16 breakthrough notebooks: a look back

From the first prototype portable computer in 1968 to the OLPC XO (an inspiration for netbooks) to the CrunchPad Web tablet of the near future, these 16 notebooks mark important stages in the progress of laptops.

  • Grid Compass 1100

    The 12-pound Grid Compass 1100--the first computer to use a fold-up, clamshell case--brings us closer to a modern-looking laptop design. Originally designed for NASA and available to consumers in 1982, the Compass 1100 carried 340KB of memory and cost about $8000 including software and a mandatory maintenance agreement. Despite its place in laptop history, the Grid didn't survive long in the marketplace because it wasn't IBM compatible.

    Photo credit: Grid Compass 1100 [[xref:|public domain|public domain]]
  • The iBook G3 and the Birth of the Wireless Card

    The iBook G3 was one of the many innovative ideas Steve Jobs brought with him when he returned to the helm of Apple in 1996. At the 1999 Macworld Expo in New York, Jobs wowed the crowds by taking the iBook for a spin across stage as he surfed the Internet, debuting the first laptop with a wireless card. At its debut, Jobs described the iBook G3 as the [[xref:|second-fastest portable computer in the world|You Can Read an iBook Today]] (he claimed that the PowerBook was the fastest).

    The 1999 iBook G3 also freed computers from their boring, square boxes with candy-colored designs. Our sister publication Computerworld recently hailed the iBook as one of the "[[xref:|top 10 standout Macs of the past 25 years|top 10 standout Macs of the past 25 years]]." Check out this [[xref:|YouTube video|Steve Jobs Macworld 1999 Keynote (Part 7)]] for the wireless revelation (it occurs at around the 5:15 mark).

    Photo credit: iBook G3 [[xref:|James C. Benedict|James C. Benedict]]
  • ThinkPad

    In late 1992, IBM took the compact design of the PowerBook's pointing device a step further in its new ThinkPad series--most notably the $4350 [[xref:|ThinkPad 700C|In Pictures: Highlights of the Best Tech Products]], which ran Windows 3.1, had a 120MB hard drive, a 25MHz 486SLC CPU, and a large and lovely 10.4-inch color TFT active-matrix panel.

    As operating systems advanced and their interface's became more graphical, the need for a mouse increased. Prior to the PowerBook 100, users had to go through the hassle of attaching a mouse to their laptop's keyboard. IBM's solution: a little red stick embedded in the keyboard and dubbed the TrackPoint.

    Photo credit: IBM ThinkPad [[xref:|André Karwath|André Karwath]]
  • The Lithium Ion Battery

    Early in 1994, a year and a half before [[xref:|Windows 95|Windows 95 Launch: Relive the Magic!]] debuted, Toshiba came out with the first two models in its [[xref:|Portege T3400 series|Toshiba Sub-Notebook Line Hits Mark]]: The $2599 T3400 carried a monochrome screen, the $3900 T3400CT sported an active-matrix color screen, and both ran Windows 3.1. Advertised as subnotebooks, the new Porteges had a slim look, a fashionable gray case color, and a high-powered lithium ion battery--considered "the latest in mobile energy technology."

    Thanks to the new battery, Toshiba asserted that the T3400 would provide up to 6 hours of computing time on a single charge. The battery could fully recharge in 3 hours with the machine switched off, or in 8 to 10 hours with the machine in operation.

    The Portege T3400 series models weighed 4 pounds and packed a 486SX processor, 4MB RAM (expandable to 20MB), and a 120MB hard drive. They also featured a PCMCIA expansion slot for extra memory. A contemporaneous [[xref:|Toshiba brochure|Toshiba brochure]] [PDF] covers the essential points of the machine's appeal: compactness, usability, mobile power, status. Nothing much has changed on that front over the years.

    Photo credit: Toshiba T3400 [[xref:|Ian Johnston|Installing Linux on the Toshiba Portege]]
  • Ultraportables

    As the 21st century dawned, laptops were getting much faster, with bigger hard drives and better graphics. In the third quarter of 2008, [[xref:|laptops surpassed desktop PCs in sales|Notebook PCs Outsell Desktops, First Time Ever]] for the first time, and the push was on for ever-lighter, ever-faster machines. The ultimate expression of that movement was Apple's [[xref:|MacBook Air|MacBook Air]], unveiled in early 2008.

    True, the [[xref:|Sony VAIO X505|Sony Vaio Goes Extreme]] of 2004 was an impressive achievement in thin-and-lightness, but the Air reshaped the public's idea of how slender a computer could be. Sporting a newly designed chip from Intel and a nonremovable battery--but no optical drive--the Air delighted the crowds at Macworld 2008. Newsweek technology columnist [[xref:|Steven Levy|Gone, Without a Trace]] discovered just how slim the Air was when his test machine (on loan from Apple) disappeared one day. At first Levy thought that someone had stolen the machine, but ultimately he concluded that his wife had accidentally tossed the superthin device into a trash compactor amid a pile of newspapers. No doubt that particular Air ended up even thinner.

