Top 10 Best PowerBooks of All Time
by Remy Davison

Hey. Don't argue with me about the rankings of these PowerBooks. The voters have voted, the ballots are (hand) (re)counted, my decision is final and no judge shall be entered into. Right? Good. Those are the rules. Now you can proceed to read. I'm off to Palm Beach County. Or Pismo Beach for that matter. Thank you, Maestro. The nominations are...

10. PowerBook 100

The original (and some say the best). The PowerBook 100 has to get a nod as it was the first and, in many ways, the most innovative PB of all time. How much has PowerBook or laptop design changed since? Essentially, they all still represent the design parameters of the 100. Check it out: keyboard-forward design; a set of ports replicating the desktop Mac; speedy (for the time) LocalTalk networking and fast data transfer via the SCSI port. You can even connect it to EtherTalk networks with an adapter. Full-size keyboard. Modem. Sound familiar? Sure, by today's standards, it's a snail. But this snail can still do mail, news and ftp. Buy one. Don't put it in your Mac museum. Give it to someone who can use it.

9. PowerBook 1400c/166

There are diehards who swear by the PowerBook 1400 series. Look at it, they say: the first PowerBook upgradeable to truly mega-mega-speeds (400+ MHz and counting). It's still got a decent screen and keyboard. In many ways, the 1400 rescued the PowerBook product line after the 1995 5300 fiasco. The 1400/117 was nothing to write home about, but the 133 and 166 versions improved considerably on what was basically a good, if underpowered, design. The active-matrix 11.3" display was the biggest and best seen on a Mac portable at the time and the 1400 series as a whole marked the end of the grayscale Apple laptops. It also included - for the first time - an internal CD ROM. Like the 5300/190, you could put Zip drives or expansion bay hard drives in the media bay.

The 1400 also introduced innovative stackable memory cards, although in practice throwing in different-sized modules was a recipe for disaster. Its Archilles heel was the maximum RAM size of 64MB; it's a shame the G3-upgraded 1400s can't overcome this paltry memory limit. Unfortunately, the video-out card, long a standard feature of the PowerBook line, was made optional. Battery life, courtesy of the single NiMH battery, is not crash hot. However, at least you can slip an extra battery into the media bay.

Today? The 1400c/166 is still a very usable 'Book in standard form. Its 133MHz brother isn't bad either. The 1400cs screen isn't so great. A 1400c/166 provides a great basis for a G3 upgrade, but any cheap old 117MHz model will do.

8. PowerBook 180

No, not the 180c. While the grayscale and color versions of this PowerBook vary only slightly, the grayscale 180 is the pick of the 100 series in many respects. First, it's got a reasonably-fast 33MHz 68030, faster than the desktop IIci speed demon of the time. It comes with an FPU, a crystal-clear active-matrix grayscale display and half-decent battery life from the NiCAD cells. Even running disastrous software releases like Word 6.0 it does pretty well. 14MB isn't a great RAM limit, but this 'Book can still do mail, news, faxing and even light browsing (try Wannabe 68K, a brilliant, super-fast text-only browser from David Pierson). The internal modems run up to 28.8K and it copes with a 56K external fairly well.

Why not the 180c? Two words: battery life. You'd be lucky to get an hour out of the 180c. Moreover, the 180's grayscale is larger and no less clear. (10" v. 9"). If you want a PowerBook that's dirt cheap, reliable, great for word processing, AOL, basic spreadsheets and mail, a 180 won't kill your household budget. But it will make you lust after a Pismo.

7. PowerBook Duo 280c
Really a PowerBook 500 series in a smaller, lighter package, the Duo 280 perhaps represents the Duo series' high-tide mark. Some people regard the 280c's active-matrix display as superior to the 540c's; my understanding is it depends on which OEM the display comes from (hint: there were 3 of them and 2 were crap. No names, no libel).

Of course, where the Duo excels is in terms of weight, weight, weight. Under 5 pounds in fact. In 1994, you had the power of a Quadra 800 in your palm (33MHz '040). The 280 also matched or exceeded the 100 and 500- series architecture in several ways. First, its 40MB RAM limit easily topped that of any other Mac portable. Second, it supported Type III NiMH batteries. Third, it permitted access to a wide variety of NuBus cards and additional hard drives via the Duo Dock solution. In some respects, it predated the iBook's Base/Satellite concept by several years. And no PC manufacturer even came close to the elegance of the Duo's Dock and Mini-Dock solutions.

