Inside the Macintosh Portable

A 20th anniversary teardown of the first mobile Mac--and some reflections on how far we've come.

Posted by  | Sunday, September 20, 2009

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Inside the Mac Portable

A Misunderstood Machine

On September 20th, 1989, Apple released the Macintosh Portable, the first true mobile Mac and a much-maligned machine. It didn’t sell well and is very rare today–not due to any particular design failure, but because the original price was a whopping $6,500-$7,300 ($11,288 to $12,677 in 2009 dollars). It wasn’t the only Mac to cost that much, but others in that price range offered top-of-the-line performance. The Portable was both too expensive and too underpowered to catch on. Its large size didn’t help, either.

Apple vastly improved upon the design two years later with the PowerBook 100, the first true Mac notebook. For now, though, it’s time to honor the design achievements of Apple’s first battery-powered computer. I’ve found there’s no better way to do that than take it apart on my trusty workbench.



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Slides: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

27 Comments For This Post

  1. Bluey Says:

    Really enjoyed reading your article and yes, we and in particular Apple, has come a very long way.

  2. John Menkart Says:

    I have one of these. As far as I know it still works (as of two years ago). It was awesome to be able to carry around my Mac. :-)

  3. Magnus Says:

    Very good article!
    The portable is a very underestimated computer!

    I had two scientist collegues who loved it, especially for the supreme battery power, which was essential for field trips!

    Lead batteries are heavy, but but offered several advanteges over other types in those days.

  4. Geo Says:

    Only one of the ports would still be found on today’s laptops–audio out. What ports will be found on laptops 20 years from now?

  5. lunar Says:

    you seriously expect me to click through EIGHTEEN separate pages, each one with roughly a single paragraph of text on it? not in this lifetime.

  6. Gene Krebs Says:

    Hmmm…I was just starting my MBA coursework in 1989. I still worked on my DEC Rainbow and wrote code in dbase II or III or CBasic Compiler. The very idea of a laptop computer was simply beyond the pale. We were happy to work on PC made by long defunct companies. The exciting news of the day was getting Sideways to print horizontal spreadsheets in Lotus 1-2-3, and learning all of the WordStar codes to insert in our case analyses, such as running the numbers on the costs of debeaking chickens and outfitting them with red eye lenses to keep them from cannibalizing each other. (The answer turns out to be using red lights in the hen house, as was revealed at the end of the case, but what did we know?).

    MIssing from the article was information on which version of Mac OS the portable ran, and a screen shot of the main screen when it booted up and the Apple logo of the day. I finally got into Macs with a PowerMac when it came out. :-)

  7. Gene Krebs Says:

    Wonderful article! Forgot to mention that in my first comment.

  8. Alan Rothberg Says:

    I worked as a tech for ComputerLand during the 1980’s-90’s, where I received my Apple certifications. These were great machines, but certainly had their problems. Many had defective motherboards, and I got to the point I could tear down these units in my sleep :)

    Good article, thanks for the memories!

  9. DanCMos Says:

    Very interesting indeed. I remember using a Compaq Portable at the time. We were selling Saba Handscanners, which were very high-tech. They could read sentences and OCR them into a computer.

    I remember seeing Macs back them vaguely. I now have a MacBook Air and only use PCs at work (government, ugh).

    I too wish you had screen shots.

  10. maclifer Says:

    I, too, have a Portable that I purchased about 6 years ago for nostalgia… even comes with the nifty custom padded case. Not realizing how easy it is to teardown makes me want to dig in and take some pics of it sometime. Thanks!

  11. Paul Says:

    I, too, have one of these. I wonder what they’re worth. Got mine for $300. Still works!

  12. Constable Odo Says:

    Very interesting article. No problem at all to click through 18 pages.

    Now, why don’t they build iMacs and MacMinis with that sort of accessability? Though I’m not sure if Apple really wants people mucking about in their computer’s innards. Just kidding. Apple doesn’t cater to the type of people who are going to be field-stripping their Macs except for the top-of-the-line Mac Pros. I just think it’s slick the way that Portable was designed to be taken apart like that.

  13. Homer J. Fong Says:

    “No problem at all to click through 18 pages.”

    Yeah, but you’re missing the point — there’s NO reason this has to be on 18 separate pages, unless they’re just trying to generate more page views for their advertisers (ya think?).

    In any case, I resent being manipulated like this…like some trained animal being made to jump through hoops, so they’re only getting 2 page views from me. They can take the other 16 pages/paragraphs and shove ‘em.

