In defence of the PowerBook 5300

PowerBook 5300

Whenever I stumble on some article listing Apple’s ‘worst Macs’ — sometimes called Road Apples, sometimes called lemons — even before looking at the list I already know that there’s one particular Mac I’m going to find: the PowerBook 5300. I won’t say that this PowerBook was completely issue-free, but I believe that its ‘lemon’ fame is in part undeserved.

Somehow, there’s a common denominator between the PowerBook 5300 and the Newton. Both got a bad reputation for what essentially was a non-issue, and from there it was just throwing the baby out with the bathwater. With the Newton it was the handwriting recognition (yes, it was not extraordinary in version 1.x of NewtonOS, but got amazingly better in version 2.x). With the PowerBook 5300 it was mainly the famous issue with the exploding batteries. As Dan Knight of Low End Mac writes (emphasis mine):

Originally designed to use LithIon batteries, Apple recalled the 5300 after some of the new batteries burst into flames on the assembly line. Not only was this an embarrassment to Apple, but the PowerBook 5300 became the butt of many jokes even though none of the troublesome batteries ever made it to market.

The PowerBook 5300 got included (obviously) in this recent article by Stephen Hackett, Some of Apple’s Lemons, which is otherwise a very well-informed and spot-on piece.

I strongly suspect that, among the tech writers who have written such lists of ‘worst Macs ever built’, there isn’t a single one of them who has actually used a PowerBook 5300 for as long as I have. I acquired my 5300ce second-hand in late 2001. It has a 117MHz PowerPC processor, 64MB of RAM and a 1.1GB hard drive. The original owner got it new in 1995 and took good care of it, to the point that when he sold it to me, the PowerBook was in mint condition after being in use for five full years. (Only the piece of plastic covering the ports on the back was missing, but I wouldn’t consider it a big deal.) The battery still held a 40-minute charge.

I’ve been using this PowerBook for the past 12 years without issues. Amazingly, the battery still holds enough charge to allow the PowerBook to complete the boot process.

Apart from my specific PowerBook 5300 unit, I have a certain expertise with Macs of this vintage because during the 1990s I did a lot of freelance Mac tech support, so I handled quite a number of these laptops.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the issues summarised by Hackett and review them one by one:

Cracks in the plastic casing.

I’ve witnessed this issue on very few PowerBook 5300 models. Comparatively, I’ve seen cracks in the plastic casing occurring much more frequently on clamshell iBooks, particularly around the small Apple logo beneath the screen; a problem possibly caused by tight hinges.

My PowerBook 5300 has started showing a small crack in the casing a couple of months ago, therefore 18 years after being manufactured. I’m willing to cut it some slack at this point, eh?

Vertical lines present on the display due to pinched ribbon cables in the hinges.

I’ve never seen this issue in person. I was told about one case by a fellow Mac consultant years ago. I personally saw this happen a lot with PowerBook 180 and 190 models, though.

Cracking hinges.

A few cases, yes, and in all of them the owner admitted to not treating the PowerBook with much care. I’m not denying the issue, of course, but let’s just say that in my career as a Mac tech support freelancer, I’ve seen more cracked hinges on Titanium G4 PowerBooks than on PowerBook 5300 units. Strange that the Titanium PowerBook G4 never gets a mention among the ‘road apples’ for that, no?

Poor performance due to the lack of a L2 cache.

Here I can only speak subjectively. At the time it was introduced (1995), the PowerBook 5300 wasn’t certainly as fast as some of the desktop Power Macintoshes of the same era (especially the 8500 and 9500 series), but as far as laptops went, it wasn’t exactly sluggish either. Having the maximum RAM installed (64MB) and upgrading to System 7.5.3 or 7.5.5 helped a lot, too. Theoretically, the PowerBook 5300 supports system software versions up to Mac OS 9.1, but in my experience you’ll want to stop at Mac OS 7.6.1 or 8.1, and I suggest going Mac OS 8.1 only if you have maxed the RAM.

Having used my PowerBook 5300 rather frequently over the past 12 years, I can say that, while it may not be the fastest pre-G3 PowerBook, it has proven to be a capable and reliable machine. For example, at the moment I’m writing this very article in BBEdit Lite 3.5.1 on the PowerBook 5300 itself, and there are a few apps opened in background as well:

  • Internet Explorer 5.1.7, opened on my main website.
  • Acrobat Reader 4, which by the way opens in less than 2 seconds and with two PDF documents open it only takes up less than 10MB of memory.
  • iCab 2.99, opened on Low End Mac’s website.
  • Graphic Converter 4.01, with a PICT file I needed to crop and convert to JPEG.

