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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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: