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The most important portables from 1975 to today...
The desktop has gone through many changes over four decades, but they pale in comparison to the absolute revolution in portable computing. From this “portable” 1975 IBM behemoth to the ultra-expensive oddities of the 1980s, from the neon designs of the 1990s to the machines we use today, this is a visual history of the most important and interesting portable computers ever made.
Special thanks to Steven Stengel of oldcomputers.net, who was kind enough to give us permission to share a number of photos from his personal collection.
IBM 5100 (1975)
Though it’d be pretty uncomfortable to put this 50-pound behemoth on your lap, the IBM 5100 has the distinction of being the first commercially available portable computer — and the forefather of modern laptops. It was released in September 1975 with a starting price of $8,975 (16KiB), or roughly $40,000 in 2017 dollars.
The IBM 5100 featured a 5-inch CRT monitor that could display 16 lines of text, and used a quarter-inch cartridge magnetic tape for data storage.
Osborne 1 (1981)
The next big leap in laptop computing came in April 1981 with the launch of the Osborne 1. Though it only supported single-sided floppy disks, the 25-pound, 64KB machine was a smash hit for the Osborne Computer Corporation thanks to its low price ($1,795, bundled with $1,500 worth of free software).
Byte magazine noted that “it remains to be seen if the company can turn a profit at this price.” Indeed, despite strong sales in 1981 and 1982, Osborne would declare bankruptcy in 1983.
Grid Compass 1101 (1982)
The first clamshell-type laptop ever sold, the Grid Compass 1101 was incredibly advanced for its time. It combined an Intel 8086 processor, 340KB of bubble memory, a 1200 baud modem and a 320 x 240 pixel display, all in one, 11-pound package. It ran its own operating system, Grid-OS.
With a price tag of $8,150 in April 1982 (roughly $21,000 today), the Compass found highly limited use, primarily by the U.S. government.
The Grid Compass on the job
Thanks to its small size, the Grid Compass went places other computers couldn’t. Here, astronaut John Creighton is seen using the device while onboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1985.
Epson HX-20 (1982)
Touted by Epson as being “small enough to fit inside your briefcase,” the HX-20 featured 16K RAM, 32K ROM, a scrollable LCD screen, a micro cassette drive (50K) and a built-in, 24-character-per-line dot matrix printer. Unlike the Osborne 1, the HX-20 came with nickel-cadmium batteries that lasted a full 50 hours per charge.
The computer launched in July 1982 at just $795 — the equivalent of $2,500 today.
A 35-year-old computer ad
Ads for the Epson HX-20, like this one from Byte magazine in 1982, made a big deal over its little size.
Hewlett-Packard HP-75C (1982)
The first portable computer ever made by HP, the 75C came with a single-line display, 16K RAM and the BASIC programming language built in.
It weighed just 1.5 pounds and retailed for $995 (~$2,500 today) when it was released in September 1982.
Compaq Portable (1983)
Reverse engineered from an IBM PC, the Compaq Portable holds the distinction of being the first-ever portable IBM clone — or as PC Magazine called it, “almost a full work-alike.” The 28-pound, suitcase-sized machine had an Intel 8088 processor, 128K of RAM and a built-in, 9-inch green screen monitor.
When it was first released in March 1983, a Compaq Portable with a single diskette drive started at $2,995 (~$7,500 today); the dual-diskette drive model seen here cost $595 extra.
Tandy TRS-80 Model 100 (1983)
The Tandy Model 100, RadioShack’s licensed version of the Kyocera Kyotronic 85, was an especially popular computer with U.S. journalists. The 3.1-pound device lasts 18 hours on just four AA batteries.
Priced at $1,099 for the 8KB model (or $2,700 in 2017 dollars), roughly 6 million units were sold. InfoWorld gave the device its Hardware Product of the Year Award for 1983.
Morrow Pivot (1984)
The MS-DOS-based Pivot, weighing 9 pounds and launching in November 1984, gave portable computing a new shoulder-strapped form factor. The base level machine came with 128K storage, battery, a floppy drive and built-in 300 baud modem for $1,995 (~$4,600 today).
In 1985, Morrow sold licensing rights for the Pivot to Zenith for a $1.2 million flat fee. Zenith made millions selling its own nearly identical version to the U.S. government; Morrow went bankrupt in March 1986.
Kaypro 2000 (1985)
The aluminum Kaypro 2000, released in 1985, has the distinction of being the first device with a modern laptop form factor to run MS-DOS. The rugged machine had a removable keyboard, a 25-line-by-80-character monochrome LCD screen, and a lead-acid battery for working on the go.
The computer was initially priced at $1,995 (~$4,600 today).
IBM PC Convertible (1986)
The first laptop from computing giant IBM, the PC Convertible (IBM 5140) had an intriguing design — its 640 x 200 LCD screen was removable, allowing you to attach an external monitor. You could even install a thermal printer ($295) on its rear.
Released in April 1986 with 256K RAM and a 3.5-inch floppy drive (another laptop first), the IBM 5140 weighed 12 pounds and retailed for $1,995 (~$4,500 today). It sold poorly, however.
Toshiba T1100 (1985)
Besting the IBM PC Convertible in the consumer market was Toshiba’s T1100 laptop line. First arriving on store shelves in 1985, the IBM-compatible T1100 boasted 256K RAM and a 640 x 200 monochrome LCD display.
