Apple's PowerBook reinvented the laptop thirty years ago

Posted:
in General Discussion edited October 21
On October 21, 1991, Apple launched the PowerBook and every other laptop and notebook computer from that day forward to today's MacBook Pro was changed because of it.

In 1991, you wanted this.
In 1991, you wanted this.


Steve Jobs was not responsible, or even present, for every Apple success back in the day. He had nothing to do with the PowerBook, a laptop computer that had Apple's typical way of taking a well-established industry, and completely changing it.

To be fair, though, Apple could have done with Jobs at the launch of the PowerBook 100, PowerBook 140, and PowerBook 170. Perhaps October 2021's MacBook Pro launch was a little overblown with hyperbole, but 1991's PowerBook launch should have been.

Then as now, the new machines had features that were genuinely impressive. Arguably, though, it was the 1991 launch that was the most startling as it was the PowerBook that introduced a built-in mouse, and pushed the keyboard to the back.

The sole reason that does not sound innovative is that it is extraordinarily obvious that doing this gives you a palm rest. It is extraordinarily obvious, but only in retrospect.

Think different

At the time, all PC notebooks and laptops had the keyboard at the front so that when you were in a confined space, the typing angle on your fingers resembled a ballet dancer's feet tapping away.

When you were at a desk, the typing angle meant you held your wrists high until they hurt. The only break you would get is when you reached around to plug in a cable mouse or, so much worse, a kind of Rube Goldberg-machine which clipped a trackball onto the side of the machine.

All of which did give PC notebooks a wide, open space between the keyboard and the screen that was used for... nothing at all.

What Apple did was what Apple famously always does. It thinks through the way that a real person will use a device. It designs the whole thing, the company does not treat design as paint to be slapped on later.

Consequently, there cannot have been any rival notebook manufacturer who saw the launch and didn't immediately wonder how they missed this.

Yet perhaps it's a sign of just where Apple was in the industry, and in its fortunes, at the time. Because where Steve Jobs would have given the launch audience a claptrap - a moment where you are instinctively drawn to applaud -- the 1991 presenters were practically apologetic.




It was as if they were saying look, honestly, this is big, and paradoxically that just made it all seem small. That said, a great part of the presentation was about showing how much smaller PowerBook components were to the previous Macintosh Portable.

Contemporary reviews

Reviews at the time all referred to that Portable's shortcomings as a computer and advantages as a boat anchor. They also praised the PowerBook's keyboard and trackpad design, but back in 1991, it must have still seemed possible that DOS laptops were the future.

"If you use a GUI [Graphical User Interface] to keep your computing tasks sorted out, the Mac does it best, especially for notebook computing," said Byte magazine's review. "The PowerBook's centrally located, built-in trackball favors neither hand and avoids the bolt-on headaches that plague most PC pointing devices."

"The integration of applications with the communications software has no equal," it continued. "I expect PC notebooks, which have already mimicked the Mac's GUI with Windows 3.0, to imitate many PowerBook features."

That reference to communication software is another aspect that now seems trivial, but then was enormous. Apple's PowerBooks made it point-and-click simple to dial in to servers, or desktop Macs, or other PowerBooks, and have full access to the hard drives there.

"But before you start thinking that Apple has captured nirvana in gray - make that 'granite' - plastic," wrote MacUser magazine, "be advised that the PowerBooks do have a few limitations. For instance, there is no built-in support for Ethernet -- nor is it available as an option. This could make connecting to Ethernet networks a problem or be, in Apple-ese. a 'third-party opportunity.'"

MacUser also pointed out that Apple shipped the PowerBook 100 with 2MB of RAM and that this was simply inadequate to run the then-current System 7.0.1.

Original print ad for the PowerBooks in 1991
Original print ad for the PowerBooks in 1991

We've come a long way

As genuinely industry-changing as the PowerBook 100, PowerBook 140, and PowerBook 170 were, it's not as if they were without problems, or that they escaped criticism.

Not surprisingly, they were expensive. Although at the time, all notebook computers were costly enough that Apple was not occupying the highest end.

In 1991's money, the PowerBook 100 started at $2,299, while the PowerBook 140 was from $2,899. The top of the range PowerBook 170 started at $4,599.

In 2021's money, that means the PowerBook 100 cost the equivalent of $4,630. The PowerBook 140 began at $5,838, while the PowerBook 170 was $9,262.