Of course, there were compromises with the Duo design. You can't boot the 'pute without a floppy drive or a Dock or some kind (okay, you can set up a RAMDisk). Sound is, in a word, lousy (8-bit only). There's no FPU available. The connectivity's extremely limited in its Satellite form. And the internal modems are limited to 19.2K. Nevertheless, the PowerBook 2400 aside, you can't get a lighter PowerBook that's still very usable today. And it's as expandable as you want it to be.

6. PowerBook G3 (Lombard)

In some respects, a stop-gap model between the Wallstreet and current Pismo models, the Lombard introduced a number of design refinements over and above the Wallstreet G3 series. First, the gorgeous 14.1" active matrix screen became standard across the line. Second, the Lombard trimmed nearly 2 pounds of excess fat off the Wallstreet; fully loaded it weighs only as much as the grayscale PowerBook 5300 (5.9 pounds). Third, the low-end model, the G3/333, exceeded the clock speed of the previous high-end model, the Wallstreet 300. The video card (ATI Rage Pro LT) remained the same, but it was boosted to 8MB and it brought back the virtual desktop instead of video mirroring (most welcome).

For some, the dropping of the ADB, serial and LocalTalk ports was a heresy, as was the addition of the evil intel USB ports (2 of them). However, ADB and serial support is easily achieved with adapters. Lombard also goes down in history as the last Mac to have on-board SCSI, which has served us mobile warriors so well since the PB100. A nice addition to the Lombard was standard 100bT ethernet. And, on the Lombard 400, a DVD-ROM was standard with hardware decoding on the mobo. Nice. Oh, and battery life was extended to 4-5 hours. Excellent.

Downsides? Not many. The 512K cache in the 333 is a bit small and iMac-ish, but it's fast enough for all that. No floppy option - not really a downer in my book. Useless things. The lack of interchangeability of batteries and expansion bay modules with Wallstreet is a bummer (but at least you can swap with the Pismo). The downgrade to only one CardBus slot annoyed some.

Yes, I like the Lombard and the Wallstreet. We have one of each in our house. And no, I'm not telling you where I live.

5. iBook SE/466

Why not the original iBook 300, I hear you say? Okay, agreed. The Tangerine and Blueberry iBooks did indeed introduce some innovative new technologies to the Mac portable - like Airport, for instance. But my vote goes to the iBook SE/466 for its outstanding refinement of the iBook line. Not only are the case plastics more subtle, but the interior redesign is very well thought out. Essentially, the latest iBooks answer (almost) every criticism leveled at the original model. AV out? Check. More speed? Sure. FireWire? You betcha. Plus decent RAM limit (320MB), a spacious hard drive (10GB standard or 20GB if you want it) and the price remains the same. As I said in my last article, the iBook 466 really narrows the gap between the consumer portable and the Pismo 400 Pro line (but not for long, I bet). Plus it gets UATA and a real video card.

The iBook's not a Pro portable yet though. In fact, some benchmarks I've seen suggest that the 366 and 466 are slower in some respects than the 300 and 366 models with 512K of cache. Hm. Also, Apple hasn't gotten around to sprucing up the iBook's potentially excellent sound with a set of decent on-board speakers. Here's a piece of advice for the fellas at Cupertino: for free. Gratis. Nix, nil, nothing. Put a couple of Harmon-Kardons on the iBook, add a couple of PowerBook 3400-style 'sub-woofers' bulging from the screen lid and you'll need all of Taiwan's annual manufacturing capacity to churn out the things, as every school and college student will be screaming at their parents for $1,499 to get one. Enclose it in that transluscent Cube stuff and you can charge them youngsters $1,999. Who knows? They may even get A Job and pay for it themselves (eternal optimist).

4. PowerBook G3/250 (Kanga)
We're getting to the serious end of the field now, and the decisions are getting harder. No.4 on this Billboardú chart goes to the original PowerBook G3. In my humble opinion, this is the 'Book that really showed Jobs was back, even though its development predated his return by some months. While the 3400/240 had shored up Apple's position in the 1997 speed stakes, the introduction of 266MHz Solarium II (or whatever they're called) notebooks seriously challenged Apple's reputation as the portable speed kings.

Enter the Kanga (stage left). 250MHz of G3 power with twice the cache of any Pentium and double the speed of the 3400/240. Even MacWorld's jaws were left on the ground by the benchmarks. What's more, like the 3400, it was a no-compromises notebook with every bit of networking and connectivity you could want. While it was overshadowed by the later Wallstreet PowerBooks, it left evey other competitor in the dust and made everyone demonstrate renewed respect for the speed of PowerPC RISC processors. If you find one (and upgrade it to CardBus), it's likely to keep you pretty happy for a fair while.

