Thin Is In
Think back to the laptops of yesteryear, and you might recall big, boxy systems that hardly resemble the wafer-thin ultraportables available today. In just a few decades, huge advances in technology have enabled laptops to go from unwieldy, “luggable,” suitcase-size computers to fitting in the palm of your hand. Take a look back with us to see how far laptops have come--and where they might be headed.
Osborne 1 (1981)
The Osborne 1 made waves in 1981 as the first truly portable computer--albeit one that was 26.2 pounds and 8.5 inches tall. About the size of a sewing machine, the Osborne 1 boasted two floppy drives, a 5-inch diagonal screen, a carrying handle, an optional battery pack, and a cutting-edge price tag of $1795. A far cry from thin or sexy, the Osborne 1 nevertheless spoke to every geek’s dream of having access to a computer anywhere. The Osborne 1 was considered a huge overnight success.
GRID Compass 1100 (1982)
The GRID Compass, introduced in 1982, is considered by many observers to be the first real laptop--that is, the first portable with a folding screen and sporting today’s familiar clamshell design. Weighing 12 pounds, this portable computer used an outdated “bubble memory” storage type (which has since been replaced by hard-drive technology); it also lacked an internal floppy drive, and required an outlet for power. Priced at a whopping $8150, the GRID Compass was primarily used by NASA. In spite of its limited appeal, however, the GRID Compass is still notable as the granddaddy of laptop design.
IBM PC Convertible (1986)
Released in 1986, IBM’s first laptop was a moderate commercial success. It was also the first IBM computer to feature the 3.5-inch floppy drive (the IBM PC Convertible 5140 had two 3.5-inch floppy drives, in fact). Introduced at a price of $2000, this laptop was battery-powered, weighed 13 pounds, and came with 256KB (yes, kilobytes) of RAM, expandable to 640KB. The movement from outlet-powered machines to battery-powered laptops was a significant advance.
Photo: Wikipedia, user Bk0
Compaq SLT/286 (1988)
In its heyday (October 1988), the Compaq SLT/286 seemed uncommonly compact, folding into a neat package and featuring a detachable keyboard as well. This laptop was the first to display VGA (640 by 480 resolution) graphics. It provided 20MB or 40MB of hard-drive storage, an optional 2400-baud internal modem, and 3 hours of battery life (plus an optional, $129, 2-pound backup battery pack). Although 14 pounds doesn’t sound lightweight at all--and although you can find several desktop computers today that are smaller than this laptop’s 8.5-inch-thick frame--the SLT/286 was small for its time, and it's notable for revolutionizing portable displays.
NEC UltraLite (1988)
The NEC UltraLite was perhaps the first machine to resemble today’s laptops--and with its A4-paper size and a weight of only 4 pounds, it was also the first PC to be dubbed a “notebook.” Introduced in 1988, the UltraLite ran MS-DOS. Despite its lightweight portability, the UltraLite wasn’t a great commercial success due to its high cost (up to $5000), its omission of a hard drive, and its relatively slow 8086 processor. But the UltraLite did herald smaller and lighter laptops.
Photo: Obsolete Computer Museum
Apple PowerBook 100 (1991)
Though not Apple’s first laptop computer--that distinction goes to the 15.8-pound Mac Portable--the PowerBook 100 was the company’s first true Mac notebook. Weighing 5.1 pounds and measuring just 1.8 inches thick, the PowerBook 100 sold for several thousand dollars less than its predecessor, coming to the market at $2300 in 1991. Aside from its unusual trackball pointing device, the 9-inch notebook owed its weight reduction and smaller size to lighter plastics, a smaller battery, and the elimination of an internal floppy drive.
Photo: Wikipedia, user Danamania
Toshiba Portege T3400 (1993)
The Portege T3400 was the first laptop to introduce a lithium ion battery, a significant improvement over old nickel-metal hydride batteries in both longevity and lightness. Toshiba also designed the machine's 7.8-inch TFT screen for lower power consumption. The Portege T3400 boasted a 4.5-hour battery and weighed 4 pounds.
DEC HiNote Ultra (1994)
Measuring only an inch thick and weighing under 4 pounds, the HiNote Ultra has the distinction of being the first thin-and-light notebook. DEC outfitted the HiNote Ultra with an 11.1-inch monochrome display, 4MB of RAM, and a 340MB hard drive--decent specs for its day. The HiNote Ultra ran Windows for Workgroups 3.11 on top of MS-DOS, and came with CompuServe installed. Released in 1994, this portable set the new standard for laptops.
