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3. The First Portable PC Running a 386 Processor: Compaq's Portable 386 (1987)

Compaq Portable 386
photograph: Courtesy of
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 $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 20 pounds. 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 20 MHz, 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)

GRiD Convertible model 2260
photograph: Courtesy of
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 endeavors.

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)

DEC HiNote Ultra
Love your ultraportable laptop with its slim case and sub-three-pound 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 three and a half pounds. 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)

Apple PowerBook 520
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.

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