Old Mac of the Month: The Mighty Cat

This month’s Old Mac of the Month submission is by Thomas Brand, writer of Egg Freckles. Thomas is a great guy, a lover of old technology and one heck of a writer. If you don’t read his site, shame on you.

Before the MacBook Air, before the 12 inch PowerBook G4, and long before anyone heard the term NetBook, there was a small light and powerful machine released by Apple Computer Inc. Developed during Apple’s troubled years, this portable computer was the last of its kind. A sub notebook that weighed only 4.4 pounds, when most laptops weighed nearly twice as much. Powerful enough to work on its own without the added complexity of an optional dock, this machine boasted its speed with codenames like Comet, and Mighty Cat. Manufactured by Apple’s original arch nemesis IBM, this laptop returned the PowerBook line back to its roots, with a form factor inspired by the legendary PowerBook 100. Big in Japan, this powerful portable machine would gain a cult following of its very own, and outlive a death sentence from Steve Jobs by selling for another seven months.

Released in May 1997, the PowerBook 2400c was the successor to Apple’s popular Duo line of sub notebooks. The last small and light portable computer Apple would release until the advent of the 12" PowerBook G4 in January 2003, the 2400c had more in common with a modern day MacBook Air than the Duos of the past.

Designed to get by on its own without the additional capabilities offered by a Duo Dock, the PowerBook 2400c featured a speedy 180 MHz PowerPC 603e processor that combined with a 40 MHz 64-bit system bus, and 256 KB L2 cache, gave it twice the performance of the previous PowerBook Duo 2300. It had a beautiful 800 x 600 10.4 active matrix TFT display that put the passive display technologies of the past to shame. Featuring 1 MB of graphics memory it was one of the first PowerBooks with discrete graphics[1] and a Mini–15 display connector built-in. With a up to 80 MBs of RAM, and 2 GBs of hard drive space, you could do more, and take more with you in a portable 10.5“ x 8.4” form factor.

Like the original MacBook Air the biggest problem with the PowerBook 2400c was connectivity. For a sub notebook it had a generous collection of ports including 1 ADB, 1 serial, 1 Audio out, 1 Audio in, and 1 HD1–30 SCSI connection in addition to the onboard Mini–15 display connector. Networking was limited to a single infrared window with a max I/O of 4 Mbps, but there was no USB, no ethernet, and no built-in optical drive[2]. Unlike the MacBook Air, the PowerBook 2400c came with two Type I/II PC Card slots located behind the display, with the option of a double-high Type III PC card for added expandability. These slots could be used for everything from USB to FireWire, Ethernet to Wireless networking. While the closed minded Duos of the past grew obsolete in the internet age, the 2400c lived on thanks to its generous expandability.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple as interim CEO, one of the first things he did was slash extraneous projects, and slim down existing product lines[3]. He made sure Apple’s hardware engineers focused their talents on one of four basic categories, Home Desktop, Home Laptop, Pro Desktop, and Pro Laptop. By May 1998 Apple had its Home Desktop, the iMac, its Pro Desktop, the Power Macintosh G3, and its Pro Laptop, the PowerBook G3 Series[4]. The rest of Apple’s hardware offerings were discontinued. And it appeared the PowerBook 2400c didn’t make the cut.

Meanwhile overseas, the Japanese market was not enthusiastic about where Apple’s portable lineup was headed. The preferred ultralight Duo series had been dead for over a year, and now the PowerBook 2400c was following it to the grave. The replacement, a 7.8 lb. PowerBook G3 was not right for the Japanese, who prefer small and light notebook computers. Sales were slow. In a last ditch effort to maintain market share, Steve Jobs made a rare reverse decision. He let the PowerBook 2400c live on in Japan till the end of the year with an improved 240MHz PowerPC 603e processor in a configuration codenamed “Mighty Cat.”

The PowerBook 2400c would continue to be the preferred laptop of weight conscious Apple fans for many years. Its expansion slots meant it could continue to connect to the latest peripherals, and networking. Its detachable CPU daughter card meant it could be upgraded to a G3 running at 400 MHz. Although it was never officially sanctioned to run Mac OS X, it could make it all the way to Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar with the proper hacking. When all of my friends had PowerBook G3s I keep on using my secondhand PowerBook 2400c until the release of the first Snow Dual USB iBook in May 2001.[5] No other Macintosh has done better surviving its own obsolesce, and the wrath of Steve Jobs.

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  1. The Chips and Technologies HiQV32 was an early forerunner to the Intel Integrated graphics we have today.  ↩
  2. An external 1.44 MB floppy using a proprietary port was provided.  ↩
  3. Killing the Newton among other things.  ↩
  4. The iBook was still to come.  ↩
  5. I still keep my PowerBook 2400c tucked away in my closet.  ↩