This is the first post in a 6 post series on the Compaq Portable 386 Computer covering its 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
  7. Youtube VIDEO REVIEW
The Compaq Portable 386 – the computer that started my retro computing journey, and eventually, this website.

There is something amazing about experiencing and learning how old computers work and how they evolved so quickly over time. It seems the more I dig into the past, the more there is to learn. 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 its capability and software selection (another story for another day) – these early computers are quite fiddly, and their hardware is typically not very durable. 

The Rise Of Compaq

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 gave them a “big blue” eye, ha!). This documentary was my inspiration for choosing to search for a Compaq computer to restore – the story really is amazing. It’s incredible how 3 guys got together and started a company that set so many business records during its 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 early portable computers were ironically more compatible with IBM software than IBM’s own early portables. This relentless pursuit of being “100% IBM compatible” sealed their fate to become one of the world’s largest and most successful technology companies. 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 drove the portable computer (and the future laptop) 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 an exciting time. The notion that high performance could also be portable was coming to fruition. The clamshell laptop form factor was still relatively new, with weights decreasing and practicality increasing, but the performance was not yet a match for “luggable” portables.

When the Compaq Portable 386 was introduced (1987), there were three “types” of consumer computers – you had your traditional desktop computer. You had your portable (“luggable”) computers, which were nearly or just 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, memory capacity, display quality, and performance, but these weighed the least. The miniaturization of components and the technology required to deliver true desktop performance in a laptop computer did not arrive on the market until the early to early-mid 1990s.

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. They are well built, durable, compatible with most games, programs, and peripherals designed for MS-DOS / Windows. The Compaq Portable 386 was one of the first portable computers with a 386 CPU to be bought to market, right after its desk-bound sibling, the DeskPro 386. The DeskPro 386 was the very first computer to be sold with an Intel 386 processor – beating the then market-leader IBM to market by 7 months. This was the moment that turned Compaq into a significant player in the personal computer market for years to come and marked the start of Goliath IBM’s downfall in the personal computer market.

The 386 CPU

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 age, where Windows was just a novelty program, 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 and rudimentary “3D” graphics). 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 utilize the processor to the full extent.

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

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”), a 386/20 DX processor, and astronomically expensive expansion options (10MB of 32-bit RAM which cost over US$4000 in 1987 dollars). 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 the use of the 386 processor that makes it 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. The 386 CPU in the Compaq Portable 386 is also socketed, meaning that it can be swapped out and upgraded to faster CPUs (see below).

The Jump from 286 to 386

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 such as Super Mario, Tetris, and Pong. It would be pushing its limits with the original Civilization game. 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 allowed the introduction of the first widely adopted version of Windows (Windows 3.1, complete with 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 its 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 2000s. 

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 CPUs that was widely upgraded, extending the life of PGA-132 socketed computers. Intel also began to lose its lead in terms of producing most CPUs. Brands like Cyrix came onto the market and developed drop-in CPUs which could 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, but was not the best 386 upgrade in terms of performance.
The TI 486 SXL-40 / 50 was the fastest drop in 386 upgrade, complete with 8KB of L1 cache

It’s this culmination of these factors that make a 386 such a fun retro computing project – there are so many options to choose from and experiment with, from CPUs 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

Or just dive right in to my youtube review on the Compaq Portable 386:

First Impressions of The Compaq Portable 386

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