Powerbook 1400 a solid, reasonably priced Macintosh

Personal Computers

November 11, 1996|By Peter H. Lewis

IN OLDEN DAYS, when Apple Computer Inc.'s graying senior executives were young and when cool technology was epitomized by hot-rod automobiles instead of computers, it was fashionable in some quarters to paint flames on the side of the car to indicate great speed.

There are several reasons not to paint flames on Apple's new Powerbook 1400 portable Macintosh computer. First, it conjures up unpleasant memories of the ill-fated Powerbook 5300 series, which counted among its many quirks a propensity, though a rare one, for spontaneous combustion.

Second, the PB 1400 is no speed demon. It offers users a choice of either a relatively slow 117-megahertz Power PC microprocessor or a slightly quicker 133-megahertz version, in an era when faster chips for portables are widely available.

But most practically, there is no need to paint anything on the Powerbook 1400. Instead, it comes with a clear, plastic lid under which one can easily insert artwork, technical cheat sheets, photographs of the family or business cards. This new feature is the first thing one notices about the Powerbook 1400, which is just now reaching the stores at prices from about $2,500 to $4,000.

Overall, the PB 1400 appears to be a solid, dependable and reasonably priced Macintosh portable that fixes many of the worst faults of its predecessor, the PB 5300, which was yanked from production earlier this year for technical problems.

The PB 1400 is not striking for its speed or technical innovations, but assuming Apple can get enough of them out of the factories before the end of the year, it may be just impressive enough to keep disgruntled Apple portable users from defecting to the Windows-Intel camp.

And while it does not spin heads, the PB 1400 can, for the first time, spin CD-ROM and audio CD disks. Until now, Apple was alone among major portable computer makers in not offering a CD-ROM drive. An optional 6X CD-ROM drive ($145) slips into a slot on the front right side of the computer, which can also be used for a diskette drive or as a storage bay for an extra battery.

The PB 1400 also has a much improved and enlarged color display screen, measuring a little over 11 inches diagonally. Buyers can choose between two screen options: the lower-priced but still quite acceptable dual-scan passive-matrix screen or the higher-priced, higher-quality active-matrix model. I tested the active-matrix version and, although it was a bit dim outdoors, it was better than any earlier Powerbook screens.

Apple has also made it much easier to get inside the Powerbook's case to fix, swap or add internal components. The sound grille over the computer's built-in speaker slides off, the keyboard flips up, and almost all the gizmos worth tinkering with -- memory, hard disk, processor, add-in cards -- are exposed.

Beyond that, most of the things I like about the PB 1400, and most of the things I did not like, are little things. For example, it is a relief to be able to use simple Phillips and flat-head tools for repair work.

Keyboard preferences are notoriously subjective, but the one on the PB 1400 has by far the best feel of any I have used. It is especially impressive given the thinness of the flip-up keyboard.

The little plastic flap that covers the modem, printer, mouse and video ports on the back of the computer now has a metal wire hinge, which Apple says greatly reduces the chances that it will rip off in typical handling.

The power supply connector, feeble and flawed on earlier models except the Powerbook Duo, has been fortified.

On the negative side, the infrared port that is supposed to allow easy beaming of files to a printer or other computer is still as sluggish as ever. The diskette drive on my unit does not eject the disk all the way, forcing me to use tweezers or a knife.

The PB 1400 is also gravitationally challenged. It weighs in at nearly seven pounds, which is at the high end of my airport-luggability scale.

The new model uses a new, steeply priced ($149) but safer type of battery that Apple says provides two to five hours of useful operating time. I rarely got much more beyond two hours, probably because I was so enamored of the new internal CD-ROM drive that I invariably listened to music while I worked. The speaker quality is dreary, but with good headphones the PB 1400 really rocks.

More information is available from Apple Computer Inc. by calling (800) 538-9696. The Apple Powerbook web site (http: //www.powerbook.apple .com) is shamefully hard to reach.

Pub Date: 11/11/96

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