The 10 most important notebooks of all time

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)

The Epson HX-20 was the first portable computer that was affordable to the masses. Although a handful of posers preceded it -- including the 11.5kg Osborne Computer -- the HX-20 is widely considered to be the first true laptop. It weighed only 1.5kg and had a built-in nickel cadmium battery that lasted 50 hours on one charge.

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)

The 1980s were an exciting time to be a computer geek, and one big reason was the Tandy TRS-80 Model 100. Though the typical American family did not rush out to their corner RadioShack to buy a Micro Executive Workstation, it was the first laptop to become widely popular with early adopters.

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)

If you're surprised to see this big, clunky machine on our list, we cheerfully admit that it wasn't a true notebook, but it was just portable enough--and it set a milestone.

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)

So you thought handwriting recognition was an invention of the new millennium? Nope. GRiD Systems' Convertible model 2260 (also marketed by AST as the PenExec) was the first notebook with a pen-sensitive screen that could pivot and lie flat against the keyboard for use as a slate -- and it appeared way back in the early nineties. The 2260 had an Intel 386 processor; a pricier model, the 2270, had a 486 processor. While the Convertible models were not around for long, they set the stage for future slate endeavours.

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)

Love your ultraportable notebook with its slim case and feather-light weight? You can thank Digital Equipment Corporation, maker of workstations and servers in the 1980s, for setting a new standard for thin and light laptops.

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)

Instead of a trackball, the standard pointing device for all early laptops, the PowerBook 520 had what Apple called a trackpad, designed by an inventor named George E. Gerpheide in 1987. Using capacitive touch, the touchpad required only finger proximity to move the cursor. After its introduction on the PowerBook 520, the touchpad set a new standard that lives to this day.

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)

When the Toshiba Portege T3400, an ultraportable, made its debut, little was made of its lithium ion battery, the first ever used in a laptop. But the notebook's introduction signified the beginning of a new battery era, one that has generally been good for notebook fans.

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)

In 1999, Apple introduced Airport -- a ground-breaking technology that enabled the company's iBook to become the first laptop capable of sending e-mail and surfing the Internet wirelessly. Apple beat other notebook makers to the punch by more than a year with its implementation of the 802.11b Wi-Fi standard.

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)

Until very recently, notebooks were such lousy gaming rigs that Doom aficionados were only too happy to lug 30-pound gorilla desktop systems to Friday night LAN parties. Hard-core gamers still sniff at laptop gaming as inferior to gaming on the latest high-end desktops, but notebooks gained new respect and a fair number of converts when they finally got dual-core processing, and 3D shooters became faster and better looking.

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)

The Hatfields and McCoys. Trump and O'Donnell. Apple and Microsoft. In the last grudge match, at least, a clear victor may emerge -- and even many PC users might not mind seeing this underdog win. Last year, the MacBook Pro notebook became the first Apple PC to make the switch to Intel processors, and the first Apple notebook to run Windows.

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.

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Carla Thornton

PC World
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