the dongle connects isn't functioning correctly.

Global Village Frustration

I'm not one to let a single failed attempt set me back, so I purchased a Global Village combo PC Card with both 56k modem and 10Base-T ethernet. When I inserted the new card, the OS gave me the same warning when I first inserted it into either of the PC Card slots. Not yet dismayed - after all, I hadn't installed the software yet - I proceeded with the installation. Unfortunately, the install didn't yield success, not with Mac OS 8.1, 8.6, or 9.1.

Now approaching dismay, I backed off and hit the Global Village legacy support site. Only finding ROM updates, OS 9 updaters, and fax software updaters, I remained a little perplexed. Where exactly were the needed software components?

LocalTalk Bridge

Not to be outdone by mere technological hurdles, I approached Plan C. Dan Knight, aware of my plight, suggested Apple's LocalTalk bridge software for connecting the PowerBook 1400c to the rest of my network. I figured why not give it a try. After all, the software is free, and I would only be transferring a few MBs here and there.

How bad could this option be? A slow connection was better than no connection.

The software was easy to find, easy to install, and easy to configure. I simply choose an appropriate Mac to act as a bridge between the two networks, a Power Mac 7600 in my case. An ethernet cable ran from the Power Mac 7600 to my Asante ethernet switch.

While the two computers were shut down, I connected an Apple serial cable from the PowerBook 1400 to the 7600's printer port. The LocalTalk bridge software only needs to be installed onto the computer acting as a bridge.

The LocalTalk Bridge Control Panel is placed in the startup drive's System Folder. AppleTalk is set to the printer port on the PowerBook 1400c and to ethernet on the 7600. The printer port cannot be active on the bridge machine or the LocalTalk Bridge software will not function correctly.

After a couple days of testing, I realized anything greater than 10 MB would take much too long to work effectively. Both the 1400 and 7600 slowed to a crawl while file transfers took place.

Back to Google and Global Village

Back to Google. My aim: to finally uncover the correct software for my Global Village PC Card. My quest was over. The right jumble of search terms allowed Google to locate the Global Village FTP server. Lo and behold, my much sought after software was present and accounted for - and soon to be downloaded onto the 1400c.

Luckily for me, any of my external serial modems, whether a 56k ADB powered unit, a v.92 traditional powered Global Village unit, or one of three other modems, worked wondrously for connecting via my dialup ISP. Once I installed the correct software, networking was a snap and reasonably fast for 10Base-T speeds over a 16-bit bus.

The modem side is a little disconnect happy, but I still have OS 9 and ROM updaters to try before giving up on the modem side. Even if the modem continues to behave erratically, I can still fall back to one of my external units.

The key with this card was the ethernet connection. All's well that ends well, and lucky for anyone out there also looking for the correct Global village or Asante software (I'm still trying to decode that puzzle), I have links to their FTP servers at the end of this article.

Visual Candy
Click image for full resolution image.

With a little luck and a healthy dose of perseverance to set everything right, the PowerBook 1400c/133 has become my new email and writing Macintosh of choice. I leave you all, the dedicated Low End Mac readers, with a little visual candy until my next article, when I'll explain the methods used to customize my PowerBook 1400's appearance and usability.

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