Top 10 Iconic Notebooks that Changed Mobile Computing

by Reads (8,579)

Big industries change when groundbreaking products are introduced. We take a look at 10 of the most outlandish laptops from the past decade that helped shape the industry.

The Criteria

For a device to be included in this article, it had to be considered a “halo” product for its time. That means it was groundbreaking enough to make headlines, for any reason. Most devices made it because of their design, but several were also due to a major technological feature, or excellent performance. We generally isolated our roundup to those within the last decade (2006 – 2016), but had to put the dials on our flux capacitor a bit further back in a few cases.

1) The Thinnest of the Thin: Sony VAIO X505

SonyX505Okay, so it came out a little more than 10 years ago, but who’s counting? In 2004, Sony debuted the perpetually iconic VAIO X505. It retailed for $3,000, and was as thin and light of a notebook as money could buy. Housing a 10.4-inch display, it was just 1.8 pounds, and varied in thickness between 0.4 and 0.8 inches. That’s still slicing it thin, 10+ years later style. The X505 owed much of its low weight and chassis rigidity to its nickel carbon-fiber construction.

There were compromises made to be so radically thin and light – remember, 2004 was in an era when the typical 15-inch notebook was seven or more pounds, and over and inch and a half thick. On the X505, you were stuck with a trackpoint; there was no touchpad, since the technology at the time didn’t allow the internal components to be slim enough to fit under the keyboard. (They were instead in the raised area behind the keyboard, hence the forward-mounted keyboard.) Speaking of keyboards, the X505 had island-style keys, the first of their kind to be seen in a notebook. Another unique design feature was its battery pack, which was a cylindrical piece at the back. It didn’t even have internal wireless, though Sony provided an external card. We admitted in our review that the X505 really wasn’t worth buying because of its impractical compromises for the sake of being thin and light, which is still a complaint we occasionally bestow on today’s ultra-thin-and-lights. As the saying goes, history repeats.

Nevertheless, the Sony VAIO X505 was a glimpse of the distant future. Heck, we still think it looks cool. As we summed it up then, “I’ll struggle to find a practical reason to buy the X505 in my full review, but for some things in life you don’t need to justify everything and you might just want it because there’s $3000 burning a hole in your pocket (if you’re so lucky) and you’re a sucker for design and technology.”

2) $199, with a Side of Linux: Asus Eee PC 701

AsusEeePC701It’s not unusual to find modern computers selling for a few hundred dollars, like the Lenovo Miix 310, or a Chromebook you’d find in the local electronics store. But that wasn’t always the case. Asus made worldwide headlines in 2007 when it introduced the tiny Eee PC. It had a 7-inch display, a 900MHz Intel Celeron M processor, ran a customized version of Linux that allowed it to boot up in 10 seconds or less, and was set to sell for $199.

You could do most of the basic tasks that you could on a PC, like surf the web, view pictures, and edit documents. It was a precursor to the short-lived Netbook era, and today’s Chromebooks, which more or less fill the same niche. The Eee PC 701 effectively launched the age of cheap mobile computing, which is still going strong.

For a blast from the past, take a look at our original video review of the Eee PC 701 here!

3) The Biggest Notebook: HP’s 20.1-inch HDX, “The Dragon”

HPHDXOne of the largest notebooks ever, the HP HDX was very appropriately nicknamed “The Dragon”. We hesitate to call it a notebook, because it had a 20.1-inch display, was 2.3 inches thick, and weighed a whopping 15.5 pounds. Its dual display hinge was center mounted, which allowed you to position the screen at the perfect viewing angle. It was like an all-in-one PC, only better, because you could fold it up and take it with you, and it had an internal battery.

This huge notebook was big in every way, from its desktop-size keyboard, to its booming quad Altec Lansing speakers and subwoofer. It also had one of the most impressive collections of input and output ports to be seen on any notebook, then or now.