Toshiba Libretto 20 (1996)
This subnotebook was an impressive device, offering a 6.1-inch screen, a 486 processor, and 270MB of hard-disk space. The Libretto 20 was the first laptop to run Windows 95 and weigh under 2 pounds. The introduction of Windows 95 is noteworthy in the history of laptop design: Its new standardized advanced power management spec helped optimize battery life on little notebooks like the Libretto, as well as on larger laptops.
Sony VAIO C1 PictureBook (1998)
Sony’s VAIO C1 PictureBook ultraportable had a 8.9-inch display and weighed just 2.2 pounds. Equipped with Windows 98, it featured 3.2GB of hard-drive space, 64MB of memory, and even a 0.27-megapixel webcam. Sony managed to make this PictureBook just 1.2 inches thick by ditching the floppy and CD-ROM drives; forgoing the optical drive is a strategy we’re still seeing today as manufacturers race to create ever-thinner laptops.
Sony VAIO x505 (2003)
The Sony VAIO x505, also known as the “505 Extreme,” was ahead of its time: sleek, ultrathin, and light like the ultraportables of today. By shrinking the motherboard down in size, Sony managed to cut the thickness of the x505 to 0.4 inch at the front--thinner than the MacBook Air--and 0.8 inch at the back. The x505 was possibly the lightest laptop at the time, as well, weighing just 1.8 pounds. Other features of the original “world’s thinnest laptop” include a 10.4-inch XGA display (1024 by 768 pixels), a 1GHz Intel Pentium M processor, and a carbon-fiber or nickel-strengthened carbon case.
Samsung Q1 (2006)
The Q1 was one of the first devices built to the Ultra Mobile PC specification from Microsoft and Intel, with tabletlike features in a small package. How small? The Q1 weighed 1.7 pounds and measured 9.0 inches wide by 5.5 inches high, with a thickness of 1.25 inches. In our first look at the Q1, we thought the Q1 not unlike an Etch-A-Sketch in size and shape. The Q1 and other UMPCs never gained the mass adoption that manufacturers hoped they would, owing to their cramped screens (the Q1 had a 7-inch display with 800-by-480-pixel resolution) and high cost (over $1000).
Asus Eee PC 700 (2007)
The rise of the netbook, starting with the Asus Eee PC 700, proved that portability doesn’t have to mean a premium price. The main merits of the Eee PC 700 were its tiny size (7-inch screen, 2-pound weight) and tiny price tag ($399). The lack of an optical drive helps keep netbooks slim and small, though the Eee PC 700 was a surprisingly thick 1.4 inches.
Apple MacBook Air (2008)
Upon its introduction, Apple’s ultrathin, supersleek MacBook Air made most other laptops look like thick, frumpy boxes. At three-quarters of an inch thick (tapering to 0.16 inch), the aluminum-clad laptop set a new standard for slimness, helped in part by a tiny 1.8-inch hard drive and a smaller version of Intel’s Core 2 Duo processor.
Dell Adamo XPS (2009)
Dell’s response to the MacBook Air was to take its original Adamo ultraportable and slim it down substantially. The result, the Adamo XPS, was a truly impressive piece of high-design PC manufacturing that won high praise for its design--but incredibly short battery life and a starting price of $1800 made it poor competition for the MacBook Air. Unfortunately, Dell ditched the Adamo project due to poor sales.
Samsung Series 9 (2011)
Though many ultrathin laptops have tried to take on the MacBook Air, none have come as close in specs or design as the Samsung Series 9. Before the mid-2011 MacBook Air release, the Series 9 had several advantages over the reigning ultrathin laptop: more memory, a backlit keyboard, and the latest Intel processors. The Series 9 was even a hair thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air. The race to out-thin the competition continues!
Dell XPS 15z (2011)
Even laptops with larger screens and more powerful processors have gone the thin-and-sleek route. The Dell XPS 15z, with a 15.6-inch display, is just 0.97 inch thick. We gave the XPS 15z a rave review for its attractive price compared with the similar Apple MacBook Pro, as well as for its excellent design.
Thin Laptops of Tomorrow
Several other ultrathin laptops have been introduced recently, such as the Sony VAIO Z and a highly anticipated new class of ultraportable laptops called Ultrabooks, including the Asus UX21. And rumors have it that Apple’s upcoming versions of its MacBook Pro will also get a slimmed-down Air treatment.
Ultrathin is definitely in. As technology continues to advance rapidly--producing thinner screens, smaller batteries, and even tinier processors--the wafer-thin laptop trend should continue as well. One thing is for sure: If the past three decades of laptop design progress are any indication, we have some incredibly interesting laptops to look forward to.