The Glamorous History of Portable Laptop Computers

Welcome to "The Glamorous History of Portable Computers." This is a constantly expanding timeline that aims to capture the greatest moments in mobile computing. If this subject interests you I encourage you to check out some other great resources on the history of computing and mobile computers.


1974

The MCM/70

The MCM/70 was one of the first microcomputers released. It was also the first portable computer on the market.

It had an 800Khz processor, between 2 and 8kb of RAM, 32kb of ROM, and a tiny one-line plasma display for output. Not every model had a battery for portable use, but according to some sources custom models could be ordered with an expensive battery option that enabled it to be run without an available electric socket. It is not known how long the MCM/70 could operate on battery power.

Unfortunately, time and obscurity have made it very difficult to find original specs and information about this first portable computer. It appears that the MCM/70 retailed for between $5000 and $9000 depending on which options were requested.

1981

The Osborne 1


The Osborne 1 was the first popular portable computer. It's design was created by Adam Osbourne, and the most important specification requirement at that time was that the Osbourne 1 had to fit under an airplane seat. Never mind the fact that this left the Osbourne 1 with a five inch screen that could only display 24 lines of text with 52 characters in each line.

This $1795 dollar state-of-the-art portable computer also came with an amazing 4 MHz processor; 64kb of ram; and not one, but two 92kb floppy drives. The optional battery had a life of one hour. A 300 baud modem could be added, ensuring that the Osbourne stayed connected wherever a phone line was available.

But that wasn't all. Every Osbourne 1 was guaranteed to help the devoted businessman or programmer to loose weight and get in better shape. The computer weighed 24 pounds, making it quite a workout to carry around daily.
1982

The Kaypro II


Not to be outdone, Non-Linear Systems released their Kaypro II portable computer in 1982.

The Kaypro II also retailed for $1795, but it was clearly a better deal than the Osbourne 1, because for the same price it had a 9 inch screen that displayed 24 lines of 80 characters. A durable metal carrying case kept this expensive investment safe, while at the same time boosting the weight of the computer to a solid 26 pounds.

The 2.5 MHz processor wasn't nearly as fast as the one in the Osbourne 1, but this small deficiency was made up for by the two 191kb floppy drives.

An early review of the Kaypro II said: "The Kaypro's handle will cut two parallel grooves into your hand if you carry the system for more than a short time. A well-designed, padded handle would be a considerable improvement. "

1982

The Compaq Portable

Compaq Computer Corporation got their first portable computer on the market in late 1982.

The Compaq Portable sold for $3950, twice the price of its predecessors. However this was a small price to pay, for the privileged owner of a Compaq Portable was able to enjoy a blazing 4.77 MHz processor and 128 to 640 kb of memory.

The Compaq Portable was compatible with the IBM PC and MSDOS, making it more flexible than other similar offerings. Unfortunately it was even heavier than the Osbourne or the Kaypro. At 28 pounds many users likened it to a "suitcase."

1982

The Grid Compass

The Grid Compass' claim to fame lies in the fact that it was the first portable computer to enjoy the "clamshell" design, in which the screen folds down flat over the keyboard.

It's Intel 8086 processor pumped out about 8 MHz of computing power for working with its 256kb of RAM. The bright 320x200 pixel screen was considered high resolution, and allowed 80 by 24 text. Unfortunately there were no internal floppy or hard drives, though these could be attached externally via a special bus.

At 11 pounds, the Grid Compass could finally be considered truly portable. In fact, in 1985 NASA took the Grid Compass on board it's "Discovery" mission.

All these amazing innovations came at a price, though. The Grid Compass cost a whopping $8150.

1983

TRS Model 100

The Tandy Radio Shack Model 100 was one of the first portable computers that was remotely affordable. At the time it cost $599, and came with a 2.4MHz processor, 8-32K of RAM and a 40x8 character LCD display. It ran off of 4 AA batteries, and lasted up to sixteen hours on batteries.

The computer was powered by Microsoft BASIC stored in ROM. The TRS Model 100 had ports for an optional 300 baud modem, and a bar code reader. Data was stored on an audio cassette.

1986

The IBM PC Convertible


The IBM PC Convertible introduced power management, including a "sleep mode" designed to help its users avoid the long floppy boot process.

The bright LCD screen offered an amazing 640x200 resolution that was fine for text, but squashed pictures terribly. The 4.77 MHz processor was the weak point of this portable computer, and the reason why it failed to perform well on the market.

But the amazing power management features, such as not clocking the processor when it was not in use, helped this 13 pound, $2000 computer become a model for future portable computers designed to run off of batteries.

