A Modern Take On The “Luggable” Computer

Back before the industry agreed on the now ubiquitous clamshell form factor of portable computers, there were a class of not-quite-desktop computers that the community affectionately refers to as “luggable” PCs. These machines, from companies like Kaypro and Osborne, were only portable in the sense that their integrated design made it relatively easy to move them. Things we take for granted today, like the ability to run on battery power or being light enough to actually place in your lap, wouldn’t come until later.

For a contemporary take on this decades old concept, take a look at this fantastic build by [Ragnar84]. It packs a modern desktop computer and a 15.6 inch laptop display into a custom designed case, but like so many other projects, the devil is truly in the details for this one. Little touches such as the kickstand on the bottom, the removable handle on the top, and the right angle adapter that takes the HDMI output from the GeForce GTX 1060 video card and redirects it back into the case really add up to create a surprisingly practical computer that’s more than the sum of its parts.

While the case might look like your standard gamer fare, [Ragnar84] built the whole thing out of miniature T-Slot extrusion and custom-cut aluminum and acrylic panels. But not before modelling the whole thing in 3D to make sure all of his selected components would fit. For the most part the internals aren’t unlike a standard Mini-ITX build, though he did need to make a few special additions like a shelf to mount the driver board for the N156H LCD panel, and a clever clamp to hold down the rounded USB speakers.

We’ve seen some impressive recreations of the classic luggable in the past, but those have usually been powered by the Raspberry Pi and leaned heavily into the retrofuturism that’s a hallmark of the nascent cyberdeck movement. In contrast [Ragnar84] has put together something that looks perfectly usable, and dare we say it, maybe even practical.

25 thoughts on “A Modern Take On The “Luggable” Computer

  1. I wanted a gaming PC in this form factor so bad when I was a teenager. Gaming PCs needed to be a lot bulkier back then, they had optical drives in them and hard drives with big heatsinks, and no mere mortal’s laptop could hope to keep up, not even for a few minutes before their puny cooling systems were heat soaked :-P

    1. I have a modern gaming laptop that still has heat trouble when playing with high settings. The aluminum on the face of the keyboard starts to burn my fingers and I have to stop playing and wait for it to cool down. It’s like a built in game timer, which sucks. I may have to open it up and swap out the fan and open up airflow. The entire left side has fake air ducts which could be opened up and should have been that way to start. That’s at the bottom of my project list, so for now I just lower the graphic settings.

    1. Wow, THAT’s a claim to OldeTimeFame! LongAgoThen I was the coordinator for Personal Computers for a large IBM site. When time came to replace some older IBM equipment, a procedure was set up for people to BUY the old unit that they had been using at work, when they were given an updated machine. I ‘bought’ an 8583 for about $400 as I recall. I ‘collected’ a couple of IBM Industrial Computers about then too..

      1. But Much More Historic: Adam Osborne visited my home and had dinner (separate story), and we showed him the totally homebrew wirewrapped 6502 based computer we had designed and built. Nice, unusual guy. He was brought up in India and when we served him some American Goulash thing, he said, “Um, do you have any Curry Powder??”.. Later he talked about Texas Instruments inviting him to speak and they took him to dinner. They suggested a big Texas Steak House. He said, “Oh, how about Taco Charlies??”.. TI was amazed at what he ate..

        1. His hardware business kind of dwarfs it, but he first made his name with books, maybe especially “An Introduction to Microcomputers”. I had the volume with the separate sections on each 8bit CPU. He didn’t write the book on the 6502, but he published it. And books like it for other CPUs, I definitely have the 6502, the 6809, the 68000 books, and likely have a few others.

          So he would have been interested in your homebuilt computer.

