The most upgradable portable Mac ever

This is a guest post written by my friend and Newton aficionado Thomas Brand.

The PowerBook G3 Series was Apple’s most upgradable portable computer ever! It weighed 7.8 pounds, and cost anywhere between $2,299 to $7,000 fully loaded. Codenamed “Wallstreet” the PowerBook G3 Series was the second line of Macintosh portable computers to include a PowerPC G3 processor, and the oldest portable Macintosh capable of running Mac OS X [1].

image via Shrine of Apple

Compared to the svelte lines of a wedge-shaped MacBook Air, the Wallstreet more closely resembles the bulky profile of a New York City paving stone. The PowerBook G3 Series initially came with one of three different processor configurations, 233, 250, and 292 MHz; with a fourth 300 MHz configuration added later that year. Early PowerBook G3 Series computers had the option of two different system bus speeds depending on processor frequency[2], and three different screen sizes using either Passive or Active Matrix TFT technology[3]. The abundance of configurations gave customers a greater amount of choice, but all of the available options were causing havoc for Apple’s supply lines. In September of 1998, Apple streamlined the production of PowerBook G3 Series by standardizing the bus speed at 66 MHz, and dropping the number of display options down to a single 14.1″ configuration.[4]

In addition to all of the available built-to-order options, the Wallstreet also offered an impressive array of expandability. The PowerBook G3 Series included two hot swappable docking bays on either side. The left hand bay could accommodate a battery, a 3.5″ floppy disk, a Iomega Zip drive, a third-party magnetic optical drive, or even a secondary hard drive. The right hand bay was larger and could accommodate all of the above plus a full size 5.25″ optical drive. A small internal nickel-cadmium battery allowed swapping of the main batteries while the computer was asleep, and with two batteries installed at the same time the PowerBook G3 Series could last up to seven hours on a single charge. A maximum of 4 MBs of graphics memory limited the PowerBook G3 Series’ 3D performance, but an optional PCMCIA hardware controller made the Wallstreet the first Apple portable capable of DVD playback.

In addition to two CardBus slots, and two hot swappable bays, the PowerBook G3 Series shipped with an extensive array of ports. 10BASE-T Ethernet, ADB, Serial, VGA, S-Video[5], Infrared, and Audio in and Out were all standard. Although the PowerBook G3 Series had no built-in WiFi to speak of, but it did have an optional 56K Modem, and HDI-30 SCSI connector for fast 5 megabit connections[6]! (USB, FireWire, Bluetooth, and WiFi were all available upgrade options via the Wallstreet’s two CardBus slots.)

The PowerBook G3 Series was a no-compromise machine built with all of the expandability and build-to-order customizability of a desktop computer. Its removable processor card, user replaceable parts, and wide array of ports made it the most upgradable Macintosh Portable ever constructed. It was big, heavy, expensive, and prone to overheating. The wide variety of build-to-order options made keeping parts in stock difficult, and supporting the vast number of possible configurations frustrating. In the end PowerBook G3 Series customers got the most future proof laptop money could buy, but no matter the number of hot swappable bays, or CardBus slots, technology moved on[7].

The Wallstreet was the last PowerBook with an Old World ROM, and this combined with a low memory ceiling of 512 MBs kept it from running versions of Mac OS X past 10.2.8. Discontinued in May 1999, the PowerBook G3 Series would be the last Apple computer ever to use the rainbow-colored Apple logo, and the last Mac to support Apple’s 1.44 MB Superdrive. It was replaced by the PowerBook G3 “Bronze Keyboard,” which was 20% thinner, two pounds lighter, and easier to produce at half the price.

Today’s MacBooks may not be upgradable, and are certainly not future proof, but nothing in technology ever is. For those looking for a more upgradable laptop, might I suggest last year’s model. Tomorrow’s devices will always be, thinner, faster, lighter, with less bays, and fewer ports.

  1. XPostFacto is an open source utility that enables the installation of Mac OS X on resource starved PowerPC-based Macintosh systems that are not supported by Apple.
  2. 66 MHz for the 233 MHz model, or 83 MHz 250 and 292 MHz models. The original 233 MHz model also lacked a L2 Cache giving it the name “Mainstreet” by critics for its slow performance.
  3. 12.1″ Passive Matrix or 13.3″/14.1″ Active Matrix TFT displays support 800 x 600 or 1024 x 768 native resolutions.
  4. There was also a limited-edition 233 MHz 12.1″ active-matrix model which sold for $2,299 U.S in late 1998.
  5. Only video mirroring was supported.
  6. SCSI Disk Mode.
  7. The PowerBook G3 Series had one of the best built-in keyboards ever to to accompany a Macintosh portable, and at two inches thick it could afford it.