Booting Up & Opening Up

Now, I, like most people don’t have much patience – I wanted the computer to work out of the box, but as any 32 year old will tell you (myself included): “32 is OLD!” there were a host of issues that were quite difficult to troubleshoot and get working before I could even try to get the computer to boot successfully.

Press coverage from BYTE Magazine of the launch of the Compaq Portable 386, published November 1987.

Before we get into that, perhaps it’s best to take a quick tour around the machine to explain all the ports, plugs, drives, slots and buttons.  

Looking at the front of the machine, you have the screen, (covered in this previous post). On the left side of the unit you have the standard 5.25” Floppy drive (which can be easily replaced with a much more useful 3.5” floppy drive in an upcoming post) and a bay for the hard disk. The right side is taken up by the exhaust for the hot air coming from the power supply unit. On the top you have the amazingly large handle, running from end to end that, like the screen is also retractable (it’s so portable!)

The rear of the unit houses the serial port, the parallel port, an RGB connector (to a RGB display – not VGA or CGA) and also hidden behind a sliding door, proprietary expansion port for the optional expansion box allowing two full length 16-bit ISA cards – essential if you want to plug in a VGA card for an external monitor, sound card or memory card.

The expansion box adds bulk, but is necessary to add a graphics card if you want to use an external VGA monitor.

Note this computer does not have a battery for power – all references to the “battery” on these units refer to a tiny lithium battery used to keep help keep the CMOS memory from forgetting it’s BIOS settings. All “portable”computers at the time were not designed to be used “in transit”, (like a modern laptop) – they were designed to be moved from place to place and plugged in to AC power at your destination. They were marketed to people who travelled, or who wanted to take their work home with them – maybe we have Compaq to blame for all those weekends lost to working from home!

The Compaq Portable III and 386 take a standard computer plug (if you really want to know it’s called a C-14 type) and auto switches between 110 V and 220 V. Plugging it in and a flicking the power switch at the back gives a satisfying click and the machine comes to life.

On booting, the computer does some instant basic diagnostics – such as checking the system board for faults, and checking the CPU – if all is well, the screen should instantly flicker on in a nice warm orange glow – followed by a RAM counter to check each KB of installed RAM.

The memory check does some basic checking to see how much (continuous) RAM there is available – including those installed on the motherboard, the proprietary expansion cards, or those installed on a properly configured ISA ram card via the expansion box.

After the ram check, the machine will try to boot using the CMOS settings provided, meaning it will try to boot from the floppy drive using the drive settings specified, then if it can’t find anything a readable disk in the floppy drive, the computer will move on and try to boot from the hard / fixed disk. If you don’t have either setup properly, you will see the message below:

If you see this error even with the diagnostics diskette inserted, don’t worry, there is hope! Take a deep breath and grab your power screwdriver – you’ll need to open her up to clean or replace the floppy drive and also likely replace the hard drive.

I don’t know about you, but I enjoy opening up computers and exploring what’s under the hood – this older computer, however, is particularly interesting as there are alot of jumper settings and removable parts that can be fiddled with.

The complete disassembly instructions can be found here. You’ll need a set of Torx (star shaped) screwdriver heads and ideally a power screwdriver. Start by lying the machine screen side down on a flat surface and remove the 6 screws on the back. The screws in the corners a long screws that hold the whole machine together; the two in the middle at the top and bottom hold the rear panel to the rest of the case.

Give the rear panel a gentle jiggle and the rear of the computer case should come out. Pull up then away to reveal the motherboard underneath.

The photo above shows the motherboard after the protective shielding has been removed – you can see the CPU and Math Co-processor on the top right, below that on the right edge is the socket for the battery to keep the CMOS settings. On the bottom right you have the serial, parallel and RGB video output ports. Continuing along the bottom edge, in the centre you will find the ribbon cable connection for the graphics card underneath, past that is the connection (and space) for the hard-to-find 32-bit memory modem expansion interface for the modem card and the memory expansion boards (which can provide up to 10 MB of RAM).

This won’t be the only reason why you will need to open the case to get this computer working. It’s more than likely that one or more of the items below will need to be repaired or replaced:

  • Hard Drive – these are one of the first IDE drives developed ranging from 20 – 300 MB. These are slow and will likely not spin up.
  • Floppy Drive – 32 years is a long time to accumulate dust. Take a look under your fridge for some inspiration. These wide-mouthed 5.25″ floppy drives usually are very dusty and thus fiddly to get working consistently. Be ready to change drive belts and apply lubricant to get them fully working – Alternatively, you can easily upgrade the floppy drive to a 3.5″ – covered in this post.
The “fixed disk” and 5.25 Floppy Drive reside in this easily removable caddy on the Compaq Portable 386
  • CMOS Battery – needed to keep the CMOS system settings memory alive. Believe it or not, there are some people who have these units where the lithium battery is still ticking and giving current for the CMOS to remember its settings. You don’t really want to count on these though, and should be replaced – a CR2020 3v button battery makes a good choice. – I simply snipped off the connections to the old battery and sandwiched a CR2020 between the leads and secured it with electrical tape. 
  • Visual inspection of the Motherboard – to check jumper configurations, any blown capacitors, and also see if you happen to have any optional (and extremely expensive) memory expansion boards. These are so rare that one seller on eBay has listed a unit with one of these installed at US$999.99

First Impressions

I actually first ordered Compaq Portable III  – totally unaware of the differences between it and the Compaq Portable 386 (286 vs a 386). I ordered it cause it was relatively cheap (and awesome looking!) – I fell in love with the orange-amber screen and funky form factor. 

