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Portables Hardware Technology

Thirty Years of Clamshell Computing 135

Posted by samzenpus
from the form-factor dept.
harrymcc writes "2012 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Grid Compass 1101, the first portable computer with a briefcase-like case with a keyboard on one side of the interior, a flat screen on the other, and a hinge in the middle--the 'clamshell' design that eventually became standard for all portable PCs. It's proven to be a remarkably useful and durable design, and only with the advent of the iPad has it faced serious competition."
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Thirty Years of Clamshell Computing

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 16, 2012 @02:46PM (#40665333)

    Sometimes I question my priorities in life.

    • The great iBook G3 from 1999 AKA 'the toilet seat'.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        The great iBook G3 from 1999 AKA 'the toilet seat'.

        Exactly, which is evidence that Apple innovated the clamshell design into existence. The lawsuits will begin shortly. Thanks for the reminder, iCitizen!

      • by cpu6502 (1960974)

        Wow it really does look like the two halves of a toilet seat:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBook#iBook_G3_.28.22Clamshell.22.29 [wikipedia.org]

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        We had one in our office in 1990 IIRC. It was a Compaq about the size of a lunchbox, with a detachable wired keyboard and an orange plasma display. No mouse, those were the DOS days.

        Ten years before that (thirty years ago) my mon (now long-retired) brought home an IBM clamshell. It was the size of a medium suitcase, weight a LOT, had a five inch green CRT and a 5 MB hard drive and two floppy drives.

        Now? The most powerful computer I have ever owned is my notebook, which weighs less than a DOS manual did.

  • by ISoldat53 (977164) on Monday July 16, 2012 @02:48PM (#40665347)
    The Tandy Model 100 gave it competition way before the iPad.
    • For certain values of "competition", yes :) The Tandy seemed to be ahead of its time but unfortunately ahead of public demand.

      http://www.old-computers.com/museum/hardware.asp?t=1&c=233&st=1 [old-computers.com]

      • by cpu6502 (1960974)

        You linked to the TRS-80 which, according to ars technica, was the #1 selling computer of its time (1977,78,79). Mainly because it was in Radio Shack where many hobbyists shopped.

        • You are right that the TRS-80 was a popular system in the space it was in. I had a Model I and a Model IV, so I know I enjoyed the Tandy brand. Don't confuse market leadership with having a mature market.

          If you went to an office, you didn't see a Tandy (or other computer) at every workstation and most families didn't have a computer at home. By the time computers really started to hit the mainstream, Tandy had flamed out and became a distant memory. I even had a 1000 Series, but it would be my last... too p

      • The article asserts that the clamshell is the portable computer format that "won". It certainly became popular (especially compared to the lunchbox shape), but the Palm Pilot made its format dominant for a few years, until the iPhone killed it. And the iPod is a more specialized computer, although the iPhone has mostly killed it. And the iPhone is very definitely a portable computer (telephony's only one of many apps on it), though you could argue that it's essentially the same format as the Palm Pilot,

    • And, as the article says – not a clam shell.

      IIRC the Tandy Model 100 was the last piece of software personally coded by Bill Gates.

      • by vlm (69642)

        The 200 was released in 1984 and was a clamshell, that's probably what is confusing the guy.

        I suppose if you wanna get really picky and demand clamshell with LCD as opposed to plasma then the model 200 wins.

    • by s73v3r (963317)

      The Tandy Model 100 gave it competition way before the iPad.

      No. The Tandy Model 100 did exist before the iPad, but it was nowhere near as popular as the iPad.

      Competition doesn't just mean that alternatives exist. They also have to be popular enough to matter.

      • by tqk (413719)

        Competition doesn't just mean that alternatives exist. They also have to be popular enough to matter.

        "Popular" is overrated. Just because you're popular doesn't mean you matter. It doesn't mean "good." Windows and Apple are popular. So were Hitler and Stalin.

        • by s73v3r (963317)

          Popular means that it can have some effect on the market, though. Good doesn't mean that you'll have any traction.

        • by chrismcb (983081)

          "Popular" is overrated. Just because you're popular doesn't mean you matter. It doesn't mean "good." Windows and Apple are popular. So were Hitler and Stalin.

