The evolution of Apple’s laptops, from the PowerBook to the MacBook Pro – Macworld

In a moment of somewhat unexpected nostalgia at its most recent media event, Apple pointed out that it was the 25th anniversary of the PowerBook. (It’s good to know that, 27 years later, Apple still would rather nobody remember the Mac Portable.) I’ve been a Mac laptop user since the original PowerBook era. That ancient history is my history. Since 1991, Apple has gone through seven distinct eras when it comes to its laptop strategy and design.

The classics: The 680×0 era

The original PowerBooks (and, sure, the Mac Portable) used the Mac’s original processor, the Motorola 680×0 series. The first generation of PowerBooks took the world by storm, which is why it’s their anniversary that Apple noted. I distinctly remember a magazine story attentively describing entertainment-industry executive Barry Diller hobnobbing at an L.A. restaurant with his PowerBook on the table in front of him.

8 powerbook 100

PowerBook 100

My first PowerBook was from this era, though it wasn’t in the original generation, but in the second wave, released in 1992. In the fall of 1992 I was a grad student, and my rationale for buying a PowerBook at The Scholars Workstation–UC Berkeley’s campus computer store–was that I could write stories anywhere, not just on my Mac SE back at my apartment. I got the message that my PowerBook 160 (capable of displaying 16 shades of gray!) had arrived for pickup the day after I went home sick for two weeks with mono. It would’ve been the perfect time to break in my PowerBook…but instead I wrote a bunch of short stories in longhand.

This era also saw the introduction of the PowerBook Duo, one of the most interesting Macs ever made. It was a legitimately small laptop–4.1 pounds, in 1992!–and was Apple’s only real experimentation with the idea of a laptop with a docking station. The Duo Dock sucked in the laptop (sort of like a front-loading VCR…you remember those, right?) and connected it to an external display, expansion cards, a video card, and even a processor upgrade. Though the Duo was unlike any Mac ever made, its successors include the MacBook Air and the one-port Retina MacBook.

powerbook duo 01Christopher Phin

The utterly amazing PowerBook Duo.

The PowerBook 500 series, code-named “Blackbird,” was Apple’s first major PowerBook redesign. I know people who loved those laptops, though I never had one–and in my opinion, they never really paid off people’s initial excitement about them.

Four digits: The PowerPC era

The next era of Mac laptops really put the “power” into the PowerBook name. The PowerPC processor entered, and all the numbers went from three to four digits. Apple released an updated version of the PowerBook 500 series, the PowerBook 5300–and its batteries started catching on fire. (Sound familiar?)

My laptop of this era was the PowerBook 1400, a gray laptop with a delightful twist–a clear slide-out window where you could put custom art to make your laptop your own. (In true 1990s fashion, my laptop featured a picture of a Vorlon ship from Babylon 5.)

powerbook 1400 primary 700wChristopher Phin

The customizable PowerBook 1400.

The most interesting laptop of this period was the Duo’s successor, the PowerBook 2400c. It was a 4.4-pound PowerBook that was hard to find, didn’t sell particularly well, but was–like Spinal Tap–big in Japan. After the 2400c was discontinued in the U.S., Apple offered an updated model just for the Japanese market. We had one in the Macworld Lab, and I remember marveling at how small it was.


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