Home Computer: Apple power restores owners' pride: The first portable Mac was a turkey, but the Powerbook has risen like a phoenix, says Kim Wilson

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The Independent Online
UP UNTIL two and a half years ago, Apple Macintosh owners had to hang their heads in shame when the subject of portable computers came up - something this slightly superior bunch is not generally used to.

Apple's offering in this field was a colossal machine that was not much smaller than a conventional desktop computer. Brought out at a time when portable PC-compatibles were rapidly shrinking towards pocket size and pocket-money prices, the Macintosh Portable was a magnificent, expensive turkey. Almost no one bought it.

And then the PowerBook was launched; Apple users' amour-propre was restored and portable computing was never the same again. The proud owner could now boast an elegant, award-winning, trend-setting machine that every PC manufacturer was rushing to imitate. PowerBook prices became if not giveaway then at least affordable.

To be fair to Apple, the problem had been caused by the fact that a Macintosh is such a sophisticated machine that the 'ancient' portable computer technology of just a few years ago was simply not up to the task. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Macintosh is design quality and it is only recently that advances in electronics have enabled Apple to build a quality product that costs less than an arm and a leg and comes in a box that is smaller and lighter than a suitcase. Building a portable PC is a doddle by comparison.

There are now two families of Macintosh PowerBooks. The models in the 100 series are the conventional ones. They are fairly light for portables at 6lb or so, have a large memory, built-in hard disk and a standard 3.5- inch floppy disk drive that reads Mac disks and - with suitable extra software - can also read PC disks.

The 200 series delivers unsurpassable computers: ultra-slim, lightweight, with massive memories and hard disks. These are the ones - you may have heard rumours - that can be transformed into desktop Macs: the entire PowerBook slots into a hole in the front of a special 'docking unit' to give you instant connections to a full-size colour monitor, keyboard, office network and all the usual accoutrements of desktop computing. It is an amazing and valuable trick that no other brand of computer can do, although some are trying, but you do have to pay heavily for the privilege.

That apart, what is so special about the Macintosh PowerBook is that there is no compromise: the PowerBook is just as easy to use as a desktop Macintosh and has not been 'crippled' in any way to meet its size and price targets.

It matches the specifications of a normal Mac, which means that you can use all the usual software and your PowerBook will work alongside any other Macs or PCs. Many owners do not even have a normal desktop machine - at the end of the working day they simply unplug from the office network or laser printer and take the PowerBook home. The 100 series has the full range of connection sockets at the back - the PowerBook 200 range does not because the sockets are available on the desktop docking unit.

The external design of the PowerBook is what draws envious glances across a crowded room, from the neat pop-down feet that hold the computer at a convenient angle, to the smooth curves of the grey case, and to the ergonomic keyboard.

And then there is the weird trackball. A Macintosh needs a mouse - but you cannot fit one into a portable computer. Portable PCs running Windows software have to have little trackball devices clipped on to the side of the keyboard. But that was too ugly for Apple. So they moved the keyboard several inches back, creating a shelf at the front of the computer which provides both a comfortable wrist-rest for the user and a space for a trackball that can be operated by both right and left handed people. Your fingertips brush the ball to control the position of the screen pointer and your thumb taps the large button to make things work.

The PowerBooks have state-of-the art screens to cope with the Macintosh's high quality graphics display - the more you pay the better the screen, but at any given price it will be one of the best on the market. Some models have colour screens and most have a socket for an external colour monitor.

Portable PCs have a nasty habit of running out of power. The PowerBook's advanced battery technology gives a slightly longer battery life than average, but more importantly it gives lots of warning before the power runs out and even when the battery does go flat your work is not lost.

Another of the PowerBook's party tricks is 'sleep' mode, which lets you shut the computer off without bothering to save your work. Just touch a key and the PowerBook springs back to life so that you can resume your work exactly where you left off.

There is one drawback to using a PowerBook. Portable computer users often find themselves having to scrounge printers and the inescapable fact is that there are many more PC printers out there than Macintosh ones.

The usual solution is either to look for a printer that the PowerBook can use, such as most of the laser printers on the market, or to buy a piece of software called a printer driver that enables your PowerBook to be used with a given PC printer.

Alternatively, the PowerBook has one last trick. If it is fitted with a fax modem - a device that sends faxes directly from the computer - then when you are using it on the road, you can use any office or hotel fax machine as a printer.

Macs used to hold close to their recommended prices, but these days the competition means even Apple machines can be found at discounted 'street' prices, so shop around for the best deal. Prices range from about pounds 1,000 to pounds 3,000 depending on the model and configuration.

Second-hand machines can be good value and as a rule will be able to do everything that the current models can.

APPLE POWERBOOK

VITAL STATISTICS

System: Apple Macintosh

Models:

PowerBook 145

PowerBook 165, 165 colour

PowerBook 180

PowerBook Duo 210

PowerBook 230

Availability: From Apple dealers or by mail order.

Price: From about pounds 1,000 to pounds 3,000

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