Mac Portable Turns 20

Apple_MacPortable_System_s1The first-ever mobile Mac is dissected, explained, and weighed against today’s portables to appreciate the progress we’ve made.

The Underestimated Portable

Today, a powerful and efficient laptop computer is available for less than two thousand dollars, and most of us in the technological age own at least one of them.  In 1989, when portable technology was in its infancy, portables were far less affordable.  When Apple’s Macintosh Portable was released on September 20 of that year, the original selling price was an immodest $6,500 to $7, 300.  In 2009 dollars, that translates to almost $13,000 at the high end.

Though it did not sell very well, owing largely to its exorbitant price tag, the unit carries the distinction of being the first true mobile Macintosh computer.  It was not the only computer in its price range, but its competition in that range had considerably higher performance.  In addition to the cost, the Mac portable didn’t catch on due to its clunky size and low power.

Just two years later, Apple tweaked the design to make significant improvements in the pioneer Mac notebook, PowerBook 100.  However, in deference to the twentieth birthday of the venerable Mac Portable, we honor it as the first battery powered computer and take a moment to recognize its design achievements.  The best way to do that, of course, is to take it apart and look at the pieces.

Big Girl

Similar to the attache case sized mobile phones we remember from the 80’s, the unit is quite a bit bulkier and heavier than a modern Mac laptop.  Weighing in at an impressive 16 pounds, the computer measures 15.25” wide by 14.8” deep and, when closed, 4” high.  The largest Mac laptop available today, MacBook Pro, has a similar 15.47” width, but only 10.51” deep and a mere .98” high.  Four MacBook Pro units, stacked on top of each other, would take up less space than one Mac Portable.

The ten-inch screen folds up in the by-now-familiar clamshell case design.  Modern MacBooks have a much larger screen, as well as being completely full-color, as opposed to the Portable’s monochrome display.

Mac portable was designed to run on Mac OS System 6.0.5, and supported up to 7.5.5.  It was also available with Mac OS, pre-installed when the computer was shipped, if the consumer purchased that option.

Apple Wedge

The image presents a right-side view of the Portable, showing off the computer’s wedgelike profile.  On the left side, sandwiched between the fold-out screen and the keyboard, there is the handle for carrying the Portable.  The computer’s 16 pound carrying weight makes the handle a practical necessity.  It protrudes a bit from the computer because in addition to handle duties it serves as the screen’s latch release.  Simply push the handle in, and the screen is locked in place.

On the side, the 3.5” floppy disk drive is clearly visible, and a blast from the past.  At the customer’s discretion, a second floppy drive could replace the hard drive, sitting right on top of the first one.

Ports Aplenty

The standard-equipped Mac Portable came with a heaping helping of ports, all located here on the back wall of the Portable.  In addition to the usual collection of ports one might expect to find on any desktop computer, the Portable also featured a place to insert an RJ-11 telephone connector.

The unit also had a 15-pin D-connection video port.  The connector type is the same as the one used by IBM’s standard VGA model, but beyond that the connector serves its own function completely.  The signals it produces are raw LCD, and if the user wants to use it with any kind of monitor, they needed a convertor box.

Listed from left to right, the ports are as follows:  video, external disc drive input, SCSI, phone jack for the internal modem, ADB, two LocalTalk ports for the printer and for serial input, audio out, and the DC power port.


The Macintosh Portable boasts a simple assembly that fastens together with plastic fasteners that snap together.  It’s easy to take apart for troubleshooting – or for exploration.  The display bezel is the only assembly that is fastened with screws.

In this image the back cover has been removed, revealing the expansion slots, the battery compartment on the right, and on the left the black-finished hard drive.  Explained in greater detail later, the expansion cards go into the cavernous middle area.

Room for Expansion

Here, the battery cover has been removed.  The white box beneath the cover is the lead-acid battery.  A nine volt back-up battery is nestled beside it, designed to maintain memory in the unit during battery switches.  The Portable holds onto its working RAM at all times, never shutting down even in standby mode.

Between the hard drive and the battery compartment are the four expansion connectors.  Farthest left is the PDS, followed by RAM and ROM, with the modem slot farthest right.  Like PDS slots on other Mac units, this one links straight to the CPU.  This makes for great expansion potential.

Two expansion cards are on the table next to the Portable.  The top one is a third-party RAM expansion card, which plugs not into the RAM slot but the PDS one.  Beneath it is a 2400bps Apple modem card.

A Battery with Heft

“Hidden” beneath the iPod Touch is the removable, lead-acid battery of the Macintosh Portable.  At full charge, the battery will power the Portable for between eight and ten hours.  That’s a remarkable battery life, beyond that of most of the very best lithium-ion batteries found in today’s laptops.

However, in exchange for a long battery life, users are obligated to forgive its weight and size.  Removed from the Portable, the battery weighs 2.7 pounds, over ten times the weight of an iPod Touch.  The two-inch deep plastic casing for the battery is big enough to hold six iPod Touches piled on top of each other, with room left over for packing peanuts.  There are few things that more clearly illustrate the progress we’ve made than that.

Removing the Bezel

The keyboard bezel has been removed in this image.  The Portable’s keyboard is full sized, very comparable in both layout and size to the keyboards sold with Apple’s 1989 desktop line.  Like the battery life, this is a surprising advantage of the Portable that has largely disappeared from modern laptops and portables

To the right is the trackball.  This early version of the trackball has only one button, in appearance and usage very much like a space bar.  In application, however, it’s essentially a mouse button – easy to click and accessible to the thumb.

Interchangeable Parts

Part of the Portable’s inherent design included a completely unique feature:  The keyboard and trackball layout could be re-configured according to the needs and preferences of the user.  With nominal effort, the crafty user could remove the trackball and the keyboard and swap their positions in the assembly.  The trackball could be located on either the left or the right side of the keyboard.