    Photo credit: MacBook Air [[xref:|Apple|Apple]]
  • Osborne 1

    Geeks on the run rejoiced in 1981, when the first truly portable computer appeared. The Osborne Computer Corporation's [[xref:|Osborne 1|7 Technologies that Changed the World]] was a gigantic piece of machinery equipped with a 5-inch diagonal screen, and its own carrying case. The machine, which also had two full-size floppy disk drives, sold for US$1795 (software included) and weighed 23.5 pounds.

    Photo credit: Osborne 1 [[xref:||]]
  • The TouchPad

    George Gerpheide invented the capacitance-based touchpad mouse in 1988, but the technology didn't appear on a laptop until 1994, with Apple's PowerBook 500 series. Apple called its version the trackpad, and other manufacturers soon developed copycat input devices. The touchpad helped laptops become easier to use and more compact.

    The PowerBook 500 series consisted of four models: the 520 (which PC World named as one of the [[xref:|ten most important laptops of all time|The ten most important laptops of all time]] back in 2007), the 520c, the 540, and the 540c. The basic specs for the PowerBook 500 series included 4MB of RAM with capacity for up to 36MB, a 25MHz processor, and a 9.5-inch grayscale display. Models in the PowerBook 500 series also sported up to 320MB of hard drive space--impressive for the time, but less than one-twelfth the storage capacity of Apple's smallest iPod today.

    Photo credit: PowerBook 500 [[xref:|Danamania|Danamania]]
  • Compaq SLT/286

    In October 1988, the Compaq SLT/286 debuted. The first computer to use VGA (640-by-480-resolution) graphics, it revolutionized portable displays. The SLT/286 weighed 14 pounds and had a 20MB hard drive, a 12MHz processor, and a keyboard that you could detach from the main body of the machine. It was one of the earliest computers compact enough to fit properly on a (sturdy) airline tray.

    Photo credit: Compaq SLT/286 [[xref:||]]
  • Tablets

    The Web tablet looks to be the next major evolutionary stage in portable computing. Such tablets have yet to emerge, but at least one real product, the [[xref:|CrunchPad|CrunchPad Almost Ready for Prime Time]], is getting close.

    Reportedly the device is a dead simple Web tablet with a custom-built Linux OS, an Intel Atom chipset, two USB ports, a Webcam, and microphone. The CrunchPad could arrive as early as this summer. Apple is rumored to be working on a tablet of its own, the Apple Tablet, rumored to be [[xref:|set to debut in October 2009|Apple Rumor: $800 Tablet Due in October]].

    The Web tablet returns us to the Dynabook. Conceivably these devices will someday be as powerful as regular laptops. And though we aren't there yet, Alan Kay's vision might finally become a reality with Web tablets, albeit without a physical keyboard. If so, perhaps one day we'll be discussing milestone Web tablets in a retrospective slideshow.
  • The Rugged Laptop

    In 1996, at a time when most computer makers were training their efforts on slimmer and faster models, Panasonic aimed for thick-skinned and break-resistant. The result was the Toughbook CF-25--the first model in a line of rugged Panasonic Toughbooks that [[xref:|continues to this day|Panasonic Toughbook F8]]. The CF-25 was designed to survive 2-foot drops and to withstand dust and humidity. The original Toughbook came in an aluminum alloy case, and came loaded with a 166MHz Intel Pentium I processor, up to 96MB of RAM, and (typically) a sub-1GB hard drive. Though the laptop's internal specs didn't match its burly appearance, the original Toughbook did enable people to operate a computer at disaster scenes, on battlefields, and in other places where regular laptops might easily expire.

    Photo credit: Toughbook [[xref:|via eBay|Panasonic TOUGHBOOK CF-25]]
  • Netbooks

    The Asus Eee PC is widely recognized as the computer that sparked the netbook craze in late 2007. But in 2005--long before the Asus Eee PC came out--Nicholas Negroponte was touting his concept of a [[xref:|$100 laptop|Intel, OLPC Affordable Laptop Bout Only Hurts Users]] at the World Economic Forum (a Swiss nonprofit foundation) in Davos, Switzerland. Negroponte's dream eventually became the [[xref:|One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO|First Look: OLPC's XO Laptop]], which sells for $200 and is meant to put an Internet-capable computer in the hands of every underprivileged child in the world. The public responded positively to the idea of a laptop with a hand crank that would sell for so little money. When OLPC offered the XO in a [[xref:|give-one/get-one scheme|Buy One XO Laptop Give One Away Program Starts Today]] in late 2007, the enthusiasm for this little computer skyrocketed. Intel and Microsoft quickly followed the XO down the supercheap, superportable path, and [[xref:|suddenly the netbook|Evolution of the Netbook]] was the [[xref:|fastest-growing segment of the computer market|Netbook Popularity Reshapes Tech Sector]]. The Eee PC may have reached market first, but the XO is the machine that caught the public's attention.

