In early 1992, Compaq released their last “luggable / portable” computer, the Compaq Portable 486, marking the end of an era.

Scan from one of the only brochures marketing the Compaq 486c – as you can see, the selling points were the display and the CPU performance.

Background

The Compaq Portable 486 was the last portable computer in Compaq’s original “Compaq Portable” line of computers. By the time of it’s release in 1992, Compaq, and other portable manufacturers knew that the days of the portable / luggable were numbered. This news was not new – portable sales had been declining with luggables fighting a loosing battle as most people flocked to the much more portable, and increasingly more powerful laptops.

My video review – skip to 7:11 to see the Compaq Portable 486 in action.
Take a look at this ad taken from a computer magazine in 1992 – you could get a color, battery powered, 486DX2/40 for $4500 – granted, the display is likely a dim passive matrix display (who likes ghosting?)

Prior to 1992, laptops were typically significantly underpowered compared to luggable portables (and desktops), but as computer development really accelerated, by the mid 1990s the performance & price gap between laptops and portables had pretty much disappeared and the rationale to carry a 18 LBs. sewing box style computer vanished.

The IBM 700C – a wildly successful laptop released a few months after the Compaq Portable 486 – it won over 300 design awards and I think gave Compaq a run for it’s money trying to sell the Compaq Portable 486 – it was about half it’s price.

This is not to say that the rise of laptops took Compaq by surprise at all – Compaq knew laptops would be the wave of the future. Though they were late to the market, as they refused to follow competitors and release a sub-par laptop – a strategy which paid off. In 1988 they finally gave in and released the Compaq SLT/286, Compaq’s first laptop computer, a commercial success.

PC Magazine cover from 1989 highlighting Compaq’s philosophy that their laptop needed to perform like a desktop – The SLT/286 did perform like a low-mid-range desktop at the time.

The End of the Luggable

As the 1990s progressed, laptops continued to get more and more powerful and battery life improved. This article below from 1993 foresaw the a future where the “luggable” portable computer was going to at least be relegated to being a niche product, if not disappear all together.

“There will always be a place for a [portable] that will take an expansion card”… “It remains unclear whether that place will be filled by notebooks with PCMCIA”; Answer is yes, the PCMCIA slot did largely eliminate the need for expansion cards in laptops, providing another nail in the coffin for luggable / portables.

And whilst luggables did pretty much disappear, the last Compaq Portable, the Compaq Portable 486, did find a small niche.

Specific use cases were definitely there; for example to give multimedia presentations on-the-go as video & sound presentations need large, bright, (and power-hungry) displays with loud speakers. People who were looking for portable true desktop-class power with full length ISA / EISA card expandability likely found the Compaq Portable 486 to fit the bill.

My Compaq Portable 486 – with matching 90’s wallpaper 🙂

Don’t forget, back in 1992, expansion slots were necessary to add digital sound functionality through sound cards, and most laptops did not have sound cards till 1994. A whole slew of other applications that require specialised ISA / EISA cards, such as those for computer networking or hooking up scientific instruments would have required a portable or a desktop if the computer did not need to be moved.

“There’s even an audio input jack connected to the internal speaker so you can stop lugging external speakers to presentations” – its kind of funny that the mention “lugging external speakers” considering they are marketing a luggable computer!

As you can see, this computer is a bit of an oddity. It was the last of it’s kind and seemed to struggle a little bit with an identity crisis. Everyone, including Compaq, knew this would be the last “computer with a handle” they would make. Compaq approached this computer with much more of a 2-in-1 approach of “portable desktop” than other previous portable luggables. There is a clear emphasis on performance and display technology, making the Compaq Portable 486 comparable to mid-to-high-end desktops of it’s release year. In fact, this computer goes beyond a traditional desktop of its time and replaces the CRT with a state of the art LCD – likely a significant contributing factor to its high price. It is however, a bit disappointing that the LCD does not support SVGA.

Clearly PC Magazine saw what the small niche appeal of having a portable desktop-class computer.

First Portable Vs. Last Portable

Here’s how the last Compaq Portable and the first Compaq Portable stack up against each other. It’s amazing how far computer technology advanced in 10 (or so) years:

My majestic Compaq Portable 486c, fully restored from two donor units (a Compaq Portable 486c and a 486c/66) and running Windows 95, upgraded to 32 MB of RAM with a AMD 5×86 CPU at 133 Mhz.

Compaq Portable 486 (My modified version is above, factory specs below:)

Year: 1992

CPU: 486DX2 @ 33 Mhz (socketed / upgradeable to AMD 5×86 133 MHz)

Max RAM: 32 MB (Comes with 4MB stock)

Video / Display: VGA Active Matrix TFT LCD with 256 Colors @ 640 x 480

Hard Disk: 210 MB (IDE)

Floppy Disk: 1x 3.5” Floppy 

Expansion Bus: 2x EISA

Connectors: PS/2 Keyboard, Mouse, SCSI, Parallel, Serial, External VGA, Audio Input, Power

Weight:  17.4 Lbs / 7.9 KG

Units Shipped in First Year: Several Thousand

Price: $10,999 ($20,128 in 2019)

VS.