The Mac Portable could also be used with an external mouse, making the trackball unnecessary.  In that event, Apple also made a numeric keypad available for sale, which could be placed in the redundant trackball location.

Lefties Rejoice

Here is an image of the Macintosh Portable, after the trackball and the keyboard have switched positions.  Left-handed computer users everywhere can breathe easier and owe a vote of thanks to Apple’s ingenuity.  It isn’t often that one manufacturer includes a design feature that is simultaneously so useful and so unique to itself.  Apple sets itself apart for this nod to user compatibility that none of its competitors were able to duplicate.

Beneath It All

In this image, the motherboard assembly is revealed in its plastic housing.  The LCD display assembly has been taken from the base unit and set aside.

The Portable’s speaker can now be seen, toward the left of the computer’s center.  The case plastic at the bottom of the image is now visible as well.  There are signatures molded into the case plastic, in a secret detail about the Mac Portable that may not be useful, but it’s a wonderful personalization of the computer line by Apple.

Signed in Plastic

The case mold of Macintosh Portable is impressed with signatures.  The names are those of the computer’s development team, affixing their seal of accomplishment on their product.  This design element is not unique to the Portable; the Mac 512K and Mac Plus also carry it, as does the original Macintosh model.  Of course, the signatures can only be viewed from inside the Portable’s case, making them accessible only to the inquisitive or knowledgeable user.

Computer Guts

This image zooms in on the motherboard region of the Macintosh Portable, still assembled within the case.  One can see the snap-together convenience of this computer’s design.  All the internal components of the portable are snapped into the one-piece, molded-plastic casing structure.  In a similar way the plastic casing itself snaps into the outer shell of the portable, at the bottom.

Close-Up of the Drives

Here, both the floppy drive and the hard drive have been removed from the Portable.  To the left of the drives, the Portable’s plastic casing looks progressively emptier,

The hard drive for the Mac Portable, the 40MB CSI, was created specially for the Portable computer model.  Its low power requirements, and its ability to be turned on and off without failing to conserve power in idle moments, makes the drive “significant” in Apple’s estimation.

The floppy drive, which takes 3.5” floppy discs, was shipped in all Mac Portable units.  Apple produced this 1.44MB “SuperDrive,” which carries the same name as Apple’s CD/DVD burner, but is not the same drive.

Instead of the hard drive, customers had the option of purchasing and installing a second 3.5” floppy drive.  The no-hard-drive option made for a savings of about a thousand dollars to the 1989 computer buyer.

The Display Assembly

Surprisingly, the most expensive component of the Mac Portable system is the display.  Seen here, it is a ten-inch diagonal, black and white active-matrix LCD screen.  The 640 by 400 pixel resolution is very high for LCD screens in 1989.  Though the first model of the screen was not backlit, a year later a backlit model was produced.  The Macintosh display, by contrast, had a resolution of 512 by 342 and a nine-inch black and white CRT screen.

This expensive and high-resolution screen was a big departure from the standard offerings of the day.  PC laptops almost universally came with a much less pricey passive-matrix display.  The images on the screen were fuzzy and unclear, making elements like a moving mouse cursor very difficult to make out.  The viewing angle for passive-matrix LCDs is also much narrower.

The Motherboard

Separated from the plastic housing and set aside, the motherboard can now be more closely examined.  As a clear sign of the 1989 level of development, the RAM chips take up nearly the entire right-hand side of the motherboard, and the entirety of the 32 chips only bring 1MB of RAM to the table.  Even considering the age of this unit, it should have been possible to fit more RAM into less space.

That criticism was answered just two years later, when Sony redesigned the Portable to make the PowerBook 100, a smaller version of the Portable.  The intervening two years had seen huge developments in RAM chip densities, which made reducing the RAM section of the motherboard an easy task.


The left-hand side of the previous image is here viewed at a closer angle, revealing the brain center of the Macintosh Portable.  On the right of the image, the large square chip is the Portable’s central processing unit.  This CPU is a 16MHZ Motorola 68hc000, which has two advantages.  Its CMOS nature make it a low-power CPU, ideal for a portable unit.  The chip also runs twice as fast as the 8MHZ 68000 used in the Mac SE.  Though it is decried as sluggish by today’s critics, in that day and age it was a very effective unit for what it was intended to do.

The Mac Iici, released at the same time, used a much faster 25MHZ 68030 CPU.  Though it was faster, it  also made the IIci quite expensive at $6,700, plus the cost of a hard drive.  The Portable opted for cost-effectiveness, to the extent that it opted for a slower and less costly CPU.  The 68030 also was not available in a low-power version, as was the 68000.

Apple’s Epic Journey

Placing the Macintosh Portable alongside its direct descendent, the iPod Touch, is an amazing testament to the swift and tireless nature of technological evolution.  In size alone, comparing a 16-pound briefcase-sized unit to a computer the size of a deck of cards, one must marvel.  The waves of progress are even more evident on the inside.  A 16MHZ CPU, next to Touch’s 412 to 532MHZ CPU.  One megabyte of RAM has expanded to 128 megabytes.  The Portable’s 40MB of fixed memory has mushroomed to as much as 32,000MB.  The 2,400 BPS modem yields the stage to the iPod Touch’s 54 million BPS wireless telephone and network interface.

Most of all, a portable computer sold at today’s value for $12,667, now gives place to the iPod Touch for as little as $99.  Twenty years is all it took to evolve from an electric briefcase to a back-pocket supercomputer.  Of course, holding the Portable against the laptop models of 2009 will show even more signs of how far we’ve come, but the image of the iPod Touch against its groundbreaking ancestor is truly inspiring in itself.

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