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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

20 Macs for 2020: #11 – Macintosh Portable

Note: This story has not been updated since 2020.

Mac Portable

In the 1980s, using a computer was all about sitting at a desk. Mobility in computing meant putting your files on a disk and taking the disk to a different (but compatible) computer. When I was in college, I bought a big padded case that was designed to fit any classic Mac, so I could carry my computer home with me for holidays. The luxury! It made my 17-pound Mac SE a “portable” computer.

There were early portable computers available that ran all sorts of operating systems, but for the Mac, the padded carrying case was as portable as things got until the fall of 1989, when Apple introduced a Mac that was slightly more amenable to be moved from place to place than my Mac SE—the Macintosh Portable.

Enter the ‘luggable’

Portable with Rainbow Apple logo

The Macintosh Portable was groundbreaking, while also being a colossal misfire. In many ways, it illustrated all the decisions that a company like Apple had to make in those days when it came to building a portable computer—and many of those decisions were simply the wrong ones.

If this seems like criticism that comes from the privileged position of being an observer three decades in the future, I’ll point out that in the Mac Portable’s launch cover story in Macworld, writer Bruce F. Webster summoned up the courage to write that the Mac Portable “certainly isn’t a failure.” Damned with the faintest of praise.

From an engineering standpoint, the Mac Portable is fascinating. Apple essentially jammed an entire Mac SE, including pretty much every port—yes, even the enormous floppy and SCSI ports—into a polycarbonate enclosure. There was also a lead-acid battery, a full-sized keyboard, a trackball, and a 640×400 active-matrix LCD screen.

All the ports.

As a result, the thing was enormous—15 inches by 15 inches, and four inches thick (tapering to two inches at the narrow end), and weighed 16 pounds. At the press launch event for the product, Apple was careful to refer to it as a portable, not as a laptop—because (truth in advertising) this thing was not going to sit on anyone’s lap. It was immediately dubbed a “luggable” in the press. It was more portable than my SE in its carrying case, but not by much. (It also cost $7,300, or more than $15,000 in today’s dollars!)

That lead-acid battery weighed a ton, but thanks to it and the power-management techniques Apple built into the Mac Portable—including the Mac’s first sleep mode—it got somewhere between six and twelve hours of battery life. (If you could load everything into RAM and keep the hard drive from spinning up, you could hit the high side of this total. Years later, when I used an early PowerBook, this trick was still the name of the game. Hard drives were battery killers.)

The screen was really quite good. Active-matrix LCDs were crisp and readable, basically the E Ink of their day. Most importantly, they refreshed the screen immediately, eliminating an unfortunate effect called “ghosting” that was found on cheaper passive-matrix LCDs. The ghosting effect created a little ghost image of your cursor that would follow the real cursor around the screen as you moved it. There was none of that on the Mac Portable.

Yes, the Portable’s display was black-and-white, but that was par for the course back then. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a backlight, so while you could travel with the Mac Portable, you could only use it in a well-lit room. (Later Apple offered a variant with a backlight, and a kit to add a backlight to older models, but it really ate into the computer’s battery life.)

The Mac Portable’s keyboard was also really good. It was modeled on the standard Mac keyboards of the period, and was truly desktop class, with clacky ALPS keyswitches offering a lot of key travel.

The Mac Portable keyboard is classic ALPS perfection.

The keyboard configuration was remarkably open to the needs of its potential users, too. By default, the keyboard was placed to the left, with a trackball (used as the pointing device) to the right. But you could optionally flip the orientation, so a left-handed user could (after popping open a bunch of plastic latches, something you were advised to let your local Apple reseller do for you) place the trackball to the left and the keyboard to the right. Apple even sold a numeric keypad, designed to go in the space taken up by the trackball—so if you preferred a numpad and were willing to use an external mouse, you could set up your Mac Portable that way.

The Mac Portable is one of the most notable Macs ever because it was Apple’s first attempt to make a portable Mac, because it looks like no other Mac ever made, and because it was a complete failure.

Reading the coverage of the release of the first PowerBooks in 1991 makes it clear that after the smoke had cleared, nobody who took the Mac seriously thought the Mac Portable was anything but a flop. “If you weren’t around for the Mac Portable fiasco two years ago, Apple couldn’t afford to make the same half-baked mistake twice,” wrote MacUser editor in chief Jon Zilber.

MacUser cover
The infamous Mac Portable cover.

Speaking of MacUser, I need to mention the cover of its November 1989 issue, which introduced the Mac Portable. By the time I arrived at MacUser as an intern in the summer of 1993, this cover had become legendary—or to be more accurate, infamous. It features a woman in a red swimsuit and sunglasses, sitting on a floating pool chair, with a cordless phone to one ear, a drink and some documents on one arm of the chair, and a Mac Portable on the other.

The idea that you’d tenuously place an expensive laptop on a pool chair is no more hilariously wrong today than it was back then, though it certainly illustrated the point. But I am led to believe that many of the editors at MacUser, then led by publisher and editorial director Paul Somerson, felt that Somerson pushed sexist imagery on the cover of a computer magazine a bit too often. A brief survey of early-90s MacUser covers reveals at least two others that show the bodies (or body parts) of women in alluring poses. The Mac Portable cover is the least sexy of the lot, mostly because that poor woman looks like she may be about to tip over into the pool, taking her enormous laptop and its lead-acid battery with her.

(Macworld’s cover, in contrast, features two Mac Portables on a black table with a nondescript background. This contrast, while extreme, is not a bad example of the difference between the two U.S. Mac magazines in the early ’90s—one a fun group of rebels who sometimes made questionable decisions, the other a more restrained group of professionals. Whether you considered MacUser sophomoric or Macworld boring was a matter of taste. I was a MacUser subscriber and employee years before I worked at Macworld, so you know where I stood.)

Let’s try this again

Two years after the release of the Mac Portable, Apple finally got the laptop right with the introduction of the first PowerBooks. But while two of those first PowerBook models were the wave of the future, the third was a retread of the past.

In the early 1990s, everyone—including Apple—stood in awe of the electronics miniaturization prowess of Sony. Sony cameras packed shocking amounts of tech into tiny places. This was an era where Japanese dominance of electronics manufacturing was unquestioned, and so Apple had the idea of solving the Mac Portable problem by more or less handing the guts of the Mac Portable over to Sony and asking them to shrink it down to a more acceptable size.

The truth, as someone who worked at Apple during this period told me, is that the geniuses at Sony who built those cameras weren’t the ones assigned by the massive Sony bureaucracy to build a laptop for Apple. The PowerBook 100 was smaller and lighter than the other PowerBooks, but it was sadly underpowered. It used a clocked-up version of the same Motorola 68000 processor found in the Mac SE and Mac Portable at a time when Apple was introducing super-fast desktop Macs with processors a couple of generations ahead.

The PowerBook 100 also omitted the floppy disk drive completely, which made sense from a space- and weight-saving perspective. And the PowerBook 100’s size and weight did make it a cult machine for those who desired the ultimate in Mac portability. But as I wrote regarding the PowerBook Duo, this was an era when getting your files from point A to point B generally required a floppy disk. Having to tote an external floppy drive around with your laptop negated the point of having a thin and light laptop.

Product reviews called out the 100 as basically “a slimmed-down Mac Portable.” That wasn’t a compliment. Those other PowerBooks were notable in so many ways. The PowerBook 100 picked up their styling, but it was the goose among ducks: Based on a failure, redesigned in error, and doomed to always be found wanting.

That’s half my list! I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to start the top ten.

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