The Real History of the Ultrabook

*Please note that I am not talking about Intel's current standards for what constitutes an Ultrabook. I'm using this term pretty loosely to describe ultrathin, ultraportable laptops.


Since Ultrabooks are the hot new trend in laptops these days, they seem to be constantly come up when discussing technology.

Often, I encounter people (especially on this website) who accuse OEM's of "copying" Apple since the MacBook Air was introduced and released before the recent crop of ultraportables that Intel created specific guidelines for (and subsequently named "Ultrabooks"). Sometimes these accusations are based on design. While I agree that many OEM's have taken cues from Apple here (due to their popularity), the ones I have seen in person could never be mistaken for MBA's.

In any case, some accusations move to the realm of creative integraty and originality. This is where I have issues.

First I am going to present the history of ultraportables according to today's standards for super thin and light laptops. I am not going to focus on the earlier history of subnotebooks because they are less relevant to today size standards, and because I think then I will have to discuss the history of the original portable computers, since they, too, were "ultraportable" in their day.

There may be others that I am not aware of, but I am including all of the significant ones I have found. At the end, I will offer some more thoughts.

I would also like to note that along with my interest in recent technology, I am very interested in the history of technology (or at least recent history) and how we have arrived at the present state. So, in the very least, even if you don't agree with my points, I hope you find this article interesting!

Mitsubishi Pedion




The first is the Mitsubishi Pedion. Designed in a partnership between Mitsubishi and HP, this laptop was first shown in 1997 and released in 1998. At 0.72 inches thick, it was even thinner than the original MacBook Air at its thickest point. The unrealistic price tag of $6,000 paired with technical issues, however, ensured this laptop a pretty short shelf-life.

Just to give you an idea of how old this thing is, though, it came with Windows 95 originally and a 233 MHZ processor. It did have a USB port though, which is pretty impressive.

It also might not be the prettiest laptop, but this was the late 90's. For comparison, this was Apple's high-end offering at the time.

Sharp Actius MM10




Sharp actually produced a number of ultrathin laptops before this, but what makes this one so exceptional is that it was only 0.54 inches thick and weighed 2.1 pounds.

It came with a 1 GHZ processor, had 2 USB ports, and actually had an Ethernet port (unlike a certain new thin laptop). Its standard battery was only about 3 hours but it had an extended battery that allegedly could get up to 9 hours. That's very impressive, especially for its time.

It had also had an optional dock that would sync files and folders with your primary computer. Its screen was only 10.4 inches and the price was $1500, though, so I don't think it was very successful.

The technology was not quite there yet, but this laptop offered a lot of pretty amazing features and specs, especially when considering it predated the original Air by 5 years.

Sony Vaio PCG-X505




This is a favorite among people here arguing against Apple fanboys' claims of originality. I think it's the most iconic of these and is really most notable for its introduction of the modern Chiclet keyboard (another invention often credited to Apple with their original White MacBook).

It was 0.8 inches thin (a little thicker than the original Air), had a wedge design, and weighed only 1.73 pounds. It had a built-in G wireless card, two USB ports, a FireWire port, a 1.3 GHZ Centrino Processor, a 10.4 inch screen, and got up to 4 hours of battery life.

It also cost about $3000, making it very much a niche product. From reading some reviews, it seems as though this actually had a good batch of competitors (notably a ling from Toshiba that I will describe below), but these laptops very pricey and the technology could simply not make them practical enough to gain a substantial user base.

Toshiba Portege R200




Finally, we have the Toshiba Portege R200. Although Toshiba's R100 was actually a contemporary competitor to the Vaio mentioned above, I thought I'd show this one to show a little bit of the evolution since it came out a year later in 2005.

At 0.8 inches thick, with a 12 inch display, a 1.2 GHZ processor, 60 GB of internal storage, and almost 5 hours of battery life, this seems like one of the most practical of the bunch. It weighed just 2.74 pounds and started at around $2100. It also featured most of the same ports that the Son offered.

Where does this leave us?

Well, aside from me finding this extremely interesting, my point here was that no single company can be credited with creating most (if not all) of the innovative products we have with us today (and will get in the future). I'm personally tired of hearing "so and so invented that" or "so and so is copying so and so." You get the idea.

I also think it's important to note how important a role timing and luck has. When it was first released, the Air was a niche product like most of the rest of these. Sure, it came out more recently so it had better specs than these older laptops, but it was largely impractical as a primary computer and it wasn't until Intel's newer processors of the past 2 years or so that have enabled it to become a regular laptop. Also, SSD's didn't even start shipping with laptops until around 2007 (beginning with Dell), so that was not practical until right around when the MBA was originally released.

Most of these computers were clearly ahead of their time, but suffered commercially and practically from processor speed, power efficiency, and maybe most importantly price.

Anyway, I hope you guys enjoy this and I hope it's not too long. Maybe one day, we can all enjoy the many contributions from all the different players in the world of technology without getting into petty little fights about who copied who or who invented what since I think the answers are never as clear-cut as we might think.