A History of Portable Computing

From 'portables' that weighed nearly 30 pounds in the 1980s to the featherweight Apple iPad of 2010, portable computing has come a long way. Here's a look at some of the milestones.

Laptop Time Machine

We've come a long way from the earliest "portable" PCs, which weighed more than 20 pounds, wouldn't fit in today's carry-on luggage, and had screens barely bigger than the iPhone's.

Here are some of history's most important--and most unusual--portable computers. Let's start in 1981.

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1981: The Osborne 1

The first commercially successful portable personal computer weighed 23.5 pounds, and when closed it looked like a lopsided, hard-body suitcase.

Running the then-popular CP/M operating system, the Osborne 1 sported a tiny, 5-inch monochrome screen that couldn't even display a full line of text in the bundled WordStar word processor.

1982: The Compaq Portable

This model wasn't the first "luggable" to improve on the Osborne by enlarging the screen, but it was the first that was MS-DOS-based and IBM PC-compatible.

The Compaq Portable played a key role in making the PC a cross-manufacturer standard rather than a Big Blue monopoly.

Photo: Courtesy of Tiziano Garuti

1982: The Grid Compass 1100

It's hard to identify the first clamshell-design laptop, but with its fold-down screen that closes on the keyboard, the Grid Compass 1100 makes a likely candidate.

Costing up to $10,000 (in 1982 dollars) and running specialized software, the Grid wasn't for everyone, but NASA used it on the Space Shuttle.

Photo: Courtesy of ProhibitOnions

1983: The Epson HX-20

Possibly the first battery-operated portable computer sold to the general public, the HX-20 sported a frustratingly tiny 120-by-32-pixel LCD screen.

It fit in a briefcase and ran without AC power, though--and at 3.5 pounds, it weighed less than many modern laptops do.

Photo: Courtesy of GNU Free Documentation License

1989: The Poqet PC

Eighteen years before someone coined the word netbook, Poqet was selling a small, light, yet practical PC running MS-DOS, the standard OS of the day.

Weighing only 1.5 pounds, it ran on AA batteries, and allegedly could go weeks without needing them replaced.

The Poqet was #5 on PCWorld's list of The 50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years.

Photo: Courtesy of DigiBarn

1991: The Apple PowerBook 100

Although not the first Mac laptop, the 100 was the first to carry the PowerBook name.

At a time when most laptops offered no built-in pointer, the PowerBook 100 was the first model to place a trackball below the spacebar, where most modern laptops put their touchpads.

Photo: Courtesy of GNU Free Documentation License

1992: The IBM ThinkPad 700C

As Windows became popular, a mouse--or mouse replacement--became as necessary on a PC as on a Mac.

With the ThinkPad 700C, IBM added its signature pointing device, the TrackPoint (sometimes called the eraser tip or eraserhead). Its 10.4-inch, color TFT screen also broke new ground.

Photo: Courtesy of André Karwath

1994: The Apple PowerBook 500

Neither the trackball nor the TrackPoint set the world on fire, but the touchpad--introduced with the PowerBook 500--became the standard for almost all future laptops.

The PowerBook 500 may also have been the first laptop with stereo speakers.

Photo: Courtesy of Danamania via Wikimedia Commons

1995: The IBM ThinkPad 701

By the mid-1990s, laptops were shrinking into "notebooks," with smaller keyboards and thus more typos.

So IBM created the butterfly keyboard, which expanded to full size as you opened it. The notebook trend was short-lived, and the butterfly disappeared.

Photo: Courtesy of GNU Free Documentation License

1999: The Apple iBook 3G

The first laptop to integrate Wi-Fi (and to put the antenna behind the screen), the G3 introduced convenient wireless.

We're all glad of that. Whether to be glad that the rounded, cheerful design didn't become ubiquitous is a matter of debate.

Photo: Courtesy of Redjar via Creative Commons

2005: The Lenovo X41 Tablet

Laptops are better for typing, but tablets make for comfortable reading.

With the X41, Lenovo gave users both: a laptop that can convert into a tablet. As tablets go, however, the X41 was heavy and had a relatively short battery life.

Photo: Courtesy of Lenovo, with alterations by the author

2007: The Asus Eee PC 4G

Asus launched the netbook category with this diminutive, inexpensive, Linux-based PC.

Before the Eee PC 4G, the smaller the laptop, the more you had to pay for it. But Asus built this 2-pound computer and sold it for only $400, changing everything.

2007: The OLPC XO Laptop

And we thought the iBook G3 was a cute-looking laptop. One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) was designed for children in the Third World.

If you wanted one, you had to buy two (for $400 total)--one for yourself and one to be donated.

2010: The Apple iPad

Well, no, it isn't really a laptop. But by creating the iPad, a lightweight, versatile tablet, Apple has changed the formula.

How much of what we now use laptops for will soon be done on something smaller and lighter, but still more legible than a smartphone?

You may also be interested in:

* The 25 Greatest PCs of All Time

* 16 Breakthrough Notebooks: A Look Back

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