Today in Apple history: Meet the 'world-saving' PowerBook 5300

Today in Apple history: Meet the ‘world-saving’ PowerBook 5300

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Today in Apple history: The top-spec PowerBook 5300 remains the priciest (and most famous) laptop in Apple history.
The top-spec PowerBook 5300 remains the priciest (and most famous) laptop in Apple history.
Photo illustration: Cult of Mac/Serged

Aug25August 25, 1995: Apple releases the PowerBook 5300, the same Mac laptop that saves the world from alien invaders in the 1996 blockbuster movie Independence Day.

The computer makes a whole lot more big-screen appearances too, for that matter. See some of the laptop’s most high-profile cameos below.

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PowerBook 5300: Apple’s Hollywood computer

Apple always did a great job getting its products in movies. But 1995’s PowerBook 5300 did a lot better than most, mainly due to its starring role in so many films.

In Independence Day, for example, the Mac (a platform that was just beginning to get better at interfacing with Windows PCs) plugs into the alien mothership, courtesy of its 100MHz processor, 64MB RAM and Mac OS 7.5.2 operating system. The computer then deactivates the enemy ship’s shields by uploading a virus.

Not all on-screen appearances by Apple computers proved so auspicious. As Owen Linzmayer relates in his excellent (although now considerably outdated) book Apple Confidential 2.0, the biggest missed opportunity for the PowerBook 5300 on the big screen came in 1996’s Mission Impossible, in which Tom Cruise’s character Ethan Hunt uses the laptop.

Why deem this a missed opportunity? Because Apple made the $15 million sponsorship deal late in production, and therefore had no say over the screenplay. As a result, the Mac shows up on-screen running a command-line interface instead of Mac OS, making it look way behind the Windows 95 operating system then running on PCs.

Even worse, when a particularly tough job turns up later in the movie, the Mission Impossible team’s computer expert prescribes the use of nonexistent “Thinking Machines laptops.” Supposedly only those computers are up to the task at hand.

The PowerBook gets some screen time

You can see some of the PowerBook 5300’s big-screen cameos in the images below.

The PowerBook 5300's Hollywood agent had a busy couple of years
The PowerBook 5300’s Hollywood agent had a busy couple of years.
Photo: Starring the Computer

PowerBook 5300 faces real-world problems

Befitting Apple’s bad luck at the time, its most high-profile Mac in years (at least in terms of screen time) suffered some embarrassing failures. After Apple shipped the first 1,000 units to dealers around the United States, news broke that two production units caught fire. One went up in flames at the home of an Apple programmer. The other burned up at Apple’s factory in China.

“The main hallmark for Apple is ease of use,” wrote Pieter Hartsook, editor of The Hartsook Letter, at the time. “If your machine doesn’t work, it’s not easy to use.”

Apple issued a recall on the 100 PowerBook 5300s already sold, and replaced them with another unit. When these turned out to have only two-thirds of the hard drive capacity of their predecessors, Apple was forced to lower the price of the laptop by $100. As a result, when potential buyers saw the PowerBook 5300 plastered over movie screens, they could not buy one of the computers. Sponsorship deals generally don’t work well when this sort of thing happens!

Once Apple sorted out these problems, however, the PowerBook 5300 became a solid example of a mid-’90s Apple laptop. Significantly, it was the first PowerBook based on Apple’s PowerPC CPU — the same processors that continued to be used by Macs until 2006, when Apple made the switch to Intel chips. (Cupertino began its incredibly successful transition to proprietary Apple silicon in 2020.)

The PowerBook 5300 holds one other dubious distinction. The top-end PowerBook 5300ce came with a $6,500 price tag, making it the most expensive Apple laptop ever. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $12,600 in today’s money.)

Do you remember the PowerBook 5300? Drop us a line with your thoughts and recollections below.