This weeks column is in a way an exercise in futility, since information about long-gone laptops is scarce. We need a publicly maintained resource—such as a wiki—detailing the history of some of these old machines. I put the list in this column together largely from the collective memory of myself and my colleagues. Some dates are missing, and I hope readers can make contributions. And so many machines made this list that I had to combine a few into categories. The word “worst” can mean a number of things within the context of this list. It represents missteps as well as bad machines. Lets get right to it:
10. Gateway Handbook (circa 1992). Some claim this was the first true notebook computer since it weighed under three pounds. It was a very small machine, but not because it was thin. It was simply reduced in size and kind of comedic. It ran a 486 chip and had the unique ability to run BSD.
9. Dell 320i (circa 1993). Im not even absolutely sure of the model number. The Dell Web site sure doesnt mention this machine, but it was a trailblazing unit that had so many issues that I believe all of them were recalled. This was very thin and light, a true subnotebook that utilized a reflective monochrome screen, making it perfect for the beach. It was incredibly stylish for its time, and maybe the most advanced thing Dell ever did. Unfortunately, the power supplies were faulty. More input on this machine from readers would be appreciated.
8. Macintosh Portable (1989). This machine was perhaps the worlds biggest laptop ever. If you think of it as a desktop replacement, it probably should not be on this list. In fact, it was stylish for its day. It was heavy and large, weighing in at around 20 pounds and using lead-acid batteries. (Another forgettable machine that had lead-acid batteries came out some years later. It was called the Dynabook (one of many computers using that name) and never really shipped.)
7. Category failure: Pad-based computers. The earliest flops were all around 1989 and included the Momenta, GridPad, Go, the Io, and others. The category was reborn with the recent Microsoft Tablet PCs, but the results have predictably been the same.
6. Category failure: Ultra-small full-featured machines. The Toshiba Libretto is the first one I recall. These are machines that are even smaller than the Gateway Handbook, and I suppose I should also include last weeks “best” system, the Poquet. These machines failed after Windows came along, because the icons were impractical and too small to see. The upcoming Paul Allen “Vulcan” palmtop is in this category and expected to meet the same fate as the others. Lets also group the Windows CE-based laptops among these failures. Throughout the early Windows era, many machines based on Windows CE were released. Many were very cool in that they were instant-on and very fast. The problem was they featured all kinds of incompatibilities. Many of these machines evolved into handheld computers. Curiously, an opposite extreme was the monstrous, Unix laptops. HP had one of these and I recall a gigantic Sun laptop too. These appeared in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.
For the full list, go to PC Magazine.