It’s been 30 years since the first popular, portable computer with a clamshell case was released. That means the Grid Compass had a built-in keyboard and display, and you could fold the screen over the keys to close the computer up like a book.

Time Techland’s Harry McCracken takes a walk down memory lane, looking at some of the ways clamshell computers have changed (and haven’t) over the past three decades.

Today’s laptops are thinner, lighter, cheaper, and get better battery life than their early cousins. They also feature integrated pointing devices, and some have touchscreens as well. But the basic format hasn’t changed much: Keyboard, screen, and hinge.

Grid Compass

Clamshell notebooks aren’t the only game in mobile computing anymore. Tablets, smartphones, and even wearable computers are all starting to fill some of the needs originally served by laptops.

But many iPad users still pair Bluetooth keyboards with their tablets to make them a little more laptop-like, and one of the most popular lines of Android tablets is the Asus Transformer Pad family — with an optional keyboard docking station.

What’s one of the key things setting Microsoft’s upcoming Surface tablets apart from the iPad, Google Nexus 7, and other modern tablets? A case with a built-in keyboard.

Microsoft Surface

While tablet and smartphone sales continue to rise, it’s clear that there’s still demand for a basic clamshell/laptop-style device with a screen and keyboard. There aren’t many combinations that are better for entering large amounts of text — unless you’re cool with using voice recognition and talking to yourself in public.

What do you think? Are clamshell computers here to stay, or are you ready to move on?

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12 replies on “Clamshell computers turn 30 this year, continue to fend off tablet threat”

  1. Been there. Done that. Found nirvana in a convertible. I can handle the trivial weight difference. What I can’t handle is the absence of a ‘real’ keyboard when I need it. And I always seem to need it. I know phone-makers are frantically trying to advance voice-recognition in order to enable voice-control and voice-input, and that in order to obviate the keyboards which they cannot, by nature, provide, but, seriously, can you picture a plane full of people talking to their phones? Or even to their tablets? Back to earth now…

    Besides, text-to-voice output will never compensate for their small screens. ‘Reading’ my reports to me will never be as effective is showing me graphs, pictures, and trees. Granted, voice output helps, but have you ever noticed what a boon youtube has been to disseminating information? Granted, not all of it is good, but it’s still more effective than mere print. And which ones are the most effective? Those with human narration AND visuals. And you need big screens for that. And phones will never have them. Tablets/Convertibles are the best compromise there.

    In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that my keyboard must even have dedicated navigation keys, one for each action. No fn-enabled double-mapping tricks, and no ‘reduced’ cursor-keys. Make cursor-keys the same size as others, and in the classic inverted T. And backlighting would be ideal, but big, bright, even fluorescent keycaps would be better than most keyboards I see. Trust me. (Ok, so my eyesight isn’t what it used to be. Your clock is ticking, too!)

    Docking stations are a joke. On-screen keyboards are simply inadequate for real work. Roll-out and foil keyboards fail for the same reason. And what’s with the chiclet keyboards everywhere? Have manufacturers gone mad? Give me back my sculpted keys. And center the !@#$ touch-pad under the space-bar, while you’re at it, so my right thumb knuckle doesn’t keep moving the cursor out of the field I’m typing in at the moment!

    But, ultimately, the need for a real keyboard only underscores another glaring need: The need for OS manufacturers to return to keyboard-friendly user-interfaces. In their headlong rush to tablet land, they’ve all relegated the keyboard to an afterthought. And that’s going to have consequences. Whenever a user is forced to reach for the mouse, stylus, or screen, the UI has failed. What good does it do to have a keyboard if your hands can’t stay on it?

  2. People haven’t used those kinds of keyboards much. We have a few Fujitsu laptops at the fire department with sealed silicone keyboards. Freaking sucks to type on them. The fabric keyboards Palm released years ago had the same problems, no real tactile feedback, and you had to be careful of how you rested your fingers, or you’d end up with extra characters in your words.

  3. The older ones had better keyboards. My old Zenith 163 had an awesome keyboard – I kept that machine alive as long as I could….

  4. I think the clam shell computer will be around for awhile. I have a tablet but I use my clam shell computer for typing. IMO; I think the tablet is great for browsing the internet, playing games and watching videos but I prefer the clam shell for typing and other similar tasks. 🙂

  5. I would not mind seeing that old Grid design stuffed with some modern hardware and such. Should perhaps even be as modular as a desktop if they wanted to.

      1. Thanks, but my thinking was that the extended rear could fit one of these new small ARM boards in some easy to access way.

  6. I’m always infuriated by the “There Can Only Be One!” narrative in tech reporting. In this mindset each new technology must completely replace the preceding one. Thus we must completely discard multiple screen desktops, for laptops and then fingers only tablets even if we are doing CAD or video editing. This is on par with replacing every utensil in the house with sporks, because they are the new tech.
    I’d argue that the proper mindset for computing is the recurring archetype undergoing a cycle of reincarnation. Thus while we may transition from tower PCs to MK802s a system supporting big monitors, keyboards, and a plethora of input devices will remain. In the same fashion, some form of clamshell computer will be reincarnated in various instantiations for the foreseeable future.

  7. I don’t think they’re going away any time soon, but yeah, the clam shell will go away eventually. Wearable computers may become a thing soon. Dockable tablets are going to get increasingly powerful. Wi-Di like technology will make integrating displays into devices less relevant. It’s going to take time, and there will always be advantages when creating content to having a all in one device and more power available (which is why I don’t think desktops will ever truly go away either, in fact I think they will probably have more longevity than traditional style laptops).

    We don’t think about it, but there are a lot of contradictions to the clamshell style device. Once technologies come out that allow us to efficiently move on, they will be gone. Will they be gone in the next five years? Nope. 10 years? I’d expect them to be phasing out in that time frame. In 20 years? I’d expect them to be the realm of mobile professionals again more than mainstream devices.

    But I’m probably wrong. I remember those systems from 30 years ago, and am constantly amazed how far we’ve come though. The march of progress will keep going.

    1. In the 90’s we were told that VR would replace conventional hardware by now. 🙂
      The persistence of the clamshell tends to derive from two primary factors:
      1. The clamshell combines a minimal set of required components (display, keyboard and pointing device) in a single package which can be deployed instantly by simply opening the case up. Compare this with the iPad solution involving a mount, keyboard, mouse and tablet, each with separate chargers.
      2, A well designed clamshell is well protected wen closed. My T series thinkpads are nearly indestructible when closed.

  8. I think the future crossroads of tablets and laptops lies more in devices like the Eee Transformer. It can sit comfortably in your lap and you can move around with it while keeping the keyboard attached, or you can detach it when you want true tablet functionality. Folding keyboard cases for other tablets are okay if you have a stationary work surface, but not nearly as versatile.

  9. Definitely here to stay. I have an android smartphone and tablet, but any time I need to get real work done, i bust out either the netbook (still rocking an eee pc 900a with lubuntu) or laptop. Wow, just typing this comment on my GS3 was a huge PITA!

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