I got lucky and happened to check the University of Houston's campus computer store ("Cougar Byte") shortly after they received their first three PowerBook 5300s. I bought one on the spot. I had to bring it back the next day because the right-side Shift key did not work, but they still had one left and allowed me to trade for it. My review is based entirely on my experience working with this machine over the last two months or so. I have read about the other models -- the ones with color and/or active matrix screens and larger hard disks -- and I have admired them in local computer stores. But the only model I have used in the one I bought, the plain-vanilla PowerBook 5300.
Before buying the PowerBook 5300, I used a PowerBook 520 for a year. I miss a number of things about the 520. For starters, the 5300 is not as good-looking. The 5300's case is boxier than the 520's, which was sleek and rounded. And the 5300 is dark gray or black in color. The 520 had bays for two batteries, and I found that with two batteries installed, I really did not have to worry about finding an electrical outlet at all, no matter where I went. I was able to use the 520 for five or six hours pretty easily without plugging it in. The 5300 has only one battery bay, although I understand that the floppy disk bay can be converted to a second battery bay (more about that in a second). However, the 5300's one battery (NiHy) appears to last longer than I was ever able to get the 520 to run on a single battery. I have gotten over 4 hours from this one battery on more than one occasion. I turn the backlighting off to extend battery life, but otherwise I do not take any special measures, such as creating a RAM disk.
There are some obvious advantages over the PowerBook 520, however. For one thing, installing RAM is much easier. I took a risk that I don't recommend others take and upgraded my 520's RAM not long after I bought it. Even though I had the advantage of a fair amount of experience upgrading other machines -- including several other PowerBooks -- and I had moderately good instructions on how to upgrade the 520, it was still a somewhat tricky job. Not so with the 5300. The keyboard comes right out and the board where you set the memory card is readily accessible. (The 520's SIMM slot is hidden by a metal cage that is a challenge to remove.) Best of all, Apple now authorizes users to perform this upgrade for themselves during the warranty period; in fact, step-by-step instructions are provided in the user's guide. I *still* do not recommend that anyone do it themselves, since it is still quite possible to do serious harm to your machine when you have opened it up. (If you do it, be sure you have a properly grounded anti-static wrist strap! The amount of static necessary to wreck the computer is considerably less than the static discharged when you touch a light switch in midwinter.) You do not any longer violate the warranty just by opening the PowerBook up. But if you break something while you are inside, Apple will not replace it for you.
The 520 came with a built-in Ethernet port -- and only one serial port. The lack of a second serial port was a frequent pain in the neck. It meant that I could no longer use my modem and my printer at the same time. The 5300 does not come with Ethernet built-in, but it still only has the single printer/modem port. Replacing Ethernet is a special infrared (IR) transmitter & received which supports AppleTalk. I have not given this a try yet. In order to use it, you have to have another Mac (or PC) that has an IR port, like Farallon's AirDock (which sells for under $100); the two computers have to be about six feet apart or less; and they have to be pointed towards one another. In other words, it's hardly a real networking tool. I have been told that the IR port is really a boon to users who regularly need to move files between the PowerBook and a desktop Mac and don't want to bother with plugging in LocalTalk connectors. However, after years of practice, I have now managed to reduce the time it takes me to plug in a LocalTalk connector from a discouraging two seconds to just under one second flat. Since I have a feeling that it would take me five seconds (if not quite a bit longer) to get my IR transmitter pointed at the other Mac's AirDock properly, I am not too enthusiastic about the IR port. I would still pay $100 extra to have another serial port. But when I talk about my new PowerBook to my friends, I mention the IR deal with pride. Usually they're too impressed at the appearance of advanced technology to ask me whether it is genuinely useful.
In other respects the back side of the 5300 is just like the 520's. In addition to the IR port and the single serial port that I've mentioned, there is an AC connection, and ports for video-out, sound-out, sound-in, SCSI (using the HDI 30-pin connectors found in other PowerBooks), and an ADB port that you can use to hook up an external numeric keypad, mouse, drawing pad or even an external keyboard.
In addition to the ports around back, on the left side of the PowerBook 5300 you have a PC-card bay that will accomodate two of the thin (type I or II) PC (a.k.a. PCMCIA) cards or one of the thicker ones (type III). The PowerBook 520 was also capable of accepting PC cards, but you had to first convert the second battery bay to a PC-card bay by purchasing the adapter "cage"; then you plugged the PC card into that cage. It's easier with the 5300: the PC-card bay is ready to accept a card immediately. There are a variety of uses for PC cards, including adding RAM, storage, Ethernet connections, and modems. I've recently gotten a Global Village PowerPort Platinum Pro 28.8 PC card modem (the Pro version costs more than the "amateur" model, but Pro supports Ethernet and cellular connections). Installing the PC card in is (literally) a snap, about as complex as inserting a floppy in the drive on the right side of the computer. Speaking of which, the Global Village "Read Me" file that came with the card notes that if you insert a floppy while a PC card is loaded, the computer will freeze. I gather that Apple is aware of this problem.
