My So-Called Laptop

My So-Called Laptop kicks off a new series of retrospectives where the editors of Engadget detail their first brushes with technology. Join them, won't you?

We were awkward, young, innocent, and oh-so-nerdy. They were painful times, back when being called a "nerd" wasn't exactly a compliment, and our best shot at an "internet connection" involved kicking our siblings off the phone and dialing up a BBS for our valued time slot. Still, there were bright lights at the end of the tunnel, and here we are writing at Engadget, having our passion for tech validated on a daily basis by a vibrant industry and an obsessive community. So now, with all sorts of "perspective" and "maturity," we've decided to take a trip down memory lane, remembering our very first gadgets through rose-colored glasses. To kick things off? Our first laptops. Most of us started out nerd life chained to a desk, and remember well that first moment when we were able to cut the cord and take our work (or pleasure) on the go. We've ordered these from oldest to newest, so the real "olds" get a first crack at showing up the young whipper snappers among us, but what we're most excited about is hearing what your first laptop was in comments. Don't be shy, nobody will judge. Probably.

Ross Miller: Zenith Data Systems Z-180

4.7MHz 8OC88 CMOS 16-bit processor ("switch selected" up to 8MHz), 640K memory, 640 x 200 LCD, 3.5-inch floppy disk drive

"With Zenith Data Systems, the future is here today!"

I had to call my parents up for this trip down memory lane. In the most literal interpretation of the question, the first laptop I had any extended time with would be my grandfather's Zenith Z-180 series from 1987. As is the modus operandi of antiquated technology, calling this a laptop must be given the perspective of the time. It was just over 15 pounds and 4 inches thick with the display closed. I remember visiting his office quite often just after preschool, tinkering with the machine that even then was a few years past its prime.

Frankly, at this point I couldn't even tell you what I was doing on it -- probably just learning to type nonsense on a glorified DOS prompt. What does stick with me is the handcart that he had to use to carry it around. That's right, the sheer bulk of the hardware was such that for safety concerns, employees had to cart these suckers around when they needed to leave the comfort of the desk. The desire of portability far exceeded our ability to produce a compliant piece of hardware. What a difference even a few years made.

As for the first I owned all by my lonesome, that would have to be the Toshiba Satellite 110CS, but that's Tim's story. Special thanks to my grandfather for foraging through the attic and finding the Z-180 manual -- absolutely hilarious in the context of today. %Gallery-88570%

Tim Stevens: Toshiba Satellite Pro 400CS

75MHz Pentium, 8MB RAM, 800MB hard drive, 10.4-inch 640 x 480 LCD

Going through high school in the early '90s, computing was at the time something done at home -- probably in a rickety office chair at a narrow desk. If you were lucky you might get the keyboard and mouse cables to stretch over to the couch and, if you could make out what was happening on the 15-inch CRT from there, you might be able to get in a few games of Command & Conquer in relative comfort. It wouldn't be until entering college in 1996 that I'd get my first taste of computing on the go in the form of a Toshiba Satellite Pro 400CS. Hartwick College, my alma mater, was at the time doing something rather interesting: "giving" (as part of tuition) each incoming freshman a laptop that they would then be required to use throughout their four (or five... or more) years at the school.

Given the speed of technical progression during this time you can imagine that, four years later, few would still be relying entirely on these clunky gray boxes, but we were the first class to get lots of exciting and new tech. (CD-ROM drives! Color VGA screens! Windows 95!) And, thanks to a PCMCIA NIC, we could tether ourselves into one of the many Ethernet cables that were slowly coiling their way around campus. It was never a very good gaming machine, but it was on here that I honed my programming skills, wrote editorials for the local paper, and spent a little too much time pretending to be Don Juan on IRC.

By junior year the various software development environments I was using required more horsepower and the videogames I was reviewing needed a graphics card, so I built myself a desktop and gave up on the mobile life. It'd be 10 years before I'd buy myself another portable machine, a little Eee that offers roughly 21 times the processing power and far greater battery life in a much smaller package all for a fraction of the price -- yet still felt too slow. So, I've since moved on again to a Lenovo T400s, but I have a feeling no machine will ever trump the many hours I spent clacking away on the giant keyboard of that big gray brick of a laptop.

