by Will Porter
I just purchased a PowerBook 1400cs from the University of Houston's campus computer store. I was in the store when the shipment of a dozen or so 1400's arrived. Here are my first impressions.
In terms of specs, this machine is not as big an improvement over the 5300 I have used for the last year, as the 5300 was over the 520 that I used for the year before that. The 1400's processor at 117Mhz (alas, not 177Mhz, as reported in BYTE!) is faster than the 5300's at 100Mhz, but the difference is not dramatic. I have read that the 1400's keyboard is supposed to be bigger than that used in previous PowerBooks, but I can't say that I agree with that claim. I measured the width of the keyboard on our old 520 (same keyboard that is in the 5300) and it is a quarter of an inch wider than the keyboard on the 1400. The 1400 has basically the same I/O options as the 5300, including the single combined printer/modem serial port, an IR port and the PC-card bays. (Is anyone on the planet actually using that IR port?) And like the PowerBook 190, the 1400 lacks a built-in video out port.
But specs are not everything; in fact, they can be misleading. It may not win too many awards for technological innovation, but in my opinion, the 1400 is the first PowerBook that truly rivals a desktop Mac in its overall usefulness.
In the past desktop Macs have had the advantage over PowerBooks in several ways: (1) bigger and better keyboards, including numeric pads; (2) easier expandibility, including ability in most new desktop Macs to have a built-in CD-ROM drive; and (3) a better monitor. Some might argue that price and speed, especially when taken together -- desktop Macs are faster AND cheaper -- should be added to this list of the advantages of desktop Macs. I disagree. The fact that a Porsche 911 Carerra is faster and more expensive than a Volkswagen Cabrio does not make the Porsche an essentially different kind of "tool." Besides, for most of us, 117Mhz is plenty fast. What I dream about at night are things like a completely native OS or a faster connection to the Internet, not a faster microprocessor.
Well, with the PowerBook 1400, Apple has reduced, if not completely eliminated, the desktop computer's advantage in all these respects. Even the price is relatively competitive, at least with comparable Pentium-based PC notebooks. An ad in the December 1996 BYTE touts the IBM Thinkpad 365 as starting at $2495, the MSRP of the plain vanilla PowerBook 1400 (sans CD-ROM drive). But from the details in the ad, I gather that for that price you would get a machine with a processor about the same speed and a hard drive about the same capacity (810Mb) as the plain vanilla 1400's, but with a smaller screen (10.4"), and with less RAM (8Mb as the minimum configuration).
The 1400's keyboard has a crisper, cleaner touch than previous PowerBook keyboards, and it is raised out of the computer's top a little, so it's easier to access. True, it still doesn't have a numeric keypad, but you can easily add one via the ADB port. (I use one from Sophisticated Circuits that has performed well.) I like the keyboard on this new PowerBook better than the newer keyboards on the desktop Macs in our office (a 7200 and a Performa 6300CD).
This is the most easily expandable PowerBook ever. To install more RAM or an Ethernet card, you no longer need a Torx-8 screwdriver (something not everyone has lying around the house), and you don't actually have to tear the computer apart. Instead, you go in through the speaker grill behind the keyboard, which is about a foot wide (from the left to the right side of the computer) and an inch deep. That grill slides and snaps out easily. Then you use a normal flat-blade screwdriver to unscrew the metal heat shield and get to the expansion slots. I haven't added RAM to my machine yet, but I have upgraded the RAM in most of the other PowerBook models, and this looks like it will be a piece of cake, relatively speaking. (Still, if you plan to open one up, you ought to know something about working with sensitive electronic equipment. And for Heaven's sake, be sure to GROUND YOURSELF!)
The CD-ROM drive in the 1400cs is perhaps the most obvious difference between the 1400 and its predecessors. The drive is 6x and works nicely, except that I find it difficult to get the bay door closed much of the time. It seems to be necessary to slam the thing shut for it to catch, and slamming is not something I like to do with my computer. The CD-ROM bay opens in the front of the PowerBook, and it is recessed into the case near the bottom. As a consequence, this PowerBook does not have feet in back that elevate it the way previous PowerBooks did; raising the back end of the case causes the CD-ROM bay to scape the table-top when it comes out. The CD-ROM drive is easy to remove if you need to insert a floppy disk, and the 1400cs comes with both expansion modules: the CD-ROM and the SuperDrive. Carrying both the floppy drive and the CD-ROM module around may be a bit of a pain; each module weighs about a third of a pound. But it's less of a pain than carrying around a ReNO or Panasonic portable CD-ROM drive, which is what I have done sometimes in the past.) I used to use CD-ROM mainly for installing software, and that is such a convenience that the drive is worth having for that alone.
But I have now discovered another and more wonderful use. As I write this I am listening to Corelli Sonate di chiesa (op. 3 ) performed by London Baroque, one of my favorite bands. The music is playing on the CD-ROM drive in the computer and coming out through the headphones I have plugged into the jack in the back of the PowerBook. The necessary software (the AppleCD Audio Player) comes installed on the PowerBook. David Pogue, who reviewed the PowerBook 1400 in the most recent MacWorld, claims that it did not skip for him even when he rapped the PowerBook sharply on the side. Good for him, but it skipped for me. Maybe Pogue has a wimpier rap than I do. But it won't skip if you just move the computer around, so it is practical to use the PowerBook on your lap and listen to music at the same time. (The Radio Shack cd player that I use in my car has a buffer of a second or two, and won't skip unless I go over two or three potholes in quick succession.)
