Apple unveiled a new iPad Pro and Magic keyboard with trackpad in March 2020. It is the first time that Apple has launched a trackpad for iPad. It reminded us of the company’s first laptop with a trackpad: the Powerbook 500 series, released 26 years ago.
Given the historical nature of this version, we thought it might be fun to come back to the PowerBook 540c. Let’s compare it to the new iPad Pro and see how far Apple’s portable technology has come.
Revisiting the PowerBook 500 series
Apple PowerBook 520 and 540 machines shared this form factor. Apple
In May 1994, Apple unveiled the first four models of the PowerBook 500 Series: the 520, 520c, 540 and 540c. The 520 machines were equipped with 25 MHz processors, while the CPUs of the 540 models operated at 33 MHz. Models 520 and 540 were equipped with monochrome passive matrix LCD screens, while models “c” included active matrix LCD screens with 16-bit color support.
The 500 series has revamped the PowerBook range with several new features, including integrated stereo speakers, Ethernet and the option for a PCMCIA slot. Most notably, however, these are the first laptops in the world to come with a trackpad built into the modern configuration we know today. (An earlier laptop, the Gavilan SC, included a touchpad-type pointing device in an awkward spot above the keyboard.)
Before the trackpad, Apple included a small integrated trackball as a pointing device in its PowerBook series. Unlike MS-DOS PCs, Mac laptops required integrated pointing devices due to the graphical nature of the operating system. The trackpad has provided a durable and compact way to integrate this capability into ever thinner machines.
The new trackpads for iPads
The new Apple iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard includes a trackpad. Apple
For the past 26 years, Apple has shipped Mac laptops with trackpads. However, when the company announced that its iPads would now be compatible with the trackpad and mouse, our ears straightened. Since its introduction in 2010, Apple has firmly presented the iPad as a touch device, so this change marks a clear evolution of the iPad platform.
The iPad (and the iPhone before it) has revolutionized portable gadgets in large part because they require no input method other than touching human fingers. Unlike previous portable machines (even those with touch screens), people didn’t have to play with pens or tiny keyboards. So Apple held a hard line when it came to refusing support for the external pointer.
Now that the iPad has become as powerful as some high-end laptops, its role has shifted from an inexpensive web browsing tablet to a professional-grade laptop replacement. Some industry experts have suspected IPadOS devices could replace Macs for years (although this has never been a clear consensus).
With the introduction of the iPad trackpad, it almost seems like Apple has taken a full tour of its PowerBook-500 roots.
The comparison: PowerBook 540c vs iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard
As an educational juxtaposition, let’s compare the high-end of 1994 PowerBook 540c with today’s high-end Apple iPad Pro (Wi-Fi + Cellular) with the new Magic Keyboard. The prices were adjusted for inflation back and forth to give you a better idea of what each would cost in each era.
It is interesting to see the crazy differences in the capabilities of these machines from two different eras.
Apple PowerBook 540c
Apple iPad Pro 12.9 inch Wi-Fi + Cellular (with Magic Keyboard)
May 16, 1994
March 18, 2020
CPU / SOC type
Motorola 68LC040 33 MHz
Apple A12Z 8-core bionic
with neural engine, M12 coprocessor, 8-core GPU
Removable drive type
1.44 MB 3.5 inch diskette
1x serial, 1x SCSI, 2x ADB, optional internal PCMCIA adapter
9.5-inch (diagonal) active matrix backlit LCD
16-bit color at 640 x 480 pixels
84.21 pixels per inch
No touch screen
12.9-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit IPS LCD screen
30-bit color at 2732 x 2048 pixels
264 pixels per inch
Cameras / Sensors
Wide: 12 MP, ultra wide: 10 MP, front: 7 MP, built-in flash, 4K video recording
LiDAR scanner, three-axis gyroscope, accelerometer, barometer, ambient light sensor, RFID sensor
2 speakers, 1 microphone
4 speakers, 5 microphones
Wired Ethernet AAUI-15 integrated at 10 Mbit per second
Optional 19.2 Kbps internal remote access modem
802.11ax Wi-Fi 6; simultaneous dual band (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz); HT80 with MIMO
Bluetooth 5.0, LTE gigabit class cellular modem
2 hours (4 hours with an optional second battery)
Mac OS 7.1 – 8.1
9.7 inches H. x 11.5 inches W. x 2.3 inches D.
11.04 ” H x 8.46 ” W x 0.23 ” D (without magic keyboard)
7.1 lb (7.3 lb with optional second battery)
1.42 lb (without Magic Keyboard)
Looking at these two specification lists, it’s clear that the iPad Pro offers much more storage and processing power, better networking and incredible integration of sensors and cameras, in a thinner, lighter package. and cheaper.
The only area in which the PowerBook 540c may appear to have an advantage is the number of concurrent expansion options. The 540c’s serial and SCSI ports, and the optional PCMCIA slot, provided a lot of flexibility for the time.
Of course, the iPad Pro has Bluetooth and USB-C, which can do everything the SCSI or serial ports can do, and with a much less painful configuration. The iPad Pro comes with so many built-in capabilities, expansion is largely unnecessary.
The price differences over 26 years are staggering. The gap between Apple’s high-end laptop in 1994 (arguably the most powerful and powerful laptop in the world at the time) and the most powerful tablet (plus keyboard) today is $ 6,538.39! If you take out the magic keyboard for $ 299, it still represents a difference of $ 6,837.39. You can buy four other high-end iPads for this amount.
The large price difference comes from the courtesy of the miniaturization and integration that have occurred in electronics. It has significantly improved the supply chains and economic benefits of a huge mass market, compared to the relatively small market for portable Macs in 1994.
Almost everyone can now own an incredibly powerful computer, which has changed our civilization. In addition, the revolution is far from over, so it will be interesting to see where things are going from here. Maybe computers in 26 years will still come with trackpads!