Joseph Flatley: Acer TravelMate 332T

CHANNEL EXP TM 332T P2-366 6.4GB 64MB 12.1 TFT 24X WIN98

It wasn't until sometime in early 2001 that I finally took the plunge. I was always envious of these "road warriors" with their "mobile telephony" and ability to read in coffee shops and libraries, but for the most part laptops were large and ugly, and when they weren't they were well out of my price range. When a friend of mine offered to sell me a two year old Acer TravelMate 332T I lept at the chance! The specs, by no means heroic, were more than adequate for the novels and communiques I would be writing on the Hunter S. Thompson-esque journeys I imagined myself making: an Intel Pentium II 366MHz processor, 64MB RAM, 12.1-inch display, Windows 98. And the thing was tiny! Roughly the same thickness as my MacBook, the only concession to the antiquated storage of the time was a detachable CD-ROM / 3.5-inch FDD that communicated the thing by means of a proprietary cable. I don't believe I ever used this. The case also featured some sort of "magnesium-alloy chassis for durability," although it mostly seemed like it was made out of plastic. My friend offered to sell me the computer for $200 -- it will be no surprise to anyone who knows me that I somehow talked him up to $350 by the time the transaction was completed (it should also come as no surprise that I was a little intoxicated at the time). That said, my TravelMate was a constant companion for years in busses, planes, and hotel rooms, and I got a lot of work done on that thing! Definitely worth every penny that I spent on it.

Darren Murph: WinBook XL2

300MHz Pentium II CPU, 128MB of SDRAM, 6GB hard drive, DVD-ROM, floppy drive, 14.1-inch 1,024 x 768 LCD

Up until the purchase of this here WinBook, I had used desktops exclusively. And my life was fine. I saw no need to take a computer with me wherever I went, and it seemed that I was always a 15 minute drive away from the nearest desktop. Eventually, however, I became hooked on Half-Life -- Team Fortress in particular. My love for this title was so strong that I began to yearn for it when away from home, and believe it or not, I began to feel that I couldn't live a week without some access to the Internet. At the time, all I knew was a 56k dial-up connection, but I figured I could dial-in from anywhere if I had a mobile machine.

I paid far, far too much for this heap. I can't even recall the exact amount (call it a self-protection mechanism), but I purchased it used from a highly enthusiastic eBayer. I remember getting it, opening the box with wide-eyes, nailing the power button and wondering what on Earth was taking so long. 'Course, I'd probably been spoiled by the boot-up power of my best bud's Alienware desktop, but still -- this thing was slow. Truth be told, I was never happy with the WinBook. The battery life was awful (1.5 hours of real-world use, on average), the screen had to be looked at directly, and my precious Half-Life was just barely playable at the lowest resolution setting. The only shining moment in this thing's life was that time it enabled me to hop online at my auntie's house; if not for that, I think I would've perished from boredom. A little over six months after this monstrosity came into my life, it was re-listed on eBay and sold to some other sucker. I always wondered how long it would take for laptops to become anywhere near as powerful as desktops, and I swore up and down I wouldn't buy another portable machine until the gap was closed. A few years later, I sunk entirely too much money into the "world's first" 17-inch laptop (a 1GHz PowerBook G4), and six months later, I sold it for the same reason as the WinBook. Some say I never learn.

Nilay Patel: PowerBook G3 (Wall Street)

Look, I stole my actual first laptop. It was a Wall Street PowerBook, with a 233MHz G3 and not enough RAM. I didn't feel bad about it at the time for a variety of reasons, but I do now... kind of. Anyway, that machine wasn't very interesting to me, because I never used it. Seriously, this might date me, but the University of Chicago didn't install its first WiFi access points until my fourth year, so having a laptop just wasn't a thing -- almost everyone I knew had some sort of giant tower with a CRT and an direct Ethernet connection. What good was a six-pound laptop that could just barely run Word 98? I left it at home, next to my Sawtooth G4 and guilty conscience. Later on I sold it -- and used the proceeds to buy a used first-gen white iBook from one of my roommates, who'd gotten himself caught up with a notorious eBay scammer named Teresa Smith, a woman who later went to jail for bilking like 350 people out of a total of $880,000.

These kinds of things just sort of happened to me in college.