The pc-card slots are placed farther to the back on the 1400 than on the 5300, but otherwise there are no changes here. My Global Village PowerPort Platinum Pro 28.8Kbps pc-card modem made the transition from the 5300 to the 1400 without any problems. BYTE Magazine's review of the 1400 notes that you can boot from the pc-card, if you have a storage card properly configured, and that means that a couple individuals could share a 1400 yet have their own setups, if each had his own System and storage pc-card. Unfortunately some of the other add-ons I purchased for the 5300 won't work in the 1400. The 1400 apparently uses a differently shaped RAM expansion module. And the 1400's battery is completely different. The local computer stores in Houston do not yet have RAM cards available for the 1400, so I'm living with the 16Mb--doubled by RAM Doubler--for now. By the way, the expansion bay will allegedly accomodate an extra battery. If so, that is another improvement over the 5300 that involves a step back to the 500-series, which could use two batteries as well. When I had two fresh batteries installed in my 520, I used to get five or six hours of use without much difficulty. That made working off the battery truly practical.
For me the main reason that the 1400 obviates the need for a desktop machine is that the 1400's screen is finally adequate to the needs of present-day computing. The 1400/1400cs's 800 x 600 screen displays the same amount of logical real estate as the 800 x 600 display on a PowerBook 5300ce (the top of the line 5300), but the 1400's screen is physically bigger (11.3" diagonally versus 10.4" for the 5300ce). And the 1400cs displays fifty percent more of the desktop than the 640 x 480 screens on all the other 5300-series PowerBooks. In fact, the 1400's screen shows almost as much as I could see on the 15" multi-scan monitor that I used to hook my 5300 up to when I was at my desk at home. (Connected to my PowerBook the 15" monitor would display 832 x 624 pixels.) And the 1400cs's screen is not just larger than the screens on the 5300 or 5300cs, it's clearer and easier to read, because it shows thousands of colors rather than just 256.I have found this screen to be quite capable of dealing with the World Wide Web. For this reason, the lack of a video-out port, which seemed so stupid to me in the PowerBook 190, makes good sense on the 1400: I will be giving my 15" external monitor to my daughters for them to use with their older PowerBooks. (But Marc Bizer, reading a draft of this review, commented in response to this point, "Yes, but it won't be easy for me to plug in the department's LCD projector!")
Let me conclude with a few final comparisons to earlier PowerBooks.
The 1400's trackpad is clickable, unlike the trackpad on the 5300, but apparently like the 190 (which I have never used). There is a freeware control panel available called ClickPad II which gives you the ability to click on the trackpad of a 5300, so you don't have to use the button. ClickPad II gave you the option of hearing a clicking sound when you tapped the trackpad, which I found helpful. The 1400's Apple-supplied software doesn't provide that option. One of the problems with the clickable trackpad is that you sometimes are not sure whether you have clicked or grabbed an object properly; auditory feedback helps minimize that uncertainty. On the other hand, the trackpad on the 1400 is more sensitive to my touch than the trackpad on the 5300 was when I used ClickPad II. I still find tapping the trackpad with my finger to be somewhat awkward, but it is supposed to be less likely to cause repetitive-stress disorders than using the mechanical button, which requires you to flex those thumb muscles constantly. Besides, if you enable "dragging" as well as "clicking" on the 1400, it is much easier to deal with menus, especially pop-out menus, which can be such a pain on a PowerBook. I have been giving tapping the old college try for the last two days and I'm getting better at it. I will say one thing to those who have not used the trackpad at all yet (it was introduced the 500-series PowerBooks two years ago): Once you get used to the trackpad, you will never, ever want to go back to the trackball used in earlier PowerBooks. I'm a little more emotional than usual on this subject at the moment because I am trying to repair the broken trackball on our old PowerBook 165. I don't even like using a mouse anymore. If I were forced to go back to using a desktop Mac very often, I think I would buy one of those third-party trackpads to use instead of that filthy rodent.
Like the 520/540, the 1400 has its power connection in back on the right side, rather than on the left, like the 5300. And like the 520/540, the 1400's AC adapter is thick and sturdy. The 5300's plug is thin and delicate, and apparently many people have had trouble with them breaking off. And speaking of breaking off, the little door that covers the ports in back when they are not in use is another improvement. Previous PowerBook doors have had a tendency to snap off. The door on the 1400 is still made of flimsy plastic, but when it's open, it slides halfway into the PowerBook's case, just underneath the ports. This means it is only half as exposed and much better anchored. (I understand that this innovation was introduced on the Duos.)
The power key is now helpfully named in English: "on/off." If only Apple would put the word "command" on the command key, I could die happy. A picture is sometimes worth a thousand words only because it may take a thousand words to explain the picture, where if words had been used to begin with, a single one might have sufficed. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, you've never tried to help a brand-new Mac user find the power key or command key over the phone.)
Finally, the 1400-series machines come bundled with ClarisWorks 4, Claris's Organizer, the Apple Internet Connection kit, and System 7.5.3 on a CD-ROM disk. (The 1400 will not run System 7.5.5.) You can still use Floppier to build a set of backup floppies, but now you do not HAVE to do this to sleep well at night.
Overall, I would give the 1400cs two thumbs up, three and a half mice, four stars out of five, and a 5/6 on the Porter sliding scale. (On the Porter sliding scale, the item under review is rated according to how ambitious it is and how well it fulfills its ambitions. *Citizen Kane* gets a 10/10.) In other words, I like it a lot.
©1996 Will Porter
Note: Will also wrote a piece on how to install RAM in the PB1400.