        2. Um, what part were they amazed at? I was surprised that Indian friends at college (late 80s) were enthusiastic about hamburgers. they wanted to try beef, they thought of Hindu vegetarianism as superstitious, but large portions like a big steak would be pretty hard on their digestive systems. They were also used to the heat of Tex-Mex, and it still had a bit of the novelty of beef products.
          So, was it the interest in cow meat that amazed TI, or the heat or… ?
          I also have no idea what “American Goulash” is. I used to go to a Hungarian restaurant in Boston for goulash, and my mom made simplified variations, but I’m not sure what would make it “American”. We are talking about Texas, I assume. That’s its own thing, even apart from Tex-Mex (which as a tourist, I tried myself, and found hotter than food anywhere in Mexico)

        3. Adam Osborne was an original. I still have my Osborne Executive, purchased a few weeks before they went belly up. Couldn’t resist the full page Wall Street Journal adds and a Compaq was $500 more without a software suite (1982 $!). Made a small fortune with it in sales, lugging it to work every day. There’s nothing like swapping 10 floppies in Pearl Database to do a mail merge. Folks opened preprinted mail in those days, it was rare and important. Replaced it and continued to profit with the first Mac Plus which also remains in my collection, along with the original packaging for both mentioned machines.

          By the mid 90’s a fountain pen and hand addressed mail had surpassed printed addresses for opening, dot printed junk mail was prolific. My follow-up system was condensed to an overclocked HP200LX with expanded RAM, $995 Sundisk 20 meg PCMCIA card and Avi’s Dos Carousel. The torch has now been passed on to the Surface Duo.

          Osborne was the most influential sewing machine computer manufacturer. They blitzed Kaypro with advertisement geared towards working professionals looking for a solution instead of geeks. Jobs took notes. Osborne pioneered the turn key computer with the first included software suite. The form factor was innovative, the included software suite was a FIRST and PURE MARKETING GENIUS.

          Side note, if I had the space I would love to have a Kaypro, they were used in tanks, it’s the R390A of vintage suitecase rigs.

  2. Portables,I thought they were called portables (aka Portable PCs), hi! :)
    – And very useful host for expensive diagnostic cards and special purpose interface cards that require ISA/EISA.
    I think that was their most useful application. They were fully functional desktop PCs in a small case.
    Their expandability is something that laptops tried to replicate with user accessible ISA slots and later on,
    notebooks with their PCMCIA/PC Card/Cardbus slots. After PCI Express, this idea died off, sadly.
    Yes, there’s Thunderbolt. That akward slot-on-a-wire. But it’s not as elegant as before anymore,
    when PC Card devices neatly slided inside a notebook, making them invisible and truely mobile.

    By the way, all of this reminds me of my old Siemens-Nixdorf portable.
    A 386 PC with an internal EGA CRT monitor and an ISA SVGA card with EGA/TTL and VGA/RGBHV outputs.
    It also had a keylock and a 5,25″&3,5″ hybrid diskette drive.
    Boy, how I loved to play Jill of Jungle on that thing!:D
    It really was a nice DOS system with a klicky keyboard.

    Another nice machine was the Compaq SLT/286.
    640×480 VGA compatible plasma screen, yay!
    It was a cross between a portable and a laptop, the real “luggable”, so to say. :D

      1. I also wanted to mention, the first Macs were “portable” as in the same sense as Compaq’s line. They were all-in-ones, with a single plug for the monitor and mainboard. Portable more in the sense as take to another part of the office, although Compaq Portable was designed to be taken onto airplanes (usually on a seat reserved for itself) The gas plasma lunchboxes didn’t have batteries, the displays were much too power hungry. The first “laptops” were not called that for form factor, as much as being able to run on a battery. Otherwise they would still have called them “portables”.

    1. Not really sure its fair to say the idea of ‘internal’ but easy remove/exchange PC card type things in laptops died off as early as you suggest, as long after PCI-e becomes a thing you get laptop PCI-e devices (I still use them frequently on some of my Toughbook), its only in relatively recent times its truely gone away.

      Though I do agree is a massive shame to not see more of that form of expansion – particularly now the M2 style PCI-e slots are becoming so standard, with quite a few devices in that form factor, that fitting a few of those available externally just needing a carrying tray (so they can be latched to the laptop frame – to avoid the need to screw it in, which would be annoying to have to do – screw to lock it in fine, screw to make it work not so much). That would be both very much more compact than the old standards – which is good for the “thinner than a starved ‘supermodel’ style” that is so desired now, and a solid choice as many normal PC’s use the same hardware, with the same interface, so e-waste should be reduced..

