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 Mac.
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. 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 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 this beauty round to a Starbucks.
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 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 minimalist look. Standing vertical in its carrying position, it almost looks like some sort of monolithic art sculpture.
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 quickly becomes second nature after spending a few hours with the machine.
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 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 suspisiously 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.
Before 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 animation, the guide covers basics such as how to use the mouse, to more complex features such as how to manage files and how to use 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.
[Image with Macintosh Portable running OS 6]
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.
[GIF of control strip acting sluggishly]
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.
GAMES (and screenshots!)
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 it’s large size and price tag, but now highly sought after due to it’s 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 everyday you can type a blog post on a failed Apple product from some 30 years ago.