Today in Apple history: PowerBook 540c is the best Mac laptop to date

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With impressive specs and a fancy screen, the PowerBook 540c took Apple laptops up a notch.
With impressive specs and a fancy screen, the PowerBook 540c took Apple laptops up a notch.
Image: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

May 16, 1994: Today in Apple history: PowerBook 540c launch May 16, 1994: Apple launches the PowerBook 540c, one of the best laptops in the company’s history.

Part of the innovative 500 series of PowerBooks, the 540c is the laptop to own in 1994. Blisteringly fast, packed with innovative features, and offering the best notebook display on the market, it’s a triumph on every level. Although for $5,539 ($9,981 in today’s money), it had better be…

The PowerBook 540c represented a major leap forward for Apple laptops at the time. It was so good that, for the first time, a sizable percentage of Apple’s fanbase was convinced that it was the best machine the company was making, including its desktop Macs.

The previous 100 series PowerBooks became a massive commercial and creative success for Apple, helping drive the company to new financial heights. However, by 1994, those laptops looked less impressive, in terms of both aesthetics and features.

PowerBook 540c: Apple’s best laptop yet

The 500 series PowerBooks were the best sequel this side of Aliens or Terminator 2. Of these, the PowerBook 540c reigned as the undisputed champ. It boasted the world’s first 16-bit portable display, which Apple claimed at the time, “May well be the finest screen ever to grace a notebook computer.”

Although it only offered 640×400 resolution, the active-matrix 9.5-inch display’s ability to show thousands of colors at the same time made rival laptops look positively prehistoric — particularly when you factored in Apple’s QuickTime video software and the laptop’s built-in stereo sound.

The display wasn’t the only big upgrade, either. The PowerBook 540c was also impressively fast, being the first Apple notebook to include a 33MHz Motorola 68LC040 CPU. It came with 4MB of RAM (upgradeable to 12MB). In benchmark tests, it ran a whopping 80% faster than the fastest previous PowerBook.

In addition, the PowerBook 540c supported PC cards, 10BT Ethernet and external monitors up to 20 inches. A trackpad provided an upgrade over the trackballs of Apple’s previous laptops. And twin NiMH batteries offered five hours of life.

What’s the best Apple laptop of all time?

Did you own a PowerBook 540c? What’s your pick for greatest laptop in Apple history? Leave your comments below.