Newest Macintosh Powerbook, built by IBM, light on capabilities

Personal Computers

September 08, 1997|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

MEMBERS OF the so-called Macintosh community get extremely touchy when anyone so much as hints that the Mac might not be the coolest, most elegant electronic device in the known universe.

Macintosh engenders a sort of fanaticism unknown among the competition; no one ever refers to a "Windows community." But then, Windows users, who constitute the vast majority, tend not to think of themselves as members of some elite group.

Macintosh computers still offer several advantages over their Windows counterparts. They are easier to link together, simpler to attach peripherals to, less likely to cause software errors because of sound or display problems and recover more easily from some kinds of trouble. But as Mac and Windows both keep getting more and more complex, it becomes increasingly clear that the Macintosh can be every bit as difficult to use and learn. In many ways the Mac is not better, just different.

The Mac comes up short in several areas, including memory management and user choice. This came to mind recently when I tried the 4.4-pound Macintosh Powerbook 2400c/180, the first lightweight notebook computer Apple Computer Inc. has offered since the beginning of the year. The chunky unit costs about $3,500 and is built in Japan by International Business Machines Corp.

It includes a 180-megahertz PowerPC 603e processor, 256 kilobytes of level 2 cache and 16 megabytes of RAM, along with a 1.3-gigabyte hard drive, an outboard floppy disk drive, two Type II PC Card slots and the usual complement of ports, but no Ethernet connector or modem. No docking station or port replicator is available; to install new programs, you will want an outboard SCSI CD-ROM drive.

The 10.4-inch 800-by-600-pixel active-matrix screen is smaller and seems dimmer than the ones on many PC competitors, but compensates with a lithium-ion battery that lasted three hours in my tests. The keys are cramped, and although the keyboard offers the benefit of arrow keys in the now-standard inverted-T layout instead of the straight line of its bigger Powerbook brothers, it leaves out such useful navigation keys as Page Up, Page Down, Home and End. It also lacks an oversize backspace key and a key for deletions ahead of the cursor. The omissions make typing much harder than it needs to be.

The touchpad does not help, even though it is as responsive as any I have tried. So much as relax your thumb as you are trying to think, and the cursor hops to where you least expect it. People who like touchpads will doubtless enjoy this one, but if, like me, you detest the things, the Macintosh's unfreedom of choice means you are out of luck.

The IBM 560 line of notebooks may well be the one series of Windows computers that has created the kind of enthusiasm formerly unique to Mac fanatics. I consider it the light notebook of choice, but if you are wedded to the Mac, the 2400c is the only game in town.

The 2400c is also the first Macintosh that comes with Mac OS 8 installed. The key element of this recent operating system upgrade is that the Finder code has at long last been specifically rewritten for the PowerPC chip family.

A spokeswoman said the new code should also reduce, but not eliminate, certain types of crashes that formerly required rebooting. I was unable to test this, but Mac users frustrated with the crashes known as Type 11 errors may find the promise of fewer of them reason enough to pony up $100 or less for the upgrade. But a few programs are incompatible with it, and the system still does not automatically manage virtual memory or prevent programs from corrupting each other's data.

Much of the rest is cosmetic. Some standard typefaces have changed subtly. Stealing a page from Windows, menu lists stay down when you click on them, the desktop background can be customized, and some icons have a vaguely three-dimensional effect. When the trash can has something in it, it flips its lid instead of bulging at the seams. So-called "spring-loaded folders" open automatically as you drag files over them. None of it is stirring stuff.

And outside the graphics world, where high-end hardware and software is often developed first for the Macintosh, these machines continue to offer less choice among programs and peripherals. Many attractive new printers and other devices connect only to PC's, not Macs. New programs are increasingly revised or offered first for Windows and then, if ever, for the Mac.

For typical users, I still recommend buying the type of computer your most computer-savvy friend has so that you stand a chance of getting knowledgeable help when you find yourself in the inevitable jam.

As complexity has increased, the usability edge that the Macintosh once claimed has largely been eliminated. Despite the adoration of its cult, the Mac is still just a computer, not something truly divine.

Pub Date: 9/08/97

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