Among many other things, the often tumultuous 16th year of the new century marked the 25th anniversary of Apple laptop computers, not counting the optimistically named 16-pound Mac Portable of 1989. I got my first Mac in 1992, so can’t claim to have been on board the PowerBook/iBook/MacBook bandwagon from the beginning. My first experience with an Apple laptop was in doing some maintenance on a friend’s PowerBook 160c.
Apple’s first attempt at building a color PowerBook was not an unqualified success. The 160c had a murky-looking passive matrix color display, and abysmally poor battery life of maybe two or three hours between charges. It was also a sluggish performer with its Motorola 68030 processor, but in other respects it shared the virtues and shortcomings of the rest of the 100 series PowerBooks — a decent but not exceptional keyboard, mini trackball pointing, and luggability. Despite this particular model’s mediocrity, I was smitten and convinced that for me at least, a laptop would be the ideal and logical computer solution, with much of the the power and user-friendly versatility of a desktop Mac condensed into a package one could carry around with them, and the potential for self-containenedness that battery power enabled even in those days before the Internet reached this neck of the woods.
My own first PowerBook was a 5300 — the entry-level model of Apple’s first Power PC laptop design. It had a 16 grayscale passive matrix display that was fine for text work, but proved seriously unsatisfactory when the Internet did finally arrive here in October, 1997. It was also not the most stable platform running Mac System 7.2. Subsequent revisions to Systems 7.3 and 7.5 improved matters somewhat in that regard. But the 5300 remained a finicky beast. It also wasn’t very fast, in some ways less of a performer and my daughter’s Motorola 68LC040 powered, PowerBook 520 except for tasks where the Power PC 603 chip’s built in floating-point unit coprocessor came into play.
The 5300’s battery life wasn’t up to much either, but it served as my main Mac for nearly four years. The 5300 and a commendably small footprint, although at 2 inches thick it was surprisingly heavy for its size, and its nickel Metal hydride (NiMH) battery provided only a few hours runtime at best making its credentials as a portable computer still somewhat marginal.
While the 5300 is remembered as one of Apple’s less successful notebook designs (paradoxically it was also the most expensive Mac laptop ever) my second PowerBook, a G3 series “WallStreet” is remembered as one of the best Apple laptops in the context of its time. Mine was an entry-level model of the revision released in early 1999 with a 12 – inch active matrix TFT display. It was a sprightly performer with its PowerPC 750 processor, at least compared with the PowerBook 5300. The G3 series PowerBooks had what in my estimation were the best keyboards Apple ever put in a laptop, although the trackpad was less than stellar and its button much too stiff in action for my tastes. However, typing on the WallStreet was a pleasure. It was also the most upgradable, connectable, and expandable Apple laptop ever, with its full roster of standard Apple I/O ports including ADB and SCSI for high-speed data transfer, infrared connectivity, a phone modem for sending FAXes and connecting to dial-up Internet, and two expansion bays which would accommodate two batteries that in tandem and deliver up to around 10 hours of battery life. Other expansion bay modules included CD, SuperDisk, floppy disk, and Optical drives, There were also two PC card expansion slots which I eventually employed to upgrade the WallStreet to both USB and FireWire.
The G3 series machines are also a relative joy to work on, with virtually instantaneous access to the internals via a pop-off keyboard to the two RAM slots, and the processor mounted on an easily replaceable daughtercard. The hard disk drive could also be swapped in a matter of minutes.
The WallStreet technically made it into the OS X era, and could be coaxed to support OS X 10.2, Jaguar, although I was never successful in getting it to work on my particular example. I did install Linux at one point, but was not favorably impressed compared with the Mac OS’s minimal hassle fluidity.
My introduction to using Mac OS X came with the PowerBook G3 series third-generation — the legendary Pismo that arrived in 2000. The Pismo, and its 1999 predecessor the Lombard were slimmed-down developments of the somewhat porky WallStreet form factor, making them more satisfactory as portable computers. the Lombard came with built-in USB, and the Pismo substituted two FireWire ports for the erstwhile SCSI port as its high-speed data transfer protocol. They also retained infrared conductivity, although it never really caught on with the onset of WiFi. The Pismo and Lombard shed one of the WallStreet’s PC Card slots, and had only one device expansion bay, but could still accommodate two batteries.