To quote our review: “Overall our first impressions of the overwhelmingly huge HP Pavilion HDX are overwhelmingly positive. Sure, small people might need a Sherpa and an oxygen tank to haul this system up and down a flight of stairs, but it’s worth it. Bottom line, if you can justify the price the HDX is the best desktop replacement and home entertainment notebook on the market today.”

The HDX still has an almost cult-like following in our forums, with nearly 10,000 replies to its active-daily owner’s lounge thread (http://forum.notebookreview.com/threads/hp-hdx-9000-dragon-owners-lounge-part-2.515212/). It paved the way for future large-screened models like the 18.4-inch Asus W90VP, and the Alienware 18. It’s a shame HP hasn’t made a notebook this big since.

DellXPSM2010Honorable Mention: Dell XPS M2010

One of the few companies to produce something to compete with the HP HDX was Dell, with their massive 20.1-inch XPS M2010. It weighed even more than the HDX at 18.3 pounds, and was thicker at 2.9 inches. It shared most of the HDX’s praises – a great screen, excellent speakers, and a full-size keyboard.

Honorable Mention: Sager NP5960

Sager also briefly sold a 20-inch gaming-specific notebook, the NP5960, which had two Nvidia 7950GX graphics cards. It was hamstrung by its anemic AMD Turion X2 processor, however, plus a bit late in the technology curve, and never really took off.

4) A Radical Flip: Dell’s Adamo XPS

DellAdamoXPS2The Adamo XPS was a radically thin notebook with a unique design: it stored all of its circuitry in its display panel, instead of the base of the chassis. The keyboard flipped down from the display, as opposed to the display flipping up from the keyboard as on most notebooks. It was just 0.4 inches tall at its thickest point, and weighed 3.2 pounds. For a notebook with a 13.4-inch display, that’s good even by today’s standards.

The Adamo’s design was the preamble to the modern concept of a tablet and detachable keyboard, as on the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. The Adamo’s keyboard didn’t detach, but it shared the same problem as the tablet and keyboard combos of today: it couldn’t be used as a traditional notebook in the lap, because the bottom surface wasn’t totally flat. Aside from that, the Adamo was a rather practical notebook, with plenty of ports and ample performance for most tasks. The five-year gap between it and the Sony X505 certainly made a difference at the tenths of an inch scale.

5) Two Screens and a Wacom Digitizer: Lenovo ThinkPad W700ds

What if we told you about a notebook with two screens and a built-in Wacom digitizer? That seems crazy even today, let alone in early 2009. That was the monster Lenovo ThinkPad W700ds. (There was also a regular W700 model available without the dual-screen part.)

This 17-incher was the biggest ThinkPad ever (it still is, as we write this), and a true milestone in notebook computing. It featured a spring-loaded, slide-out 10.6-inch display. Lenovo even had special scaling software built-in that would ensure text and other objects looked comparable when dragging them from one screen to the next. 

LenovoW700ds LenovoW700ds2

As if its two screens weren’t crazy enough, the W700/W700ds featured a 3×5 inch Wacom digitizer in the palm rest.  A pen was included, and stored in a slot in the notebook itself. Heck, this beast even had a built-in display calibrator in the palm rest!

In essence, the W700ds was a true all-in-one solution. There have been no notebooks since to sport such a dual-screen arrangement, nor has anyone else tried the palm rest-mounted Wacom digitizer concept. Lenovo can rest assured the epic ThinkPad W710ds has an indefinite spot in the notebook archives.

6) The Original MacBook Air

AppleMacBookAirHailed as the world’s thinnest notebook when it was announced in early 2008, the original MacBook Air was quite accurately named. With a 13.3-inch screen, it weighed only three pounds, and measured 0.2 to 0.8 inches thin.

Notable features of this featherweight included a multi-touch touchpad, allowing you to use multiple fingers to manipulate objects on screen (like “pinching” to zoom). This is a common feature on notebooks today, but was brand-new at the time. It also had the ability to run Windows Vista via the then-new Apple Bootcamp software. It was buggy, but it worked (well, mostly; see our review, linked above).

