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Apple left out innovative flair in new portable


Apple has finally put some "power" in its Powerbook portable computers. But somewhere along the way, they lost some of their pizazz.

Several new models of the Powerbook family were introduced last week, all but one of them built around the Power PC microprocessor upon which Apple is basing (and betting) its future. The new 5300-series and 2300-series Power PC-based Powerbooks appear to be solid upgrades of the Powerbook and Duo line, and bargain hunters will definitely want to look at the Powerbook 190.

But they will be arriving in the stores nearly a year and a half after Apple began switching its desktop Macintoshes over to the Power PC chip. The long delay (plus the fact that some of the new models will not be available until next month) has dampened some of the excitement that greeted earlier Powerbook introductions.

"When the first Powerbooks came out they were so cool, and it was clear Apple had advanced the state of the art," said Adam C. Engst, publisher of Tidbits, an electronic newsletter for Macintosh users. "That isn't the case with the new ones."

The first Powerbooks were so innovative in design and features that many DOS, Windows and Unix users bought them even though it meant switching software.

But Apple no longer has a monopoly on cool new features. IBM's jet-black Thinkpad portables, especially the ones with fold-out "butterfly" keyboards and dazzling color screens, are the ones that attract crowds on airplanes these days. Dell's new Latitude portables have coast-to-coast battery life. Compaq's Aeros are impressive for their light weight and even lighter pricetags.

Other than the new microprocessor, which is reason enough for current Powerbook owners to upgrade, the only really cool advance in the new Powerbooks is an infrared network connection that allows two computers to exchange data wirelessly, as long as they are within six feet of one another. But even that feature has been seen before, on the PC side of the universe.

The same goes for PCMCIA card slots, which have been standard on other notebooks for so long that people have finally started to call them PC cards. PC cards, which can be modems, network connectors, memory cards or other kinds of devices, are new for the Powerbooks.

Some of the full-size Powerbooks also allow the user to pop out the diskette drive and replace it with another device, such as a magneto-optical drive. This expansion bay, as it is called, would be more impressive if there were any portable CD-ROM drives available to fit inside, but I am not aware that any exist.

Smaller and lighter

The Batmobile styling of the previous-generation Powerbooks is gone, replaced by something a bit smaller and lighter, which is good, and more box-like.

But enough grousing. The new Powerbooks may not have as much gee-whiz appeal as earlier models, but they have plenty of attractive features for Macintosh users.

As before, the Powerbook lineup can be divided into notebook and subnotebook categories.

The new subnotebook, called the Powerbook Duo 2300, is not expected to be available for at least a month. It is said to appear identical to current Duos, except that the annoying miniature trackball pointing device has been replaced by the slightly less annoying trackpad pointing device. Prices start at $3,500 and climb rapidly.

The larger notebook line consists of the high-end 5300 series and the budget-oriented Powerbook 190. From the outside, the 5300s and the 190s appear very similar.

Under the hood and on the price sticker, though, they are very different.

The 190s use a version of the older Motorola 68040 chip instead of the Power PC 603e chip found in all the other new Powerbooks.

There are two Powerbook 190s, one with a monochrome screen, the other one color. Prices start at $1,650 for the monochrome unit with four megabytes of RAM (system memory) and a 500-megabyte hard disk drive.

Four megabytes of RAM is simply not enough these days, so consider spending $200 more for the eight-megabyte model.

For college students who need a portable computer for writing papers, connecting to the Internet and doing other tasks that do not require Power PC-level performance, the Powerbook 190 is a solid contender.

The problem is that the 190s, like the 2300s, will not be available until mid-October.

Apple says the 190 can be upgraded later to the Power PC 603e chip for an extra $1,200.

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