By Jason Snell
August 24, 2020 9:00 AM PT
20 Macs for 2020: #17 – PowerBook 500 & 5300
People who think that the butterfly keyboard is the biggest black eye in the history of Apple’s laptops don’t remember the mid-1990s. Apple’s final near-death experience and subsequent revival has wiped away a lot of memories of the darkest era in Apple history. Apple introduced the PowerBook 500 series to replace the original PowerBooks, and the original laptops proved to be a tough act to follow. It got worse during the transition to PowerPC processors, when the new PowerBook 5300 arrived—and erased all the goodwill Apple had built up over the years.
The PowerBook 500 series was code-named Blackbird, and while they look boxy by today’s standards, they were much curvier than the original PowerBooks, made of lighter-weight plastics and with a redesigned keyboard that added a row of function keys (and a properly placed escape key). They were also, unfortunately, a lot heavier.
Most notably, Blackbird replaced the trackball of the original PowerBook line with a completely new sort of device. It’s so easy to point and laugh now, like watching cave people discover fire, but at the time the little spinning trackball of the PowerBook was one of the device’s most iconic features. Explaining what was replacing it took a little bit of effort.
It was “what Apple calls a trackpad, a slightly recessed rectangle of black composite material,” according to MacUser. Most MacUser editors who tried it preferred it to the trackball.
MacWEEK referred to it this way:
A rectangular, high-resolution touch pad that controls the pointer. Called Midas TouchPad, it reportedly uses special tracking software to increase the distance the mouse travels across the screen the faster a user’s finger moves on the touch pad’s glass. Sources said Midas takes some getting used to, but it is both more reliable and accurate than a trackball.
Trackpad? TouchPad? Midas? I dunno. Whatever you call it, it’s still going strong 25 years later.
Blackbird was modular, too: it had two battery bays, but you could remove one of the batteries and instead replace it with other accessories that could be directly plugged into the PowerBook’s processor. The $199 PowerBook Expansion Module let you use PCMCIA expansion cards, which were becoming common on PC laptops. But the module was wonky and Mac support for PC Cards was almost nonexistent and the module didn’t even quite meet the actual PCMCIA standard so some stuff just… didn’t work.
Blackbird also rolled out just after the Mac had begun its transition to using PowerPC processors, but they were built with older-generation Motorola 68LC040 processors instead. To make Blackbird not seem instantly outdated (although it sort of was!), Apple promoted all the 500-series PowerBooks as “PowerPC upgradeable” via an add-on daughtercard that would be available in 1995. But at launch Apple had no price estimates or spec details for those upgrades.
Turns out, Apple was really slow to offer those upgrades. So slow, in fact, that they were beaten to the punch by Newer Technology, which offered the NUpowr upgrade card for 500-series PowerBooks. Not only did Newer beat Apple’s single upgrade to market, but the Newer upgrade cards ran a faster processor than the one in Apple’s kit.
It was a bumpy ride, but a year later, it got bumpier. In 1995, the PowerBook finally entered the PowerPC world, with the PowerBook 5300. (So named because Power PowerBook would’ve been a really dumb name.) The 5300 was a boxier design—in the articles from the time, the disappointment over the design is palpable (“The industrial design is still PC wannabe!” raved MacWEEK’s Andrew Gore)—and it made a bad first impression.
This is a laptop that shipped too soon, with buggy software—and it was savaged in early reviews. MacWEEK gave it “one of the worst [reviews the publication had] ever given an Apple product,” citing frequent system crashes that rendered two of their review models unusable. A software update five months after release fixed some of these problems, but many early 5300 logic boards were lemons, and needed to be completely replaced. Repairs could take as much as a month.
There was a built-in PC card slot that actually met the standard, which was good… because you’d need to use it if you wanted to connect the PowerBook to Ethernet or use a modem, since Apple removed both of those networking ports from the 5300. (That’s okay, I’m sure networking isn’t important to a laptop.)
Like the Blackbird, the PowerBook 5300 also had two expansion bays. One was reserved for a swappable battery, and the other came with a floppy drive that could be swapped out for other devices—though very few of them every really came to fruition. The real tragedy here is that this was the heyday of the CD-ROM—people were playing Myst and reading Cinemania and watching a tiny, tiny QuickTime movie of A Hard Day’s Night on their desktop Macs—and Apple somehow designed the PowerBook 5300 with a removable storage bay that was too small to fit a CD-ROM disc.
It gets worse. The PowerBook 5300 shipped with a cool new battery technology, a Sony-supplied Lithium Ion battery. You can probably guess what happened next—this was the Galaxy Note of its era. A few of the Lithium Ion batteries caught fire, although fortunately not while in the hands of consumers. Regardless, Apple had to recall the 5300’s batteries and replace them with less efficient Nickel Metal Hydride batteries.
Talk about a messy roll-out: Here’s our new laptop! It caught on fire, wait, we’ll be right back! Now here’s our new laptop, now with 70 percent less battery!
In 1995 I was a junior editor at MacUser and I remember that once a week, we’d get our delivery of copies of our sister publication MacWEEK, which was the newspaper of record for the Mac world. And for most of the summer of 1995, I’d read about the latest scandal involving Apple’s PowerBook 5300 roll-out disaster as I walked to buy my lunch at the sandwich shop across a large lawn from our office building. It’s a strong sense memory of mine: Lawn, sun, brown paper bag from Togo’s, and a copy of MacWEEK detailing just how terrible Apple’s laptops were doing.
The PowerBook 5300 series was star crossed from beginning to end. It survived for about a year before Apple had to kill it. It’s one of the greatest product failures in the company’s history, even if nobody remembers it today.
The cover of the December 1996 issue of MacUser has this line: “Has Apple fixed the PowerBook?”
Yeah, they did—by releasing the PowerBook 1400, a laptop that I dearly loved. But it really wouldn’t be until Steve Jobs returned and the “Wall Street” PowerBooks were released that Apple would regain its footing and start making truly great laptops once more.
If you appreciate articles like this one, support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories, and a special community.