The original MacBook Air had its share of compromises, from a near total lack of ports, to a scorching hot chassis, and long battery charge times. One of our complaints was its lack of a replaceable battery, which was a glimpse of the future. Today, very few notebooks have user-serviceable batteries. As with other radically thin notebooks, we thought the MacBook Air was too compromised to fully recommend, but it certainly had potential. Apple’s latest MacBook (http://www.notebookreview.com/notebookreview/apple-macbook-2016-review-the-good-the-bad-the-expensive/) carries on its legacy, minimal ports and all.

7) Two Screens in One: Toshiba Libretto W100

ToshibaW100The second notebook in our article with two screens, the Toshiba Libretto W100 fits on the opposite end of the size scale. Introduced in mid-2010 to coincide with Toshiba’s 25th anniversary, the W100 was a concept that never really took off. It featured dual 7-inch displays in a book-like foldable design, weighing only 1.8 pounds. One screen could function as a virtual keyboard, and provided haptic feedback.

Today, this one-off concept has been almost totally forgotten in the shadow of smartphones and dedicated tablets. Its concept had merit, though, as the W100’s travel footprint was dimensionally smaller than a typical tablet when folded.

8) The Truly Wireless Notebook: Dell Latitude Z

A business notebook with a 16-inch display doesn’t seem likely to make headlines. But Dell didn’t pick a letter from the end of the alphabet for nothing. The Latitude Z made the news for its 0.8-inch thin, five pound design and futuristic use of wireless and touch technology. The model we reviewed in early 2010 went for $3,591, had just a handful of ports, and didn’t last all that long on battery. It wasn’t a great performer, either, but we still thought it was one of the best-looking and most well-made business notebooks we had seen.

DellLatitudeZ DellLatitudeZDock

Besides its ultra-thin design, the Latitude Z was a technology showcase. It featured wireless docking, which didn’t appear in standardized form in the mainstream until over five years later, via Intel’s WiGig (http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/wireless-products/wigig-overview-video.html). As a matter of fact, wireless docking is still relatively rare. This notebook also featured wireless charging capability, which generally hasn’t been seen in notebooks since. Combined with the wireless dock, the Latitude Z remains in history as the only truly wireless notebook.

Not all of its cool features were wireless, though. It had a touch-sensitive strip on the edge of its display, which could be configured with tap-zones to perform shortcuts, or to act as a huge scroll wheel. Its touch-sensitive volume controls were also notable, not for their touch capability, but for the fact they provided haptic feedback when pressed. As we summarized all those years ago: “If you can’t be seen with anything less than the best looking notebook on the market sitting in front of you, look no further than the Latitude Z.”

9) The World’s Smallest PC: OQO Model 1

OQOModel1We admit this really isn’t a notebook, and it was more than a decade ago, but OQO Model 1 still turned heads as the world’s smallest computer when it debuted in 2004. It was a fully-fledged Windows computer that could fit in the palm of your hand, measuring a paltry 4.9 x 3.4 x 0.9 inches, and weighed only 14 ounces. Its five-inch screen could slide down over its thumbpad keyboard to transform it into a mini-tablet.

Inside this miniscule device was a 1GHz Transmeta Efficeon processor, 256MB of RAM, a 20GB shock-mounted hard drive, 802.11b wireless, Bluetooth, and your choice of Windows XP Home or Pro. It included a digital pen, and started at $1,899.

Although OQO went out of business in early 2009, the Model 1 left its legacy in the form of the now-extinct UMPC (Ultra-Mobile Personal Computer) market segment. Both the OQO Model 1 and the UMPC demonstrated the continuing desire to make things smaller, even if they failed in practicality. UMPCs were made totally obsolete by touch-screen smartphones and tablets, though they did fill the gap in between that time quickly closed.