          Yes, actually it does. If you are popular you matter. You are right, popular doesn't mean better, or good. But "matter" doesn't either.

        • by tehcyder (746570)

          Competition doesn't just mean that alternatives exist. They also have to be popular enough to matter.

          "Popular" is overrated. Just because you're popular doesn't mean you matter. It doesn't mean "good." Windows and Apple are popular. So were Hitler and Stalin.

          Yes, but it is Hitler and Stalin you study for their impact on the world.

          "Good" is a moral judgement and irrelevant to presenting the facts. An historian can't just say "Hitler was evil, therefore I'm going to ignore him in my proposed history of the Third Reich".

          If computer or OS A sold more than B that is a fact, not a judgement on their relative merits.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    In 1972, EMS Synthi AKS was a briefcase with a keyboard on one side -- it just happened to have a synthesizer on the other side, instead of a computer. The clamshell design is a pretty obvious model to follow.

    As my reward for this post, I would be happily accept a Synthi AKS. It seems fitting, you know?

  • by MyLongNickName (822545) on Monday July 16, 2012 @02:51PM (#40665369) Journal

    As electronics become smaller, the only pieces that must remain large are the input and output devices, so the clamshell makes the best use of space. The iPad's input device isn't meant for serious input... a keystroke here or a mouse click there. Typing a real paragraph is a pain the fingers.

    Now what I am really looking forward to is when these computers can output directly to my retina :)

    • ...and input directly from my mind.
    • by Alwin Henseler (640539) on Monday July 16, 2012 @03:35PM (#40665787) Homepage

      (..) so the clamshell makes the best use of space.

      Considering today's power/heat constraints, I find the usual "CPU/GPU under keyboard" configuration illogical. Why not a CPU / GPU / RAM board behind the screen, with a large/thin (passive, if possible) cooling plate at the rear? Or draw air in near the hinges, let air out near the top of the screen (again, passive if possible). Those 2 cooling methods wouldn't bite each other... Then just battery, keyboard, hard disk and peripherals like DVD drive (if fitted) under the keyboard. A few serial connections like USB / SATA + power between the two halves. Likely would leave more space such that a larger battery is possible.

      Much better than packing heat-producing CPU/GPU right next to a heat-sensitive battery (+ a tiny blower to pull that heat out).

      • by cpu6502 (1960974)

        What you're describing is basically an iPad but attached to a keyboard, drive, etc. As Bugs Bunny would say, "I like it."

      • by Hamsterdan (815291) on Monday July 16, 2012 @03:59PM (#40666009)

        Weight distribution. If the lid is heavier than the base, it's too easy to have the laptop do a backwards flip. Besides, it would add thickness to the machine (but allow for a bigger battery)

      • There's this pesky thing called physics that likes to get in the way: Namely, your device will be topheavy to the point of being unwieldy for non table use. The brilliance of the top containing only the screen is that it makes the thing balanced. I suppose you could put some additional stuff in the clamshell top. Ideally, the SSD, since it is a "low bandwidth" device (compared to a GPU or RAM) and requires only a few traces to be added to the cable running between the halves.
      • In other words, you want an Asus Transformer [asus.com]?

        (they will come in x86 and in larger sizes up to 14" later this year, for Win8)

      • by 0123456 (636235)

        Considering today's power/heat constraints, I find the usual "CPU/GPU under keyboard" configuration illogical. Why not a CPU / GPU / RAM board behind the screen, with a large/thin (passive, if possible) cooling plate at the rear?

        Because it's back-heavy and hard to balance. You see, engineers do think about these things when they design hardware.

      • by s73v3r (963317)

        What would be the effects of having such a heat generating part right behind the display, though?

    • Now what I am really looking forward to is when these computers can output directly to my retina :)

      I have mixed feeling about this. It will be incredibly convenient and cool. But I also am realistic enough to realize we don't live in a utopian Star Trek world. The thought of loosing my vision because of a glitch is scary enough. But even worse, can you imagine if someone hacks such a system and you are forced to look at goatse, and no matter what you do you cannot turn your head or close your eyes to make it go away.

