Weird but Wonderful Micros
Some computers do not really fit in a chronological timeline of microcomputer development. Maybe because they were already Old Technology at the time of their introduction, or because they were just insignificant in computer history. This page contains some micros that I'm quite fond of - because they are cute (in a loose sense of the word), or because they were simply very nice, practical work horses in their day. The nice thing of them is that often, they are more interesting to play with than some machines with more historical impact. Simply because they arrived later in time, and have more features or capabilities.
In 1982, Kyocera of Japan created the second-ever laptop (after the Epson HX-20, see below). Kyocera had trouble selling them, and NEC's PC-8201, Tandy's Model 100 and Olivetti's MC-10 were much more successful franchise-holders with their respective versions of the machine. Especially the Model 100 developed a cult following. With a proper (8 lines by 40 column) screen and very ingenious software, these were the first machines that successfully made do with the minimal storage facilities of the time (these machines had 24K of RAM!) whilst being genuinely useful - hard to imagine today. New hardware is still being developed for these machines to expand their storage options to infinity and beyond. This is reputedly the very last project for which Bill Gates himself wrote the software, and they were very popular with journalists on the road, sending their text by modem to the office.
Nec PC-8401 Starlet
The 1985 Starlet had Wordstar Calcstar and terminal emulation in ROM. Unexpanded, its 64K memory is used in a proprietary mode. But with the (very hard to find) optional docking station, floppy disks and an external monitor convert it into a full CP/M machine. Alternatively, 64K RAM cartridges served as extra storage. The Starlet was nice but nowhere near as well-thought out as the earlier generation machine, and although it showed some of the things to come in laptops, it really was half gadget, half portable CP/M machine - failing at both despite the promising hardware.
The HX-20 (1981) can claim to be the very first laptop computer. It sports a Hitachi version of the Motorola 6800 which is clocked at something like 600KHz. If that does not sound very serious, you'd be mistaken. This was a superbly engineered little machine which could do a lot of useful things very well - in its time.
The PX-8 came out in 1984. It shared the ultra-high quality engineering with its older brother, but was a fully functional CP/M computer with an 80x8 LCD screen. Like the HX-20, it could be used with an external disk drive and even a terminal if you'd like to have a bigger screen at home. The Basic that comes with the PX-8 is remarkable for pulling off feats like waking up the machine at a certain time, and then switch it off again. There are some criticisms: the machine is overengineered (why do you need a separate Z80 in the add-on RAM disk?!) and the software screen driver is slow: the screen updates at less than 2400 baud if you can believe that. But - a very sweet gizmo to this very day.
The PX-4 uses an updated version of the PX-8's original motherboard and is a bit faster. The 40-column screen made this more of an instrument than a personal computer, though.
Epson's highly integrated "Maple" Z80 design was used later on for hand-held terminals with touch screens. I have an early EHC-10 with full development system - intriguing little thing with CP/M hidden behind a very well designed firmware and a real touch screen.
Cambridge Computers Z88
Sir Clive's last computer, from 1987. Loved by many as the most usable notepad of all, the Z88 is remarkable also for its weird, ahead-of-its-time OS. It really is very useable - as a note-taker, it beats any modern laptop (because it does not run out of battery power for eons). It's also more useful than a tablet (at least you can type in text). The Z88 may not have gotten quite the same amount of attention as the iPad later on - but Sinclair did deliver a machine just as revolutionary in its day. For some of the same reasons: the Z88's operation system made it into an appliance, not a personal computer. That is why Z88 does not appeal very much to me, but exactly why the machine is so useful to those who love it, even after 20 years.
The NC-100 came out in 1992. It makes a perfect contrast with the Z88: The NC-100 is a simple, no frills conventional machine. Apparently, Amstrad CEO Alan Sugar was responsible for its creation: he wanted a computer simple enough for himself. It takes a great man to admit that. As a note-taker, this actually is an approach that beats the highly intellectual concept of the Z88. Still, the stock NC-100 itself is a rather boring appliance (although its word processors, spreadsheet and excellent BBC basic-cum-assembler would have been radical just a few years earlier).
