Macworld • March 1990

The Iconoclast by Steven Levy


The Not-So-Great Compromise


The Macintosh Portable is not the best, just the most bearable


The Macintosh Portable is, in my opinion, the least successful computer that Apple has shipped since pre-Mac days. For all the baloney we’ve been fed about its being a no-compromise machine, it is full of compromises: its size is a compromise, its weight is a compromise, its processor is a compromise, its scheme for memory additions is a compromise, and its lack of a backlit screen is a compromise. The one place where it does not compromise is in what we can call its Macintoshness: rather gloriously, it behaves just like your Mac at home. But this does not begin to compensate for its glaring shortcomings.


There are plenty of bones to pick with this computer—turkeys are loaded with bones—but most of them organically stem from the Portable’s design philosophy. Basically, there are two ways to go when designing a portable computer. You can assume that people will use it on the run (like all those apocryphal executives spreadsheeting away in Business Class, in which case your goals are to try to squeeze out the most from your batteries and to make the thing small enough so people can whip it out of a briefcase on a moment’s notice. Or you can target it to people who want to move the computer easily from one place to another, but will actually use it in places where electrical plugs are within reach. Once you’re socked into the nation’s electrical umbilical, you needn’t worry about squeezing every last drop of power from the batteries, and you don’t have to design low-power custom components that drive the cost up.




Assault and Battery

Apple chose the former path and obviously spent oodles of time and money devising clever ways to conserve power. The circuitry is low-power CMOS (Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor), the hard disk drive keeps shutting itself off, and the RAM chips are incredibly costly static versions. The happy result is that users trekking into the Mojave Desert, or the few other places in this country where a power outlet is not within a dozen feet, can use Wingz, FullWrite Professional, and 4th Dimension for as much as eight hours (according to Apple) before breaking camp to recharge the batteries. Unhappily, Apple did not fulfill the second, and most important, requirement of battery-powered machines—size. In order to do your computing in remote locations, you want a machine light enough to accompany you on a whim and compact enough to use in those locations. Considerably bigger than a breadbox and weighing in at a Satanic 16 pounds, the Portable is too big and too heavy. Its battery, for heaven’s sake, is lead-acid based—practically a car battery! Its avoirdupois makes it impractical for desert treks, its size overwhelms the average beach bag, and its bulk makes it too awkward for comfortable airplane use. (I figure its best airplane function is as a deadly weapon dropped from a bomb hatch.) Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what Apple did to maximize battery use because the Portable is too much of a monster to be used anywhere else than inside, on a desk or table, where it’s easy to plug it into the wall.


Once you do plug it into the wall, you begin paying a performance price for all those little battery-saving tricks that Apple misguidedly stuffed into the Portable. Remember I mentioned an ensemble of classic Macintosh software applications one might install on the Portable's hard drive? Well, Wingz, FullWrite, and 4th Dimension are best used on state-of-the-art Macintoshes with more powerful processors than the 68000 found on the Mac Plus or standard SE. The Portable uses a low-power CMOS 68000 that runs twice as fast as the chip on the SE—but slower than the SE/30 or the IIcx. (Apple’s excuse is that the mighty 68030 chip isn’t available in a CMOS version.) Since extra RAM must also be purchased in extravagantly priced static versions, an extra megabyte of memory will cost you well over a thousand bucks. And right now, 2MB of memory is the most you can carry, not enough for power computing (so forget about System 7.0). In some respects, Apple’s most expensive computer—this baby costs around $6500—is its wimpiest.


Let me give another example: the hard disk. Apple has arranged it so that if the hard disk isn’t accessed for a while, it shuts itself off. When you invoke an event that requires accessing the hard disk, it turns itself back on—and you lose a few seconds while things get going. In this mode, the Macintosh Portable is like Ronald Reagan at a cabinet meeting, dozing off every few minutes and awakening with a start when addressed directly. Most people will find this feature annoying and take the trouble to turn it off via the Control Panel because they’ll be using the Portable plugged into the wall.


And then there is the display, an active-matrix LCD—superior to a standard LCD but not superior to a backlit screen, which allows for best contrast and does not require a strong separate light source to reflect off the panel. Why isn’t the screen backlit? Battery conservation. Of course, when you’re plugged into the wall, you don’t care about energy conservation—but you suffer from the compromise.


Now certainly there are times, one might argue, that all this conservation might be essential. What about the recent earthquake in San Francisco, for instance, when the newspapers, stung by the power outage, tried to put out their next-day editions with Macintosh technology? Well, as it happened, I dropped in to the San Francisco Examiner a few hours after the earth moved and indeed found portables in evidence in the darkened newsroom. But they were MS-DOS portables with backlit screens—the reflective LCD Apple Portables would have been useless.



On the Road

Hey, I tried to use the Portable on the road. I even took it to a public seminar, intending to use it to take notes. At first, things seemed promising. People who hadn’t seen the computer before crowded around, admiring the distinctive Mac desktop on an LCD screen. Then the meeting started, and I had a few problems. The noise from the standard Mac keyboard made my typing rather distinctive, and the liberal use of beeps common to Mac applications drew some critical stares. (I sheepishly used the Control Panel to turn off the sound.)


