Despite my previous post decrying the Macintosh Portable for its hefty weight, identity crisis, and somewhat misguided design principles – it is actually a joy to use as a retro portable Mac. If you look at it through the lens of being a portable desktop that you would move occasionally, rather than a laptop that you would move daily, the Macintosh Portable becomes a convenient, all-in-one package, demonstrating Apple’s first attempt at a portable but uncompromised full-desktop macintosh experience.
The most amazing feature of the Macintosh Portable, for me, is undoubtedly the keyboard. I typed the first draft of this blog post series on my backlit Macintosh Portable, and it really was a pleasure – they certainly don’t make them like this anymore! The keys are full travel, but not too clicky; they depress with just enough force so that you can really type at speed. A masterpiece of design borrowed from other Macintosh desktop keyboards that really makes a writer want to keep on typing. Perhaps if SATC had come out 8 years earlier, Carrie Bradshaw would have been lugging the Mac Portable round to a Starbucks. Though I will note, that for a portable, the keyboard is remarkably similar to that of a deskbound Mac, and one would have thought that Apple would have made some compromises on size for the sake of portability. One contemporary laptop that managed to shrink down a keyboard and deliver an excellent typing experience was the IBM L40-SX – a laptop with arguably one of the best keyboards to type on. Now, this comparison is not to say that the Macintosh Portable keyboard is inferior, but more just to point out that it is possible to deliver an excellent typing experience on a keyboard that is not full size and full travel.
The exterior of the Macintosh Portable is reminiscent of the Macintosh IIc, with its off-white exterior and an elegant row of slits in the top plastic casing. This design language, known as “snow white”, was first used on the IIc back in 1984. Aesthetically speaking the Macintosh Portable is a beautiful embodiment of the Snow White style, with its clean lines and minimalist look. The plastic used in the Macintosh Portable is of the ABS variety (the same used in motorcycle helmets – being very sturdy, rigid, and resistant to impacts. Luckily the plastic has also aged well and is much less brittle than the plastic used in other contemporary laptops. The thick fog-white colored plastic along with the wedge design gives the computer a sculpture-like quality. When standing vertical in its carrying position, the Macintosh Portable could be mistaken for some fine art modernist monolith in an art gallery.
Opening the Macintosh Portable is intuitive if a little clunky; the carrying handle doubles as the screen release. To release the screen, one pushes the carrying handle inwards, towards the keyboard. I have found, however, that setting down the computer and releasing the carrying handle can result in the computer unexpectedly opening up a bit as the handle falls and releases the catch for the screen.
The screen panel can be adjusted for a wide viewing angle – and is quite ergonomic to use either standing in front of it or sitting at a desk. As mentioned in my previous post, you could rest this behemoth on your lap, and the screen angle allows you to do this, but it would not be very comfortable for your knees.
You might notice the two indentations on either side of the LCD – these cutouts are to accommodate the trackball, as it can be configured to be placed on either the left or right sides, a nice touch for those who are left-handed. The keyboard, as previously mentioned, is a marvel. It is up there as one of the best full-size keyboards I have typed on. The trackball does need some getting used to, but after a while, it quickly becomes second nature after spending a few hours with the machine. Make sure you clean the trackball and its contact wheels inside the trackball enclosure if you are not getting smooth cursor movement.
Round the right side of the unit is the SuperDrive, a 1.44 MB floppy disk drive capable of reading and writing both Mac and PC formatted high-density diskettes as was included with other contemporary macintoshes. The power eject mechanism really accentuates the no-compromise desktop feel that the Macintosh Portable was trying to achieve. There is even a video of the Macintosh Portable ejecting its floppy disk aboard the Space Shuttle in outer space.
The rear of the computer houses the I/O ports, modem phone line jack, sound output and power port. The Macintosh Portable features an external SCSI connector (perfect for SCSI CD-ROMs and Zip Drives), as well as a connector for an external floppy disk drive. There is one port that suspiciously appears to be a VGA port for an external monitor but, in true Apple fashion, is actually a proprietary external display connector that is not compatible with VGA.
On the left side of the portable we have two buttons used to restart the computer should the computer become non-responsive. Pressing these two buttons simultaneously will trigger a hard reboot of the computer. This is the first Macintosh I have owned and during daily use, I have not needed to use the buttons often; however, when setting up the computer with all the software that I was trying to install, I did have to reset the computer when certain programs caused the system to lock up. There is a third switch to the right of the two buttons is used to lock the reset buttons, preventing them from accidentally being pushed.
Booting Up The Macintosh Portable
The Macintosh Portable is built around the then-new idea of being “always-on” with the system entering a reduced power consumption sleep state when not in use. The benefits of this are clear as in normal operation, there is no boot time, which was still quite a novelty in 1989. However, this sleep state is not optional – power is drawn from the batteries even when the computer is “shut down” and not in sleep mode, meaning that a full charge will be drawn down by the battery after a couple of days of non-use if the power adapter isn’t plugged in.
Turning on the Macintosh Portable is also slightly unusual. Since the computer is always in “standby mode”, one pushes any key on the keyboard to turn on the computer. If the computer was put to sleep, then tapping a key resumes the working session. If the Macintosh Portable was shut down, pressing a key triggers the computer to boot with its distinctive chime.
Before getting into Mac OS 6-7.5.5 and installing any software on the Macintosh Portable, I would highly recommend using the official introductory disk to really get a feel of Macintosh Portable’s user experience. Full of beautiful HyperCard-Esque animation, the guide covers basics such as how to use the mouse and more complex features such as managing files and using the control panel. This program can only be run if the Macintosh Portable is booted from the floppy drive. Images of the disk are available here.
For those who used a Macintosh back in the late 80s and early 90s, the Macintosh Portable’s selection of supported OS versions is a familiar interface with OS 6 though 7.5.5 is supported. System 6 is what was shipped with the Macintosh Portable and is snappy and responsive, however, if you are looking for a more sophisticated OS, with more granular controls and capabilities, I would highly recommend using System 7.5.5.
Though note that System 7.5.5 shipped in 1996, and as such, takes longer to boot and runs a tad slow. It is best to disable the Control Strip, else the computer becomes notably more sluggish, particularly with multiple applications running concurrently. Some users noted at the time of the Macintosh Portable’s release that it was slightly underpowered, due to its use of the Motorola 68000 CPU. This was the same CPU used in the Original Macintosh 128K back in 1984, though at a higher clock speed of 16 Mhz. For most applications, however, the CPU performs satisfactorily, with Microsoft Word performing well.
Virtually all Macintosh software designed to run on a 68000 CPU will run on the Macintosh Portable, though I have noted a few games that crash or run with a corrupted screen, most notably the Dark Castle series and Sim Farm. I suspect that it is the non-standard screen size of the Macintosh Portable which is causing problems with select titles, though fortunately, the problem does not occur often.
The battery life of the Macintosh Portable is indeed remarkable for its time. I have personally managed to squeeze 5 hours of continuous use out of the machine playing games and typing documents with the backlight on. I suspect I might have artificially extended the battery life in my case as I am using a SCSI2SD in place of the original hard disk, which uses far less energy as it has no moving parts.
And that brings us to the end of this review of the Macintosh Portable – A vintage computer that was generally disliked by contemporary Apple users due to its large size and price tag, but is now highly sought after due to its rarity. If I were a Mac user at the time, I too would have likely scoffed at the idea of paying the price of a small car for a barely portable computer. But today, I am a happy user of the Macintosh Portable, as it not every day you can type a blog post on a failed Apple product from some 30 years ago.
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