The World's Weirdest Portable Computers!

21 peculiar — and patented — portables. Kids, don't try this (or buy this) at home.

Laptopia! The World’s Weirdest Portable Computers

There aren’t many pieces of technological design that simply can’t be improved upon, but the clamshell-style laptop computer case–introduced by Grid Systems in 1982–may be one of them. That’s why the vast majority of the portable computers built ever since have used it. But for more than a quarter-century now, inventors have been trying to top it, with folding screens, screens on stalks, folding keyboards, two-screen clamshells, tri-fold clamshells, and more. Most never even get off the drawing board. Herewith, a gallery of designs from Google Patents (click the filing dates to see the patents). There’s only one in here I might have considered buying, but on some perverse level I admire them all.

Portable Computer

Patent filed October 18th, 1982

Here’s the groundbreaking granddaddy of all clamshell-style laptops–Grid’s Compass 1101, which also sported other, less lasting innovations such as a plasma display and bubble memory. The hinge was in the middle rather than the edge, but machines such as the TRS-80 Model 200 soon changed that. I wish my MacBook Pro had a fold-out foot like the one seen here.

Three-Layered Laptop Computer

Patent filed October 27th, 1987

Okay, I understand that not every portable computer can be a wafer-thin MacBook Air. But this one seemingly combines an Apple II-like computer with a superchunky display with an Epson FX80-style dot matrix printer–it looks like it would have made for a machine that was around eight inches thick. I make no guesses about how much the whole contraption would have weighed, but I bet the shoulder strap depicted in this illustration was there out of necessity.

Notebook Mountable Computer System

Patent filed November 17th, 1988

We call them notebook computers because their form factor and portability reminds us of notebooks from the dead tree-based world. So why not build a computer you can put inside a notebook? HP patented this gizmo, which looked like a big-screen version of the TRS-80 Model 100 that’s been through a three-hole punch. It’s been twenty years since I carried a Trapper Keeper, but I still like the idea.

Laptop Computer with Detachable Display for Overhead Projector

Patent filed August 10th, 1990

It seems like ancient history, but there was indeed a time–not so long ago–when offices everywhere had overhead projectors. This laptop had a removable screen (apparently on a six-foot cable) with a detachable back, letting you plop the screen on a projector for presentations. The basic idea came to market (briefly) in the form of the ThinkPad 755CV.

Projection Display System for a Laptop Computer or a Notebook Computer

Patent filed April 25th, 1991

Here’s a patent from 1990s direct-market PC maker Zeos, although I don’t recall it ever coming to market. Instead of an LCD screen, it’s got a built-in projector that can cast an image onto the machine’s hinged portion, a roll-up screen, or any flat surface. I have a hard time believing it would have been practical with early 90’s technology, but perhaps someone will revive it for the era of the picoprojector.

Stylus Operable Computer with Wireless Keyboard in Storage Bay

Patent filed December 26th, 1991

Take a pen-based tablet PC. Stick a removable wireless keyboard in a compartment in the bottom. Ingenious, at least sorta–although I hope the minimalistic three rows of keys indicated in this drawing aren’t meant to be a literal representation of the proposed design. Not seen in the sketch: a fold-out stand that let you prop up the PC at a comfortable viewing angle.

Hands-Free, User-Supported Portable Computer

Patent filed April 6th, 1992

The people in patent drawings always look so fulfilled, don’t they? This fellow is using a wearable computer with a head-mounted display and a microphone for voice input. At first I thought that the bricklike object on the ground was the computer. But it’s really an electrical device that the guy is testing (this computer was meant to aid the servicing of military equipment and similar items). He’s wearing the computer on a strap which can only be described as purselike.

Laptop with Hinged Keyboard

Patent filed June 26th, 1992

To understand what’s going on in this patent, you’ve got to envision yourself holding this device by grasping the folding keyboard like a book–and you’ve got to know that some of the keys are on the backside of the two panels, which helps to explain why there aren’t many on the front. I can’t recall seeing another gizmo design involving keys which you can’t see in use. Instinctive touch-typing would have been a must.

Pivot and Swivel Mechanism for Laptop Display

Patent filed July 11th, 1992

Maybe it’s unfair to include this design in a gallery of weird laptops–it swivels like a desktop monitor in a way that was both clever and useful. Zeos sold this design as the Freestyle in the early 1990s; I don’t know how successful it was, but I’m guessing it wasn’t a huge hit, since it didn’t last long. Perhaps its reputation was hurt by a faulty floating-point coprocessor that caused it to get math wrong.

Ergonomic Laptop and Ergonomic Keyboard

Patent filed August 2nd, 1994

I know lots of folks who dislike the pointing devices provided by portable computers so much that they tote a mouse and a mousepad with them. This notebook builds the mousepad right in. As the patent points out, the mousepad-in-the-middle approach means that the pointing device can be used with either hand. Ambidextrous, ergonomic–and profoundly odd.

