Still going strong
This chunky little laptop remains surprisingly capable after two decades
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.
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.
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.