This is the first post in a 6 post series on the Compaq Portable 386 Computer covering it’s history & legacy, price, capabilities and relative importance at the time. You can jump to:

  1. First Impressions
  2. The Gas Plasma Screen
  3. Booting Up & Opening Up
  4. The Floppy Drive
  5. The Hard Disk
  6. Installing MS-DOS

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 very 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.

Rod Canion, Jim Harris and Bill Murto – the three founders of Compaq with an early Compaq Portable Computer, Circa 1982

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 the Osborne 1 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 as the beginning of my journey into retro computing 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 still relatively new, with weight coming down increasing their practicality. 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 clam-shell 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 true desktop performance to a laptop computer, did not arrive to market until the mid 1990’s.

I just love the 1980’s! Look at that crystal bookend – If you had this computer back in 1987, you could certainly afford one.

The Compaq Portable series is, I think, a great choice to explore retro-computing. It was built at an interesting time, especially in the case of the Compaq Portable 386 – it was one of the first computers with a 386 CPU to be 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-leader IBM to market by 7 months. This sealed the fate of Compaq to being a significant player in personal computers for years to come, and marked the start of the downfall of Goliath IBM in the personal computer market.

The 386 CPU can arguably be said to be the most important CPU architecture to be developed. Before the Intel 32-bit 386 CPU, there was the 16-bit 286 – a processor that comes from a different time, where Windows was not widely used and computer games were primitive. The 386’s increased processing power allowed for increased graphics capability and true multitasking. The greatly superior memory handling of the 386 also allowed for much more complex programs (such as AutoCAD). In fact the 386 CPU was so advanced that when it was launched, it took a few years for the computer industry to develop software that could really utilise the processor to the full extent.

“The most advanced personal computer in the world – Compaq Deskpro 386”
The Launching of the Intel 386 CPU on the Computer Chronicles (1987)

So, when the Compaq Portable 386 was launched, it was very “cutting edge” and thus, very expensive. It sported an 80’s sci-fi looking orange gas plasma “flat screen” display, strange but functional ergonomics (not a laptop, not a suitcase computer, but something in between, more like a “lunchbox”), 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 definitely 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. This was really a ‘Ferrari’ in terms of computer performance at the time. Only about 10 % of Americans had a “Home Computer” in 1987, so this was definitely a businessman’s machine.

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 the processor’s use.

Just 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 it was pushing it’s limits with the original “Civilization” game – 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 widely adopted 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 birth of the Internet. Other processors were developed to take the lead from the 386 (486, then the pentium line), but even so, 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 most 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 relatively easy to use.

It’s this culmination of factors that makes a 386 such a fun retro computing project – 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!

Let’s take a look at the stock configuration of the Compaq Portable 386 and a closer look at it’s most noticeable feature, it’s Orange Gas Plasma screen

First Impressions

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