No, the true value of the NC-100 is twofold. For a hacker, it's a beautiful hardware package of Z80, RAM, ROM, LCD screen and not much more. And secondly, one great hacker realised the NC-100's potential. Russell Marks wrote ZCN, a CP/M clone fine-tuned to the NC-100's hardware package. Using a PCMCIA SRAM card for storage, it makes the NC-100 possibly into the best CP/M portable ever made. And as NC-100s can be picked up for something like $20 on eBay, give it a try!
The NC-200 came out a bit later. It took the form of conventional MS-DOS laptops that started to emerge around that same time. It's a better machine than the NC-100 in terms of specifications, but somewhat less cute. From a hacker's perspective, the way that this machine carries a disk drive but electronically connects it in the weirdest possible way is a slight disappointment. And Amstrad's old habit of cheap construction also means that the machine does not feel all that robust.
Psion Series 5
And so, we come to the high point of computing. The Psion Series 5. Nothing beats this one.
Why? For many reasons. First of all, it is so very beautiful. Secondly, it is so very practical. Thirdly, its miniaturised hardware design is quite a feat. But above all, because its EPOC operating system was a stunningly competent piece of software. Long after the demise of the Series 5 (why? O, why?) that operating system lived on, as the Symbian OS of Nokia smartphone fame. And if Nokia had not lost the plot, Symbian would still be with us.
All that we are left with is the opportunity to buy a second-hand Series 5 and humbly bow before it. After having done so, you may want to go out and buy a new screen connector cable for it, because you will use the Series 5 so much that the original cable will wear out some day, leaving you in the cold, harsh daylight with nothing more than a Windows PC to keep you comfort.
Practical machines from the Far East
Maybe the above machines showcase the British ingenuity in the 80s. In that case, the machines below show a much more important development in the microcomputer industry: the ascent of the Asian manufacturers. They were absent until the early 80s, or at least playing side-roles as component providers. They started developing their design and manufacturing skills so rapidly, that ten years later practically no micro was built elsewhere, whatever the brand name on the box. The machines below are some of the earliest on that path of, er, World Domination.
There is very little information on this 1983 machine. Yodobashi seems to be a Japanese firm, better known for its cameras. The Formula-1 is typical for slightly later Z-80 CP/M machines in being very practical, efficiently designed and full-featured. It even has a connector for 8" drives at the back - which you will not find on any other luggable of the time. It may have been the first luggable with a printer built in its top. The Yodobashi is different from later, cheaper offerings out of non-Japan Asia in that it is extremely well engineered. Strong and robust, it seems to be aimed at the developer community - it even has an Eprom programmer built in. Alas, by 1983 the machine was soon outdated by the onslaught of DOS machines. So, my Formula-1 was bought from a surplus dealer in Holland in the late 80s, when the machine was available for something like $150 - a bargain at the time. I gues Yodobashi did not like to lose face in its home market so dumped it in the Dutch market where nobody was looking..
One year later, in 1984, CP/M machines had become workhorses for the low-end mass market. The Bondwells (more or less identical: the 14 has 128K and double-sided drives, the 12 has 64K, but is instantly upgradeable by plugging RAM into its sockets) were the best examples of this type of mass production machine. Solid, no frills, all-you-need-in-a-box machines with surpisingly good screens and keyboard. Oh - there was one frill: they had a voice synthesis gadget for no particular purpose. Some people disliked the motherboard design (I think interrupts are hard to deal with) but in general: one of the nicest CP/M packages you can get. Bondwell comes out of Hong Kong, and Hong Kong mass production in the 80s of course mean a non-bullet proof case - but hey. For the asking price, you got more than you deserved.
Bondwell was representative of Far Eastern manufacturers in another way too: their expertise grew very quickly.
By 1985 Bondwell delivered one of the very first proper laptops. It had a limited shelf life in stores (1985 was very late in the day for any Z-80 CP/M machine) but 80x25 lines LCD, battery powered operation, clamsheel design - it was a harbinger of what was to come very soon: the Asians took over as market leaders in hardware production.
By the way: 'battery' is used in the automotive industry sense of the word: the lead-acid battery is 1/3 of the size of a car battery, huge and heavy for something that sits on your lap! With the optional RAM/ROM cartridge, the machine is amazingly practical even with its single floppy disk drive.
