Today in Apple history: Apple introduces ‘world’s fastest’ PowerBook

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Do you remember the PowerBook 3400?
Photo: Apple

Feb17February 17, 1997: Apple launches the PowerBook 3400, a laptop the company claims is the fastest portable computer in the world.

After a rough few years for the PowerBook, this model throws down the gauntlet to rivals, packing a PowerPC 603e processor capable of running at speeds up to 240 MHz, depending on which configuration you buy.

While it is quickly overtaken by speedier Apple laptops, at the time the PowerBook 3400 is able to match the speed of some impressive desktop Macs.

Apple advertised the new PowerBook as a “full-tilt multimedia” Mac, with “enough power to watch smooth-running, full-screen QuickTime movies [and] more than enough power to surf the World Wide Web.”

The laptop featured a few nifty features. A hot-swappable bay drive allowed users to switch out the CD-ROM drive and slide in an optical drive of their choice, ranging from floppy to magneto-optical. Better yet, this could be done without powering off the computer or putting it to sleep.

laptop
Do you remember this laptop?
Photo: Wikipedia CC

The PowerBook 3400 was also Apple’s first computer to boast PCI architecture, EDO memory and a 64-bit wide internal bus.

“The new Apple PowerBook 3400 isn’t just the fastest notebook computer in the world, it very well may be the best,” Apple’s ad noted.

PowerBook 3400: A work in progress

Starting at $4,500 and stretching up to $6,500 ($6,800 to $9,800 in today’s money), the PowerBook 3400 was a good machine for its time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long for this world, as Apple stopped manufacturing it in November 1997 — less than 10 months after introducing it as the world’s greatest laptop.

Like a lot of the products launched in the early part of Steve Jobs’ return to Apple, it’s easy to see why customers would have been enthused at the prospect of new Macs arriving at a time when Cupertino showed its best chance in years of becoming successful again. While the PowerBook 3400 was on sale, Apple introduced its “Think Different” ad campaign, which summed up the superior alternative approach it epitomized.

In reality, however, a lot of the products launched in the first few months of Jobs’ rise to CEO (or, initially, interim CEO) were ones he had minimal input on. He was certainly involved with the latter stages of the launches, but they were projects he inherited from his predecessors.

The result is that a lot of the 1997-era Apple computers always felt like transition pieces: bridges between the Apple of the 1990s and the one that Jobs helped turn into the super-successful juggernaut Apple is today.

Ultimately, the PowerBook 3400 gave way to the PowerBook G3 family as Apple adopted the same G3 processor for its laptops that powered its iconic iMac G3. The G3 processor was also behind the iBook, Apple’s colorful clamshell laptop. which arrived a couple of years later in 1999.

Do you remember the PowerBook 3400? Leave your comments below.

  • Furutan

    Big brother of the 1400 series (which had swappable battery, floppy, and optical bays, plus swappable lid components (opaque and transparent) for inserting your own custom-printed artwork). The 3400 was a solid pro machine; succeeded by the G3 “Kanga” (unofficially known as the “Powerbook 3500”) in November of 1997.