There are still 39MB of contiguous RAM available, and switching from an app to another is rather seamless, considering I’m on a 19 year-old machine using Mac OS 8.1.

Fires due to a bad Sony lithium ion batteries that overheated while charging.

As I emphasised at the beginning by quoting that bit written by Dan Knight, that problem happened internally during production and therefore did not impact users directly.

In conclusion, I’ve written about my personal experience with a PowerBook 5300 over 12 years of use and recalling the direct experience I had with these laptops as a freelancer doing Mac tech support in the 1990s, when these machines were new. I’m sure there are other experienced Mac users and technicians out there who will have different stories to tell; but from my perspective, I really can’t count the PowerBook 5300 among Apple’s lemons.

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8 Comments on “In defence of the PowerBook 5300”

  1. Steven Fisher says:

    I think one of the biggest flaws in that era was not the hardware itself, but the horrible warranty shipping containers Apple used. Sending a PowerBook G4 in for repairs, you could accomplish exactly the same thing by putting it in a burlap sack and beating it with a hammer for a while. (Of course, unlike sending it in, this would not fix the original issue.)

    So I’m assuming a lot of the problems systematic to the 5300 were actually caused by rough treatment in the post for warranty repairs.

  2. Steven Fisher says:

    To anyone that’s not sure what I’m talking about: In this era, Apple would mail you PowerBook warranty return packaging. The idea was you’d put your PowerBook in it, put it in the mail, and a few weeks later get your repaired PowerBook back.

    The packaging I’m talking about was a normal, medium-weight cardboard box. In it were two pieces of cardboard designed to fit together like this: ][. Most of the facing surfaces was a stretchy sort of plastic. We used to have a lot of PowerBooks; I remembered being mildly surprised at the new packaging. I think I used it twice. Both times, instead of getting the PowerBook back we’d get… something else. Along with a letter from Apple repair explaining that we’d tried to fix an obviously physically abused PowerBook, and physical abuse wasn’t covered by warranty.

    I remember my PowerBook 540 got two corners blunted and BOTH hinges shattered. I never even tried it to see if it would still work. Luckily, we called Apple and begged them, and they eventually agreed with us and fixed it.

    This was right around the time of the PowerBook 5300, so it wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of them went through the same abuse.

  3. Alex Roddie says:

    I briefly had a 5300cs in about 2002, an upgrade from my old 190. To be honest I never had any problems with the 5300cs, whereas the 190 by contrast was plagued with issues including a power jack that broke about four times, as I recall…

    The 1400 is better than them both in my opinion. I have one at the moment (upgraded to the max including a G3 card) and it’s a great laptop. Must see about rebuilding the battery one of these days!

  4. Nathan Hill says:

    Greets.

    I used a Powerbook 5300 for a while on an internship year in DC several years ago. And while it was my writing/content creation machine, I found that it crashed and froze up often, to the point where I ended up getting a good price on a Pismo and never looked back.

    It was a similar deal to what iBook G3/G4s would experience with a bad graphic chips or something. Sometimes, the 5300 would work fine if I put pressure on a certain area of the laptop. As soon as I released pressure, the thing would freeze. Very, very frustrating really.

    I wanted to love the machine, but it was the most troublesome Mac I ever owned.

  5. JD says:

    Considering that you’re editing a PICT file in your story and the quality and resolution of the picture above, can I assume you took that picture with a QuickTake?!

  6. Sorry to disappoint, but the picture was actually taken with an iPhone. QuickTake cameras are still on my vintage wishlist!

    –Rick

  7. JD says:

    Oh, oh well. I played around with one when my middle school computer lab got one in the mid-90s. I loved how it just turned into a SCSI drive from which you could copy the pictures when you plugged it into the computer.

  8. I remember trying one at a trade fair eons ago and I was really fascinated because it was the first digital camera I had ever tried out. Sadly I couldn’t afford it at the time. Then I forgot about it, but when the vintage Mac bug bit me, I started looking for it again. Too bad that nowadays it’s either getting a broken one for a penny, or being asked ridiculous prices for a fully functional one. (“It’s vintage! It’s valuable!” is the song I keep hearing… Sigh.)


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