Retro Heaven: Compaq - Portable 386


When IBM had launched the original PC in 1981 the company had thought themselves 'king of the castle' when it came to the 'Personal Computer'. Yes the likes of Apple had come along and released their own machines but only machines bearing the magic three letters could run MS-DOS as IBM had craftily built-in their very own BIOS chip and, without that, the competition didn't stand a chance...or so they thought.

Startup company Compaq thought differently though and they realised that if they could produce their own BIOS chip that legally did everything that the IBM chip could do, they could then run the same software and take a slice of Big Blue's market. Having to jump through various legal hoops to ensure that they didn't directly copy the chip, the company eventually succeeded and IBM's stranglehold was broken once and for all. And while IBM saw sales slump, Compaq saw sales skyrocket and quickly turn the fledgling company into one of the big players in the market.

Launched in 1983, the Compaq Portable was a revelation and users could now take their business machines on the road with them. Yes the Osborne machines got there first but they didn't have the ability to run the all important MS-DOS, and that made all the difference to business orientated users. To say that the machines were 'portables' though was technically correct (inasmuch as they could be moved) but they lacked internal power and relied totally on there being a power socket nearby. Despite these shortcomings though, the new 'portables' certainly had their fans and uses and in 1986 the Portable's successor arrived in the shape of the Portable II. Although sharing the same form factor and CRT display as the original machine, the Portable II was faster, smaller and lighter, sporting an 80286 CPU running at either 6Mhz or 8MHz (switchable by the user by pressing CTRL+ALT+\).

The release of the Portable III in 1987 same far more than a speed boost (the 80286 CPU was upped to 12MHz) as the whole machine design was radically altered. Gone was the CRT display and in its place users found a 10" orange gas-plasma flat display. This shrunk the size and weight of the machine massively and really did make it far more portable (although it still required a power socket). It also introduced the option of adding an expansion add-on through which users could add two full length PC cards.

This newly designed machine was not only to host the 80286 CPU though and in October of that year the Portable 386 was launched. Identical to the Portable III in terms of size, screen, expansion etc. the machine's big selling point was its use of the new Intel 80386 CPU (running at a blistering 20MHz). As was stated in the press at the time, it "outperforms everything else on the market but its desktop sibling".

All of this power came at a cost though and while not cheap, any user who could afford the machine was in for a treat. Shipping with 2Mb of RAM (expandable to 10Mb) and various combinations of 5.25" floppy drives, 3.5" floppy drives and hard drives ranging from 40Mb to 100Mb, the machine was still limited when it came to expansion internally (the only option being a 1200 baud modem) but the expansion add-on designed for the Portable III opened up the machine enormously and it truly was a portable desktop.

What the machine wasn't though was something capable of being used on the move and the lack of an internal power source (it still needed a power socket) meant that its days were numbered when the next generation of 'portable' machines appeared. Smaller, cheaper and capable of running on internal batteries, the Portable 386 had, sadly, had its day.


Machine Portable 386
Manufacturer Compaq
Introduced October 1987
Cost $12,000-$14,000
System MS-DOS
CPU/Speed 20MHz Intel 80386SX (socket for Intel 80387 co-processor)
RAM Min/Max 2Mb/10Mb (4x42 pin Compaq RAM)
ROM (Size) 16Kb
Floppy Drive 1x3.5" 1.44Mb/1x5.25" 1.2Mb
Hard Drive 40Mb-100Mb IDE
Drive Bay(s) 2x5.25"
Network None
Audio Beep
Video 10" Gas Plasma (orange)
Resolution(s) 640x400 (4-bit)
Ports 1x25-pin parallel, 1xSerial, 1xRGB (9 pin), 1xExpansion
Expansion Slot 1xExpansion bus
Dimensions 16.1" x 7.6" x 11.2"
Weight 24.25 lb
Power Supply Mains (IEC) More...

From Experience...

I'll be honest, my knowledge of early portables was pretty shaky. In the age of the BBC Model B, the concept of something being 'portable' was just insane, and by the time I did become aware of portable machines, 'portable' machines truly were portable (i.e. they didn't need a power socket). Yes I'd seen a review of the original Osborne 1 in a magazine but to a tiny person it meant very little. Yes it looked very pretty but did it play Elite?

I'd actually become intrigued by the 'luggable' class of machines through having seen a few pictures of the Amstrad PPC and had bought one for a bargain price. Err yeah, all well and good but a bit cheap and nasty. It was ever dependable eBay that brought the Compaq machines to my attention and one was duly sourced for 15. Sadly it never arrived and, even to this day, I have no idea where it ended up (or, more importantly, what happened to the cash I paid for it). Six months later (and having given up all hope of seeing that first machine) a second came along and, at 1.24, I really couldn't say no.

The Portable 386 is a strange beast and no mistake. It's form factor is...strange. It's too big to be a 'laptop' but it's not one of those behemoths that needs three people to lift it. I was expecting it to be heavy (and, in truth, it is) but it far more easy to carry than expected and the physical size of the machine is surprisingly small.

Power cable plugged in and the machine booted first time and even had Windows 3.0 installed (now there's pain =;) ). With 4Mb of RAM, a 3.5" floppy drive and 40Mb hard drive, the little machine chugs along quite happily and it's been error free. That's not to say that using the machine is easy as it isn't. The screen, although extremely funky, is hard on the eyes with the constant orange glow limiting what you can do with it (I don't really see it being great for, say, photo editing). The integrated keyboard is a plus point though and far better than having to do with cramped or 're-designed' keyboards that smaller machines are forced to use. Expansion is limited though as, not coming with the expansion box, there's no way to add much to it (although, in reality, how many laptops of its age do?) and the onboard ports are somewhat few and far between: serial and parallel are fine but a 9 pin RGB connection? Hardly useful with a VGA monitor.

So far my machine has been a true treasure. Yes it has its limitations and quirks but it's a machine that's over 20 years old and comes from a totally different generation. For its time it was superb and the cutting edge of what the IT industry could produce. Now though it could be called a 'curio', a 'relic', or even an 'antique'. In truth it's all of those things but it's also something else: fun. OK it might not be everybody's idea of 'fun' but to a computer collector it most definitely is. It's plastic case (as opposed to metal) gives it a warmth that echoes that feeling that an old Macintosh had - it's difficult to describe but that 'warmth' is far more likely to suggest a personality than a blank, faceless slab of metal.

Sentimental rubbish or something else? To be honest I don't care, I just think it's a great little machine that was well worth the wait.

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