1988

Compaq SLT/286


The powerful Compaq SLT/286 was the first portable computer to feature 640x480 VGA. The higher resolution graphics were handled by the 12 MHz 80C286 processor. A 20mb hard drive offered plenty of internal storage space for this early computer.

This early laptop was 14 pounds, and it was fully eight inches thick with the lid down. The Compaq SLT/286 started at $5399.

In 1988, The New York Times did a review of the Compaq SLT/286.

1989

Macintosh Portable


The Macintosh Portable was never a very popular portable computer. It had a 640x480 black and white display, and a 16 MHz processor at a time when most portable computers were running at 10-12 MHz. It also had an amazing ten hour battery lifetime.

However, the Macintosh Portable weighed about 17 pounds, making it considerably heavier than most people liked to carry.

Unfortunately, the $6500 price tag also made it far more expensive than its lighter competition.

1989

IBM Poquet PC
The Poquet PC was a surprisingly powerful minicomputer that ran DOS. It ran off two AA batteries for weeks or months because of advanced power management features such as shutting off the CPU when it wasn't in use.

In a way the Poquet PC may look like nothing more than an advanced calculator, but it ran WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, and other old DOS programs.

The Poquet PC weighed 1.2 pounds and had a 7Mhz processor and 640kb of memory. Storage space was added by the use of special PCMCIA cards that were purchased separately. It retailed for $2000.

1989

Zenith Minisport



The Zenith Minisport was the first, and only, computer to use the 2 inch floppy, which was designed specifically for this miniature-sized portable computer. Unfortunately, these specialized floppies were much more expensive than their traditionally sized counterparts, and this is one reason why the Zenith Minisport was not a great success.

The Zenith Minisport ran MSDOS off of an early RAM drive. To save cost and weight it contained no hard drive. Instead the OS was stored in RAM, and a special battery kept the RAM powered so that the information wasn't lost. If the battery ever died, the RAM had to be reloaded using a special external 3.5 inch floppy.

The processor inside this portable computer was an 80C88 that ran at either 4.77 MHz or 8 MHz.

1991

Macintosh PowerBook


The Macintosh PowerBook featured 4mb of RAM, a 16 MHz processor, and up to 80mb of hard drive space. This PowerBook created a new style of "notebook" portable computers. Unlike its predecessors, the PowerBook's lid covered the entire top of the computer, rather than just the front half.

The Macintosh PowerBook also moved the built-in trackball to a central location in front of the keyboard, and this innovation quickly became standard in portable computing devices.

With a 2-4 hour battery life, the PowerBook wasn't quite as long-lived as the Macintosh Portable, but the small size and light weight of 5lbs made up for it.

The first PowerBook retailed for $2500. This time Apple had succeeded in creating a portable computer that still has fans among vintage Apple collectors.

1992

IBM ThinkPad 700


The IBM ThinkPad was the first portable computer to boast a 10.4 inch color TFT display. It also had a 25 MHz processor, a 120mb hard drive, and the Windows 3.1 operating system. It's 6.5lb weight was slightly heavier than the Macintosh PowerBook.

The ThinkPad also introduced the TrackPoint, a small red pointing stick embedded in the keyboard and used to navigate the mouse around the screen.

The ThinkPad 700 cost $4350.

1994

Macintosh PowerBook 500

Apple's PowerBook 500 was the first portable computer to include a touchpad, or trackpad, for mouse input. This innovation soon replaced trackballs on all Apple computers. This portable computer was also the first to incorporate 16 bit stereo sound.

The PowerBook 500 had a Motorola 68LC040 CPU that could be upgraded to a PowerPC procesor, up to 500mb of hard drive storage, a 1.44mb floppy drive, and up to 40mb of RAM. The PowerBook 500 weighed 7.3 pounds.

1998

IBM ThinkPad 770E


The IBM ThinkPad 770E weighed 7.7lbs, and packed a 266 MHz processor, 32mb of RAM, and a 5gb hard drive with Windows 95 installed.

The battery life was about 3.5 hours.

1999

Apple iBook G3


The Apple iBook was greatly influenced by the colorful, transparent plastic styling of the iMac. It's rounded shape also mirrors the lines of the iMac.

A key feature of the Apple iBook is that it was the first computer to include integrated wireless technology, with a wireless antenna built into the display bezel.

The iBook came equipped with a 300 MHz PowerPC processor, 32 or 64mb of memory, a 3.2 or 6 gb hard drive, and a CDROM. It weighed 6.7 lbs and had a six hour battery life. Original models cost $1599.

2001

Apple iBook G3 Dual USB


The 12 inch iBook released in 2001 did away with the bright colors and round curves of its predecessor. Instead, the no nonsense white coloring and solid edges gave the laptop a sturdy, professional feel.