    Photo credit: OLPC's XO [[xref:|One Laptop Per Child|One Laptop Per Child]]
  • IBM PC Convertible

    By 1985, many tech watchers wondered whether the laptop concept would survive. In a New York Times article, Erik Sandberg-Diment asked, “[[xref:|Whatever happened to the laptop computer?| Whatever happened to the laptop computer?]]" Sandberg-Diment noted a decline in the number of laptops he saw on airline flights to the Comdex computer show in consecutive years between 1983 and 1985, and asked if this “latest fad" was on its way out. But everything changed in 1986, when the IBM PC Convertible hit store shelves. Priced at $1995, the PC Convertible was the first commercially successful laptop--and the first IBM device to carry a 3.5-inch floppy disk drive.

    The IBM PC Convertible weighed 12 pounds--2 pounds more than the Grid Compass 1100. It came configured with 256KB of memory, two 3.5-inch floppy drives, an LCD display, printer ports, and a basic software suite.

    Photo Credit: IBM PC Convertible [[xref:|Fred Jan Kraan|Oh no, not another computer museum!]]
  • PowerBook 100

    The next big jump in laptops following the Compaq SLT/286 came in 1991, when the [[xref:|Apple PowerBook 100|End of an Era: No More Apple PowerBooks]] arrived. Made for Apple by Sony, the PowerBook 100 featured a trackball to serve as the mouse, and a palm rest to make working on the computer more comfortable; soon palm rests became a standard feature on laptops from many other vendors.

    Photo credit: Powerbook 100 [[xref:|Danamania|Danamania]]
  • The Dynabook

    This device mock-up is widely considered to be the inspiration for the modern portable computer. Conceived by [[xref:|Alan Kay|Top 50 Tech Visionaries]] in 1968 at Xerox PARC, the device was envisioned as “a personal computer for children of all ages."

    Kay wanted to create a thin, portable device that weighed about 2 pounds and had a display whose size approximated that of a real page (Kay figured he would need a screen with 1 million pixels to accomplish this). Unfortunately, the technology required to produce such a device didn't emerge until fairly recently--and even today the Dynabook as envisioned by Kay has not become a reality.

    Photo credit: Dynabook [[xref:|IEEE Computer Society|IEEE Computer Society]]
  • Portable Teletype

    The computers of 40 years ago filled entire rooms and yet had less computing power than today's smartphones. But the dream of portable computing was already alive. PC World contributing editor [[xref:|Harry McCracken|The Laptop, Circa 1968]] recently uncovered evidence of that aspiration in the annals of Google's [[xref:|Computerworld archives|Computer World - Mar 20, 1968]]. In March 1968, you couldn't carry a computer around with you--but you could take your Teletype interface, thanks to the Teletype Corporation's KSR-33. This little number dented the scales at 65 pounds, but it let users connect to a Teletype machine--a device for sending typed messages from one location to another--far from their home base. You can watch (and listen to) a KSR-33 terminal at work in [[xref:|this YouTube clip|Teletype at Work.]].

    Photo credit: Portable Teletype [[xref:|John Davin|Teletype 379.]]
  • The Built-in Camera

    Apple thrilled the world with clean styling and wireless networking, but the iSight camera found in today's MacBook has a Windows 98 ancestor. In 1999, Sony unveiled the $2299 VAIO C1 PictureBook. The laptop weighed less than 3 pounds, was quite compact, and included (just above the display) a built-in camera that could capture still images and up to 60 seconds of continuous video.

    The PictureBook also represented an early stab at what would become known a decade later as a netbook. It was only 1.45 inches thick, and it came without an external floppy or CD-ROM drive. PC World's reviewer complained that the PictureBook's keyboard was "[[xref:|too cramped for any long-term, comfortable typing|Portables With Pizzazz]]."

    Photo credit: Sony PictureBook [[xref:|Sean from|Sony Vaio Picturebook PCG-C1VN]]
  • Milestones in Laptop Development

    Since 1968, when a designer at Xerox PARC conceived of the first prototype notebook--the Dynabook--the computer industry has witnessed a breathtaking succession of innovations in mobile computing. This year, for the first time, laptops sales will exceed desktop sales, according to market research firm iSuppli.

    In this slideshow we look back at the biggest technology breakthroughs in the evolution of laptop computers since geeks first dreamed of taking their beloved desktops with them wherever they wanted to go.
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