The floppy drive is removable. There is a simple catch underneath the PowerBook holding the drive in. I remember when the first NeXT computers came out, I thought it astonishly stupid that they did not have floppy drives at all. Apparently I have caught up with Steve Jobs's vision, since I think I could live pretty happily without a floppy drive, at least for weeks at a time. What do you do if you take the floppy drive out? Well, the PowerBook 5300 comes with a box for that slot that you can store PC cards in, for when you are not using them. I understand that Iomega is working on a ZIP drive for this PowerBook and that another manufacturer will soon release an adapter that will allow you to insert a second battery.
The PowerBook 5300 (with one battery) weighs about the same as the 520, just a little under 6 lbs. I lug mine (and my StyleWriter 2200) around just about everywhere I go, no doubt because of a high-tech version of separation anxiety. It's about all the exercise I get, so I don't complain about the weight. I have noticed that there are notebook computers at the nearby superstore that seem to weigh quite a bit less. But they aren't Macs, so that's that.
The keyboard on the 5200 is supposed to be the same keyboard that the 520 had, and it appears to be, although the keyboard on mine seems stiffer than the keyboard on my 520 did. I have communicated with other users on Compuserve who have observed the same thing I have, that you have to hit the 5300's keys from directly above; the keyboard is not very tolerant of sloppy finger position. I can't decide whether this is a good or a bad thing.
The trackpad is the same as the 520's. I have read that the new trackpad -- which allows you to click directly on the trackpad, without needing a separate button -- will be installed in PowerBook 5200s by the end of the year. There may even be an upgrade for people like me who bought the early models, although I doubt it and I can't see why I would bother. I will say this: Once you have used a PowerBook with a trackpad for a few days, you will never want to go back to the trackball again.
The low-end, plain vanilla PowerBook 5300 comes with 8Mb RAM and a 500Mb hard drive. You can use the machine with just 8Mb of RAM (I did for a couple weeks), but it's not much fun. You will want to increase your RAM to at least 16Mb as soon as possible. On the other hand, I am finding that 500Mb of storage space suits me perfectly. I archive as much as I can every week to a ZIP disk, and I've managed to keep over 200Mb of storage space free on the internal drive, which makes me feel like I'm living in a much bigger house.
Finally, the chip. Yes, folks, the 5300 is a PowerMac. It features a 100Mhz PPC 603e processor, which is not a speed demon as Power Macs go, but is noticeably better than the performance I got from the 520 -- and dramatically better after I purchased and installed Connectix's SpeedDoubler. I find the improvement in performance quite satisfying: I have gotten used to having folders spring open in the Finder and having applications launch in seconds, but I still notice the 5300's superior speed every time I sort a large FileMaker Pro database or try to scroll through a long and complex WordPerfect document. I am of course comparing the 5300's performance to my earlier experience with the Quadra 610 and the PowerBook 520. I have never used one of the very high-end Power Macs or a top of the line Pentium PC.
Now the critical sour-pusses in the computer press -- who apparently *do* use high-end Power Macs or Pentium PCs -- have griped that the new PowerBooks are not faster than they are. But I get the impression that they are unaware of the realities of cost. There are certainly PC notebook computers with Pentium chips that will perform the standard benchmark tests more rapidly than a PowerBook 5300, but once again, all that time you save recomputing General Motors' balance sheet is lost the next time you try to hook up a CD-ROM drive so your daughter can play Myst. I'll stick with my Mac, thanks.
They don't call it the "bleeding edge" for nothing and there are a few problems. My Delrina FaxPro software stopped working when I got the 5300: Delrina acknowledged the problem right away but did not know what was causing it. Perhaps they have fixed it by now. It's a moot point for me, since I will henceforth be using the far superior software that came with my Global Village PC card modem. But the PC card modem has caused a problem of its own: The software I use to access Westlaw only recognizes a connection made through the serial ports, so I have to keep my external modem around for a while just for that purpose. Ugh.
A more serious problem is that the machine suffers from a kind of digital narcolepsy. From time to time -- for me, it's a few times a week -- the PowerBook 5300 goes to sleep without warning, and won't wake up, at least not right away. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it drops into a daydream, rather than truly going to sleep. I have found that if I fidget with the case's latch and/or the power key, I can always revive the machine within a minute or so. But it's a definite pain. I have read other reports of the same problem online. A clean reinstallation of the system software will reportedly solve the problem. I haven't tried this yet, because it doesn't happen frequently enough to me to make a complete reinstallation worthwhile. Oh, one interesting little point: The 5300-series PowerBooks do not ship with backup disks containing the System software. Instead, you have to buy about twenty disks and run the "Floppy Disk Maker" to create your own backup disks.
But in spite of these problems I am delighted with the PowerBook 5300 and very glad to have gotten it. It's going to be a while before Apple releases something better.