Top Ten List: Classic Laptops

Top Ten List: Classic Laptops

John C. Dvorak

Once in a while it’s good to remember the computer classics, in order to see how far we’ve come in making these devices more fun and more useful. I’m going to illustrate the utility of this by citing what I believe are some of the great products of yesterday. Readers are invited to toss in other suggestions or weigh in with their own top 10 lists.

I’ll begin with a list of what I believe to be the top 10 laptop or notebook computers. I am specifically referring to portable, battery-operated laptop/notebook computers. These criteria call for leaving out the famous GriD Computer of the early 1980s and various plug-in Toshiba machines, although those did influence future designs:

The Top 10 Classic Laptops<

10. TRS-80 Model 100 (1983). This machine would be higher on the list if future computers had emulated its shape, but its influence on the market was unmistakable. It was probably the first machine to be used widely by professional writers. This was a small single-piece unit with an eight-line monochrome LCD. It was derived from the NEC-8201, which was not seriously marketed in the USA.

9. Toshiba T-1000 (1987). Listed for its popularity and price. A well-made monochrome unit that pushed in the lightweight (3.5kg) direction.

8. Zenith laptops. By today’s standards, these laptops were heavy clunkers, but in their day they were stylish and trendy. They set the stage for today’s clamshell designs. These machines dominated the scene in the late 1980s.

7. The first HP laptop (1984). This $3,000 unit was one of the most ambitious offerings ever produced by HP. Ahead of its time in every way, it also had Lotus 1-2-3 bundled into the ROM on the machine, making it very fast to work with. Curiously, this laptop/portable unit is no longer listed on HP’s corporate-history timeline. One also has to note the HP-75 series (1982), which others consider as the first HP laptops.

6. IBM 5140 Convertible (1986). Selling for a reasonable $1,975, this machine triggered more interest in lightweight machines only because it was from IBM. In fact, it was not a true laptop. It was something of a clunker, especially when docked with its printer.

5. Poquet (1991-1992). The first real example of a super-small full-featured computer, an amazing unit ahead of its time. Atari followed with its Portfolio. This shape never got much further than those two models, which have evolved into the Palm and other more modern machines.

4. Toshiba Porteges. For a number of years Toshiba dominated the laptop arena with a line of ambitious lightweight units called Porteges. This line became so important that Toshiba continues the brand to this day.

3. IBM ThinkPads (1992-present). I’m grouping these together as one, since nearly every one since the original was a classic. Only the odd units with a “butterfly” keyboard were dubious. Nearly all the rest were huge successes that catapulted IBM to the top in laptop design and popularity.

2. Texas Instruments LT286/CompuAdd Companion (circa 1990). The first modern superlightweight machines. I consider them to be among the most important computers ever built, as they initiated the true ultra-lightweight movement in an era where people were demanding that floppy-disk drives be in the machine. These were hard-disk notebook-style machines before anyone had imagined that this would be the permanent direction of the future. Fabulous for their era.

1. The NEC Ultralite (1989). This is the classic that set the stage for everything that came after. The original Ultralite still has features that we’ll probably see again someday, such as silicon-based mass storage rather than a hard disk. This was probably the classiest machine you could use in its day. It remains, at least in my thinking, the machine that forever changed portable computing.

What has consistently interested me until this day was the length of time that it took to finally get these machines right. All of today’s laptops owe a debt to these classics.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in PC Magazine.