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20 Years Ago Today

September 23, 2009 - Dave Hecei
The Mac turned 25 this year. I’ve talked about that first all-in-one Mac a few times – it really did start something new. That first Mac was considered portable since it was fairly small and somewhat light and even had its own carrying case. Five years later Apple created the Macintosh Portable, a product that people still confuse with a laptop computer.

At the time, September 1989, PC laptops were running DOS and had the Intel 286 processor. Apple took the Mac SE and decided to create a more portable version. The Macintosh Portable, even the name gives it away, was not meant to be a laptop. It was quite large, 15.25 x 14.8 x 4 inches and weighed just over 16 pounds, by no means a laptop.

Much of the weight of the Portable was the battery. Instead of using NiCad or similar battery technology, the Portable used a sealed lead acid battery. While this type of battery does not suffer from the ‘memory’ effect that NiCads do, its size is much larger and lead weighs a virtual ton. Lead acid batteries do hold more energy giving the Portable a running time up to 10 hours.

Compared to the popular Mac Plus, the Portable had a bigger screen (640 x 400), faster processor (16 MHz instead of 8 MHz), 1 MB RAM was standard – upgradeable to 9 MB, and a 40 MB hard drive (the Plus had none and the SE had a 20 MB drive). The keyboard was excellent and included a movable large trackball pointing device. This trackball could be removed and a numeric keypad could be placed in that spot. I even remember seeing the trackball could be installed on the left or right side of the keyboard.

You have to remember at the time this computer was pretty revolutionary for Apple. It was the first Mac that was truly portable and could run on battery power. Unfortunately, it did have quite a few drawbacks. Since many people were looking for a ‘laptop’, the size and weight was a factor that couldn’t be overlooked. The first model had no backlight so the screen was, at times, hard to see (this was quickly remedied by creating a backlit model – along with an upgrade kit for original Portables.

The other big problem didn’t show up right away. The design of the power system worked in a way that if the battery was completely dead, or not installed, the Portable would not work. Some workarounds were created, but the Portable was soon sent out to pasture. Just over two years later came the PowerBook 100 series of true laptop Macs. The original PowerBooks were the 100, 140, and 170. This line of laptops would end up changing everything, even in the Windows PC world.


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