Today the most costly MacBook Pro, the most maxed-out 16-inch MacBook Pro, costs $6,598.98 -- and that's if you also include the Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro that Apple always tries to push you into getting.

That $6,600 or so today gets you an Apple M1 Max with 10-core CPU, 32-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine, 64GB unified memory, and 8TB storage. And a 16.2-inch 3,546 x 2,235 resolution Liquid Retina XDR screen, plus three Thunderbolt 4 ports, HDMI, SDXC card slot, MagSafe, and a backlit keyboard.

In 1991, the top of the range PowerBook 170 included a 40MB backlit active matrix display with a resolution of 640 x 400 pixels, and up to 8MB RAM. Battery life was optimistically estimated at 2-3 hours, compared to the 2021 16-inch MacBook Pro's 21 hours.

The PowerBook 170 was also 6.8 pounds, which was seen as impressive at the time. The 16-inch MacBook Pro today is 4.8 pounds. The 14-inch MacBook Pro is 3.5 pounds.




Problems with the original PowerBooks

All of these differences are of course less about criticizing the original PowerBooks and more about marvelling at how far things have gone. Yet there were actual problems with these first machines, problems that were recognized at the time.

A serious one concerned the PowerBook 100, designed for Apple by Sony, which saw a recall in 1992. Some 60,000 PowerBook 100 units were recalled because an electrical short meant a small hole could be melted in the casing.

Over time, though, people also found that the little plastic door covering up all of the ports on the back would snap off. The little rotating feet on each model weren't the strongest, either.

But in day to day use, there was also the screen. Except for the PowerBook 170, which had an active matrix display, the screens on the PowerBooks were passive.

This meant that if you moved the cursor too quickly, it would disappear, then reappear when you stopped moving it. Some people at the time called this a feature instead of a bug, describing it as a game of Submarine Commander.

Moving on from the originals

All PowerBook screens improved over the 1990s, and added color too. There were models that remain classic favorites to this day, and there were ones that hardly seemed to register even when they were launched.

Nonetheless, the PowerBook was a staple of Apple's success from the launch in 1991 to their demise. In January 2006, the PowerBook was over, and the MacBook Pro began.






By then, Steve Jobs was back at Apple, and he said, "it's a new name because we're kind of done with 'power,' and we want Mac in the name of our products."

Jobs made every moment sound like a triumph and he got applause at every step, but compared to 1991, the new features launched were good, not industry-changing.

Read on AppleInsider

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 17
    22july201322july2013 Posts: 2,659member
    It weighed just 6.8 pounds! It was only 1.8 inches thick so it fit in a briefcase! It came with 2 to 8 megabytes of RAM. It had at least a 16 megahertz CPU! And 20 to 40 megabytes of disk space! Plus at least a 2400 baud modem as a communication option! It also had 2 to 3 hours of battery life!

    Just $2300 to $4600. Actually, that's not much different than today's prices.

    But it did have removable RAM cards, which is something we don't always see today. And it had adjustable legs which also seems like a good feature.

    P.S. Why do so many articles on this website appear in the middle of the night? (That gives me an advantage!)
    edited October 21
  • Reply 2 of 17
    It weighed just 6.8 pounds! It was only 1.8 inches thick so it fit in a briefcase! It came with 2 to 8 megabytes of RAM. It had at least a 16 megahertz CPU! And 20 to 40 megabytes of disk space! Plus at least a 2400 baud modem as a communication option! It also had 2 to 3 hours of battery life!

    Just $2300 to $4600. Actually, that's not much different than today's prices.

    But it did have removable RAM cards, which is something we don't always see today. And it had adjustable legs which also seems like a good feature.

    P.S. Why do so many articles on this website appear in the middle of the night? (That gives me an advantage!)

    there are some people who live outside the US (you know, the world's slightly bigger than the USA) and there may be AI journalists who are writing from a different time zone. if I'd have an international online magazine, I'd mix my journalists so that they'd cover the most timezones possible.
    muthuk_vanalingam
  • Reply 3 of 17
    vedelppa said:
    It weighed just 6.8 pounds! It was only 1.8 inches thick so it fit in a briefcase! It came with 2 to 8 megabytes of RAM. It had at least a 16 megahertz CPU! And 20 to 40 megabytes of disk space! Plus at least a 2400 baud modem as a communication option! It also had 2 to 3 hours of battery life!

    Just $2300 to $4600. Actually, that's not much different than today's prices.

    But it did have removable RAM cards, which is something we don't always see today. And it had adjustable legs which also seems like a good feature.

