Wall Writings – My Mac Magazine #59, Mar. ’00

Well, I’m finally back! It’s almost embarassing for me to admit that this is my first column of the year 2000, but it is, so I’ll try to make reading it worth your while. Of course, being the self-centered columnist that I am, the best I can do after my absence is talk about my own computer. However, in an effort to make this column a little more meaningful, I also want to comment on computing power, our need (or, more accurately, want) for it, and what I see as the ideal Mac setup. But it’s still all about my computer. 🙂

Newly underpowered and portable… and loving it (sort of)
Shortly after I bought my PowerBook 1400 two years ago, I sprung for a 250 MHz G3 upgrade from Newer Tech and a 6 gigabyte hard drive. They were both wonderful additions, and made my ‘Book even more powerful and useful. The only downside was that the processor, and especially the 1 megabyte cache, killed the amount of time I could use my 1400 on battery power. This was mostly because the NiMH battery was not nearly as sophisticated as the Li-Ion batteries in current laptops, and couldn’t handle the extra power drain. As a result, my souped-up PowerBook spent most of its time on my desktop, but I loved it anyway.

Enter this January. The combination of Christmas shopping, second semester tuition payments, textbook purchases, and all of the other seasonal expenses of a “poor, starving college student?” had made yours truly a relatively poor guy with a minimum wage part-time job, and in need of some quick cash. After much soul-searching and heart-wrenching, I decided that I had to dismantle my beloved PowerBook. It was out with the G3 card and spacious hard drive, and in with the original 133 MHz 603e processor and the stock 1.3 gigabyte hard drive.

So, now that I’ve used my 1400 this way for about six weeks, I’ve been surprised that I’m not quite as disappointed as I thought I’d be in its performance. Once I get past the increased startup time for Mac OS 8.6, and the increased startup time for my main applications (Netscape 4.7, Eudora 4.3, CodeWarrior 5, and AppleWorks 5.0.3), they all perform admirably on the 133 MHz 603e, which has only 128K of Level 2 cache. Battery life is enormously improved, too, so I can be confident that I can take my laptop to the library with me and actually be able to use it to type for a good portion of the evening.

The downside? My computer is now more of a tool than a toy. For word processing, email, and Internet use, my 1400 is fine. But for Madden NFL 2000? Forget it! Any other game (recent first-person shooters and other action games) that wants a video card or a fast processor? Not on this computer, baby. QuickTime and RealVideo movies? They’re often choppy with a low rate of frames per second. MP3 playback? SoundJam works fine, but I don’t have room to store many MP3s anymore!

For a mobile computer, the aforementioned downside is largely forgivable. I can do everything I need to do at an acceptable rate, and the ability to use my laptop for more than half an hour on battery power is a huge convenience. Plus, the dimensions and weight of the 1400 make it much more portable than any of the current crop of Apple laptops, which are undeniable more powerful, but also undeniable larger (and, in the case of the iBook, heavier). As it is, it’s a great mobile system for me. Even though I must admit if I had $400 to throw around, Sonnet’s new 333 MHz copper G3 upgrade would be mighty tempting… 🙂

However, I’ve also discovered that while playing DOOM or Marathon instead of Unreal Tournament is fine for a quick fix, it’s not as satisfying (or possible) for an all-out, dorm-wide frag fest. Also, listening to all of my CDs on my shelf stereo is fine, but without a huge CD changer (which my 3-disc system is not), it’s tough to get the variety that my MP3 collection offered. Plus, there are so many USB-only devices that seem so inviting, such as the PlayStation-like Game Pad Pro from Gravis, and the Digital Media Remote from Keyspan.

So, I’ve come to this conclusion: I need an iMac. And probably a USB Zip drive for shuttling files back and forth between it and my 1400, whose newfound mobility is just too darn convenient to sell or give away. Sure, I could sell the 1400 and get a new laptop. An iBook might kill two birds with one stone, with a good combination of power and portability, but I’m not yet convinced that the bulky-looking thing would fit in my backpack as nicely as my 1400 does. I also am a big fan of Apple’s new PowerBook line, and the weight and dimensions they’ve achieved is impressive, all things considered. But I’m afraid that such a computer would be overkill for me. Personally, I don’t need a 14 or 15 inch screen on a portable, unless it serves first and foremost as a desktop replacement; the sheer dimensions required by a screen of that size makes the PowerBook too large to easily transport in a bookbag, and I’d rather not have to carry another bag around in addition to my backpack full of textbooks if at all possible. Also, how do mobile professionals use these PowerBooks on a plane or bus? I’ll be going on tour with my college’s choir later on this month, and plan on taking my PowerBook along. While using my 1400 on the bus seats shouldn’t be too big of a problem, I’m not sure I could fully open one of Apple’s current PowerBooks and not bump into the seat ahead of me.

Anyway, back to my iMac dream: the low end, blueberry-only model would be fine with me; I just want something that has a large hard disk, 128 bit video card, and USB. This starving student™ won’t be buying a digital video camcorder anytime soon, so as cool as they are, the DV options of the higher-end iMacs aren’t very important to me right now. (OK, OK, this starving student™ won’t be buying an iMac anytime soon, either.) So, this gives me an extra incentive to make some good money this summer. And who knows‹by the time the end of the summer rolls around, Apple will probably have rolled out another groundbreaking iMac revision, which means I’ll get to enjoy all of the features I’m wanting in an even more powerful package.

Mmmm… dreams of my ideal Mac situation: a powerful desktop computer to play with, and a small, portable laptop to use on the go when necessary. Someday. Until then, I’ll probably be able to get by with playing 1995’s games and listening to only 3 different CDs at one time, especially while I’m enjoying being able to throw my 1400 comfortably alongside my Calculus book in my backpack AND be able to use it for a couple of hours after I’m done solving differential equations.


Mike Wallinga
mikew@mymac.com

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