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Apple History: The Evolution of Apple Notebooks

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The history of Apple is always facinating to me, the evolution of the notebook in particular, so I decided to take a closer look at how the portable computer has evolved over the years…

Apple has had a long history of producing great notebook computers. In fact, the first Powerbook is credited with being the birth of the modern notebook….but their first steps into the Portable Computer market were less than successful.

Let’s take a look at the evolution of Apple’s innovative portable computing line…

The Macintosh Portable (1989)

macintosh_portable.jpgThis 15.8 pound monster of a “portable” machine was released in 1989 to a generally positive reception from critics, but very poor sales numbers. The system had a black and white active-matrix LCD screen which was fitted inside a hinged cover that closed over the keyboard when not in use.

It also featured a full sized keyboard, trackball mouse, and 10 hours of battery life…but the heavy machine failed to win the hearts of consumers (due in no small part to its $6,500 price tag) and was discontinued in 1991.

Powerbooks 100 Series (1991)

apple_powerbook_150.jpgApple quickly learned from the mistakes it made with the Portable Macintosh, and in early 1991 three Powerbook computers were released. The Powerbook 100, 140 and 170 caused a stir when they hit the market for their stylish casing, use of a trackball, and the positioning of the keyboard.

The Powerbook was the first notebook computer to position the keyboard close to the display, leaving room for palm rests and the trackball at the bottom of the device. This innovation is has become the standard for notebook computers, and continues to be used today.

The Powerbook 100 series featured a variety of upgraded during its run from 1991-1994, but the line struggled to keep up with competitors who had adopted the systems designs due to overheating issues with some of the hardware. As a result, the systems were released with improvements like color screens and other minor additions, but by 1994 the 100 series was showing its age.

Powerbook 500 Series (1994)

540.jpgThe Powerbook 500 series was a temporary shot in the arm to the line, and also introduced some innovative features that we now find common on all notebook computers.

The systems were sleeker and faster than their predecessors, featured active-matrix LCD display, stereo sound, and two firsts for notebooks…built in Ethernet, and a trackpad.

The move to the PowerPC chip Ultimately shortened the lifespan of the 500 series, as Apple moved forward to newer models.

Powerbook 5300 Series (1995)

5300.GIFDubbed the “Hindenbook” by some due to a problem with exploding batteries that resulted in a recall, the Powerbook 5300 is considered by most to be the worst computer Apple has ever shipped.

Many of the units arrived DOA, and users continually reported problems with the notebooks, causing Apple to issue a warranty extension by up to 4 years on some machines.

This was Apple’s first new notebook to feature the Power PC processor.

Powerbook 1400 (1996)

powerbook_1400cs_133.jpgApple quickly recouped, and introduced the Powerbook 1400 in November of 1996. This replacement for the terrible Powerbook 5300, while ultimately the low-end option for Powerbook owners, was innovative for a variety of reasons.

It was the first notebook to feature a “built-in: CD-Rom drive (although the drive was part of a swappable module, and could be replaced with a Zip Drive). The notebook also featured a lid which included a cover for storing papers, business cards, and sheets with patterns purchasable from Apple.

Powerbook 3400 (1997)

powerbook3400.jpgIn Feb. of the following year, Apple introduced the higher end Powerbook 3400…which was briefly the fast notebook in the world.

This Powerbook was the first to feature PCI architecture, EDO memory, and a 64-bit wide internal bus.

The model lasted until November of 1997.

It was quickly overshadowed by Apple’s next notebook release.

Powerbook G3 (1998)

powerbook_g3_pismo.jpgPart of the first wave of products released after Steve Jobs’ return to the helm of Apple, the Powerbook G3 debuted at approximately the same time as the original iMac. This sleek notebook took its design ques from the earlier 500 series, making it a stylish device that was as pretty to look at, as it was to operate.

The original G3 spawned two successors in the line, including the “Lombard” in 1999, and the “Prismo” in 2000. Both machines shared the same basic design as the original, but where lighter and featured different internal parts.

The iBook (1999)

clamshell-ibook.gifAt Macworld in 1999, Steve Jobs shocked the world by introducing the clamshell designed iBook. One of the key innovations of the iBook, was that it was the first mainstream computer ever to be designed and sold with internal wireless networking.

The unorthodoxed design of the machine made the media stand up and take notice, and the line was a commercial success.

It did, however, create internal debate among long time Mac fans, earning the name “Toilet Seat” in some circles based on its design. This first generation design continued to be upgraded internally until 2000, when it was replaced by a new model.

200px-ibook_g4.jpgIn 2001, the iBook recieved an upgrade and redesign. The new iBook did not have the clamshell casing of its predecessor. Instead, the new iBook featured a sleek, white, slim-line polycarbonate shell.

This look inspired countless other products, including the iPod, and was well received from critics and consumers alike.

In October 2003, the iBook received its final major upgrade…this time in the form of a G4 processor. The design remained the same.

Powerbook G4 (2000)

180px-powerbook_redjar.jpgWhen the Powerbook was redesigned for the final time, it came with a titanium skin, and a widescreen display. The device was billed as “the first supercomputer you can actually take with you on an airplane.” The system was light, and had better battery life than most of its contemporaries.

This version of the Powerbook made professional production in a variety of media truly mobile on the Mac platform for the first time. The systems were updated in 2003 with a new anodized aluminium casing, and screen sizes of up to 17″. With DVD burning capability, tons of hard drive storage, and enough power to edit movie and music like never before, this was a truly a POWERbook.

The line continued until 2006, and the name Powerbook was retired when Apple moved over to Intel based processors.

Macbook Series (2006)

product-15in-1.jpgThe Macbook line was introduced in May of 2006. The Macbook replaced the iBook, and the Macbook Pro replaced the Powerbook. These systems remained similar to their predecessors. Every model includes an iSight camera built-in, and a magnetic latch mechanism.

The Macbook and Macbook Pro notebook computers are some of the most powerful portable computers available, and (thanks to the Intel processors) can also run Windows and Linux operating systems in addition to Mac OS X.

The Future

It is uncertain what the future holds for Apple’s notebook computers. It has long been speculated that Apple might introduce a TabletMac, or possibly something featuring the multi-touch interface introduced in the iPhone…but all of that is simply speculation.

One thing that is certain is that Apple will continue to innovate as they have with their notebooks from the beginning.

Kokou Adzo

Kokou Adzo

Kokou Adzo is a stalwart in the tech journalism community, has been chronicling the ever-evolving world of Apple products and innovations for over a decade. As a Senior Author at Apple Gazette, Kokou combines a deep passion for technology with an innate ability to translate complex tech jargon into relatable insights for everyday users.

6 thoughts on “Apple History: The Evolution of Apple Notebooks

  1. Nice write up. Just a small correction, IBM’s ThinkPad 755CD featured an integrated CD-ROM drive two years before the Powerbook 1400.

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