    P.S. Why do so many articles on this website appear in the middle of the night? (That gives me an advantage!)
    there are some people who live outside the US (you know, the world's slightly bigger than the USA)
    I certainly know that the world is bigger than the USA, because I don't live in the US.

    It's curious that you should refer to the same country by two different names in the same sentence. I've previously read the US constitution to figure out if that country's name is legally "United States" or "United States of America." And I think I found both terms in their constitution. So we don't know which name is the legal one. I think I'd like to ask the average American if their constitution calls their country the United States or the United States of America, to see what the average American thinks of their own country's legal name.
    vedelppa
  • Reply 4 of 17
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 3,441member
    vedelppa said:
    It weighed just 6.8 pounds! It was only 1.8 inches thick so it fit in a briefcase! It came with 2 to 8 megabytes of RAM. It had at least a 16 megahertz CPU! And 20 to 40 megabytes of disk space! Plus at least a 2400 baud modem as a communication option! It also had 2 to 3 hours of battery life!

    Just $2300 to $4600. Actually, that's not much different than today's prices.

    But it did have removable RAM cards, which is something we don't always see today. And it had adjustable legs which also seems like a good feature.

    P.S. Why do so many articles on this website appear in the middle of the night? (That gives me an advantage!)
    there are some people who live outside the US (you know, the world's slightly bigger than the USA)
    I certainly know that the world is bigger than the USA, because I don't live in the US.

    It's curious that you should refer to the same country by two different names in the same sentence. I've previously read the US constitution to figure out if that country's name is legally "United States" or "United States of America." And I think I found both terms in their constitution. So we don't know which name is the legal one. I think I'd like to ask the average American if their constitution calls their country the United States or the United States of America, to see what the average American thinks of their own country's legal name.
    I don't know if I'm average, but I think the official name is "United States of America" which gets shortened to "United States" out of convenience (or laziness.) Sometimes it just gets shortened to 'Merica. 

    As far as AI goes, I've noticed that new stories will get posted on Sunday evening (in the U.S.) I assumed AI (or at least some of their writers) were based in Asia.
  • Reply 5 of 17
    GeorgeBMacGeorgeBMac Posts: 10,730member
    Just to compare how far this came:  In 1986 I had to set up an online demonstration of a computer system for 20-30 executives of a steel company up in Detroit.  To do so I had to use bleeding edge technology:

    I lugged a state of the art "portable computer" up to Detroit.   I was a 40 pound Compaq the size of a small overnight suitcase.  The keyboard clipped onto the front of it and was connected by a cord.  It also had a black & white screen about 3-4 inches square.

    There was of course no mouse or trackpad since this was all done with DOS.

    For a "Projector" I used a Kodak screen transparency that laid on top of an overhead projector and was connected to the laptop via (I think) a serial cable.

    Going form that to having something with a real screen, mouse and keyboard all in a single unit that could sit on your lap was like a moon shot in comparison -- just 5 years later.  
    The pace of computer technology advancements back then was mind boggling.
    muthuk_vanalingamwatto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 17
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 9,638member
    There are probably many amazing things in the minds of engineers and industrial designers that cannot be manufactured today because the technology to build them doesn’t exist yet. Today’s laptops had to wait for chip manufacturing to shrink the size of components, for example.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 17
    d_2d_2 Posts: 100member
    Just to compare how far this came:  In 1986 I had to set up an online demonstration of a computer system for 20-30 executives of a steel company up in Detroit.  To do so I had to use bleeding edge technology:

    I lugged a state of the art "portable computer" up to Detroit.   I was a 40 pound Compaq the size of a small overnight suitcase.  The keyboard clipped onto the front of it and was connected by a cord.  It also had a black & white screen about 3-4 inches square.

    There was of course no mouse or trackpad since this was all done with DOS.

    For a "Projector" I used a Kodak screen transparency that laid on top of an overhead projector and was connected to the laptop via (I think) a serial cable.

    Going form that to having something with a real screen, mouse and keyboard all in a single unit that could sit on your lap was like a moon shot in comparison -- just 5 years later.  
    The pace of computer technology advancements back then was mind boggling.
    Great story!  It really was a crazy and fun time to watch the advancements in personal electronics, especially from the mid-70’s calculators to Atari 2600 to home PCs within a handful of years.
    GeorgeBMacwatto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 17
    MplsP said:
    vedelppa said:
    It weighed just 6.8 pounds! It was only 1.8 inches thick so it fit in a briefcase! It came with 2 to 8 megabytes of RAM. It had at least a 16 megahertz CPU! And 20 to 40 megabytes of disk space! Plus at least a 2400 baud modem as a communication option! It also had 2 to 3 hours of battery life!

