Today in Apple history: The first great color PowerBook arrives

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Inside its beefy chassis, the PowerBook 180c packed a beautiful color screen.
Inside its beefy chassis, the PowerBook 180c packed a beautiful color screen.
Photo: Wikipedia CC

June 7: Today in Apple history: Apple debuts the PowerBook 180c laptop June 7, 1993: Apple debuts the PowerBook 180c, a solid upgrade that brings a world of dazzling colors to the company’s laptop line.

The 180c’s big improvement over the grayscale PowerBook 180, which launched the previous October, is its active-matrix, 256-color screen. It’s something of a novelty for laptops in the early 1990s.

PowerBook 180c: A great portable Mac

The PowerBook 180c was one of the high-end models in Apple’s enormously successful PowerBook 100 series. Launched in late 1991, the PowerBook quickly became a staple of Apple’s product line. It also proved a well-deserved commercial and critical smash.

The PowerBook 180c wasn’t the first color PowerBook (it was beaten to that title by the PowerBook 165c), but it was the first to offer high-quality color.

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Great color screen. Battery life? Not so hot.
Photo: Apple

The PowerBook 165c sported an 8.4-inch, passive-matrix color display, which could appear dim if not viewed head-on under ideal conditions. The 180c, meanwhile, boasted a backlit active-matrix display that presented high-quality color from whichever angle you looked at it.

In short, this was the first great color display on a Mac laptop.

It also featured a slightly higher resolution than the PowerBook 165c, being the first PowerBook to natively run at 640×480 pixels, rather than the 165c’s 640×400.

The PowerBook 180c also boasted impressive specs. It came with a zippy 33 MHz Motorola 68030 CPU and 6882 math coprocessor. It packed 4MB of RAM (expandable to 14MB using an additional RAM card). Despite its chunky case design, the laptop proved comfortable to use. This model remained in great demand for its entire lifespan.

Unlike today’s MacBooks, the PowerBook featured a bunch of ports. You got a plug for Apple Desktop Bus services, two RS-422 serial ports, a SCSI port, microphone and speaker jacks — even a bay for a modem. In addition, users could output to external monitors using a 256-color video connector.

…with a couple of downsides

Unfortunately, the machine suffered from two downsides. First, the display was slightly smaller than the 10-inch display of the original PowerBook 180c — and actually a fraction smaller than the 9-inch PowerBook 165c. Most users agreed that the smaller size was a fair tradeoff for high-quality color, but it still meant the computer’s display wasn’t superior to its predecessor in every single way.

The bigger problem? Pathetic battery life.

Running both a 33 MHz CPU and color graphics limited how long you could use the PowerBook on a single charge. According to Apple’s own figures, it ran between one and two hours — but reasonably intense usage could cut this down to less than an hour.

The PowerBook 180c cost $3,719 for the basic model, while the fully kitted-out version cost $4,079. That’s between $6,293 and $6,902 in today’s prices. Apple ultimately discontinued the laptop in March 1994.

Did you use this PowerBook model? Leave your comments below.