All of the G3 Series ‘Books could be fitted with G4 (Motorola 7400) processor upgrades, which gave the platform a major life extension. I ultimately had three Pismos, two of which are still in excellent working order with G4 processors and running OS X 10.4 Tiger upgrades, however the third has been cannibalized as a parts mule. I still use them to run contemporary peripherals like scanners and printers, but for me Dropbox ending support for OS X 10.4 Tiger was the end of the road for them as production machines.
In the meantime, my first Pismo got supplemented by an iBook in 2001 — not the original brightly colored and rounded form factor original iBooks of 1999 and 2000, but the second generation which was much more compact and conventional, with a footprint almost the same as the old 5300’s but not as thick or heavy. Unfortunately, the white iBook was another Apple laptop with some questionable engineering, and while they had a long production run of nearly 5 years, various versions were plagued with logic board failures due to faulty solder joints. Apple established a campaign fix, but many people encountered subsequent failures with replacement logic boards.
The iBook’s keyboard was also mediocre compared to the excellent ones in the G3 PowerBooks, but a major virtue of these machines was their extremely sharp and high resolution by the standards of the day 11 inch display. I used mine for about four years, then handed it off to my wife got another two or so out of it before it finally succumbed to what I presume was the motherboard failure disease. In my experience it was a decent although not stellar performer, and the I will probably ranks is my least favorite of all the Apple laptops I’ve owned.
Speaking of which, another machine that I used for a while, chronologically out of sequence, was a PowerBook 1400c that my daughter dropped off after she replaced it with an original series MacBook. The 1400c, which was released in the fall of 1997, could be described as a PowerBook 5300 done right. It had fewer stability problems than the 5300, and another of the best keyboards Apple ever put in a laptop. I never really used it for production, but it deserves honorable mention.
I moved up from the compact iBook to the other extreme of the form factor spectrum with a 2003 17-inch PowerBook G4 purchased is in Apple certified refurbished unit. With its 1.3 GHz G3 processor and upgraded to 1.5 GB of RAM, the big 17 inch aluminum PowerBook had lots of power, and the 17 inch display was the relative luxury, although in fact it only had a resolution of 1440 X 900 which is the same as that of the current MacBook Air. I wasn’t crazy about either the keyboard or the trackpad, but both were decently serviceable. It’s testimony to the 17-inch PowerBook’s goodness that my wife is still using it as her daily driver, and is expressing no particular interest in moving on. Its reliability record is marred only by a hard drive failure around the six year mark. With a replacement hard drive it’s still working amazingly well running OS X 10.5 Leopard.
I stepped back down to a 13 inch display with my next Mac laptop, a late 2008 aluminum unibody MacBook, which morphed into the entry-level MacBook Pro with its first revision in 2009. I bought mine has a Apple certified refurbished unit in March, 2009, and overall it’s been an excellent computer. It is a good keyboard, second only to the boards in the old PowerBook G3 series, although the button was trackpad is plagued with an excessively stiff quick action, which makes me wonder when that was the reason it ended up with a refurbished unit albeit with a problem refurbished. It is still serving as my number two production system, and runs Mac OS 10.11 El Capitan nicely, it will soon be handed off to my wife to finally replace the big old 17-incher, at least if I can talk her into it.
I found the downgrade to the Macbook’s 1280 x 800 display resolution required some adjustment, but the machine has been admirably reliable with no problems at all other than the aforementioned trackpad click which which has gone unattended. I use a mouse most of the time anyway.
I moved back up to 1440 X 900 display resolution with my next Mac laptop, a mid–2013 revision of the second-generation MacBook Air, albeit with a 13 inch display size. I bought the MacBook Air in Apple’s 2013 Black Friday sale,, and after three years of flawless service I would have to rate that unit as my favorite Mac laptop ever so far. So much so that being unfavorably impressed with with the current 12 inch MacBook and the new 13 and 15 inch MacBook Pros, I just upgraded to a March, 2015 revision of the same model on Apple’s 2016 Black Friday sale. I wrote about that here last week.
It’s been a mostly satisfying journey over the past 25 years for total veterans and 19 years for me. The operative conundrum now facing Apple laptop aficionados is the direction Apple is taking with portable Macs and whether it will serve with their needs and tastes, or will the iPads and iOS dominate the future. My new MacBook Air is sort of a placeholder while that question gets sorted out.