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

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The top-spec PowerBook 5300 remains the priciest laptop in Apple history.
Photo: Cult of Mac

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

And makes a whole lot more big-screen appearances too, for that matter…

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

Apple has always done a great job of getting its products in movies, but 1995’s PowerBook 5300 did a lot better than most: mainly due to its starring role in said films.

In Independence Day, for example, the Mac (a platform that was just beginning to get better at interfacing with Windows PCs) is able to plug into the alien mothership, courtesy  of its 100MHz processor, 64MB RAM, and Mac OS 7.5.2 operating system — and deactivate its shields by uploading a virus.

Not all the appearances were 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 As Owen Linzmayer relates in his excellent (although now considerably outdated) book Apple Confidential 2.0, the biggest missed opportunity for the PowerBook 5300 on the big screen came in 1996’s Mission Impossible, in which Tom Cruise’s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 is 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 is shown to use a command-line interface instead of Mac OS, making it look way behind the Windows 95 operating system then running on PCs. Worse, when a particularly tough job turns up later in the movie, the Mission Impossible team is advised by its resident computer expert to use non-existent “Thinking Machines laptops,” since only they are supposedly up to the job.

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 had caught fire. One had done so at the home of an Apple programmer, and the other did so 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 that had already been 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 many users were seeing the PowerBook 5300 plastered over movie screens, they were unable to get hold of a copy for themselves. Sponsorships deals generally don’t work well when this sort of thing happens!

Once these problems were sorted, however, the PowerBook 5300 remains a solid example of a mid-90s Apple laptop. Significantly, it was the first PowerBook based on Apple’s PowerPC CPU — the same processors which continued to be used by Macs until 2006, when Apple made the switch to Intel chips.

It holds one other dubious distinction, as well: the top-end PowerBook 5300ce came with a $6,500 price tag, making it the most Apple has ever charged for a laptop. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s $10,200 in 2016 terms.)

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