How Far We Have Come!

PortableCloseupMy Macintosh Portable arrived this week (I have never seen that many packing peanuts in one box), and it is certainly a trip down memory lane. What is interesting is comparing it to the state of the art today with vintage portable computing from the past.

Old and New

Here is the Macintosh Portable alongside the smallest MacBook, specifically an 11″ MacBook Air. The size differences are certainly dramatic.


And here is another view, showing the overall size of the machines.


What’s equally incredible are the performance differences. First, consider the specifications of the two machines:

Component 11″ MacBook Air Macintosh Portable
Year Introduced 2010 1991
Processor 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo (64 bit) 16MHz Motorola 68000 (32 bit)
Memory 4 GB 4 MB
Storage 128GB SSD 40MB HDD
Display 11.6″ 1366×768 Colour LCD 9.8″ 640×400 Monochrome LCD
Dimensions (inches) 0.11-0.68 x 11.8 x 7.65 4.0 x 15.25 x 14.8
Weight 2.3 lbs 15.8 lbs

The obvious difference is that now we talk about “giga” instead of “mega” (and “tera” is appearing more and more). Of course, we could go into the details of FLOPS and MIPS and such, but the numbers are so vastly different, it isn’t even funny.

Of course, we are comparing machines that were introduced about 2 decades apart. The Macintosh Portable that I now have (model M5126) was an upgrade from the original Macintosh Portable introduced in 1989, so it was already a 2-year old model. The first PowerBooks debuted in 1991 alongside the upgraded Macintosh Portable. While this older machine is ostensibly a machine from 1991, it is really a machine from 1989.

From Portable To Laptop To Notebook

Computers of similar size and power as the original Portable had been around in that same timeframe (the IBM PC Convertible was comparable in size, and it was introduced in 1986), but “laptops” were also starting to appear in the mid-1980’s. For example, I had an HP 110 in 1985 (I used it during my last year of university). It was pretty heavy, and didn’t do much more than word processing, spreadsheets and terminal emulation, but it was “portable computing” of a sort.

Real “notebook” computers started to arrive at the time the last Macintosh Portable model was available. These new machines had superior displays and far greater portability, so machines like the Macintosh Portable did not really last that long. As with everything in computing, we’ve seen improvements in performance and features. Batteries lasted longer (although, for a time, they seemed to peak at 2-4 hours of unplugged operation), screens gained in resolution and quality, and weight was dropped. As with their desktop brethren, processing power, memory and local storage continued to grow.

Portable Computing Nirvana?

Today, we have the kind of portable computing I wanted back when I was a computer science student in the mid-1980’s. My dream was a highly-portable machine running UNIX (or something like it) that would allow me to work where I wanted, when I wanted.

That now exists. Even the least expensive MacBooks are capable of running XCode, Eclipse, IntelliJ or even just emacs in a terminal window. Batteries can last for hours, all day if you manage it right. Carrying these tiny but powerful machines is no issue. It took 3 decades, but the kind of computing I had always been hoping for is here.

That being said, I can take a trip back in time whenever I want. With my Macintosh Plus, SE/30 and Macintosh Portable, I can see just how far we’ve come.