Instead of trying to find a productive use for the machine, as always, I asked -“Can it run DOOM?” (and also Simcity 2000, Commander Keen and Transport Tycoon Deluxe). How cool would it be to see demonic monsters or a sprawling virtual Simcity metropolis on this orange screen?! That became my goal – to get this Compaq Portable to run 90’s dos games. 

This is when I realised that I would need a 386 – I realised this pretty quickly – the Compaq Portable III’s standard specs are a 286 CPU, and a measly 640KB of RAM. Not enough to run most early dos games, let alone Simcity 2000 (released in 1993 – requiring at a minimum of 4MB or RAM). After some quick searching I came across the Compaq Portable 386 – almost identical in form as the 286 Compaq Portable III, but super-charged with a 386 CPU and 1MB of 32-bit RAM (expandable to a gigantic 10MB). Now this computer has a chance.

Here are the complete system specifications of the Compaq Portable 386: 

As you can see – for 1987 – these were impressive specs. Most computers were still operating with 286 (or even older!) processors. The RAM was also double the speed than 16-bit – but the best thing was that Compaq didn’t change the form factor at all, the display, the screw alignments, etc., – meaning that the parts on a Compaq Portable III are (except for the memory expansion cards), fully interchangeable. 

After waiting a few weeks, I finally spotted a 386 on eBay but it was not in great condition cosmetically – lots of yellowing from being in the sun and scratches from use. Not the most well looked after machine. Fearing that there would not be another one for a while, I took the plunge and purchased it – it arrived in terrible shape, with dings and dents from being poorly packed, but luckily the insides seemed relatively unscathed. 

It was surprisingly easy to scrap both machines – then choosing and combing the best parts to make a “Compaq Portable III / 386”. From the outside it looked just like a Compaq Portable III, but on the inside, it ran off a Compaq Portable 386’s motherboard & memory. 

The coolest part of the computer is arguably it’s bright orange screen. In storage or in transit, the screen locks in place, making the computer look cube like, however the screen can be “extended”through unlocking it by pressing on two top buttons. This makes the viewing angle adjustable, and opening and closing the screen give a very satisfying “click” – very cool!

The screen locked in place within the frame of  the Compaq Portable 386 – looking a bit like a lunchbox.
My Compaq Portable III / 386 Hybrid – with it’s screen popped out and extended for easy viewing. 

On the screen you have a dial for contrast to adjust the intensity of the orange-ness (it’s surprisingly quite bright). When closing up the unit, they keyboard cable goes along the base of the unit, and the keyboard “folds” up and latches on to the unit at the top of the screen on either side.

There were a few problems however working with a computer that is 31 years old – the keyboard cable was an absolute mess – the plastic had disintegrated from “dry rot” and the cables inside were exposed. I replaced that with an old “mini” AT mechanical keyboard – the kind with the nice, satisfying clicks.

On to the screen – there were quite a bit of screen issues – lots of bright (as well dead) lines that would flicker across the plasma screen on the 286, but, surprisingly, none on the other 386, which meant that I had to take the delicate plasma screen out and replace it with the fully operational one. 

Dead lines, or lines that show up as excessively bright are problems with old Gas Plasmas- these screens are very delicate and cannot be easily repaired.
After a whole day of trying to clean the contacts between the display and the computer, and cleaning the boards on the display itself, things just got worse – much worse.
Luckily, I was able to successfully swap out the old screen from the 286 chassis to the 386 one. Try not to touch the edges of the screen as that’s where the fragile connections are. Handle with care!
Success! – Swapping out the screen worked… but the computer won’t boot. 

After replacing the screen (which took a while – it’s very fiddly), I could finally devote my attention to actually getting the computer to boot. If you’re having trouble replacing the screen, you can consult this handy guide that walks you through how Compaq technicians were instructed to take apart and troubleshoot the Compaq Portable III. 

Next -> Part 2: Booting Up

The Challenge

I recently have fallen in love with retro computing – there is something about experiencing and learning the way old computers worked and how they evolved so quickly over time. The first vintage computer I bought was an Osborne 1 “portable” computer – amazingly cool looking with it’s tiny built CRT screen, but fairly limited in terms of it’s capability and software selection (another story for another day) – these early computer’s are quite fiddly and their hardware is not so durable. 