      Definitely way better than USB/thunderbolt for everything, meaning you inevitably need hubs and the dongles and probably extra power supply, and an extra bag to hold the junk. But seems the concept is a victim of the Apple computers are a fashion accessory type mentally that has infected computer makers…

      This also reminds me of something I knocked together inside a flightcase probably over a decade ago now… House was being extended so the normal PC just couldn’t find a space in the chaos – gutted the old montor and PC and stuffed it all in somehow, only concession to the space I had to make was a rather noisy server PSU (also the only part I bought but some sheet steel and rivet so it was nice a cheep – essential at the time). Not exactly pretty, certainly damn heavy, but it worked rather well offering very nice performance for the time. Did take over the kitchen (before it lost its rear wall in the extension) for about 2 weeks as I knocked it together, which I don’t think really went down well with Mum after day 3 or 4… And it worked for years, eventually the extension I soldered between the monitors control board (that was housed in with the mobo) and the panel itself failed – but what do you expect using bell wire across the lid’s hinge – minimised the flex as much as I could in the time and budget, but still wrong wire choice, sub optimal placement – actually surprised in hindsight it worked near as long as it did – though after the house had a rear wall again it didn’t get much use.

    2. The official name was “Portables”, “Luggables” was a derisive name invented by tech media. They were portable only in the sense that there were no need for extra wires and connections, or a separate monitor, although all I’ve seen also had CGA or other video ports. A big part of their importance was they were the FIRST “clones”. You’re remark about EISA seems misplaced, because luggables pre-dated that standard, in fact they came with MFM then RLL drives. The Compaq Portable is often said to be the first, but the Columbia Personal Computer from Columbia Data Products with a “clean-roomed” BIOS was a bit earlier, and shortly after came Eagle 1600 series and Corona Data Systems, who simply copied IBM BIOS and settled out of court. Also the Hyperion and Seequa, and just about all of these companies had earlier CP/M computers with a similar “luggable” design and 8088 CPUs, although 8086 and 80c86s came a bit later. What made Compaq special was a high degree, and emphasis on, compatibility with IBM DOS, and the Portable was their first product, breaking records with $110 million in sales. There had also been earlier CP/M machines like the Kaypro. IBM put out their Portable (model 5155), then by ’86 IBM PC Convertible (model 5140) was more of a true “laptop”. Compaq had “lunchbox” portables with Portables III and 386 with Gas Plasma Displays. The SLT/286 was not a “luggable”. Luggable is not a term for in between “Portable” and “laptop”. “Luggables” was an insulting term for the least portable “Portables”, mainly Compaq’s early offerings and IBM’s 5155. You seem to have has the disadvantage of not living in those times, at least not in the U.S. I could mention the Canadian Hyperion and the Seequa. People have forgotten these old CP/M machines, many of which pre-date the Compaq Portable.

    3. Officially, “portable”. Colloquially, “transportable” “luggable” because they were heavy and awkward to carry. In fact IBM’s had a nylon cover available shoulder strap to make it easier to transport… and I have used that cover many times as soft-sided luggage.

      (I have a Portable PC plus the old Expansion Case — another power supply and non-cpu motherboard with thick umbilical cable to carry the backplane signals between the boxes — which I used as a “docking station” since early hard drives didn’t fit in a half-height drive slot. That also got around the luggable’s limited number of slots )

  3. Of course, there were portables that weren’t luggable, and just two years after the Osborne 1. And no clamshell.

    The Radio Shack Model 100 (and similars from other companies), the Epson HX-20 (actually from 1981) and others. Don’t forget pocket comouters, out around that time, including some sold by Radio Shack, and a 6502 based one, though needing a big pocket.

    These were one piece, though some had the small screen at an angle.

  4. There are still companies making this style of case with the keyboard latching into the case when not in use. But they are *not* cheap. However, if you’re going to stick several thousand dollars worth of data acquisition and processing hardware in one, you don’t really care about the cost of the case. Just whether it has enough cooling. The bespoke software for such things costs many times what the hardware costs.

    For a custom build it *really* should have 3 monitors with 2 that fold out to the sides . Something to study for the Mk II version ;-)

    1. Yeah, I have one of the Option StrongBox-M cases. Real nice, when I got it, it had a P4 in it, i replaced that with a modern board with a xeon 1240 and a GTX1080. It had a 960p screen and found an exact fit 1920×1200 replacement panel for it. Plays a good amount of games at ultra settings and has a PCI slot for the special card for the camera for my telescope.