    Just $2300 to $4600. Actually, that's not much different than today's prices.

    But it did have removable RAM cards, which is something we don't always see today. And it had adjustable legs which also seems like a good feature.

    P.S. Why do so many articles on this website appear in the middle of the night? (That gives me an advantage!)
    there are some people who live outside the US (you know, the world's slightly bigger than the USA)
    I certainly know that the world is bigger than the USA, because I don't live in the US.

    It's curious that you should refer to the same country by two different names in the same sentence. I've previously read the US constitution to figure out if that country's name is legally "United States" or "United States of America." And I think I found both terms in their constitution. So we don't know which name is the legal one. I think I'd like to ask the average American if their constitution calls their country the United States or the United States of America, to see what the average American thinks of their own country's legal name.
    I don't know if I'm average, but I think the official name is "United States of America" which gets shortened to "United States" out of convenience (or laziness.) Sometimes it just gets shortened to 'Merica. 

    As far as AI goes, I've noticed that new stories will get posted on Sunday evening (in the U.S.) I assumed AI (or at least some of their writers) were based in Asia.
    I also heard people say "The States".
  • Reply 9 of 17
    GeorgeBMacGeorgeBMac Posts: 10,730member
    d_2 said:
    Just to compare how far this came:  In 1986 I had to set up an online demonstration of a computer system for 20-30 executives of a steel company up in Detroit.  To do so I had to use bleeding edge technology:

    I lugged a state of the art "portable computer" up to Detroit.   I was a 40 pound Compaq the size of a small overnight suitcase.  The keyboard clipped onto the front of it and was connected by a cord.  It also had a black & white screen about 3-4 inches square.

    There was of course no mouse or trackpad since this was all done with DOS.

    For a "Projector" I used a Kodak screen transparency that laid on top of an overhead projector and was connected to the laptop via (I think) a serial cable.

    Going form that to having something with a real screen, mouse and keyboard all in a single unit that could sit on your lap was like a moon shot in comparison -- just 5 years later.  
    The pace of computer technology advancements back then was mind boggling.
    Great story!  It really was a crazy and fun time to watch the advancements in personal electronics, especially from the mid-70’s calculators to Atari 2600 to home PCs within a handful of years.
    That's a good point!
    The invention of the calculator was a revolution.   In the early 70's when I started in accounting I had a mechanical adding machine and a mechanical Marchent Calculator the size of an old style cash register with all the buttons.  

    Within a few years, by the late 70's calculators had swept all that away just as the internal combustion engine swept away horse drawn carriages.  And, shortly after that I was using a Sharp hand held computer with the basic program stored on a cassette to do complex calculations.

    But, following the marvels NASA produced, that amazing pace of advancement seemed natural rather than miraculous.

    watto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 17


    Yet perhaps it's a sign of just where Apple was in the industry, and in its fortunes, at the time. Because where Steve Jobs would have given the launch audience a claptrap - a moment where you are instinctively drawn to applaud -- the 1991 presenters were practically apologetic
    While not quite the Job's presentation with all the clowning around but the presentation itself was amazing. It has all the elements of a modern Apple presentation. Can't believe I haven't seen this one before

    watto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 17
    The PowerBook was ‘designed by Sony.’ What it would be nice to know is if Sony just designed the innards —electronics— or the change of keyboard position was done by Apple or Sony.

    On the Apple's side, there is another story about this ‘change of vision.’ When designing the original Macintosh, they wanted a ‘luggable’ computer —‘portables’ were only in the realm of sci-fi—. The ‘model’ was the Osborne 1, a big horizontal box, the size of a full keyboard, that was the cover of the front of the machine.
    The legend tells us that Apple's engineers were working with a cardboard model of and horizontal box… and someone turned it vertically… And the original Macintosh was born.