      • by lgw (121541)

        But even worse, can you imagine if someone hacks such a system and you are forced to look at goatse, and no matter what you do you cannot turn your head or close your eyes to make it go away.

        Ahh, so you remember the early days of Slashdot.

    • As electronics become smaller, the only pieces that must remain large are the input and output devices, so the clamshell makes the best use of space.

      Disagree. A separate Bluetooth keyboard saves much more space. The table case can double as a stable, adaptable support as with the Xoom portfolio case. Pointer alternatives are: 1) use the touchscreen (and wave your arms a lot and get fingerprints on the screen) 2) separate bluetooth touchpad 3) bloat up the bluetooth keyboard with an integrated touchpad 4) bluetooth mouse 5) USB mouse 6) Thinkpad style eraser head control (somebody should do that). In any case, the combination is all a lot more compact, l

      • 6) Thinkpad style eraser head control (somebody should do that).

        The technical term is clit mouse. Nipple mouse is also acceptable.

    • by tehcyder (746570)

      Now what I am really looking forward to is when these computers can output directly to my retina :)

      Great, we'll be bombarded by advertising 24 hours a day instead of just when we're awake.

  • by cpu6502 (1960974) on Monday July 16, 2012 @03:09PM (#40665523)

    The first one I got to see and use was this. Most of the space was used-up by the 1541 floppy drive, which was a monster (as big as the computer itself):
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodore_SX-64 [wikipedia.org]

    • by Osgeld (1900440)

      whoppie shit, its not a clamshell, which is what the story is about

      hey my first car was a ford!

  • "First commercially successful portable computer" according to the almighty wiki, launched in 1981.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osborne_1 [wikipedia.org]

    • "First commercially successful portable computer" according to the almighty wiki, launched in 1981.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osborne_1 [wikipedia.org]

      "...the first portable computer with a briefcase-like case with a keyboard on one side of the interior, a flat screen on the other, and a hinge in the middle..."
      The osborne doesn't fit this definition. From the wikipedia pictures I don't see the hinge joining the keyboard to the rest of the system.

    • That's a luggable, not a clamshell.

      • by Nadaka (224565)

        There are some strange asymmetrical looking clams out there.

        Its got a hinge. Its got a screen on one side of the hinge, and a keyboard on the other.

      • by gorzek (647352)

        Yep. I've got one of those, myself, but it's a Compaq "Ultra Portable." Similar design, although the screen is on the left side rather than in the middle.

      • The original article didn't say that no other form factors have been used, or that the clamshell was the first format. (And the IBM 5150 (IIRC) that I was using in 1978-1979 was also portable, though you usually did the porting on a rolling cart.)

        It said that the Clamshell format won, and everything else uses that format these days. Except, of course, for the Palm Pilot, Blackberry, iPhone, and iPad, which also are portable computers that won the Format Wars. (Yes, the Newton used that format before th

      • by tehcyder (746570)

        That's a luggable, not a clamshell.

        I loved luggables. Using one made you feel like you were a spy or special forces op, even when you were just typing people's expenses onto a Visicalc spreadsheet.

    • by trampel (464001)

      Wouldn't that be the IBM 5100 [wikipedia.org]?

      • Yes, you usually ported it on a cart, but you could easily move it from your lab to your office, or your office to the lecture hall, or to the computer room where your grad students could use it, and you didn't have to disassemble/reassemble it the way you did with a PDP-11 or mainframe.

        And this meant that when I was taking a number-crunching course in grad school, and our professor didn't want us to waste valuable mainframe time doing graphics with computers when we could learn more doing them by hand, I c

  • I'd like to see someone come up with a viable tablet/laptop hybrid. Either with swiveling screen that can be closed with the keyboard hidden or exposed. Maybe even a detachable full keyboard. I think it's been done before, but now that tablets are more successful, there's probably more of a market. Maybe gambling with laptop form factors is higher risk that with cell phones, but it would be great to see the same level of experimentation.

  • by fermion (181285) on Monday July 16, 2012 @03:14PM (#40665575) Homepage Journal
    Everyone who knew about a Grid wanted on. It was the first piece of computer industrial design I knew about. OTH it really wasn't a clamshell. it was a pop up screen, like the tandy 200, released two years later. I would say the Tandy 200 is the first useful affordable laptop computer. Both were integrated systems with custom OS. It is interesting to note that we are returning to metal enclosures for high end computers, or those that want to look like it.