That done, everything went swimmingly for a while. I was having a great time using the familiar Microsoft Word to take notes on the fly, editing them, and adding thoughts as some of the speeches from the podium hit dull spots. I was getting increasingly fond of the nifty trackball. But after 10 minutes or so, my legs, which had been propping up the machine, began to feel constricted. And my arms got tired, typing from an awkward elbows-askew position because the keyboard was up against my belt buckle. (Otherwise the Macintosh Portable would have slid ingloriously to the floor.) I tried another position, crossing my right ankle over my left leg for a new ad hoc desktop. It took only 5 minutes for the weight to bother me. After about 20 minutes of shifting positions, crossing and recrossing my legs, and readjusting the computer on my lap, I put the beast back into the padded carrying case that Apple generously provides Portable users. It was back to pen and steno pad.




If Not the Portable, What?


I hope I have made it clear that Macintosh users who need something more portable than their current models might not find the Portable the godsend that Apple has promoted it to be. But what are the alternatives? After returning the demo Portable to Apple (my one regret at not using it longer is that by lugging it around I would have had a chance to hulk up à la Schwarzenegger), I explored the other paths to portable computing available to Macintosh users.


My previous solution to the problem—the one I’d used while waiting for Apple to ship a real portable—was a cheap Radio Shack Model 100. I used it to record notes while traveling and to jot down things when doing library research. It had no disk drive of any sort, but I could use the built-in modem to send back files at the end of the day. Or I’d wait until I got home and use my ImageWriter cable to get files directly into the Mac. The word processor was barely more than a line editor, the screen was microscopic and barely readable, but the Model 100 did the job. A snazzier version of this style of laptopping is available with the Sinclair, which has more memory and silent keys.


I figured that a better alternative to this minimal degree of computational power would be found with  some of the hot MS-DOS laptops that have come out in the past year or two. These seemed to be universally lower cost and more compact than the Portable. Why not use them on the road, and later transfer data back to the Mac with software designed for that purpose? Certainly the inconvenience of using the other style of computing couldn’t overwhelm the advantages in price and portability you’d get by using something from Toshiba, Compaq, or NEC.



Gimme a Lite

I decided to test the latter. When I got the NEC UltraLite out of the box, my first thought was, Why couldn’t Apple have used this as its model? The UltraLite is barely larger than a piece of business stationery and not more than an inch thick. It weighs all of 4¼ pounds, and when you lift the cover you get a full-size keyboard and a legible backlit display about the size of an SE’s screen. There are no disk drives, but there is a 1 or 2MB internal silicon drive that acts as a virtual hard disk; you can also purchase credit-card-size silicon disks to store information or load applications.


There’s a built-in 2400-baud modem, too. And NEC includes a program called LapLink, but you’ll want the Mac version that allows your UltraLite to convert its files directly to your Mac software programs. Its cost is bearable: I’ve seen it advertised for well under $2000. What’s the main compromise? Battery use. The UltraLite gives you only two hours on a full charge, and if you don’t recharge the computer at least every week, you can lose the internal data. (By contrast, the Macintosh Portable worries like a Jewish mother over those things and is full of warnings and failsafe systems.)


Still, this is a compromise one can live with. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered something I couldn’t live with: MS-DOS itself. After five years of Macintosh computing, I could not bring myself to deal with balancing four kinds of disk drives named after letters or typing arcane codes to copy files. Just setting up the system was torture: I felt like a bureaucrat in that Kafkaesque movie Brazil. Then I popped in the ROM card for a word processor named XyWrite and almost had a coronary. Yes, it’s a full-featured word processor. But to someone schooled in MacWrite, Microsoft Word, and Nisus, the very idea of moving the cursor to define the beginning and end of text blocks seemed like slow death.


This issue is no small one. The main reason I use Macintosh is that I thrive on the environment: it treats me like a human being. The UltraLite is a magnificent piece of machinery, much more sensibly conceived than the Macintosh Portable; but it uses MS-DOS, and I don’t want to live there. However, I realize that there are plenty of Macintosh users who for professional reasons must maintain a familiarity with the style of computing used by the vast majority of personal computer users. And they would indeed find the UltraLite or any other number of MS-DOS laptops a superior alternative to the Portable.


How about the non-Apple portables that run like Macintoshes? I was excited to see a prototype of something called the Wallaby last August at the Macworld Expo, but at press time it wasn’t available, so I cannot yet recommend it. Then there is the Colby Systems Walkmac. Though somewhat more compact than the Portable, it’s nearly as expensive, and not as cleverly designed (the mouse port is on the left, giving us righties a taste of discrimination). Also at 12 pounds (15 pounds with the battery), it’s almost as much a briefcase buster as the Portable. When will people understand a terrific transportable computer already exists at half the price of these faux portables—the Apple Mac SE/30?


I can’t really fault Colby—like any other company trying to compete with Apple in the portable market, Colby has an insurmountable disadvantage in not having license to duplicate the operating system that makes Macintoshes Macintosh. Colby literally has to buy an SE and repackage it into a portable, an approach that would be doomed if Apple ever decided to price the Portable reasonably.


The bottom line is this: though the Portable is foolishly conceived and seriously overpriced, there’s not much in the way of alternatives. Unlike in the hotly competitive MS-DOS world, there is a monopoly in the Macintosh universe. Any dreams of 4¼ pound Macs with backlit screens costing $2000 will come true only at Apple’s sufferance. I’m sure Apple didn’t plan to deliver a computer as disappointing as the Macintosh Portable, but complacency might have had something to do with it. As for the pricing, one can only call it gall.


As Macintosh users, we are prisoners of Apple Computer. And the Portable is our ball and chain.



Steven Levy is a Macworld columnist and the author of 'The Unicorn’s Secret: Murder in the Age of Aquarius (NAL 1989).