Honorable Mention: Sony VAIO UX and P-Series UMPCs

SonyUXThe circa-2009 Sony VAIO P was one of the last UMPCs to hit the market. It was developed some years after the circa-2006 VAIO UX series, pictured here, which was the most famous of the UMPCs. It looks cool even today, but was never truly practical. Again, smartphones and tablets made them remnants of the past.

10) The First Dual-Core Notebook: Clevo D900K Series

The Clevo D900K series, rebranded and sold in various forms as Clevo notebooks traditionally are, was the first commercially-sold notebook to feature a dual-core processor. It was released at a time when notebooks used Intel Pentium M, Pentium 4, and AMD Athlon and Sempron single-core processors. The D900K, which we reviewed as the Alienware Aurora m7700, featured all the processing power of the fastest desktops, thanks to its support of AMD’s landmark Athlon FX-60 and Athlon X2 dual-core processors. (We reviewed the D900K with the latter, in the form of the Sager NP9750).

Alienwarem7700Combined with the Nvidia Go7800GTX 256MB graphics card, the D900K was the fastest notebook money could buy in early 2006. Calling it a notebook is somewhat generous, as it weighed 12.5 pounds, was 2.1inches thick, and was powered by a 220W power brick. Our $4,317 Alienware Aurora m7700 review unit packed 2GB of DDR-400 dual-channel RAM, twin 80GB 7200RPM hard drives in RAID 0, and Windows XP Professional. It lasted just an hour and a half on battery, but who buys a beastly desktop replacement for battery life?

(Today, Clevo still produces massive desktop replacements in the spirit of the D900K, the most recent being the P870 series. We reviewed it as the Eurocom Sky X9. As the D900K was in its day, the P870 holds the crown as the overall fastest notebook on the market.)

Conclusion

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, another maker comes out with something even more radical. It happens year after year, and every now and then, it’s a blast to look back and see how it all shaped the industry. In this article, we went through 10 devices from 2004 and onward that each made their mark on mobile computing history. That included everything from the exotic Sony VAIO X505, to the monster 20.1-inch HP HDX, to the then-world’s smallest PC, the OQO Model 1. We’ll refrain from singling out one as making more of a difference than the others, as each made its own unique contribution, and deserves an equal mention in the credits. We’ll be making a list for the next 10 groundbreaking devices – and hopefully it’ll fill up before the decade is out.

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5 Comments

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  1. xitongzou

    I disagree that UMPCs are totally obsolete. Smartphones have their place but, a pocketable PC these days would still be a hit! especially since the price of all the components have come down a lot since 2006 especially power requirements. Back then slow as molasses Via and Atom processors had to be used for thermal reasons. But now you can use a Core M, be fanless and be much faster. Plus they run full blown Windows which is quite nice over today’s iOS and Android devices. and slide out hardware keyboards are something some people like to have these days as well.

  2. DanLeithauser

    In the days before smart phones– I was pretty fond of my Hewlett-Packard Jornada 728.
    It got stolen, along with a corporate laptop, out of my car parked in my own garage.
    Never saw either again.

  3. Charles P Jefferies

    xitongzou – pocket-sized PC’s might be a hit, but whether they would sell is hard to say. The major makes don’t think they would, since they stopped producing UMPCs (at least as they traditionally existed) some time ago.
    I think it was the software at the time that made UMPCs an initially viable product, since they could run full versions of Windows and thus a great variety of software. “Smartphones” back then weren’t even close to the capabilities they are today. Most of the difference in usability and functionality between today’s smartphones and those of the past is software-related.
    Thanks for reading.
    P.S. Per the intro, this article originally was going to be restricted to devices produced within the last 10 years. I stretched that back to 2004 to take into account some notebooks I thought couldn’t be ignored, like the Sony VAIO X505.
    Charles

  4. Charles P Jefferies

    gillies – We kept the scope of the article to within the last decade or so, but we might do a broader article that goes back to the beginning of the notebook industry. No doubt the ThinkPad 700 series would be on that list.
    Charles