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View the documentPut a Little 'Magic' in Your PowerBook
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View the documentA Conversation With Intel
View the documentReviews/07-Mar-94
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Put a Little 'Magic' in Your PowerBook

by Tom Abbott -- yoshiko@ccwf.cc.utexas.edu

In days gone by, people worked to make their cars go faster. These days we work to make our computers go faster. We get under the hood to improve our machines by adding more RAM, a bigger hard drive, a faster modem, or a faster CPU. But what do you do if you want to juice up your PowerBook? The PowerBook offers precious little elbow room once you get inside.

Technology and product innovation move so fast that the rate of new product introduction and consequent obsolescence can be a tough pill to swallow. PowerBooks are no exception; the PowerBook 160 I bought in late 1992 was superseded within 9 months by the PowerBook 165 - a 33 MHz factory hot rod!

The pundits keep telling us that our old computers are still quite capable and we should be philosophical about progress, but still it is galling to see how much faster newer Macs can be. In computers, speed is one of those things like fresh fruit, you just can't get enough. My PowerBook 160 is a great box! It has virtually replaced my faithful SE/30, but that old 16 MHz SE/30 seems faster. Maybe that is why Apple brought out the 160 Turbo (aka PowerBook 165) so quickly.

Apple did not, however, offer an upgrade path for those of us who own PowerBooks 140s or 160s or the Duo 210s, but after-market vendors have come to the rescue. Several vendors offer upgrades that bring slower PowerBooks to the maximum speed for their PowerBook family. The PowerBook 140 or 145 can be brought up to the speed of a 170 at 25 MHz with an FPU; the PowerBook 160 can go up to 33 MHz with FPU giving the performance of a PowerBook 180; and the Duo 210 can go to 33 MHz, essentially becoming a Duo 230.

MacProducts, located in Austin, Texas, offers PowerBook upgrades. They have sold Mac upgrades since the first 128K Mac and earned a reputation for good products and service. Their prices are about the same as other vendors, but they seemed an obvious choice for me since they're only a few minutes drive away.

Upgrading is not a do-it-yourself operation; in all cases, you must send your PowerBook to the vendor for the transplant. That's good, because when they finish, they put a one year warranty on their work. When I told them that I wanted to write this article, they agreed to let me watch and ask questions. In the end the upgrade was performed during the week before Christmas, it was hectic there and I didn't observe the surgery, but I did talk with the technician who performed the operation and with the chief engineer who developed the process.

Service -- All of the companies that do the PowerBook upgrades have you ship your machine to them by express courier, promise 24-hour turnaround, and ship it back to you the same way. [Note that this is no longer true - see below. -Adam] If you've lost your original packing, MacProducts sends a specially designed shipping box to protect your PowerBook. When you call them, they talk you through the whole process and fax an order form to help you get everything right. In my case, since I live in Austin, these considerations did not apply, but just to check them out, I called their 800 line and went through the whole process with one of their telephone consultants. I found him to be polite and knowledgeable.

When I told him at the end that I was local, he said, "Come on in, we'll get it for you in half a day." That is exactly what happened. I hung around for a while and talked with the staff while my precious was in surgery then went out for coffee; when I came back two hours later the technician brought my revitalized PowerBook out and proudly demonstrated the fact that the "About This Mac" window believed it was living in a PowerBook 180. He said they usually like to burn-in the new upgrades overnight before shipping them out, but since I was coming back the next day to interview them, I could take it with me and check it out myself. So I did.

Results -- Over the past two weeks, I've run just about every piece of software I own from Color It! to HyperCard to MacSLIP to Nisus to Z-Term. I have not found any compatibility problems. The machine is visibly faster, but higher processing speed does not affect disk operations, so my bloated system with its Japanese fonts still takes a while to come up.

Using Scott Berfield's Speedometer 3.23, I ran the full gamut of Speedometer tests before and after the upgrade. Speedometer comes with standard results for most Macs compared with the Mac Classic which scores 1.0 on all tests. The numbers from Speedometer are more meaningful when compared to other Speedometer tests, so I've included Scott's Classic and stock PowerBook 180 readings for comparison with my "160+" along with the percent change from the 160 to the 160+.

  Speed Test:      Classic  180      160      160+       % change
  -----------------------------------------------------------
  CPU              0.98    8.61     6.36     8.56       +34.59 %
  Math             0.98    28.27    8.98     30.36      +338.08 %
  K Whetstones     0.99    57.08    10.38    58.29      +561.56 %
  Fast Fourier     0.99    31.31    7.51     31.21      +415.58 %

It is obvious that installing the 33 MHz 68882 and 68030 gives the PowerBook 160+ a lot more hustle in the mathematical operations department, but what does this amount to in real world, see it on my screen results? Subjectively, I can see that everything I do is smoother. At this point, I'm not doing much spreadsheet work on the PowerBook, mostly word processing, graphics, and telecommunications. There is no doubt that the accelerated PowerBook does everything more quickly. I timed scrolling a 5K Nisus file that contained mixed Japanese and English text, a typical task for me. Before the upgrade it took 5.49 seconds from top to bottom afterwards, it made the trip in 3.01 seconds - about 45 percent faster. That's impressive!

Is it worth it? -- Magic upgrades cost from $129 to $399 depending on which upgrade you need. If you do number crunching or something that does a lot of calculating you will see a truly impressive gains. According to the tech-guys at MacProducts, the pick-up in speed is more impressive on the PowerBook 140. In my case I'm a writer and HyperCard developer. The gains are not so dramatic, but they are there. The PowerBook 160 - Turbo is faster at everything. Am I happy with it, Yes. Is it worth it? Yes, I think so.

What other PowerBooks can be upgraded? At present, the following upgrades are being offered: 140 to 170, 145 to 170*, 160 to 180, for the PowerBooks, and a Duo 210 to 230 upgrade. You can give your PowerBook a new lease on life with one of these upgrades.

  Model     Speed     Upgrade to      Price
  -------------------------------------------
  PB140     16 MHz    25 MHz +FPU     $329.00
  PB145     25 MHz    add FPU        $129.00*
  PB160     25 MHz    33 MHz +FPU     $399.00
  Duo 210   25 MHz    33 MHz          $399.00
  * At this time they cannot add an FPU to the PowerBook 145B.

Upgrading the current generation of PowerBooks has a finite limitation, because the new models are out and almost all of the candidates for this kind of upgrade are already out there in someone's hands. Eventually vendors who do only PowerBook upgrades will move on, but a well-rounded shop like MacProducts should be around for the duration, a comforting thought. The folks at MacProducts graciously took the time to talk with me in the midst of busily filling customer's orders three days before Christmas. From what I could observe, they try hard to please people. I'm pleased with my hot rod PowerBook 160, and if your PowerBook seems in need of a tonic, give them a call at 800/622-8721.

[Note: Digital Eclipse has announced the F/25X, a PowerBook accelerator for the PowerBook 140 or 145 that replaces the original PowerBook daughtercard that holds a 16 MHz 68030 with a card containing a 25 MHz 68030 and an FPU, essentially converting a 140 or 145 into a 170 sans active matrix screen. The Digital Eclipse card does not require you to send in your PowerBook, but must be installed by a qualified technician, and you must return the old daughtercard to Digital Eclipse. The list price for the F/25X is $399, but through 11-Mar-94, you can purchase it for $299. ]

Digital Eclipse -- 800/289-3374 -- 510/547-6101 -- 510/547-6104 (fax) -- desipro@aol.com