Anyway, so yeah -- I got off to an ignominious start on the mobile computing tip. But let's talk about my first interesting laptop: a first-gen 15-inch aluminum PowerBook G4, for which I paid full retail using legitimately-earned American dollars, a machine I used from my first year of law school until literally the night before the Macworld 2008 keynote, when it stopped booting and I had to race out and pick up a MacBook so I could work the next day. Man, I loved that PowerBook -- most everyone in law school takes notes on a laptop, and I stuck it out with that painfully-slow G3 iBook through my first semester because I knew the titanium G4 was due to be replaced and I wanted the new model. It was painful, but worth it; I bought a 1.25GHz model with 512MB of RAM (later upgraded to 1GB) over Christmas break and never looked back.

I used the hell out of that PowerBook -- Madison wasn't great about having WiFi all over on campus until my 2L year, but I still took it everywhere in my backpack. Having access to the internet anywhere I went was simply wild -- and when Engadget launched in 2004 I found the perfect distraction from studying. By the end of its run the top part of case was almost completely unglued, the sides were dented so badly the PC card slot was unusable, and the battery had about 10 minutes of juice left in it. What can I say? I love my babies hard. Now I've got a very-similar MacBook Pro, which looks the same but just feels like a tool to me -- maybe the unibody MBP that's been sitting unused on my dining table for three months will once again capture my fancy when I finally find the time to set it up. But I doubt it.

Chris Ziegler: Dell Inspiron 3800

400MHz Mobile Celeron, 64MB RAM, 5.7GB hard drive, 14.1-inch 1024 x 768 LCD

I grew up in an exclusively Dell household. There was a period of time where I'll plainly admit that I desperately wanted a ZEOS Pantera -- and a brief (and inexplicable) brush with lust for the IBM PS/1 when I was just a sprout -- but alas, we stayed true to our code. The 90s, of course, were a time when computers were still viewed exclusively as tools, not as extensions of one's personality, so it didn't bug us that we were buying nondescript beige boxes; Dells were reliable, generally speedier than many of their competitors, and could be infinitely customized to suit your needs. You couldn't say that about the Compaqs down at CompUSA.

Though I'm hardly the youngest member of the Engadget team, I was a late bloomer as laptops go; I'd always preferred desktops (or more accurately, I could afford desktops). When I needed them somewhere else, I just tucked them under my arm and away I went. My first laptop purchase was an Inspiron 3800 somewhere around 1999 or 2000 that I named Xenon (every computer I've ever owned is named after an element -- it makes finding the machines on a network a little bit friendlier) and got me through a couple years of college. I ran Windows 2000 on it -- which I still believe to be a turning point for Microsoft and perhaps the single greatest version of Windows ever made -- and occasionally played Final Fantasy III with an emulator during impossibly boring Electromagnetics lectures.

Was it cool? No, not really, but it got the job done just long enough to upgrade to that killer new Inspiron 8100.

Paul Miller: PowerBook G3 (Pismo)

400MHz PowerPC G3, 64MB of RAM, 6GB hard drive, DVD-ROM, 14.1-inch 1024 x 768 LCD

I longed for a laptop for much longer than is strictly healthy. As a longstanding Mac user (thanks, dad), I loved telling my PC-loving friend back in 7th grade how ugly ThinkPads were, particularly in comparison to Apple's works of art. But the price was simply unbearable, and with no decent low-end alternative to the PowerBook class, I was stuck with my dreams and a hunk of beige desktop on my desk. Finally, after saving up about $1 ,500 my sophomore year of high school, I coaxed another grand from my parents in the form of a loan and finally purchased the base model PowerBook G3. Mere months later, and after years of minor iterations of its pro-level plastic chassis, Apple debuted the all-new Titanium PowerBook G4. Yeah, I was a little peeved.