Ergonomic Laptop Computer Having Display Positioning Supports

Patent filed February 20th, 1996

Anyone who’s ever developed a stiff neck from sitting hunched over a laptop knows that their screen position isn’t ideal. This design addresses that defect with a screen on telescoping stalks–with a second set of stalks to prop it up in place. I’m trying to envision the maneuvers that would be required to open it into working position, and failing. Also, you would have needed a really big airplane tray to use this beast.

Ergonomic Laptop Computer and Ergonomic Keyboard

Patent filed March 25th, 1996

Gadget manufacturers keep deciding it’s a good idea to split a QWERTY keyboard in two and stick a screen in the middle. Here’s an early incarnation of an idea that was later seen in the Samsung Q1 Ultra and the Pepper Pad. To date, it’s received nothing but an outburst of disinterest from consumers.

Laptop Computer with Integrated Telephone

Filed February 24th 1998

When AT&T designs a notebook, it’s understandable that its instinct is to embed a phone handset in it. This one was meant for VoIP calls, and shared space with a touchpad–which could sit either in the left- or right-hand side of the phone bay, making this the only laptop I’ve ever seen to put the touchpad anywhere but the middle of the case. Sort of neat, except it looks like it would be hard on your wrists.

Flexible Wearable Computer

Patent filed August 24th, 1998

Holy utility belt, Batman! Lots of people have come up with the idea of attaching gadgets to belts, but this approach to wearable computing puts a powerful microcomputer inside the belt. Possible design flaw: Sitting down while wearing might have caused intense pain and/or self injury.

Folding Computer

Patent filed October 6th, 1998

Is it possible to fit a true laptop inside your pocket? Well, no, not really. But this patent gives it a good try, with a design that has the keyboard folding in half–and the screen folding twice, making it look like a four-paned window. I wonder how many times it would have to fold to incorporate, say, a 15.1-inch display?

Combination Computer and Briefcase

Patent filed November 18th, 1998

Call this a brieftop. Or maybe a lapcase. The explanatory text for this patent is unusually terse, but I suspect that the guts of the PC were built into the briefcase portion, not the keyboard–that would have been a pretty darn thin notebook design for 1998. On the plus side, this design would have put the screen closer to eye level. But my wrists tingle just thinking about reaching up to use the keyboard. And wouldn’t the handle have poked you in the belly button?

Multipurpose, Folding, Portable Computer

Patent filed March 9th, 1999

The keyboard has a hinge in the middle; so does the display, which is really two independent, swiveling screens. The items in the middle of the keyboard that look like twin Wii controls are in fact tiny touchscreens. Oh, and there’s storage space under the humongous wristrest. A somewhat less outre version of this design actually made to market–just barely–as the Xentex Fliptop Voyager.

Accordion-Fold Laptop Computer

Patent filed August 9th, 1999

Like many designs for better-than-a-clamshell portable computers, this one involves a third panel–which, in this case, contains a giant battery. The computers itself and the LCD are in one unit, permitting the keyboard to be removable for wireless usage. Why is the keyboard apparently missing so many keys? That part I’m not sure about.

Notebook Computer with Ergonomic Stand

Patent filed September 29th, 1999

Another attempt to put the display up at eye level–in this case, by inventing a clamshell case that can sit up as a stand. With a removable touchpad thrown in for no particular reason. The drawing makes it look as if this is a two-screen system, but as far as I can tell from the patent, it only had one display. How conservative!

Method and Apparatus for Implementing a Configurable Personal Computing Device

Filed November 3rd, 2000

Here’s a unique approach to tablet PCs: Put the keyboard on a hinge so you can fold it out of the way, revealing a pen tablet below. The chunkiness of the laptop in the illustrations is probably only realistic: This design would add a fair amount of thickness to the case. As with many laptop patents, I tend to give this one points for cleverness while failing to understand how it improved on existing designs.

Laptop Computer with Ergonomically Enhanced Interface Features

Patent filed April 2nd, 2001

IBM’s 1995 “butterfly” ThinkPad is one of history’s most famous weird portable computers. In 2001, the company filed a patent for a sort of son-of-the-butterfly: a laptop with a split keyboard that swiveled outward, letting the user adjust it to a comfortable position. Both a touchpad and the classic ThinkPad TrackPoint eraserhead pointer were hidden beneath the keyboard. A handle (which I hope wouldn’t have been as tiny as the one shown here) was also part of the patent.

Portable Computer for Dual, Rotatable Screens

Patent filed May 18th, 2007

This patent covers a variety of approaches to laptops with hinged double screens. Like other patent drawings for dual-displayed notebooks, these look almost elegant; the HED are way more clunky. You can tell these ones are cool by the way the blissed-out guy in the drawing clutches one so tightly.

More patent nostalgia:Mice

Electronic games

Handheld sports games

PCs of the 1980s

Microsoft’s animated helpers

Apple products

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by PCWorld's Editors