In addition, this iBook weighed in at only 4.9 pounds. The battery powered this 500 mhz computer for five hours. The 12 inch white iBook also enjoyed 64 or 128mb of RAM, and a 10gb hard drive.

2005

IBM Lenovo Tablet PC
The Lenovo X41 introduced an exciting new laptop/tablet conversion feature that made it truly unique. Add to this the 1.5 GHz processor, 512mb of RAM, and a 40gb hard drive, all packaged in a tiny tablet that weighed only 3.5 pounds.

Also included in this fascinating design was a fingerprint reader to keep this portable computer completely secure.

The Lenovo X41 was the wave of the future. Unfortunately, the advanced handwriting analysis software needed to make the tablet functionality operate was power hungry, and using the default batter the Lenovo X41 couldn't be run any major applications for more than about two hours without needing to be recharged.

The Lenovo X41 had a base price of $2299.

2007

OLPC XO Laptop

The XO Laptop was created by the One Laptop per Child organization. The goal of the XO Laptop is to provide rugged, portable computing to the world's poorest children. This means that the XO has to be cheap, efficient, and sturdy.

The 433 MHz processor powering this laptop sips power, which is very important in places where electricity may be scarce, or not available at all. With 256mb of RAM, a 1200 x 900 resolution screen that is visible in bright sunlight, powerful mesh wireless network functionality even when the CPU is powered down, a color webcam, and a microphone, it is amazing that this laptop is being made available for only $150.

The XO Laptop is definitely a historic laptop both for its grand visionary effort to provide computers to children around the world, and for its amazing price and specifications.

2007

ASUS EeePC 4G


The ASUS EeePC introduced a new wave of small, less powerful, portable computers called "netbooks." These small laptops are designed to offer basic internet and email connectivity, but they aren't powerful enough to play modern games, and they are so small that they are not ergonomically suited for use as a primary computing device.

The EeePC 4G came with a seven inch screen, a 4gb solid state drive, 512mb of memory, and a 900MHz processor, all packaged in a 2 lb device that runs on batteries for 3.5 hours and costs a mere $399.

2008

MacBook AirIn 2008 the MacBook Air made history as the thinnest laptop to date. The laptop is only .76 inches in height and has a 13.3 inch glossy screen that displays at 1280x800 resolution.

The MacBook Air comes with a 1.8Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo, an 80gb solid-state hard drive, and 2gb of memory. Its trackpad supports multi-touch gestures like those of the MacBook Pro or iPhone.

Unfortunately, the $1799 laptop does not please everyone. It tends to heat up, causing core shutdown. In addition, the extremely thin dimensions of the laptop make the screen hinges and other critical parts much more fragile than one would desire. Another major downside to the MacBook Air is that it lacks an internal CD or DVD drive.




Do you see a portable computer in this list that you owned or maybe still use? Please share your thoughts and experiences about it.

Also if you owned an old portable computer that you don't see in this list, feel free to comment about it, and I'll add it to the timeline.

27 comments:

  1. It's amazing at the price range of these computers when they first came out, especially the weight of these things! No wonder most business people have assistants.

    The Grid Compass kind of reminds me of an old style typewriter for some reason. I think it's the colorscheme and how the keys are laid out or something, that and the weight.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for commenting Eric.

    I too was amazed at how much some of those early portable computers cost. It's also fascinating just to scroll down through time and see the progression in technology until it reaches our sleek, modern laptops.

    ReplyDelete
  3. By the way the PowerBook 500 series did not use PowerPC processors (the 5300 was the first PowerPC PowerBook).

    ReplyDelete
  4. The OLPC-XO has a place on this list.

    ReplyDelete
  5. You really should add the XO laptop from the One Laptop Per Child project. It's more groundbreaking than several of the laptops shown.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I just included the XO Laptop. :)

    Thanks, David.

    I will correct the specs on the PowerBook 500.

    ReplyDelete
  7. nice article.. btw i think tablet pc's also deserve a mention..

    ReplyDelete
  8. pretty weak in that it omits any number of early laptop machines, like the trs model 100. many of the pre-full screen machines were actually quite powerful and useful for their times.

    ReplyDelete
  9. @Abhinov:

    I have one tablet/laptop portable computer so far, with more on the way.

    @Edwardv:

    The TRS Model 100 is one computer that I found in my research, and I will add it eventually. Like I said, this timeline is a work in progress.

    Mainly I'm focusing on the most interesting and popular portable computers, and filling in the gaps as I go.

