Apple recharges Mac notebooks

The PowerBook 1400 line will finally get a speed boost next week, the first significant change since its introduction last year.

3 min read
Apple Computer (AAPL) next week will finally refresh its PowerBook 1400 notebooks with a 166-MHz model and reduce prices on the 133-MHz versions, the first significant changes to this model since it was introduced late last year.

The move shows that Apple has been able to slowly rejuvenate its portable lineup after last year's shortages and quality problems. But a lingering concern is that the company has been slow in introducing new models.

The PowerBook 1400 line is finally getting a speed boost nearly eight months after introduction in an industry where such changes often occur on a quarterly basis, or six months at most. This is partly attributable to the fact that Apple faces no competition in the Mac portable market. The 1400, introduced in October 1996, was the first PowerBook with a built-in CD-ROM.

But that may soon change. Clone makers Motorola, Umax, and Power Computing are all in various stages of developing their own Mac-compatible notebooks. These laptops could be on the market next year, regardless of whether Apple decides to license its portable design and a special version of the Mac OS operating system.

The new PowerBook 1400c/166 will come with a 166-MHz 603e PowerPC processor, serving as Apple's midrange offering for basic office use, as reported in April by CNET'S NEWS.COM. Apple's under-$2,000 PowerBook 1400cs/117 models will be dropped, while remaining 1400s will also get larger hard drives and faster CD-ROM drives, according to sources familiar with the company's plans.

"A speed bump will give the product a little longer life...166 MHz is OK, but 200 MHz would be a breakthrough in the 1400 line, says Peter Hartsook, a Mac industry analyst.

"I see good and usable products, but no mind-share grabbers. These are products that will keep Mac customers satisfied, but I don't think it will get them salivating. Customer expectations are now quite frankly driven by what they see across the desk in Windows notebooks as far as large screens and new features. It's no longer Apple setting the expectations," Hartsook says.

Apple's offerings are competitive with those of Windows-based machines, but Hartsook says PowerBooks need to offer more. For instance, industrial design innovations such as track pads and wrist rests offered by the original PowerBooks, widely imitated by the Windows-Intel notebook world, could again generate excitement in the Mac notebook platform.

The newest model will bridge the gap between the older 1400s and high-performance PowerBook 3400 line, which offers models with 180-, 200-, and 240-MHz PowerPC processors.

Apple is expected to announce the new models and configurations Monday, but dealers are expected to have some models on their price lists by Saturday, sources close to the company said.

Apple will add a 2GB hard drive and an 8X CD-ROM drive to the 1400c/166 model, which is expected to retail for $3,500. The 1400c/133 and 1400cs/133 will be refreshed with a 1.3GB hard drive and an 8X CD-ROM drive as well, according to industry sources.

Models will come with an 11.3-inch active matrix display, while the 1400cs/133 will have a dual-scan screen. The 1400c/133 is expected to retail for $3,000, while the 1400cs/133 will retail for $2,500, sources said.

Apple representatives have told NEWS.COM previously that the company is considering licensing the PowerBook designs, but it has yet to sanction notebook clones. The reasoning appears to be that Apple is inclined to protect this lucrative market to help restore profitability--also a necessary near-term imperative.

Whether Apple changes its mind on licensing in the face of financial pressures will be a key measure of the company's commitment to a truly open Mac clone market.