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

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