In September 1986, InfoWorld’s Stephen Satchell hailed the company’s T1100 Plus as a superior machine to IBM’s PC Convertible, noting it “offers twice the computing power of IBM’s laptop for less money.” Indeed, the Intel 80C86 processor ran at an improved 7.16 MHz (versus 4.77 MHz) and included serial and parallel ports at no extra charge.
Compaq SLT/286 (1988)
Enter Compaq’s first-ever laptop. Released in October 1988, when the company was confident it could place desktop performance in such a small package, the 14-pound SLT/286 had a 12MHz 80C286 processor, a 20MB (or 40 MB) hard drive and detachable keyboard. It also supported VGA video, another a laptop first.
The Compaq SLT/286 started at $5,399 — about $11,000 in today’s money.
Atari Portfolio (1989)
The PC-compatible Atari Portfolio, released in June 1989, is the first commercial palmtop computer. It had 128KB of RAM and 256 KB of ROM. Expansion cards were available for running certain programs, such as Finance, Chess, and Wine Companion. A modem was also available.
This tiny computer retailed for just $399.95 at launch (~$785 today).
Macintosh Portable (1989)
Released in September 1989, the Macintosh Portable was Apple’s first battery-powered computer. The obscenely expensive model ($7,300) came with 1MB SRAM, a 40MB hard drive, a trackball, and an active matrix 640 x 400 LCD screen. Few buyers for the computer ever surfaced.
One odd quirk: If the computer’s battery failed, the computer wasn’t able to run on AC power alone.
Arguably the first successful tablet computer, the 4.5-pound touchscreen Gridpad ($2,370) had a 10 MHz 80C86 processor, 1-2 MB of system memory and 640 x 400 CGA graphics. The device was primarily sold to the U.S. Army, which requested it be built out of magnesium.
Less than a decade later, Gridpad creator Jeff Hawkins invented its successor, the Palm Pilot.
IBM ThinkPad (1992)
Though it wasn’t the company’s first laptop, the ThinkPad is definitely IBM’s most well-known, best-selling, and most-acclaimed one. It launched in October 1992.
Weighing just 5.9 pounds, the IBM ThinkPad retailed for $2,375 (80MB). A 7.6-pound, 120MB version with a 10.4-inch 256-color active-matrix LCD display — and the now-iconic red TrackPoint controller nub — sold for $4,350.
Apple PowerBook 500 Series (1994)
The next big leap forward in laptop technology came in May 1994 from the Apple PowerBook 500 Series — they were the first to feature a capacitive-touch trackpad. The PowerBook 520 model was priced at $2,270.
The 500 Series was also the first with 16-bit stereo sound and built-in ethernet networking.
Toshiba Libretto (1996)
Enter the subnotebook. With a starting weight of 30 ounces, the 8.26-inch-long Toshiba Libretto line was hailed as the smallest Windows PC available upon its release in April 1996. The Libretto 70 seen here features an Intel Pentium 120 MHz MMX chip, 16MB RAM, a 1.6 GB hard drive and a 6.1-inch TFT display.
Though tiny, the Libretto carried a huge price tag: The Libretto 70 was introduced at $1,999 (~$3,100 today).
Apple iBook (1999)
Notable as Apple’s first entry-level consumer portable computer, the colorful iBook — with a design clearly inspired by the iMac — launched in June 1999. It was the first mainstream laptop with wireless networking capability built-in.
With a 300 MHz PowerPC G3 processor, a 3.2 GB hard drive, 32 MB of RAM and a 24x CD-ROM drive, the iBook was purchased by a number of American schools for student use.
Alienware Area-51M (2002)
Though you could play games on even the earliest of laptops, it wasn’t until 2002 that Alienware released its Area-51M, the first ever laptop specifically designed for gaming.
At just over $3,000, this ground-breaking laptop didn’t come cheap. But that’s because it was loaded with killer, top-of-the-line tech: a 3.06GHz Pentium 4 processor, 1GB of 266MHz memory, 40GB of storage and a gorgeous 2048 x 1536 UXGA display.
Apple MacBook (2006)
Apple’s MacBook computer line got its start in 2006 with this 13.3-inch (1,280 x 800), 1.83GHz Intel Core Duo polycarbonate laptop loaded with 512MB RAM and a 60GB hard drive.
The base model had an MSRP of $1,099. This upgraded black version with a 2.0GHz processor and 80GB hard drive retailed for $1,499.
Chromebook CR-48 (2011)
Chromebook, the most successful line of Linux-based computers ever created, offers a personal computing experience in a simple Google-created environment. The small devices quickly grew popular with educators thanks to their low starting price.
The first-ever Chromebook, this 12.1-inch CR-48 model, was given to developers and beta testers as part of the Google Chrome pilot program in 2010. The first retail versions were manufactured by Acer and Samsung ($349), going on sale in June 2011.
By 2012, you could purchase a Chromebook for $199.
Microsoft Surface (2013)
Given how tied it was to the poorly received Windows 8 operating system in 2013, you could be forgiven for thinking the Microsoft Surface would be a similarly costly and forgotten flop for the computer giant. But years later, the fourth generation of the tablet/laptop hybrid device is selling surprisingly well with Windows 10, proving there’s a serious market for two-in-ones.
Microsoft has yet to announce a Microsoft Surface Pro 5, though it has just announced a new Surface Laptop line.
Also see these TechRepublic galleries
- Laptop innovation: A history of unique and bizarre breakthroughs
- Laptop innovation flop: Detachable displays
- Cracking open the Osborne 1: The original portable computer
- Cracking open the original Apple iBook G3 clamshell