The (Misunderstood) Mac Portable Turns 20

A 20th anniversary teardown of the first mobile Mac — and some reflections on how far we've come.

A Very Misunderstood Machine

On September 20th, 1989, Apple released the Macintosh Portable, the first true mobile Mac and a much-maligned machine. It didn’t sell well and is very rare today–not due to any particular design failure, but because the original price was a whopping $6,500-$7,300 ($11,288 to $12,677 in 2009 dollars). It wasn’t the only Mac to cost that much, but others in that price range offered top-of-the-line performance. The Portable was both too expensive and too underpowered to catch on. Its large size didn’t help, either.

Apple vastly improved upon the design two years later with the PowerBook 100, the first true Mac notebook. For now, though, it’s time to honor the design achievements of Apple’s first battery-powered computer. I’ve found there’s no better way to do that than take it apart on my trusty workbench.

Livin’ Large

The Macintosh Portable sports the traditional clamshell case design we all know and love today, but the unit overall was far bulkier and heavier than later Mac laptops.

The Portable packed a 10" monochrome screen, weighed 16 pounds, and measured 15.25" by 14.8" by 4" when closed. Compare that to today’s largest mobile Mac, the 17" MacBook Pro: the modern MacBook has a far larger (and vastly more colorful) screen, yet weighs only 6.6 pounds and measures 15.47" by 10.51" by .98". (Yep, the Portable is four times thicker than the MacBook Pro.)

The Mac Portable required Mac OS System 6.0.5 to run, but supported up to System 7.5.5. Interestingly, it was the first Macintosh to ship with Mac OS pre-installed on its hard drive (if you bought that option).

Call it “The Wedge”

Here we see the Portable’s right side. You can really get a feeling for the unit’s wedge shape here. It’s hard to miss the gaping slot for the 3.5" floppy disk drive on the side. Instead of a hard drive, customers could buy a second floppy drive that would sit directly above the first.

The Portable included a carrying handle, which came in handy due to the unit’s 16 pound weight. Here, we see it tucked between the display and keyboard area on the left side. It sticks out a bit because it also functions as the latch release that opens the lid once it’s pushed in.

Prolific Portitude

The Macintosh Portable shipped with a generous selection of ports–both the usual suspects on any desktop Mac and a few extras: an additional external video port, and space for an RJ-11 telephone connector. The video port is a 15-pin D-connector, the same used for IBM’s VGA standard, but that’s where the similarity ends–it outputs raw LCD signals and requires a converter box to be used by any monitor.

From left to right, here are the ports: video, external disk drive, SCSI, internal modem phone jack, ADB, LocalTalk (printer), LocalTalk (serial), audio out, and DC power in.

Under the Covers

Apple designed the Macintosh Portable to be easy to take apart; everything snaps together via built-in plastic fasteners. In the whole disassembly you’re about to see, I only encountered two screws (in the display bezel).

Here, I’ve removed the rear cover, which provides easy access to the battery and expansion slots. The hard drive is the black object on the left, the battery compartment is on the right. In the center sits an area for expansion cards, which we’ll see more of in a minute.

Expansion Potential

With the battery compartment cover removed, we can now see the lead-acid battery (the white box). Also notice the regular 9V back-up battery, which retains memory power during main battery switches. (The Portable never truly shuts down, but maintains its working RAM in a low-power sleep mode.)

Four internal expansion connectors, seen here, lie between the hard disk and the battery. From left to right: PDS, RAM, ROM, modem. The PDS slot is similar to those on other Macs: it gives direct access to the CPU for powerful expansion capabilities.

A third-party RAM expansion card that plugs into the PDS slot (not the RAM slot, interestingly) and a 2400bps Apple modem sit next to the Portable on the table.

A Very Bulky Battery

Here we see the Portable’s removable lead-acid battery while an iPod Touch hitches a ride for size comparison. Fully charged, the battery provides eight to ten hours of life–an impressive running-time that’s rarely matched by today’s best lithium-ion laptop batteries.

This capacity comes at a price: size and weight. The battery weighs 2.7 lbs (that’s the weight of 10 1/2 iPod Touches), and it’s also pretty big. The iPod Touch measures 0.33 inches thick, and you could fit 6 of them stacked up inside the Macintosh Portable’s 2-inch deep plastic battery casing. If that doesn’t show you how far we’ve come, I don’t know what does.

Beneath the Bezel

Here I’ve removed the keyboard bezel, revealing the full-sized keyboard that lies beneath. Surprisingly, its size and layout are very close to those found in Apple’s desktop keyboards of the time.

Also seen here is the portable’s trackball (to the right). Even though the trackball’s sole button resembles a space bar, it behaves very much like an easy-to-click mouse button.