    ‘Creativity is seen things in a different way.’ Steve Jobs
    elijahgwatto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 17
    chadbagchadbag Posts: 1,521member
    I remember the original Mac portable from the late 80s.  That was a marvel back then, though the PowerBooks were a "miracle" in comparison.   I didn't own a Mac Portable but remember when I was working at DEC and a guy on the DEC LANWorks to Macintosh networking software team, with whom I had previously worked,  called and asked if I could come down to Littleton and write a simple VMS app that they could use with the Mac LANWorks announcement at DECWorld (trade show) -- show a VMS app updating some data, then the same data being updated on the Mac, then show the Mac changed data on VMS again.  So I went down and spent a day and a night with an Apple VP, some Apple engineers, and the DEC LANWorks engineers getting the announcement demo working.  They had a Mac portable I got to play with and for the time it came out it was amazing (if limited).   Just a few short years later they had released the PowerBooks.  It was an exciting time for Mac enthusiasts.  I ended up buying the PowerBook Duo 230, my only non-PPC/Intel Mac laptop / notebook I ever owned.  The PowerBook Duo line first came out about a year after the PB 100/140/170.   I had gone back to school on a leave of absence when those machines came out.  I played with one every chance I got at the bookstore but didn't have the money.  Fun times.  
    narwhalwatto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 17
    1348513485 Posts: 194member
    My long-retired PB 140 still works, assuming you don't want to connect to the internet. I used it until I got my big Pismo Mac G3--that was a beauty and a workhorse. It also still works, albeit more slowly than I'm now accustomed to. So much to like.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 17
    My first ever laptop (and my 2nd Mac) was the 2nd generation Powerbook ... the 160, purchased around October 1992.   It certainly was a nice machine for its time.  And I still own it, though I don't think it powers on anymore.

    Fun comparison between my first Mac laptop and, 29 years later, my on-order 2021 MBP:

    RAM  
    Powerbook 160: 4mb
    MBP 2021: 32gb (~8000x)

    Hard drive
    Powerbook 160: 40 mb
    MBP 2021: 1 tb (~25000x)

    CPU transistors:
    Moto 68030: 273,000
    M1 Pro: 33,700,000,000  (~123,000x)



     
    muthuk_vanalingamwatto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 17
    mike1mike1 Posts: 2,815member
    d_2 said:
    Just to compare how far this came:  In 1986 I had to set up an online demonstration of a computer system for 20-30 executives of a steel company up in Detroit.  To do so I had to use bleeding edge technology:

    I lugged a state of the art "portable computer" up to Detroit.   I was a 40 pound Compaq the size of a small overnight suitcase.  The keyboard clipped onto the front of it and was connected by a cord.  It also had a black & white screen about 3-4 inches square.

    There was of course no mouse or trackpad since this was all done with DOS.

    For a "Projector" I used a Kodak screen transparency that laid on top of an overhead projector and was connected to the laptop via (I think) a serial cable.

    Going form that to having something with a real screen, mouse and keyboard all in a single unit that could sit on your lap was like a moon shot in comparison -- just 5 years later.  
    The pace of computer technology advancements back then was mind boggling.
    Great story!  It really was a crazy and fun time to watch the advancements in personal electronics, especially from the mid-70’s calculators to Atari 2600 to home PCs within a handful of years.

    Yes. The entire consumer electronic industry was fun to be around in the mid-70's to late 80's.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 16 of 17
    22july201322july2013 Posts: 2,659member
    As a child, a few years before the IBM PC desktop was invented, IBM had a portable PC called "IBM 5100" (costing almost $20,000) which I got to borrow (from my Dad's contacts at IBM) for a week or two. I programmed a 5000 line computer game (in BASIC; the machine also had APL) which I called Star Wars on it (which had just come out.)

    Hmm, I just typed up, then erased, the list of prizes I won for that program because listing them makes me look like an egotistical jerk. The game was loosely based on the 1971 Star Trek game (but mine was much better.) Links below.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_5100 <--
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek_(1971_video_game) <--
    elijahgravnorodom
  • Reply 17 of 17
    bala1234 said:


    Yet perhaps it's a sign of just where Apple was in the industry, and in its fortunes, at the time. Because where Steve Jobs would have given the launch audience a claptrap - a moment where you are instinctively drawn to applaud -- the 1991 presenters were practically apologetic
    While not quite the Job's presentation with all the clowning around but the presentation itself was amazing. It has all the elements of a modern Apple presentation. Can't believe I haven't seen this one before

    This was a presentation for Apple employees at the Flint Center at De Anza College - very close to the Apple campus in Cupertino - so it was quite casual.  This happened several days before the official introduction at COMDEX. I didn't realize this video was still around! (I am one of the two product managers presenting).
    watto_cobrabala1234
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