Still, I loved my dear "Pismo." I remember freaking people out by walking around with it on my hand like a platter, pecking at the keys with my free hand. Once I'd added the optional AirPort card, things got silly great. I was addicted to WiFi, using my laptop from any corner of the house that would have me, for as long as my battery would last. I'd frequently pop out the modular DVD-ROM drive and swap it with the dummy spacer to save on weight (I was too poor for the second battery), and I generally perceived myself to be the most powerful human on the planet when equipped with the machine. I think what eventually ended my reign of internet and graphics dominance was OS X. Despite the after market RAM upgrades I'd done to get the machine up to 192MB, and the 20GB hard drive I'd swapped in, I was still hardly a match for those beastly early versions of OS X. I downgraded to OS 9 eventually, but the damage was done: developers, the internet, and the "future" was going to OS X, and me and my delicious OS 9 could only hang on so long. I was eventually forced to purchase an eMachines desktop to keep up with the times and my somehow diminishing amount of discretionary income. For less than $500 I had oodles of more computing power and expandability at my fingertips, but Windows never felt right to me, and I bought a MacBook a few years later.

Joshua Topolsky: PowerBook G3 (Pismo)

Looking back on my first laptop fills me with fond memories of being young, stupid, and light on money. The time was mid-2000, the place was Philadelphia. I had just moved to the city from Pittsburgh after a group of my friends had made the cross-state transition. I was in a new place surrounded by new people, and woefully in need of a laptop (though at this time, it was mainly to play network games of Myth II at my friend Damian's apartment). As a frequent shopper at 911 Records in the city, I'd made friends with some of the employees and managed to strike up fairly comfortable conversations. After sorting through a stack of records one day, I learned that a staff member was looking to unload a PowerBook G3 (a Pismo to be exact) for a shockingly small amount of coin -- maybe too small in retrospect, and I probably should have asked him just how he'd come by the device in the first place (ah, the ignorance of youth). I couldn't really afford it at the cut-rate discount, but I could afford the shame of not having a laptop of my own even less. Somehow I scraped together just enough cash to make a first installment on the then-cutting-edge notebook, and promised to pay the rest as soon as humanly possible (which luckily wasn't too long down the road). I'll never forget the day I managed to buy myself that second battery pack for extended gaming sessions (if you'll remember the laptop had two swappable bays on either side). The Pismo is still somewhere in my old studio, collecting dust on the record shelf I'd filled with vinyl from those days... one of them still seems like money well spent.

Don Melanson: iBook G3 (dual USB)

600MHz PowerPC G3, 640MB RAM, 20GB hard drive, CD-RW/DVD-ROM, 12.1-inch 1024 x 768 LCD

Like many young geeks, I had always wanted a laptop, but invariably wound up getting desktop after desktop. The bang for the buck was always too great to pass up and -- in my younger days, at least -- laptops were never really well-suited for gaming, which was always a top consideration. That finally changed after a year or so in university, however, when I finally got an iBook G3 (a late 2001, "dual USB" model) -- not only my first laptop, but my first Mac.

I'd used Macs previously, of course, and would have liked to get one sooner but, again, the extra cost was hard to justify for a student, and Macs had their own issues with gaming. But changing priorities led to a change in computers and, in many ways, I haven't looked back.

The dual USB iBook G3 (or "iceBook") wasn't a huge leap over its predecessor in terms of performance, but it broke completely with past iBooks in terms of style, and it still doesn't look too shabby by today's standards. In fact, I continued to use it as a backup laptop until just a few years ago, having maxed out the RAM to 640MB, added a FireWire hard drive and an AirPort card, and upgraded the OS to Panther.

I still have it tucked away, and sometimes feel like firing it up for old times. If only I could get it to boot.

Richard Lai: Fujitsu LifeBook C2010

1.6GHz Pentium 4-M, 256MB of RAM, 30GB hard drive, DVD / CD-RW drive, 14.1-inch 1024 x 768 LCD

It was the summer of 2002, which marked the end of my second year at my British boarding school (in the Third Form or Year 9). I told my parents that there'd be a lot of projects from then onwards, but really, I was just mightily jealous of the two guys in my year who had a laptop each, and they weren't even good machines -- both were very hot and noisy.

Back then I already had "It runs on a Celeron!" as my catchphrase (accompanied by a shaking head), but strangely I knew little about laptops, and at one point I even considered lugging a small desktop from Hong Kong all the way to the English countryside. Fortunately, in August I stumbled upon a pretty impressive laptop demo -- a salesman banging his fist onto the back of a laptop screen. It was the Fujitsu LifeBook C2010, a $1,930 Windows XP machine featuring a power-hungry Pentium 4 processor, a DVD / CD-RW combo drive, a floppy drive and some sort of tough metal alloy casing. I was sold, and I remember the excitement from watching the laptop's first-ever boot-up at the shop. "Mum, this thing is really fast!" Two weeks later I was back in England and showing off my speedy seven-pound laptop to my schoolmates. Needless to say, there were a few envious looks among the jolly crowd.