    Unlike the Tandy, the grid computer only ran on line current. Compared to other portable computers the innovation in this machine was the flat display and internal expandability and storage. The expense of the screen was significant. Note that first Apple Mac was also a portable computer, but used a CRT.

    In any case most of the computers through the 80's were not laptops, and we did not get reliable clamshells until 1990's.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 16, 2012 @03:18PM (#40665605)

    Anyone who does anything productive an iPad ends up buying a case and a bluetooth keyboard, ending up with exactly the same overall use case as a clamshell laptop. The only advantage with the iPad is that the keyboard is optional, but for those of us who do a lot of work that "optional" part is a hassle and thus I always end up just using my laptop anyway. Anyone who claims they can be productive for long periods of typing with the terrible iPad on-screen keyboard is probably lying.

    • Anyone who does anything productive an iPad ends up buying a case and a bluetooth keyboard, ending up with exactly the same overall use case as a clamshell laptop.

      Well.. not exactly. You're absolutely right that during the moments they're actually using a BT keyboard on the iPad that they are effectively replicating a clamshell design, but to even the most hardcore KB user, the iPad's independence of these peripherals still makes it very valuable. Laptops want to be able to do what the iPad does and as time goes by we're going to see more and more attempts at it.

    • The very first time I saw an on-screen keyboard, I knew it would never be more than a low-throughput device. I rooted for other screen-based input solutions, but Apple never let them be used as the default interface. Some of them actually worked quite well: I was able to get to 50wpm using the IBM SHARK [ibm.com] input method with an afternoon's practice.
  • Pen Computing was around in the mid 1980s and Microsoft Windows for Pens was released in 1991. Much like 3D movies are not new ( I have a VHS copy of the 1950s classic "Cat Women of the Moon in 3D" around someplace), the iPad is not a new idea even if it is nifty.
    • by DrVxD (184537)

      Windows for Pens was released in 1991

      Or:
      1991: Windows for Pen Is Released

    • iPad is not a new idea

      The Springboard was new, as well as its penless touch-based interface design... nothing before iPhone was even remotely like it. Tablet computing wasn't new, but Apple's offering is still notable for these changes in interface design, changing the landscape of all tablet computing henceforth.

    • by s73v3r (963317)

      It might not be 100% new, but that doesn't mean that a lot of new tech went into the implementation compared to when it was originally thought up.

  • The form makes sense. For a portable computer usable for typing you've got a few requirements:

    • You have to have a keyboard and screen.
    • The screen needs to have a working position around 90-135 degrees "up" from the plane of the keyboard. That's so the keyboard can be flat (preferred typing position) while the screen's at roughly a right angle to the line of vision.
    • When not in use you want the surface of the screen covered in some way, to prevent scratching or damage.
    • Any connection between the keyboard and s
  • Had a GRiDcase III plus once upon a time, bought new in 1985 for $8,150, cash --- should've bought stock instead. Oh well, easy come, easy go. It and the NeXT Cube I had later were the nicest machines I ever used.

    Other things to look forward to:

    - anniversary of the ThinkPad announcement --- everyone should get and read _ThinkPad: A Different Shade of Blue_ by Deborah A. Dell --- fascinating insight into the creation of the ThinkPad

    - anniversary of the NCR-3125 --- the first successful (for l

  • With the removable zagmate bluetooth keyboard, iWorks office suite, omnigraffle, iOS mail + calendar + contacts, kindle reader for reading pdf's, and cdyia mobile terminal + openssh, my iPad3 has become a serious and portable work device. (The retina display is really beneficial to me.)

    My biggest issue with the iPod is that the gcc tool chain is no longer available for native development with ios 5.*, as was possible in ios 4.*. :-(

  • In 1989 we looked into an SBIR for the military and it would run on a ruggedized Toshiba, which was like $10,000. Like a Compaq but you could tumble it around on the ground.