If you haven’t already – grab a beer and watch Silicon Cowboys on Netflix – it’s a great documentary on how Compaq took on IBM and won! This was my inspiration for finding a Compaq computer to restore – it’s amazing how 3 guys got together and started a company that set so many records during it’s reign.

Many of Compaq’s computers, notably it’s earlier portable ranges were more compatible with IBM software than IBM’s own computers, especially the IBM early portables. Though they were by no means the first company to conceive the idea of a “Portable Computer” (see above), many of their designs innovations influenced the portable computer and the future desktop market.

Compaq’s early logo

I chose the Compaq Portable III and the Compaq Portable 386 for this project as it was conceived at a very interesting time – the idea that portability was related to form factor and weight was just becoming obvious, and the laptop form factor was just beginning to catch on. At the time the Compaq Portable 386 was introduced (1987), there were three “types” of consumer computer – you had your desktop computer, then you had your portable computers (which were supposed to be as or nearly as powerful as a desktop), then you had laptop computers, which were usually one generation behind their portable and desktop counterparts in terms of speed, display quality and performance. The miniaturisation of components and the technology required to deliver comparable performance to a laptop computer as we know them today, did not arrive to market until the early to mid 1990’s.

I just love the 1980’s!

This is a great choice to explore retro-computing as it was built an an interesting time, especially in the case of the 386 – this Compaq portable was one of the first 386 computers bought to market, right after its desk-bound sibling, the DeskPro 386. The DeskPro 386 was the first computer to be sold with an Intel 386 processor – beating the then market-titan IBM to market by 7 months. This sealed the fate of Compaq to being a market leader in computers for years to come, and marked the start of the downfall of Goliath IBM in the personal computer market.

“The most advanced personal computer in the world – Compaq Deskpro 386”

The Compaq Portable 386 was extremely advanced and thus, very expensive for it’s time – with it’s cutting edge orange gas plasma “flat screen” display (looking like something from an 80’s sci-fi movie), strange ergonomics (not a laptop, not a suitcase computer, but something in between), a 386/20 DX processor, and astronomically expensive expansion options (10MB of 32-bit RAM which cost over US$4000 in 1987 dollars) meant that this computer was not for the average joe. In fact, this computer retailed for US$10,000 (without options) and up to about US$15,000 fully loaded – for perspective, $15,000 in 1987 bought you two Honda Civics, with enough change to pimp out both those cars hundreds of fluffy dice. In other words, this was really a ‘Ferrari’ in terms of computer performance at the time. 

This is also why I chose this computer to mod and upgrade – it’s use of the 386 processor means that it’s a “32-bit” computer, and one of the first ones to utilize that technology. This was a big jump from the previous generation of computers (16-bit 286’s) in terms of power and longevity of use.

For a little bit of history, the 286 processor was 16-bit, part of the same family as the 8086 – the first modern “CPU” launched back in 1978. Not to go into too much detail, but basically 16-bit computers run 8-bit and 16-bit games on such as “Super Mario”, “Tetris”, and pushing it’s limits with the original “Civilization” – all these dos games are great in their own right, but I did not grow up with them. A 386 processor, on the other hand, runs on 32-bit computing (meaning the bandwidth and speed of these computers are greatly increased), allowing for games with higher resolution graphics and complexity such as “Simcity 2000”, “Doom”, and “Transport Tycoon Deluxe”. The 386 also introduced the first widespread version of Windows, “Windows 3.1” (did somebody say minesweeper?)

The first Intel CPU – 8086, released in 1978
An Early IBM PC from the early 1980’s

The 32-bit architecture was so powerful, that it remained in use all the way until 2003 with the Pentium 4. That’s a reign of 17 years from it’s introduction in 1986, and witnessed Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 98, and of course, the internet. Of course other processors were developed to take the lead from the 386 (486, then the pentium line), but the 386 processor remained in production use in some embedded computers all the way till the early 2000’s. 

An early Intel i386 CPU from 1985
The Nokia 9000 Series – released in 1996 – using the same Intel i386, more than 10 years after the release of the 386

The 386 processor also was one of the first easily upgradable CPUs, with Intel losing it’s lead in terms of producing the most powerful CPUs. Brands like Cyrix came onto the market and even developed drop-in CPUs which could effectively upgrade a 386 to a 486 without having to replace the whole computer. Replacing whole computers was expensive (see above) and it was much more common for users to try and upgrade components to extend the life of their machines. 

A Cyrix option to "upgrade" your 386 to a 486
A Cyrix option to “upgrade” your 386 to a 486
The Cx486 DRx2 series had the same size as a 386 despite being a 486 CPU – this ‘drop in’ upgrade was very easy to use.

It’s this culmination of factors that makes a 386 such a fun upgrade challenge – there are so many options to choose from and experiment with, from CPU’s to ISA sound & graphics cards, memory boards, and even options to connect to the internet!

To start the challenge, let’s take a look at the stock configuration of the Compaq Portable 386 and a closer look at it’s Gas Plasma screen:

Part 1: The Screen