Compared with DOS-based notebook computers, the three new Apple Powerbook notebook computers introduced at the recent Comdex Fall trade show in Las Vegas might appear rather mundane.
Makers of IBM PC-compatibles have been selling smaller, lighter, cheaper and more powerful notebooks for two years.
That does not mean that Macintosh users will not buy Powerbooks as fast as Apple Computer Inc. can make them, of course. They are greatly superior to Apple's original Macintosh Portable, an expensive, heavy model, now discontinued.
PC users, who outnumber Macintosh users 8 to 1, do not have a clear reason to switch to the incompatible Powerbook family. There are many PC notebooks that have superior features, like color screens.
Two things make the new Mac notebooks special and worth considering, however, even for PC users: the Macintosh operating system, which is better than DOS or Windows, and the vision Apple has for computer-based communications.
The three members of the Powerbook family are the Models 100, 140 and 170, in ascending order of features, performance, weight and price. They were developed in partnership with the Sony Corp. of Japan.
The most unusual feature of the Powerbook family is a built-in trackball, or pointing device, which is embedded in the center of the base where the keyboard would be on a normal IBM-style notebook.
The Powerbook keyboard is pushed back away from the user. The front of the Powerbook thus becomes a wrist rest. Almost all PC notebook designs address the mouse or trackball as bolt-on afterthoughts. Apple deserves praise for creatively breaking from that way of thinking.
The Model 100 is the best choice for those who value low price and low weight above high performance. The suggested list HTC price is $2,499, including an external diskette drive. The computer weighs about five pounds and is the size of a two-inch stack of typing paper.
The engine of the Model 100 is the archaic Motorola 68000 chip, and it is backed up by two megabytes of system memory and a 20-megabyte hard disk.
By today's PC standards, even by Apple's own System 7 software standard, this is an overpriced and underpowered machine. On the other hand, it is the smallest and lightest portable Macintosh available.
The midrange Model 140, with a base price of $2,899, uses the 16-megahertz Motorola 68030 chip, the power equivalent to the Mac IIcx desktop machine.
The Model 140 is bigger, measuring 9.3 inches wide by 11.25 inches deep and 2.25 inches tall. It weighs nearly seven pounds and, unlike the Model 100, comes with a built-in diskette drive. The basic Model 140 comes with 2 megabytes of system memory and a 20-megabyte hard disk, but many people will want the 4/40 version, for $3,499.
For those who want the best, and are willing to pay for it, Apple offers the Powerbook Model 170. The Model 170, with a base price of $4,599, comes with 4-megabyte RAM and a 40-megabyte hard disk drive, along with the built-in diskette drive.
It also has a big, bright, active-matrix panel (each dot controlled by its own transistor) that creates the best monochrome images I've seen.
Technology buffs might conclude that, with the exception of the Model 170, Apple scrimped on features. Comdex was full of notebook computers boasting color displays, 80-megabyte hard disks, and processors that outperform the Motorola 68030.
Most PC notebooks also have connectors that allow the user to attach a color monitor and a full-size keyboard, making them suitable for desktop work. The Powerbooks don't.
But those other notebooks lack Apple's vision, which is, simply put, that notebook machines should be more than just shrunken versions of desktop machines.
Apple has included in each Powerbook a series of communication tools, among them a new product called
Appletalk Remote Access and the System 7 operating system, that make it easy for the traveling Mac user to tap into remote resources over regular phone lines.
A modem is required; only the Model 170 comes with a modem as standard equipment.
A serial port allows the Powerbooks to connect to IBM-style computers for fast file transfers. The Powerbook diskette drives can read files created on PCs.
A so-called scuzzy port makes it simple to hook the Powerbook to scanners, CD-ROM drives, external hard disks and other peripherals. A built-in microphone (on the Models 140 and 170) lets users add voice and sound to documents.