This beast lasted me the remaining four years at school, during which I performed a few upgrades (RAM, HDD and DVD drive) plus a couple of teardowns for cleaning (and scaring my friends). As I entered university I moved on to the ASUS A8Ja for its better portability plus graphics performance, and consequently my mother is now the proud owner of my C2010 back in Hong Kong -- apart from the dead battery, everything's working in fine order including the stiff hinge. That said, two years after my Fujitsu purchase I encouraged my younger brother to buy the C2210, which turned out to be a major flop -- loose hinge, dead pixels, overheat issues and faulty motherboard within the first two years. He never asked me for computer shopping advice again.

[Image credit: TaoBao]

Sean Hollister: Dell Inspiron 8200

2.0GHz Pentium 4-M, 512MB of RAM, Mobility Radeon 9000 64MB, 40GB 5400 RPM hard drive, DVD / CD-RW drive, 15-inch 1600 x 1200 LCD

In fall 2002, I was wholly undecided. Flush with cash from a successful summer job, I was advised by friends and family both that when I left for college the following year, I'd do well to invest that money in a laptop. Newspapers wrote about how laptops boosted student productivity. It sounded like a great idea. On the other hand, 2002 was the year I started to really indulge in LAN parties, and it would be generous to say my AMD K6 desktop gaming rig was getting dated. Google search and computer-savvy friends told me that on my budget, I couldn't do both. Dell Outlet proved them all wrong.

For about $1700, I found a fully-loaded, refurbished Dell Inspiron 8200 laptop that gave me not only my first personal DVD drive and my first disc burner, but also -- with a discrete Radeon 9000 graphics card and a fast Pentium 4 processor -- beat the pants off of every heavy, CRT-laden desktop my friends carried to our LAN parties. While I had to keep a pair of PCMCIA cards around to provide USB 2.0 and WiFi, the Inspiron's huge 15-inch, 1600 x 1200 screen made it a fantastic desktop replacement, and two eight-cell Li-ion batteries gave me a whole three hours (imagine that!) of on-the-go battery life.

Weighing nearly nine pounds without the AC adapter, I never once actually took it to class, but when I lived in Japan in 2005 it became my only (fiber-optic!) link to the English-speaking world, and as late as 2007 my younger brother was kicking tail and taking names with the old girl in Battlefield 2 before the GPU died. Though I've never again had quite as good an experience with Dell, I've recommended refurbished machines ever since.

Joanna Stern: Dell Inspiron 8200

1.7-GHz Mobile Intel Pentium 4 Processor-M, 256MB DDR SDRAM, 40GB hard drive, DVD/CD-RW drive, 1600x1200-resolution 15-inch display, Microsoft Windows XP Home

I now feel comfortable enough with my nerdy self to admit that when I was accepted early admission to college I was more excited about getting a laptop I could call my own than the frat parties, err collegiate education that lay ahead. So after collecting close to $2,000 in graduation presents, I headed to and eagerly configured an Inspiron 8200 with a then-state-of-the-art 1.7GHz Pentium processor, 256MB of RAM and a 60GB hard drive. "Delly," as a friend of mine named her, rarely left my side over the next four years – it witnessed the churning out of a 150-page thesis, the downloading of way too much Wyclef, and the exchange of countless, not-always-sober IMs. Even despite a few hard drive crashes, screen issues and RAM upgrades it always managed to get its large, dual fans up and running again. Thank you, campus IT department.

Funny enough I pulled out eight-pound "Delly" while writing this, and there are still parts about the ten year-old, 15-inch Inspiron that best even some of the thinnest and lightest laptops / netbooks I've reviewed over the past few years. The matte keys are still molded to my fingers, and the touchpad isn't riddled with finicky multitouch features. Of course, things are downhill at boot up -- it makes an Atom Z Series netbook look like a multimedia powerhouse, and the Linksys external WiFi card to get on the net it shot, but I'm sure I'll find some use for this swappable floppy drive I've got sitting right here.