Monday 23 September 2019

Apple Macintosh Portable (1989)

Apple Macintosh Portable
Launched September 1989

Launched five years after the original Macintosh, the Apple Macintosh Portable was the first truly portable Mac, a device that prioritised performance over everything else and ended up as a notable but rather heroic failure for Apple.

Here was an extremely elegant all-in-one device, although the sheer bulk of the thing and the hefty 7.2 kilogram weight pushed the definition of “portable” even thirty years ago. Once opened up the central feature was the 9.8” active matrix display – a very rare technology at the time – giving a pin-sharp and very usable 640 x 480 pixel monochrome display. Below was a decently-sized keyboard and a trackball that could be swapped around according to the user’s preferences.

Inside was a venerable Motorola 68000 processor running at 16MHz with up to 9GB of SRAM which made the Macintosh Portable a very fast Mac indeed for its day. Typically the Macintosh Portable would have a 40MB hard disk and possibly a modem. A 3.5” floppy disk drive was included as standard.

The Macintosh Portable could run on either AC power or the internal lead acid batteries which could give an astonishing 10 hours of runtime. These batteries were one of the main contributors to the size and weight of the thing, and indeed they were the Mac Portable’s biggest flaw.

Unlike a modern laptop, the battery was wired in series to the AC supply which meant that if the battery was discharged, the unit wouldn’t power up… even if connected to the mains. In the longer term it meant that Mac Portables with defective batteries couldn’t be used at all. Complicated workarounds exist to bypass or replace the batteries which have not been available as a replacement part for years.

It was an impressive piece of equipment, but the price was pretty eye-watering. A hard disk model cost about $7300 (equivalent to $15,000 or £12,000 today) and the original flat panel display on the M5120 model lacked a backlight which was fixed in the later M5126 at the expense of battery life.

It didn’t sell particularly well despite having a huge amount of press coverage, probably down to being just too expensive, just too bulky and just too flawed to make it desirable. The Macintosh Portable line spent just two years on the market before being replaced by the PowerBook 100 which was designed in partnership with Sony which was half the weight and one third of the price.

Although it was deemed a failure, the Macintosh Portable’s uncompromising design introduced advanced features that proved to be something to be aspired to. Today these Macs are rather rare and very collectable if in working condition, with typical prices starting at £1000. Even so, working around the battery issue is a major headache in any Mac Portable restoration and is best done by someone with the appropriate skill and lots of patience.

Image credit: Credit: BenoƮt Prieur - CC-BY-SA

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