    Thanks for commenting.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Have a look at this one from 1972-74 (that is not a typo), the MCM 70:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MCM/70
    http://www.cse.yorku.ca/museum/collections/MCM/MCM.htm
    http://www.xnumber.com/xnumber/MCM_70_microcomputer.htm
    http://www.cse.yorku.ca/museum/v_tour/artifacts/artifacts.htm
    http://thegreatgeekmanual.com/blog/this-day-in-geek-history-september-8
    http://www.old-computers.com/museum/computer.asp?c=346

    The information at York University pretty much ends at 1979, MCM actually folded in 1982.

    Old-computers thinks this was a desktop. The word 'desktop' has maybe come to mean something different in the last 35 years. This is a little confusing, but remember the date, the fact that it was a 'desktop' was of overwhelming significance, that it was portable too was a relatively minor thing. This thing is portable, and could be run off batteries (like on Americas' Cup yachts). I used to work for MCM and I've used one, I actually had to hold it on my lap, and I think it weighed closer to 20kg :-)

    The thing existed in 1972 but not public in 1973.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Wow!

    Thanks for the share. The MCM 70 is definitely a portable computer, but I can't decide whether it really classifies because the battery seems like it was only to save the workspace, at least from what some of the sources say.

    But you say that it could run off the battery, so I guess that would make it the oldest computer on the list.

    Let me do some more research into this and then I'll add it to the timeline. ;)

    Nathan

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hi Nathan,

    Most of the documentation for the MCM/70 was lost. The limited documentation that exists is at the York University site. There were two batteries, one 'standard' the other an add-on. The add-on was this great big (expensive) thing. It was first delivered to one of the yachting teams. Since every MCM computer was built to order (right up to 1982) we could do almost anything in it's construction. Anyway, there are a couple of papers listed on the YorkU site written by Andre Arpin that might help if you can find a copy.

    BTW, the reason that the MCM/782 was the most popular is that to run the virtual memory system you had to have two tape drives. It paged functions and data in and out of memory.

    Cheers,
    Bob

    ReplyDelete
  13. Actually, here's an interesting link:

    http://www.yorku.ca/yfile/archive/index.asp?Article=1044

    There's a picture that shows the thing in a carrying case made of wood :-)

    There's also a picture of Andre Arpin.

    Cheers,
    Bob

    ReplyDelete
  14. Wow,

    Okay, I'll check out all those articles, and then add it to the timeline.

    ReplyDelete
  15. How about the Poqet PC? It was the size of a video cassette, ran MS DOS 3.3 from ROM, used two AA batteries and had a 640 x 420 display? You could run Wordperfect 5.1 from one of the two PCMCIA slots. It was a great PC and ahead of its time. The company was later purchased by Fujitsu.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Very nice!

    I'll add it as well.

    Thanks for sharing this with me. It is really hard to find a good database of older computers, so I'm sure there are many more great portable computers out there that I have not yet found.

    Please keep them coming, folks!

    Nathan

    ReplyDelete
  17. I scheduled a whole company on the old compaq "portable" using db3. What was the best was a flying game hidden within dos. Played that for hours.
    Bill

    ReplyDelete
  18. That's interesting. Was the flying game an addon or did it come standard?

    Nathan

    ReplyDelete
  19. ......i actually have a few of those 80's model systems in the closet lol

    ReplyDelete
  20. My neighbor still has a 286 with 5 inch floppies

    ReplyDelete
  21. The number one reason why people buy laptops is because they can take it anywhere. If you constantly have to go on trips, a laptop will be very useful. Your own laptop will have all your e-mail, software’s, presentations, sales material etc.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I bought a Zenith Minisport in 1990 that had a 20 meg hard drive. Never bought the external 3.5 floppy, connected by cable. I used LapLink 3 and a null modem cable to swap files. Was great for first two years of law school. I later got a Grid convertible with a 386 processor.way ahead of its time http://www.sinasohn.com/cgi-bin/clascomp/bldhtm.pl?computer=penexec

    ReplyDelete
  23. Another interesting addition would be to include the first portable computer with a touchscreen ... or was that the IBM Tablet PC ?

    And maybe the Panasonic Toughbook deserves an honorable mention as well as far as ruggedness goes ... unless that wasn't the first one of course ;)

    ReplyDelete
  24. Whether you are looking for that laptop part or you just want to have your laptop repaired, you can now make it happen easily with available sites online.

    ReplyDelete
  25. You can use the netbooks comfortably anytime and anywhere, because of its smaller size and longer battery life than most notebooks.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I agree to why you want to do it this way...I just want to stress the point that it's not that hard to get a Hello World app up and running in couple of minutes without going thru all these steps.

    ReplyDelete