True, true. The iBook is really just a Kanga in loud Boogie Nights clothing and a faster CPU Same screen, for instance. But the iBook doesn't give you the connectivity options offered by the Kanga. I know, the 12.1" screen is yesterday's news, but it's still very usable. The 33K modems are a bit slow now, but you can stick a 56K PC card in it. FireWire, USB and 100bT are possible with the CardBus upgrade from MCE. The CPU's not upgradeable unfortunately. They also cost a bomb when new, so there aren't as many about as other models. But take one for a drive if you can fine one. I'm sure you'll like it.

3. PowerBook G3 Series (Wallstreet)

There's not a lot left to be said about the Wallstreet. One of the most successful PowerBooks in history, it introduced the build-to-order option and, thus, was available in about two million permutations. Thunderously fast and brilliantly conceived, the Wallstreet design still forms the basis of the current PowerBook lineup. The 13.3 and 14.1" screens were the biggest news, closely followed the hugely-fast 250 and 292MHz CPUs in the first series, with 1MB L2 caches riding on a seriously-quick 83MHz system bus. And solid. Damn solid. The Lombards and Pismos feel fragile by comparison (but they're not; I've dropped enough of them on hard floors to know otherwise. But don't try this at home, kids). They offer every connectivity option known to Mac; USB, FireWire and the kitchen sink can be added if and when required. Now even their CPUs are upgradeable to 500MHz. There're over 200,000 of these babies in the global marketplace so you can pick and choose. However, so good are they that they hold their value outstandingly well.

With a new series of 'Books, there are bound to be some design faults. It's the fifth law of thermodynamics (or something). The dreaded clutches propping up the screen can break clean off. Expensive and forget doing it yourself unless you're very clever. The damn sound card works loose and you lose sound in the right speaker (or both). The 13.3" screen cables could be troublesome (but easily fixed).

By the way, the cacheless G3/233 doesn't get a guernsey here; it's slow and gutless. A Kanga excretes on it from a great height. If it's really cheap, go for it, but there are much better 'Books out there.

2. PowerBook 540c

Yes, a 68K PowerBook makes it to # 2, but what a 'Book. Upon its introduction in 1994, it stunned the PC world, resulting in rare plaudits from the Wintel-centric media. The 500 series was innovative throughout, but the 540c was particularly special. It boasted the world's first 16-bit portable display (albeit at only 640x400); on-board ethernet (10bT or 10b2, you choose); support for external monitors up to 20"; twin NiMH batteries; fast (for the time) modem; optional PC card cage; upgradeability to PowerPC via a daughtercard swap (up to 183MHz 603e as it turned out); function keys; trackpad and 16-bit sound I/O. What more could you want? No wonder they sold over 500,000 of these things.

A PPC-upgraded 500 still does the job today. The 100 and 167MHz ones seem to be the most common. You can even do Airport with them (!). The stock ones (520, 520c, 540) are hideously cheap considering what they're capable of. If you're still desk bound and looking to take the PowerBook plunge for not too many dollars, you won't go wrong with one of these.

Of course, there are a number of caveats associated with owning a well-used 6-year-old 'Book. The lower screen bezels will fall off most of them. Trust me on this one. But you can always glue it back on. The NiMH Intelligent batteries may be rejuvenated with VST's EMMpathy software, but if they can't the batteries cost more than a PB1400 G3 upgrade. But these reservations aside, you'll get very good value out of these 'Books. And the styling is still very sharp more than half a decade on. Seen a 1994 BrickPad - er, ThinkPad lately?

1. PowerBook G3/500 (Pismo)

And the winner is...Of course. What did you expect? True, yes, I'm with you on this one: the Pismo probably doesn't win too many prizes for tech innovation. The CPU's from a Kanga and the styling's from a Wallstreet. But the Pismo is an outstanding 3rd-generation refinement of a great industrial design and it's superbly fast to boot (pun intended). If it didn't win, there'd be something wrong. It has everything the Lombard has, only with FireWire as well (and no SCSI). Add in a 100MHz bus and UATA and you have yourself a serious Pro portable.

No serious quality issues have emerged with the Pismos - and with the price drop, what're you doing here? Go and buy one.

Or two.

That concludes our awards for this evening. Please return any alcohol you've consumed. Thank you linesmen. Thank you ballgirls.