Apple unveiled a new iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard with a trackpad in March 2020. This is the first time Apple’s pushed a trackpad for iPads. It reminded us of the company’s first laptop with a trackpad: the Powerbook 500 series, released 26 years ago.
Considering the historic nature of this release, we thought it might be fun to take a look back at 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
In May 1994, Apple unveiled the first four models in the PowerBook 500 series: the 520, 520c, 540, and 540c. The 520 machines sported 25 MHz processors, while the 540 models’ CPUs ran at 33 MHz. The 520 and 540 models were equipped with monochrome passive-matrix LCDs, while the “c” models included active-matrix LCDs with 16-bit color support.
The 500 series revamped the PowerBook line with several new features, including built-in stereo speakers, Ethernet, and the option for a PCMCIA slot. Most notably, though, these were the first laptops in the world to ship with an integrated trackpad in the modern configuration we know today. (An earlier laptop, the Gavilan SC, included a touchpad-like pointing device in an awkward spot above the keyboard.)
Prior to the trackpad, Apple included a small built-in trackball as a pointing device in its PowerBook series. Unlike MS-DOS PCs, Mac laptops required built-in pointing devices due to the graphical nature of the operating system. The trackpad provided a durable, compact way to integrate that capability into ever-thinner machines.
The New Trackpads for iPads
For the last 26 years, Apple has shipped Mac laptops with trackpads. However, when the company announced its iPads would now have trackpad and mouse support, our ears perked up. Since its introduction in 2010, Apple has firmly touted the iPad as a touch-first device, so this change signals a clear evolution of the iPad platform.
The iPad (and iPhone before it) revolutionized portable gadgets largely because they required no input method other than the touch of human fingers. Unlike previous portable machines (even those with touch-sensitive screens), people didn’t have to fiddle with styluses or tiny keyboards. So, Apple held a hard line when it came to denying external pointer support.
Now that the iPad has grown as powerful as some high-end laptops, its role has shifted from an inexpensive web-surfing tablet to a pro-grade laptop replacement. Some industry experts have suspected iPadOS devices might supersede Macs for years (although this has never been a clear consensus).
With the introduction of the iPad trackpad, it almost seems that Apple’s made a full circle back to its PowerBook-500-series roots.
The Comparison: PowerBook 540c vs. iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard
As an educational juxtaposition, let’s compare 1994’s top-of-the-line PowerBook 540c with today’s top-of-the-line Apple iPad Pro (Wi-Fi + Cellular) with the new Magic Keyboard. Prices were adjusted for inflation forward and backward to give you a better idea of what each would cost in each era.
It’s interesting to see the wild differences in the capabilities of these machines from two different eras.
Apple PowerBook 540c
Apple 12.9-inch iPad Pro Wi-Fi + Cellular (with Magic Keyboard)
May 16, 1994
March 18, 2020
33 MHz Motorola 68LC040
8-core Apple A12Z bionic
w/neural engine, M12 co-processor, 8-core GPU
Removable Drive Type
1.44 MB 3.5-inch floppy
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
Not touch screen
12.9-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit IPS LCD
30-bit color at 2,732 x 2,048 pixels
264 pixels per inch
Wide: 12 MP, ultra-wide: 10 MP, Front: 7 MP, built-in flash, 4K video recording
LiDAR scanner, three-axis gyro, accelerometer, barometer, ambient light sensor, RFID sensor
2 speakers, 1 microphone
4 speakers, 5 microphones
Built-in AAUI-15 wired Ethernet at 10 Mbit per second
Optional 19.2 Kbps internal dial-up modem
802.11ax Wi-Fi 6; simultaneous dual-band (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz); HT80 with MIMO
Bluetooth 5.0, gigabit-class LTE cellular modem
2 hours (4 hours with optional second battery)
Mac OS 7.1 – 8.1
9.7 in. H. x 11.5 in. W. x 2.3 in. D.
11.04 in. H. x 8.46 in. W. x 0.23 in. D. (without Magic Keyboard)
7.1 lbs. (7.3 lbs. with optional second battery)
1.42 lbs. (without Magic Keyboard)
Looking at these two lists specifications, it’s obvious the iPad Pro packs way more storage and processing power, better networking, and amazing sensor and camera integration, in a thinner, lighter, cheaper package.
The only area in which the PowerBook 540c might appear to have an advantage is the number of simultaneous 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 anything SCSI or serial ports can, and with far less painful configuration. The iPad Pro ships with so much integrated capability, expansion is largely unnecessary.
The differences in price over 26 years is stunning. The gap between Apple’s top-of-the-line 1994 laptop (arguably, the most powerful, capable portable computer in the world at that time), and today’s most powerful tablet (plus keyboard) is a whopping $6,538.39! If you take out the $299 Magic Keyboard, that’s still a $6,837.39 difference. You could buy four more top-of-the-line iPad Pros for that amount.
The steep price difference comes to us courtesy of the miniaturization and integration that’s occurred in electronics. It’s dramatically improved supply chains and the cost benefits of a huge mass market, versus the relatively small market for portable Macs in 1994.
Almost everyone can now own an incredibly powerful computer and this has changed our civilization. Plus, the revolution is far from over, so it will be interesting to see where things go from here. Perhaps computers 26 years from now will still ship with trackpads!