  • How many Grid Compasses are still in use today? The TRS-80 Model 100 is a remarkably robust design that continues to be the preferred choice for writers "in the field" where access to electricity is limited -- a keyboard, an LCD screen, a full-travel keyboard, and it can run for months on 4 AA batteries -- only the Alphasmarts outclassed it for pure writing enjoyment and durability.

    • by DrVxD (184537)

      Many, many years ago, I worked on an embedded single board system for monitoring traffic signals. We used the Model 100 to do site visits to update firmware/run diagnostics etc. I've moved on, as have the monitoring systems - but the service guys there are still using the same Model 100s to do the same job. It's proven to be a remarkably reliable machine.

    • by phaggood (690955)
      It should be fairly straight-forward enough to put a Raspberry Pi and an 80x20 LCD plus keyboard into a small case w/ keyboard, touchpad and battery approximating the form of a Model 100 but speedier and with LOADS more storage space.
  • My main beef with the clamshell design is it's difficult to use from your average economy seat on an airplane. If you have the keyboard at a comfortable typing distance, the screen has to tilt forward to not hit the seat in front of you. Getting it to a proper angle means pulling the keyboard uncomfortably close to your body.

    The Vadem Clio [wikipedia.org] had an interesting design where the screen was mounted in the middle on arms that attached to the back. Thus, it could hover over the keyboard and still tilt back. I

  • Dvorak called [dvorak.org] a similar-looking 1982 computer a "half-clamshell". Also, until just now, I had always assumed that the term "clamshell" was coined in Whoopi Goldberg's 1986 movie but a search [nytimes.com] in New York Times archives for "clamshell AND computer" turned up hits from 1983. So I can't blast Time Magazine for an anachronism.
  • Any bets some marketing droid went to engineering and asked for some string of ones and zeroes that looked compuerish? And some smart-a$$ engineer came back with 1101 knowing it was 13 and also knowing that the marketing droid would never figure that out?

    Cheers,
    Dave

  • Was Apple really the first to place the keys at the top of the open clamshell, and the pointing device on the lower half under your thumbs? I used a couple of PC notebooks before getting access to a Powerbook, and remember thinking "now this makes *&^%$#@! sense".

    • Was Apple really the first to place the keys at the top of the open clamshell, and the pointing device on the lower half under your thumbs?

      Yes, it is known. Subsequently, every other laptop manufacturer came up with and utilized this design... all on their own, apparently.

    • by Osgeld (1900440) on Monday July 16, 2012 @07:51PM (#40667911)

      no I have a dec laptop with a trackball in the now normal position, Its date of manufacture is 1990 which is the same year as the original Macintosh portable started coming with a backlight, and a year before the first powerbook. The original portable in 89-90 gave you a reflective screen (think gameboy) a full sized keyboard, a full sized trackball on the right of the keyboard, and ran off of lead acid batteries. It was a old clunky luggable about 6 years too late.

      The first powerbook came out in 91 and it came with the trackball built in, which makes since as you HAVE to have a mouse with a mac. My DEC clips onto the front with pogo pins that make the contact as an option. So while the powerbook was the first one with a built in pointing device, PC makers have been putting the trackball under the keyboard for years as an option

  • I used it for half a year, my company got me one to go around the country and do training on a new system we developed. It was connected to an overhead projector converter, where I could show the text on a projected screen.

    For its day, it was a wonderful computer, it was tough, and it wowed people.

    It was, however, very heavy for its size, and despite its look, it had no battery. It always had to be plugged in.

    The display was far more usable than anything else at the time, it was extremely sharp, but as I

  • For three years, I used a Poqet PC [wikipedia.org] running Forefront's Framework Office Suite [wikipedia.org]. A PC you could fit into a coat pocket. Ran for a full week on 2 AA batteries. Had the best outliner I've ever used, even to this day. A fabulously productive platform.
  • My first laptop was a Zenith Z-181 [thecomputerarchive.com] which I got for cheap (unlike this one [ebay.com], what are they thinking...) at one of those computer dump markets which used to be held quite often back then. The thing still works, but it is currently in storage for lack of usable floppies (it has two 720K 3.5" 'flip-up' drives), time and interest. Its dark-blue-on-light-blue screen (or the other way around if that was preferred) felt strangely familiar, coming from a Commodore 64. Even though it has been surpassed in almost every

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