Milestone: 20th Anniversary of Portable Mac Era


Today marks the 20th anniversary of the original release of the Macintosh Portable — the first truly untethered Mac, thanks to its internal battery.

There’s a quote attributed to Steve Jobs: “Do not trust a computer that you cannot lift.” The original compact desktop Macs were offered with an optional carrying case, and some pioneer Mac-users did lug them around, but analogous to the tiny Mac mini today, they couldn’t be considered truly portable due to the necessity of a wall-current umbilical.
The Mac Portable development project was launched in 1986, not long before Steve Jobs’ departure from Apple (s aapl), and the product was first released for sale on September 20, 1989. It was featured on the cover of the November 1989 edition of MacUser magazine, which called it “by far the most complex piece of machinery devised by sale by Apple computer.”
While it incorporated a laptop-style foldable form factor with a front-mounted carry handle/lockdown lever, the Mac Portable weighed only about a pound less than contemporaneous Mac Compact desktops — a hefty 16 pounds, due partly to it having a robust lead-acid battery. It wasn’t cheap either, selling for a likewise heavyweight $6,500 — or $7,300 with an optional hard drive.
Internally, the Mac Portable had a 16MHz Motorola 68HC000 processor chip, an internal 1.4MB 3.5-inch floppy drive, a 40MB 3.5″ hard drive, and a whopping 1MB of RAM, expandable to 9MB but unfortunately in an oddball 30ns SRAM card (one slot) module format. The monitor screen was a crisp 9.8″ 1-bit active matrix, 640×400, LCD — initially without backlighting — and there was also a video output port for driving an external monitor. The upside of that heavy lead-acid battery was a very respectable five-to-10 hour charge life.
Also included were an ADB port for a keyboard and mouse, DIN-8 serial ports for printer and modem connections, and a DB-25 SCSI connector. An internal modem was optional. An interesting trivia note is that the Portable was the first Mac to ship with a pre-formatted hard drive and a pre-installed operating system.
Apple added a backlight to the Macintosh Portable in February 1991 and also increased the standard RAM to 2MB or 4MB, changed the RAM ceiling to 8MB, and replaced the expensive SRAM chips with less-expensive pseudo-SRAM, although the pseudo-SRAM and backlighting reduced battery life.
The Mac Portable was replaced by the PowerBook models 100, 140, and 170 in October 1991 — the 100 slimmed down to five pounds — launching the modern laptop computer era with a form factor essentially the same as the one still dominant today. However, the Portable gets credit for pioneering the battery-powered Mac concept. Happy Anniversary!