The latest PowerBook G3 comes with almost everything a mobile Mac might need, but there are still situations when you require something more. If you have an older PowerBook that’s still performing yeoman’s service-and isn’t in evident need of replacement-there’s also a lot you can do to make your mobile work flow more smoothly.
Know Your Slots and Bays
Sure, you know your PowerBook has interesting places for you to put expansion hardware, but you may not know all that these bays and slots can and cannot do.
The PowerBook bays were built to be flexible, but it’s not always clear what hardware bits go where (see the diagram, ”
The Lay of the Land
“). Take, for instance, the PC Card slots. Every PowerPC-based PowerBook has them, but depending on how old your PowerBook is, these slots can have different capabilities.
All PC Card slots can accept basic PCMCIA Type II cards, such as most modems. One of these cards can fit into each of the available slots. You can also fit a dual-height Type III card-such as a hard disk for a high-end digital camera-into any PowerBook with PC Card slots, although one of these bigger cards will take up both spaces.
The PowerBook G3 series, however, has particularly snazzy PC Card slots. These support the faster CardBus cards, which can move data at up to 132 MBps, compared with a standard PC Card’s meager 20 MBps. The trick is that although CardBus cards look almost identical to ordinary PC Cards, they’re shaped just differently enough so that they won’t fit into a standard PC Card slot. PC Cards, on the other hand, work just fine in CardBus slots. As a result, though, you may not be able to use newer expansion hardware in all your PowerBooks.
Another flavor of PC Card that might discombobulate the unsuspecting PowerBook user is the Zoomed Video (ZV) card. ZV cards also look like standard PC Cards, but they’re designed for processing and generating video data.
ZV cards need a ZV-capable slot-the bottom slot in G3 PowerBooks (as well as in the 3400- and 2400-series PowerBooks). If you put it in the wrong place, the ZV card won’t work.
If you’re up in the air a lot, there’s one obvious reason to add an extra piece of hardware to your PowerBook-so you can watch movies while you’re on the plane. Unless you’re lucky enough to own a DVD-equipped PowerBook G3/300, you’ll need to get the PowerBook DVD-Video Kit from Apple ($499; 408/996-1010,
The DVD-Video Kit has three parts: a DVD-ROM drive, a ZV card that decodes the audio and video data on DVD movie discs for playback, and Apple’s own DVD Software. The DVD-Video Kit’s drive has an additional bonus: it can read DVD, CD-ROM, and CD-RW discs (a standard PowerBook CD-ROM drive can’t read CD-RW).
Unfortunately, when we fired up Apple’s DVD Software 1.0, we met a few rude surprises. If you don’t take battery-saving precautions, such as setting the Separate Timing For Hard Disk Spin Down option in the Energy Saver control panel to five minutes or less, even a full battery won’t last two hours. “No biggie,” you say. “Just put the PowerBook to sleep and pop in a fresh battery.” Right? Sadly, it’s not so.
Apple’s DVD software can’t remember how far into the film you are, which means in most cases you’ll have to hunt manually through the movie for your place (some DVD titles support scene selection, which makes this a bit easier). This problem isn’t related to the battery running out, either: the DVD Player loses track of the last-viewed spot on the disc anytime the PowerBook sleeps. A version 1.1 software update geared to fix this problem should be available from Apple’s Web site by the time you read this.
Presenting with Your PowerBook
Another reason to add to your PowerBook is if you frequently make presentations on the road and have the misfortune to own a first-generation PowerBook G3. A bug in the first revision of this model’s motherboard (since fixed) makes it impossible to set the external video ports’ resolution to 640 by 480-the standard many projectors expect. Help is $349 away in the shape of iXMicro’s (408/369-8282,
) ix3D Road Rocket (see Reviews, November 1998).
The ix3D Road Rocket is a CardBus-based video card, originally created to add support for a second monitor to the PowerBook. At the heart of the Road Rocket is the same accelerated 2-D/3-D chip set found in iXMicro’s ix3D PCI cards. Its video performance isn’t as high as that of the PowerBook’s built-in ATI Rage Pro LT chip set. However, for the purposes of straightforward presentations, the difference isn’t likely to be noticeable.
If you need the Road Rocket, you’ll appreciate the fact that it works, but be forewarned-it’s huge. It not only takes up both slots, but it sticks out a good two inches. This means you have to be careful not to corner too tightly when running through hallways, and you can’t use a 100-Mbps Ethernet card or the DVD Kit’s ZV card when the Road Rocket is installed.
Jacking Into a Fast Network
The PowerBook G3 series’ stock 10BaseT Ethernet port meets most users’ demands, but if you plan on connecting to a fast new 100BaseT network while traveling, you need a card to do so.
These new 100BaseT networks-which run at 100 Mbps instead of “regular” Ethernet’s 10 Mbps-are increasingly ubiquitous, and if you’re moving graphics files around, the added bandwidth is a big help. Both Farallon and TDK have 10/100BaseT CardBus cards for PowerBooks that speak both 10BaseT and 100BaseT.