  14. Harry McCracken Says:

    @homer,

    I’m sorry if you don’t like slideshows, but no hard feelings if you click twice, once, or not at all–and we make the number of slides prominent so you can decide whether you wish to proceed or not. Ultimately it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth your while to click, watch ads on TV, flip past ads in magazines, etc, etc. But if there isn’t a critical mass of people who find these slideshows to be worth a few clicks, it’d be pointless to do ‘em.

    As I’ve said before (and will probably say again) I can’t please everybody so I try to please myself. I find slideshows to be OK, so I do them (and have tweaked the format several times to make them easier to view, and will probably do so again). I don’t like more textual articles being chopped up too much, so I don’t break most stories into multiple pages at all, and when I do, I break them up only every 1000-1200 words or so (at many sites, it’s more like every 400 words). I can’t stand “keyword” ads that involve linking words in stories to popup ads, so you’ve never see them here.

    –Harry

  15. Steve Says:

    On page 18 there’s an error regarding the storage capacity of an iPod touch — it should be “8 to 32 gigabytes” not “8 to 32 megabytes”.

    Great article. I remember seeing one of these behemoths back-in-the-day when I worked for Citibank. They packed an impressive amount of technology inside them for their time, and its nice to see that technology exposed in a teardown.

  16. seanchk Says:

    Great article and images, I was never an Apple user (Amiga for me) but I could always appreciate them and more so now I’ve got an Iphone.

    Amazing how far we’ve come in such a short space of time. Last week I almost purchased a 256GB USB memory stick, my first hard drive was only 20mb and definitely wouldn’t fit in your pocket !!

  17. Jonathan Says:

    and even your post is somewhat outdated so far as the tech goes…it doesn’t reflect the new 32 and 64GB iterations of the iPod Touch…

  18. Hatuxka Says:

    I only ever saw one of these being used once. A writer for one of the bay area computer papers/mags and a prominent BMUG personality (carried it around in a shoulder bag on his bike, I was to read later) had one and was interviewing an exhibitor at MacWorld. He had it partially pulled out of it’s Apple-made soft case and awkwardly propped on a corner of the exhibitors table while typing into it as the guy talked. Knowing it was 16 lbs and that expensive made me think a bit less of the writer. That degree of mac-centeredness was slightly nutty. When he (or was it another at the time similarly popular mac activist/writer?) referred to a “St. Steve”, it no longer sounded tongue-in-cheek, but servile. It was not a mac portable, but a mac luggable, something that was even seen as kinda laughable at the time. What great innovations did it foretell the later advent of? I’m at a loss to think of one. It was an SE stuffed clunkily into a smaller space.

  19. melgross Says:

    Very interesting. I’ve got some old models in my attic. I almost bought one of these, but the idea of carrying it around was too much.

    Don’t mind the 18 pages. but, would like to see a “return to 1st page” option so it’s easier to bookmark.

  20. wakkajawakka Says:

    Lunar didn’t have to time to click through all the pages “in this lifetime”, yet, in this same lifetime, took the time to post a whine about it!

  21. Frederico Says:

    Harry, while I, too, am not a huge fan of multipage articles and slide shows, I will give you credit for making a static-position navigation bar at the TOP of the image, so that I need not move my mouse one pixel to click ‘next’. The slideshows I abandon are the ones where the nav bar dynamically moves about the page based on image size and text; where I have to constantly scroll, hunt and point just to find it lurking beneath every varied image.

    As long as you make your slideshows this easy to click through, I’m happy to give you the ad hits. I even did a click-through to one of your sponsors to show my appreciation. Might even buy what they’re selling.

  22. Harry McCracken Says:

    @Frederico: Yup, I revamped slideshows so you can click without moving your mouse or scrolling–thx for noticing. And yes, our old format WAS a pain…

    –Harry

  23. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    > Knowing it was 16 lbs and that expensive made me think a bit less
    > of the writer. That degree of mac-centeredness was slightly nutty

    He had the last laugh, though, because he’s had the same writing workflow for over 20 years, GUI for over 20 years, laser printing for over 20 years. Now he probably has a MacBook Air which is 1.2 kilos.

    Some people are Mac-centric because they’re creativity-centric, not technology-centric. Using a PC is still hard today, but in 1989 it was ludicrous. And paper has been obsolete since 1984. So forgive some of us who simply aren’t interested in computers but have digital work to do.

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