The ‘Ole Switcheroo, Part 1

Every Macintosh Portable shipped with a uniquely re-configurable keyboard/trackball layout based on user preference. One can easily remove both the keyboard and trackball and flip them around so that the trackball is on the left or right side of the keyboard, depending on the user’s handedness (see next slide for an example).

Apple also sold an optional numeric keypad that could be placed where the trackball sits if one were using an external mouse.

The ‘Ole Switcheroo, Part 2

Here we see the Mac Portable in its alternative keyboard/trackball configuration — notice the trackball on the left side of the keyboard this time. Lefties of the world rejoice! Sometimes Apple thinks of everything, and sometimes it doesn’t. This is one of those occasions where Apple design seems much more clever than that of its competitors.


Here I’ve removed the LCD display assembly from the base unit, exposing the entire motherboard assembly, which sits in a plastic chassis. The built-in speaker is now visible, and a curious detail emerges: secret signatures molded into the case plastic!

Plastic Autographs

Like the original Macintosh, Mac 512K, and Mac Plus, the Macintosh Portable’s case mold was impressed with signatures of the computer’s development team as a sign of pride. And if it weren’t obvious already, these signatures are only visible on the inside of the Portable’s plastic case.

The Plastic Cage

Here’s a close-up of the motherboard area of the Mac Portable while it’s still in the case. The motherboard sits snapped into a one-piece molded plastic structure that holds all of the Portable’s internal components in place. In turn, that plastic skeleton snaps into the bottom of the Portable’s outer shell.

Liberating the Drives

I’ve now removed the hard drive and the floppy drive from the unit, which sit to the right side of the Portable’s bottom half. The Mac Portable’s 40MB SCSI hard drive was a special model created specifically for the Portable. According to Apple, the drive was significant because of its low power requirements and capability to be powered on and off repeatedly without failing (this was done to conserve power when the drive wasn’t needed).

The 3.5" floppy drive seen here is Apple’s 1.44MB “SuperDrive,” which shipped with all Mac Portables (Yes, there was another SuperDrive before Apple’s CD/DVD-Burner). Alternately, one could install a second floppy drive where the hard disk sits. That option probably saved the customer about $1,000 in 1989.

Inside the Display Assembly

The Portable’s 10-inch diagonal B&W active matrix LCD screen was likely the single most expensive component of the entire system. It could display 640 by 400 pixels (quite a high resolution for an LCD in 1989) and was not backlit on the first model of the Portable, although Apple released a backlit version a year later. Contrast this with the compact Macintosh line, which sported a 512 x 342 resolution on a 9" black and white CRT display.

At the time, most PC laptops used passive-matrix displays that cost far, far less than their active brethren, but also produced a muddy, blurry image that was poorly suited to displaying movement (like that of a mouse cursor) on screen. Passive-matrix LCDs also possess a far narrower viewing angle than active-matrix alternatives.

The Motherboard

Here’s the Mac Portable’s motherboard, now freed from its plastic prison. Notice the large group of uniformly-shaped chips on the right side of the board: these constitute a mere 1MB of RAM and take up almost a third of the board’s overall surface area. Somehow this seems like a waste of space, even in 1989.

When Sony shrunk down the design of the Portable to make the PowerBook 100 in 1991, this area was probably one of the easiest to condense in size thanks to vast increases in RAM chip densities over the years.

Portable Brains

Here we see a close-up on the left side of the Portable’s motherboard. The large square chip toward the right of the image (the one not cut off) is the CPU, a Motorola 68HC000 running at 16 MHZ. Twice as fast as the Mac SE’s 8 MHz 68000 and low power due to its CMOS nature, the Portable’s processor wasn’t nearly as sluggish as some modern commentators make it out to be.

However, it was wimpy compared to the Portable’s contemporary, the Mac IIci, released at the same time in 1989. The IIci used a 25 MHZ 68030, but carried a sizable base cost of $6,700 (without a hard drive). Now imagine the potential added cost of putting a 68030 in the Portable, and the fact that there was no low-power version of the 030 at the time, and you’ll see why Apple settled on a 68000.

You’ve Come A Long Way, Apple

The difference between the Mac Portable and the iPhone or iPod Touch (seen here) is a stunning reminder of technology’s relentless, progress. One strains your arm like a 16 pound briefcase, the other fits in your back pocket. A 16 MHZ CPU powers one, a 412-Mhz or 532-Mhz CPU powers the other. One includes one megabyte of RAM, the other includes 128 megabytes. One contains a 40MB fixed disk, the other 8,000 to 32,000 megabytes. One has a 2,400 bit-per-second phone modem, the other contains a 54,000,000 bit-per-second wireless network interface and a wireless telephone. Most staggeringly, one cost $12,667 (adjusted to 2009 dollars), and the other costs $99-$299. The difference? Twenty years.

Contrasting the Portable with a 2009 laptop reveals even greater technical leaps. But I think comparing it to Apple’s tiniest computers best shows how much the world has changed.

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