The $179 TDK Network Flyer 100 (530/478-8421,
) card has a dongle-a connector between the card and the phone cable-that locks securely into the card. Unfortunately, this dongle doesn’t have any indicators to show whether the network connection is live. Such telltales are priceless when you’re trying to hook yourself into another net for the first time. Often, if you have trouble, the little lights help you figure out where the problem is.
In contrast, the $179 Fast EtherTX-10/100 CardBus Adapter from Farallon (510/814-5000,
) has two LEDs on the network end of its dongle. One shows network activity and the other indicates whether the network is running at 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps-very handy.
Connecting Far from Home
The 56-Kbps modem built into the current PowerBook G3 is fast and flexible enough for most folks, but if you travel abroad or venture far from land lines you may want to consider more untethered options. Also consider a new modem if you own an older PowerBook.
International Modem Issues
What problems might you run into if you travel far from home? First off, while PowerBooks bought in the United States are likely to work internationally, they contain modems approved for use only in the United States and Canada.
Modems must pass FCC requirements before they’re approved for use in the United States, and by the same token almost all foreign countries have requirements. In some places it’s actually illegal to connect a nonapproved modem to the public phone network. To get around all this, you need a modem that has been approved for use-and meets the electrical specifications-in the country to which you are traveling.
One possibility is 3Com’s (800/638-3266,
) $269 Megahertz 56K Global Modem PC Card. More than 20 countries have formally approved this V.90 modem for use. While it isn’t specifically designed for the Mac, it works well in a PowerBook, thanks to the Mac OS’s built-in drivers. However, you won’t be able to access the modem’s more advanced features unless you run the software in Virtual PC or another emulation program.
Just as modems lack one international standard, cell phones don’t have standardized modem connectors. To send information out over a cell phone, you’ll need a modem that explicitly supports these devices, such as 3Com’s $249 Megahertz 56K Cellular Modem PC Card with XJack connector. This card has built-in support for cellular phones-on the edge of the card is a second plug for a dongle to connect to the cell phone.
One Wireless Option
If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area; Washington, D.C.; or Seattle, you have another mobile connectivity solution: the wireless Ricochet from Metricom (800/469-4735,
). The Ricochet comes in three different flavors, distinguished mainly by size, battery life, and price (ranging from $149 to $599, depending on the level of service you order). All of them connect to a PowerBook’s printer-modem port and look like small external modems with foldout antennae.
When you’re inside a Ricochet service area, the modem behaves like a standard modem-no strings attached. You can connect to your home network over the Internet using the Ricochet Internet service, or connect directly to other Ricochet-equipped computers. This means if your desktop machine back at the office is equipped with a Ricochet as well, you can set up point-to-point network connections to transfer files back and forth or run Timbuktu sessions.
Older PowerBook Boosts
The most apparent reason to get a new modem is if you own an older PowerBook. The newest PowerBook G3 has a built-in modem that supports the V.90 modem standard, created to put an end to the 56-Kbps modem standard wars (see “The Modem Showdown,” April 1998). However, you can’t upgrade some earlier PowerBook modems to V.90, which means you won’t be able to connect to V.90 ISPs or dial-in servers. The 3Com Megahertz 56K Global Modem PC Card and the Megahertz 56K Cellular Modem PC Card both support the V.90 standard.
Fortunately for PowerBook users, the necessary drivers for PC Card modems are built into the Mac OS. That means unlike LAN cards-which require Mac-specific drivers-most PC Card modems, even those not formally aimed at the Mac, work when plugged into a PowerBook. One notable exception to this rule of thumb is the $239 RealPort Modem 56-GlobalAccess, from Xircom (805/376-9311,
), which in our testing caused the PowerBook to hang.
The Last Word
Thanks to its expandability, you can customize a PowerBook to suit most mobile computing needs. There are plenty of products designed for other situations you may find yourself in.
If you’re lugging around loads of data, you can get a $350 Zip drive from VST (978/635-8200,
) that fits into the PowerBook G3’s media bay. For video-heads, there’s the $249 Kritter, from Par Technologies (602/922-0044,
)-a small digital camera that you can connect to your PowerBook via a ZV card-as well as Par Technologies’ $129 CapSure card for capturing full-motion analog video. Soon you’ll also be able to buy PC Cards with a USB interface so that you can connect to iMac peripherals.
Even today, PowerBooks aren’t first-class citizens in the world of mobile peripherals. This is clear from the dearth of drivers for PC Card and CardBus network cards, and the lack of formal support from many PC Card modem vendors. Still, with the roaring success of the PowerBook G3, it shouldn’t be long until more products are officially declared PowerBook-compatible. Then you’ll have even more options to take with you wherever you may roam.
STEPHAN SOMOGYI has fond memories of his PowerBook 100, managed to get the PowerBook 500-series PCMCIA cage to work, and dreams of a G4-powered, 2400-size PowerBook.