How Laptops Work
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by Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D.
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Maybe you have been thinking about buying a computer, and it has occurred to you that you might want to buy a laptop version. After all, today's laptops have just as much computing power as desktops, without taking up as much space. You can take a laptop on the road with you to do your computing or make presentations. Perhaps you prefer comfortably working on your couch in front of the TV instead of sitting at a desk. Maybe a laptop is for you. In this edition of How Stuff Works, we will examine how these portable computers do the same work as larger computers, but in much smaller packages.

A Brief History
Alan Kay of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center originated the idea of a portable computer in the 1970s. Kay envisioned a notebook-sized, portable computer called the Dynabook that everyone could own, and that could handle all of the user's informational needs. Kay also envisioned the Dynabook with wireless network capabilities. Arguably, the first laptop computer was designed in 1979 by William Moggridge of Grid Systems Corp. It had 340 kilobytes of bubble memory, a die-cast magnesium case and a folding electroluminescent graphics display screen (click here for a picture). In 1983, Gavilan Computer produced a laptop computer with the following features (click here for picture):

The Gavilan computer had a floppy drive that was not compatible with other computers, and it primarily used its own operating system. The company failed.

In 1984, Apple Computer introduced its Apple IIc model (click here for picture). The Apple IIc was a notebook-sized computer, but not a true laptop. It had a 65C02 microprocessor,128 kilobytes of memory, an internal 5.25-inch floppy drive, two serial ports, a mouse port, modem card, external power supply, and a folding handle. The computer itself weighed about 10 to 12 lb (about 5 kg), but the monitor was heavier. The Apple IIc had a 9-inch monochrome monitor or an optional LCD panel. The combination computer/ LCD panel made it a genuinely portable computer, although you would have to set it up once you reached your destination. The Apple IIc was aimed at the home and educational markets, and was highly successful for about five years.

Later, in 1986, IBM introduced its IBM PC Convertible. (click here for a picture.) Unlike the Apple IIc, the PC Convertible was a true laptop computer. Like the Gavilan computer, the PC Convertible used an 8088 microprocessor, but it had 256 kilobytes of memory, two 3.5-inch (8.9-cm) floppy drives, an LCD, parallel and serial printer ports and a space for an internal modem. It came with its own applications software (basic word processing, appointment calendar, telephone/address book, calculator), weighed 12 lbs (5.4 kg) and sold for $3,500. The PC Convertible was a success, and ushered in the laptop era. A bit later, Toshiba was successful with an IBM laptop clone.

Since these early models, many manufacturers have introduced and improved laptop computers over the years. Today's laptops are much more sophisticated, lighter and closer to Kay's original vision. To learn more about "How They Work" click here.

Anatomy of a Laptop Computer
To illustrate the parts of a laptop computer, we will show you the inside of a Toshiba Satellite Pro laptop.

Toshiba Satellite Pro laptop computer

The major parts of the Toshiba Satellite Pro laptop computer.

Like all computers, laptops have a central brain called a microprocessor, which performs all of the operations of the computer.

The microprocessor:

  • has a set of internal instructions stored in memory, and can access memory for its own use while working.
  • can receive instructions or data from you through a keyboard in combination with another device (mouse, touchpad, trackball, trackstick).
  • can receive and store data through several data storage devices (hard drive, floppy drive, Zip drive, CD/DVD drive).
  • can display data to you on computer monitors (cathode ray monitors, LCD displays).
  • can send data to printers, modems, networks and wireless networks through various input/output ports.
  • is powered by AC power and/or batteries.

Schematic diagram showing the various parts of a laptop computer.
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