  5. Compaq really had the first serious business portables I used. The SLT was by far the best in the DOS/Windows 3.1 arena at the time – maybe ’86/’87 I think? although they had one with an amber screen I can’t remember the name of now that was more like a large toaster size, it was good too. The SLT was the first I could use on an airplane.

    I did use the Kaypro, Osborne, and others under CPM, but they were really too large to be anything more than 40lb weights. Still, a time of emerging markets in the heyday on IBM type PC’s. The previous CPM portables was a short period before the market moved again.

    I loved this time in computing, everything was new and exciting, Software Development was like chasing a bolt of lightning it moved so quickly. There were a LOT of companies trying to get a piece of the pie – many going in and out of business every 2 years, if you knew ANYTHING you were considered valuable and could get a good paying job with most companies. I also remember the People working on mainframes always looking down their noses at us. I think Digital Equipment dying was a huge eye opener for many People.

    But I started on the TRS-80 in ’77 sitting at Radio Shack on the demo model – the Manager liked me there because it showed People that even a high school student could program them. Then to the Apple II+ in ’78 I think, then Kaypro, Eagle, Telecon Zorba, moving to PC’s, Mini’s, and Networking with things like Novell and 3Com. A lot of different computers with a lot of different operating systems and language – all relegated to the dustbin of history with but a few exceptions.

    I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

    1. The SLT was ’88, and the first Compaq that could be run off battery power. The amber gas-plasma screens were on the Compaq Portable III in ’87 and the Portable 386. BTW The Compaq Desktop 386 also beat out IBM as the first PC with a 386 CPU. IBM had reservations about the 386, mainly they didn’t anticipate Windows and the need for a 386 to properly run the Windows 3 GUIs. There may have been a couple of clones of these later Portables, by that time the flood gates were opened for IBM “Clones”, including clones of clones. The big difference of the III and 386 from the SLT was the first two did not have a battery, in fact those displays were too electric hungry to ever use a battery. Battery-powered machines, like the ’86 IBM Convertible and Compaq STL were almost an entirely different direction from the “luggables”, which emphasized compatibility with the IBM PC, IBM XT, then AT. The Convertible had an 80c88 CPU and sacrificed a lot of PC features, including expandability with ISA slots, in order to actually be portable. Where the lineage of “laptops” begins and ends is debatable; companies were still grappling with the concept of legal “clones” that would have IBM compatible MS-DOS. It took a while to appreciate the public demanded machines that were both IBM DOS compatible, and compatible through hardware Open Standards like EISA, for expansion and peripherals. They still experimented with different form factors.

      1. Compaq III – that was it. I was still doing DOS development at that time. I didn’t know many that were using Windows, many used DesqView for multi-tasking. The Compaq III was a far cry from the other much larger portables, not great for programming on – but a hell of a lot better than lugging a desktop home for the weekend to work on. But the SLT was really a huge step I think. It wasn’t until ’92 that I started programming under Windows, while having done a lot of assembly under DOS, the messaging stuff was a little foreign to me. I mean I was used to interrupts and circular buffers, but having to setup the structure was weird, seems the first project was a HLLAPI interface for LU2 terminals and SDLC, and given even printing landscape under Windows you needed to use the API it pretty much sucked at the beginning.

        I didn’t start into VB3 until ’95, and of course was doing a lot of C, C++, and other languages by then. It really changed at that point from being a Developer to being a resource manager where you spent time looking for modules to integrate as opposed to writing your own code. I think the newer Developers missed out on a lot of basic experience doing things like writing their own serial interrupt handlers for example. They didn’t get the trouble shooting experience that came from moving through the other platforms and having to problem solve that basic code, or even trouble shooting hundreds of thousands of lines of someone Else’s/Teams of People’s legacy code.

        You have an excellent memory!

  6. I made something similar a few years ago. Used a rugged plastic box with a t-slot skeleton inside. All peripherals are connected and stored inside the box, so no cables dangling around and no need to plug anything in (except power). Takes less than a minute to set up or pack away.

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