When the first laptops debuted in the early 1980s, they were a major breakthrough in convenience. For the first time you could use a computer that had a built-in keyboard, yet was so light you could pick it up and take it with you into the next room or on the train or plane into another time zone. But who could have predicted all the changes to come? Batteries that last all day, Mac and Windows operating systems coexisting peacefully on the same machine, the notebook as an entertainment unit?
Twenty-six years after the first laptop appeared, we're commemorating the ten most important models to come down the pike. In chronological order, each of these notebooks represents a major turning point in technology, popularity, or both. Though we might snicker now at some of their laughably small screens or pitifully slow processors, they paved the way for today's powerful portables.
1. The first true laptop: Epson's HX-20 (1981)
Of course, the "screen" was a tiny built-in monochrome LCD capable of displaying only four lines of text at a time. It also had a brown plastic case that closed over the keyboard, a built-in dot-matrix printer that spat out adding-machine paper, and a micro-cassette tape drive for storage.
But its dual Hitachi 6301 processors running at 614Hz, its 16K of RAM, and its serial and RS-232 ports blew the socks off its admirers -- and thanks to their support, the HX-20 sold at least a quarter of a million units. For the deskbound accounting and "data collector" professionals at whom Epson pitched the HX-20, it was a portable dream come true.
2. The first popular laptop: Tandy's TRS-80 Model 100 Micro Executive Workstation (1983)
At 1.78 kg and US$800, it weighed and cost about the same as the HX-20, but it had a much bigger LCD (240 by 64 dots) that stretched all the way across the top. The TRS-80 Model 100 operated on four AA batteries for up to 18 hours. It had no internal storage (an external cassette recorder or a 5.25-inch floppy drive cost extra), but it offered a raft of built-in applications, including a text editor, an address book, a scheduler, and a telecom application for modem communications that was much beloved by newspaper reporters who finally had a way to dash off stories in the field.
Legend has it that the firmware for the TRS-80 Model 100 was Bill Gates's last big coding project before he got sidetracked running an empire.
3. The first portable PC running a 386 processor: Compaq's Portable 386 (1987)
Despite a mind-boggling price tag of US$12,000, the Compaq Portable 386 became one of the most celebrated portables of all time: It was the first to use the powerful new Intel 80386 processor, whose architecture reigned as the 32-bit computing standard for the next two decades.
The Portable 386 was not pretty. A "lunchbox" computer, it looked more like a small suitcase with a thick, built-in handle. It weighed almost 5kg. Its keyboard had to be separately attached, and it lacked a battery, so it had to stay plugged in at all times. The flat monochrome screen had a garish orange hue.
But its Intel 80386DX-20 chip, operating at a scorching 20MHz, gave the Compaq Portable 386 all the sex appeal it needed. When it was released, it was the fastest portable computer on the planet.
4. The first convertible tablet: GRiD Systems' 2260 (1992)
The Convertible was a rugged unit with a thick magnesium case. It had a nice screen for the time, a 10.5-inch active-matrix monochrome VGA display.
But it was too heavy to hold for very long, and input using the Windows for Pen operating system was too clumsy for the Convertible to gain widespread acceptance. It wasn't until Microsoft introduced the Tablet Operating System in 2002 and handwriting recognition began to improve that convertible notebooks began to carve out a niche in the market.
5. The first thin-and-light notebook: DEC's HiNote Ultra (1994)
The DEC HiNote Ultra measured about an inch tall and weighed 1.59kg. It had an 11.1-inch active-matrix monochrome screen, 4MB of RAM, a 340MB hard drive, a trackball pointing device, and a choice of a 486 SX33, 486 DX2/50, and 486 DX4/75 Intel processors. The operating system was Windows for Workgroups 3.11 running on top of MS-DOS 6.22. It had one business application, Lotus Organizer, and was loaded with CompuServe for navigating something new called the Internet.
DEC claimed a couple of other firsts with the HiNote: A quick-release button that ejected PCMCIA cards (later renamed PC Cards) without requiring the user to stick a pencil in the slot, and a battery that flipped down to become a typing foot. The state-of-the-art storage device of the day, the floppy drive, was external, but DEC bragged about the drive's design, because it was a slice that attached to the bottom of the notebook for a "zero footprint."
6. The first notebook with a touchpad: Apple's PowerBook 520 (1994)
Love it or hate it, the touchpad has outsold the eraserhead nub, Sony's jog dial, and all manner of other pointing devices to grace almost every laptop sold. And no big surprise: Apple notebooks still have the best touchpads. For instance, they're the only ones that let you scroll by swiping anywhere on the membrane with two fingers.
7. The first laptop to use a lithium ion battery: Toshiba's Portege T3400 (1995)
In 1995, the nickel-metal hydride battery, always considered an interim technology, was on its way out. Lithium ion batteries lasted longer and were lighter, both very important qualities for mobile computer users. They were also virtually maintenance free, unlike nickel-metal hydride, which had to be completely run down every couple of months.
However, because they are prone to overheating, lithium ion batteries have set more laptops ablaze and resulted in more recalls by notebook vendors than any previous type of notebook battery. (Most recently, Lenovo recalled more than 200,000 notebooks.) Millions of batteries have had to be replaced, inconveniencing untold numbers of notebook customers.
But most users have been unaffected, and continue to benefit from a technology that improves every few months. Lately, lithium ion batteries have had to keep pace with new power-guzzling laptop features such as dual processors, RAID-enabled hard drives, and 20-inch screens. The Toshiba Portege T3400's battery life 12 years ago? About 4 hours. Not bad, even for a 4-pound laptop with a dual-scan monochrome screen.
8. The first wireless-enabled laptop: Apple's iBook (1999)
First out was Apple's US$299 AirPort base station and US$99 plug-in card for home and office users. That same year, Apple began selling the iBook, which could be outfitted with an optional, internal AirPort wireless card, another first. The 12.1-inch-screen laptop, which came in blueberry or tangerine, was the first one ready for Wi-Fi hotspots.
9. The first gaming notebook: WidowPC's Sting 917X2 (2005)
WidowPC's Sting 917X2 was the first out of the gate, with an AMD Athlon 64 X2 dual-core processor. At a time when most notebook manufacturers offered perhaps one brand of video card with, at most, 128MB of RAM, the Sting gave buyers a choice of three industry-leading, desktop-worthy 256MB graphics adapters. The 5.1kg Sting, with its black-widow-spider graphic, soon gave way to models like Alienware's green Area-51 notebooks, but its status quo-busting debut gave notebooks something they'd never had before among gamers: street cred.
10. The first serious PC killer: Apple's MacBook Pro (2006)
Shortly after Apple introduced the MacBook Pro, it introduced Boot Camp, an easy-to-use utility that lets users switch between Mac OS X and a Windows operating system.
With the final barriers to running Windows apps on a Mac falling, will Apple at last win the converts it needs to give Microsoft a serious run for its money? The jury is still out. But the winners in the meantime? We, the users.