Compaq Portable (Not mine, modified version above)

Year: 1982

CPU: 8088 @ 4.7 MHz 

Max RAM: 640K (Comes with 128K stock)

Video / Display: Emulated MDA / CGA on 9” Green Phosphor CRT

Hard Disk: None

Floppy Disk: 2x 5.25 Floppy 

Expansion Bus: ISA (?)

Connectors: Parallel, Serial, Power

Weight: 34 Lbs / 15.4 KG

Units Shipped in First Year: 53,000 

Price: $3,590 ($9,551 in 2019) 

A Closer Look at the Comapaq Portable 486

Looking at the comparison above, the most obvious thing that stands out is the price of the Compaq Portable 486 (it seems like it’s another one of Compaq’s computers that cost the same price as a car at release, like the Compaq Portable 386), but then you take a closer look at the specs and you see that for 1992, it’s a very powerful computer – packing a decently clocked 486 with up to 32 MB (!!) of RAM.

Nice shiny aluminium inlayed badge 🙂 – you get what you pay for in terms of quality and durability with Compaq Portables.

Weighing in at 17 lbs, the Compaq Portable 486 was relatively light, and retained the lunchbox / suitcase form factor with the keyboard folding up to lock over the screen – a feature which echoes throughout the design of all Compaq Portables. The Compaq Portable 486 line was the only Compaq Portable to be offered with a color screen (Model 486c – the alternate plain “486” was a monochrome TFT). It also came in 2, 486-CPU varieties (33 Mhz and 66 Mhz, the latter marketed as 486/66 or 486/66c), both socketed and easily upgradeable. 

The Compaq Portable 486c in it’s portable position with keyboard stowed.

The Compaq Portable 486 came stock with 4MB of RAM, but could be expanded to accommodate up to 32 MB of RAM, the largest amount of RAM in any portable at the time. 32 MB of RAM in 1992 is excessive, and perhaps this RAM expandability coupled with the socketed 486 CPU was a selling point of “future proofing” the computer to justify it’s relatively high price. The socketed CPU and support for a large amount of RAM means that, when maxed out with 32 MB of RAM and an AMD 5×86 CPU running at 133 MHz, it can run Windows 98, albeit slowly – but is very responsive in Windows 95.

Here’s my upgraded Compaq Portable 486c running Wacky Wheels (1994, MS-DOS) – this is on the low end of what the computer is capable of – it can run Command & Conquer (MS-DOS version) quite comfortably.

The Active Matrix TFT LCD screen was and still is impressive – the first thing you notice about it, is how bright it is (at the max setting you get immediate eye strain). Thankfully the brightness can be dialled down through the brightness dial on the right of the display panel. The screen is backlit with a compact TFL bulb, the shape of which causes a slight shadow on the display, but is hardly noticeable, and I’m sure in 1992, was a non-issue since LED backlighting was still 10 years away.

In fact, it’s more than likely the color Active Matrix TFT screen contributed a significant portion of the cost of the unit, as the technology was brand new at the time (in 1993 an external consumer flat panel TFT active matrix display cost $1,600 – $2,000). It really does suck though that the internal video card is not SVGA compatible. I guess you could work around this by using an external monitor and an ISA / EISA video card, but then that sort of defies the purpose of having a Compaq Portable 486.

The display is very bright and crisp for an early LCD – and note it’s active matrix with no ghosting effects found on the more common and cheaper passive matrix LCDs

Built In Speakers

Another neat thing about the Compaq Portable 486 was that it featured an audio input jack that allows you to feed the audio card output into it, which piped out sound through its relatively large, but mono, internal speaker. This meant that you did not have to carry speakers around with you as mentioned in the ad snipped above, which highlights the benefits of this computer for use in giving mobile presentations on the go.

The Compaq Portable 486 has 2 EISA slots, mine has a SoundBlaster feeding its audio output to the audio input jack so sound can be played through the internal speaker. The other slot houses an PC-Card to ISA adapter for CF cards and PCMCIA CD-Rom drive.

The benefit of this speaker configuration is that today, this computer makes a great “mid-MS-DOS era” computer for games such as Doom, Duke Nukem, Wacky Wheels etc.,  and very early Windows games that didn’t need more than 256 colors like SimTower or Command & Conquer. As it’s an all in one, once you have had your gaming “fix” you just need to fold the keyboard up and stow the computer away. The only accessory you need to put in a drawer somewhere is a mouse. 

Running a good old game of CIVILIZATION (VGA version) is a nice way to unwind on a lazy weekday evening.

Next Post: Booting & Setup of the Compaq Portable 486 >>>

The Last Portable – Meet the Compaq Portable 486

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