Still go­ing strong

This chunky lit­tle lap­top re­mains sur­pris­ingly ca­pa­ble af­ter two decades

Mac Format - - LOVE YOUR MAC -

1 9.5-inch screen

Slightly larger than an iPad mini, but not quite as big as an iPad Air 2, with a mono 640x480-pixel dis­play.

2 68LC040 pro­ces­sor

This runs at 25MHz and is the­o­ret­i­cally up­grade­able to the Pow­erPC M3081LL/A, though it’s hardly worth it.

3 Mem­ory and stor­age

The Pow­erBook 520 comes with 4MB RAM and a 160MB SCSI hard disk – yes, megabytes, not gi­ga­bytes!

4 77-key key­board

The Backspace key dou­bles up as the power key. There are Å and Æ keys, but no square brack­ets.

5 Dual bat­tery slots

This lets you hot-swap bat­ter­ies with­out be­ing con­nected to the mains. Each gives two hours’ use.

6 3.2kg weight

With both bat­ter­ies, this Pow­erBook weighs about twice as much as a 13-inch Retina Mac­Book Pro.

This Mac is from a time when most com­puter users didn’t know or care about the in­ter­net

Let’s start with the good points. The Pow­erBook 520 is ac­tu­ally sur­pris­ingly com­pact - it has a smaller foot­print than a Mac­Book Air, although it’s about 10 times thicker.

It’s also ac­cept­ably light and sits com­fort­ably on my lap. The screen is mono­chrome but it’s quite sharp, once you’ve ad­justed the bright­ness and con­trast for the cur­rent screen an­gle. And it starts up very quickly too, beat­ing my 2012 Mac mini to the desk­top by over two min­utes.

On the down­side, it runs Sys­tem 7.5, an op­er­at­ing sys­tem from be­fore Ap­ple had even coined the term Mac OS. This was the first ver­sion of the op­er­at­ing sys­tem to fea­ture proper mul­ti­task­ing or vir­tual mem­ory. The abil­ity to run sev­eral ap­pli­ca­tions at once was a big deal in 1994, but it’s moot now be­cause this Pow­erBook doesn’t re­ally have any bun­dled soft­ware. I’ve got a jig­saw puzzle game, a sticky notes app, Sim­pleText, and that’s about it. I have oc­ca­sion­ally seen some Sys­tem 7 soft­ware for sale on eBay, but it’s mainly just very ba­sic games and draw­ing apps. Even worse, this Mac is from a time when most com­puter users didn’t know or care about the in­ter­net. It doesn’t have a mo­dem port, it cer­tainly doesn’t have Wi-Fi, and its only LAN (Lo­cal Area Net­work) con­nec­tion is the long-ob­so­lete Ap­ple At­tach­ment Unit In­ter­face port. This Mac is es­sen­tially cut off from any source of soft­ware up­grades.

Con­cen­tra­tion aid

How­ever, maybe I could still use it to write. Af­ter all, I wrote my first novel in 1997 on a Win­dows 3.1 lap­top, a com­puter with es­sen­tially the same hard­ware spec­i­fi­ca­tion as this one. The key­board ac­tion on the Pow­erBook 520 has a pleas­ing retro clack­i­ness and, with no in­ter­net to dis­tract me, per­haps this will be a good ma­chine for those ‘cur­tains drawn’, non-stop writ­ing week­ends. Sim­pleText is very aptly named and lacks lots of the fea­tures that writ­ers have come to take for granted, such as word count and in­line (or in­deed any form of) spell check­ing. But, it has a choice of fonts and au­to­matic word wrap­ping, and I can type on it quicker than I can write by hand on a pad. I tried it for an af­ter­noon and was pleas­antly sur­prised by how much I got done.

The chal­lenge, though, was how to get my words off the Pow­erBook onto an­other Mac af­ter­wards. Con­nect­ing to a net­work is out, and so is print­ing un­less I want to find a ’90s printer that has an RS-422 se­rial port. I was all set to take pho­tos of each screen’s worth of words

with my phone and print them out from there, but amaz­ingly you can still buy blank floppy disks on Ama­zon. Cou­pled with a USB floppy drive (£7.50, again from Ama­zon), I was able to trans­fer files from the Pow­erBook to my desk­top Mac, and from there to my printer, Time Ma­chine and iCloud.

Col­lec­tor’s item

I don’t hon­estly know how of­ten I’ll choose to iso­late my­self in this retro writ­ing re­treat, but it might help to put me in the mood if I ever write an­other novel set in the ’90s. In any case, I’m go­ing to hang on to the Pow­erBook for an­other im­por­tant rea­son: one day it might be col­lectible. Right now, the price of the 520 has bot­tomed out; it’s old enough to be com­pletely ob­so­lete, but not quite old enough to be a mu­seum piece – but in a few years it might be!

A work­ing Macin­tosh Clas­sic II or 128K can sell for sev­eral hun­dred on eBay. The mar­ket for vin­tage com­put­ers partly de­pends on how iconic they are, and the Pow­erBook 520 scores fairly poorly there. How­ever, it also de­pends on their rar­ity. In an­other decade, a work­ing lap­top from the era when Ap­ple was be­tween Jobs will be even more of a mar­vel than it is now.

I’m not kid­ding my­self that the 520’s go­ing to fund my re­tire­ment, but it’s def­i­nitely not go­ing to lose me money. It’s cur­rently on dis­play in my sit­ting room, where it makes a fun con­ver­sa­tion piece, and as long as there’s room for it in the house, it’s prob­a­bly a bet­ter in­vest­ment than that £55 would have been in my sav­ings ac­count!

In a decade, a work­ing lap­top from when Ap­ple was be­tween Jobs will be even more of a mar­vel

The Pow­erBook 520’s mono­chrome dis­play fea­tures both bright­ness and con­trast con­trols!

Over­look­ing its thick­ness and weight, this por­ta­ble’s foot­print en­ables it to be used in pretty tight spa­ces.

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