Installing MS-DOS on the Compaq Portable 386 is pretty straight forward, but before we get into retro-gaming on it, I thought I’d post a quick intro on installing Windows 3.1 on a Compaq Portable 386.

Getting Windows 3.1 / 3.11 working on this machine is worth it even if you only intend to exclusively play MS-DOS games as windows actually looks pretty cool with the orange gas plasma display (at the very least, anyone who has one of these machines should try playing solitaire on the gas plasma display) – the crisp resolution combined with the orange glow makes windows quite a unique experience. Even just getting Windows 3.1 / 3.11 to work to see the awesome screensavers is worth it. We can thank Microsoft for offering a native driver to support the gas plasma display for Windows 3.1.

Sorry about my unsteady hands… Might have had a beer or two. I really wish I could leave it on as art, but I don’t want to burn out the plasma display.

But what about Windows for Workgroups 3.11? Microsoft does not natively, support the Compaq Portable 386’s plasma display in WfW 3.11. The reason behind it’s removal is that CGA was already pretty a pretty dated standard by the time WfW 3.11 rolled out. I assume they wanted to save space on the installation floppies. But, luckily, it turns out it’s actually pretty easy to enable support for the gas plasma display in Windows for Workgroups 3.11.

Note, these instructions are adapted from

  • Next, download the Windows for Workgroups 3.11 floppy image files here.
  • Next, write the images to disks (skip this step if you are using a GOTEK)
  • Load the second disk (or edit the second disk image) and remove the following files : V7VGA. DR_ , V7VGA.3G_ , and V7VDD.38_ . These are drivers for Video 7, which you shouldn’t need. After removing these files, load the files extracted from onto the second floppy image.
  • Next, load the first disk (or image) and then edit the file SETUP.INF in a windows or dos editor

Find the section titled [display] and copy paste the line below right after this statement: vga = 2:vga.drv, “VGA”

plasma = 2:plasma.drv, “Compaq Portable Plasma”, “100,96,96”, 2:cga.2gr, 2:cgalogo.lgo, 2:vddcga.386, 2:plasma.3gr,, 2:cgalogo.rle

If you are editing in the DOS editor, you shouldn’t follow the format of the other entries in [Display] as this driver for the plasma has other fields that differ from the ones listed. Double check what you have typed against the sample format line right under the [Display] tag. If all looks good, hit save, then proceed with installing Windows for Workgroups 3.11 on your Compaq Portable 386. During the installation process, windows should show:

Display: Compaq Portable Plasma

That’s it, no other configuration is required. After installation you should be able to boot into Windows for Workgroups 3.11 with the gas plasma display, but the windows loading splash screen will show Windows 3.1.

Windows 3.1 / 3.11 is surprisingly crisp and useable. I can totally see people using this back in the early 1990’s as their main OS on these machines.

If you are using a CPU upgrade such as the TI486 SXL2 (40 or 50), you might run into some issues getting windows to start if you are running the cyrix.exe CPU configuration utility – check here for details on flags to use to boot the computer into Windows.

If you’re looking to get Windows 95 working on this machine, you can, but only with an external monitor. I even tried upgrading from Windows 3.1, with it’s native driver support for the Compaq Plasma Display to Windows 95, but could not get the computer to boot after the upgrade. There is a “solution” called Calmria that emulates the look of Windows 95, but wont support Win 95 software. It looks like due to the CGA display, you can only get Windows 3.11 working.

I got this far with the Windows 95 Installation on the Compaq Portable 386
After “Analysing Your Computer” I got this weird striped effect on the display
The stripy effect lasted through the installation, and I managed to complete it successfully, but when it came time to reboot, the portable 386 would throw a user.exe error then revert to this screen asking to shutdown or restart. Oh well!

Installing Windows 3.1 / 3.11 on the Portable 386

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5 thoughts on “Installing Windows 3.1 / 3.11 on the Portable 386

  1. You’ve done an Awesome build up on that Compaq and given us a really enjoyable read!
    I’m so jealous seeing 3.11 up and running on it. My Portable III 286 only has 640k. I also did the CF card upgrade making it much more enjoyable.

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I had as much fun writing it as I did fixing up the Compaq Portable 386. You should keep an eye out for the Portable 386 on eBay, or even just the motherboard as the parts are interchangeable and you can upgrade your 286 to a 386. I might even have a spare Compaq Portable 386 motherboard if you’re interested 🙂

  2. When I first attempted the install, the installer would just quit part way through. When I’d attempt to restart it, I would get a notice telling me that the installer failed previously because of a display incompatibility.

    What I found was, the Compaq Portable 386 has two video modes for the gas plasma display, CGA and MDA. This is configured via a jumper behind the back panel.

    If anyone has issues installing this on the Compaq Portable 386, you may need to remove your back panel and set jumper E23 to pins 1/2. If E23 is set to pins 2/3, install will fail. On my Compaq, the jumper settings are printed inside the back panel.

    I changed the jumper, and it worked like a charm!

    1. Ah yes, the jumper for MDA / CGA – I forgot to have that in there. If you are using the expansion box to run a ISA VGA card, the MDA / CGA switch needs to be set, but I can remember which setting works best with external graphics cards.

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