Miniature MS-DOS machines
DIP Pocket PC/Atari Portfolio
The Portfolio actually belongs under the category of British portables, because it is the 1989 product of DIP - formed by some ex-Psion gentlemen. Anyway, they soon licensed the DIP Pocket PC to Atari who had rather limited commercial success with the machine. It was a proper IBM PC type of machine - a custom MS-DOS 2.11, built-in Lotus 1-2-3 type spreadsheet and reasonably functional Personal Agenda applications. It was proper state-of-the-art when you consider the reasonable price. However, it desperately needed storage and the 32-128K SRAM cards of its day were horribly expensive and insufficient anyway. It continues to have quite a few friends: they do not break down, they don't get thrown away, so there are plenty out there and you can hack it into using modern CF cards with a 32MB storage. All of a sudden, that would make it fun to use!
In 1989, this would have set you back $2000. But the machine is utterly stunning. In outward appearance, and in the electrical engineering feat that made it possible. In fact, were it not for the existence of the Atari Portfolio, the Poqet would have been an unbelieve appearance. Again, the problem was with mass storage. Buying the Flash storage cards would add significantly to the $2000 entry price. But today, that is less of a problem. Poqets are highly collectible - also because a lot have died from a vulnerable screen cable that wears out and is next to impossible to repair. So I open up my Pocket a few times a year and have an uglier Pocket Plus for anything else.
In 1991, HP had a stab at the pocket PC concept with the HP 95LX. That was insufficient - it had a screen resolution of 128x240 pixels: 40 column text. In 1994, a full five years after the Poqet, the HP 200LX arrived. And it was still in time to be a real commercial success. This is a full, unconstrained IBM PC in pocket format. I run it with a 256MB compact flash/PCMCIA card. The nice thing of the 200LX is that it is so solid. The Poqet was much more beautiful and had a decent keyboard, but was a precious thing (ie, you don't really want to put it into your pocket). The 200LX, on the other hand, was tough. The machine is highly collectible. It also still has quite a few active users and I understand why.
Perhaps the first subnotebook ever, introduced by Olivetti in 1992. And the single most irritating machine to collect. Let's start with the good things... It is the size of a pocketbook, which makes it extremely pleasant to do actual work on. Inside is a V20 (8086 clone) at 16Mhz, and a 20MB disk drive. A 640*400 LCD screen gives a crisp B/W picture without backlighting. The good thing is that this machine can run for hours on either its rechargeable battery or 6 normal AA batteries. Brilliant!
So why is it the single most irritating machine to collect? Because the very competent electronics design is packaged in a casing made from soft, weak, thin plastic. So it falls apart faster than an Alfasud car from the 70s. Even worse, things like the power connector break when you just look at them too long.
This is the worst-built computer you'll ever encounter, and the engineers that designed the machine's electronics must cry over how Olivetti destroyed their lovely creation by saving about $5 on decent packaging. It is a scandal and a shame. 4 of these machines cry themselves to sleep in their storage box every night because I just can't deal with them anymore...
Pocket Computers and Super Calculators
Casio PB-100 (or TRS-80 PC4)
Casio's first move into computing, in 1982. It came with a kids-friendly instruction manual, and seems to have been aimed at the market of parents eager to have their kids introduced to computers. The PB-100 was one of the very first in a long line of Japanese pocket computers (er, Bonsai computing?), but its 12 character-screen and 544 byte of available RAM make it more useful as a programmable calculator. As such, the FX-702P programmable calculator that came out before the PB-100 was actually more powerful.
I've got this much more capable pocket computer from 1983 together with the CE-125 base station, offering microcassette storage and a little printer. It has some 4K of Basic RAM, although this could be expanded quite cheaply. The 2x24 character screen makes it much more useful - but even at the time, you'd only use these machines to teach yourself basic and use them as a more user-friendly programmable calculator. They were very desirable at the time, though!
A much, much more capable machine than the Japanese Bonsai computers. But the HP-75, introduced in 1982, is a lot bigger too. Its Basic is quite excellent, and it sported a built-in mass storage solution: 650 bytes per pull-through magnetic strip. Not to be confused with the later HP-71, this was HP's first entry into the portable computing market. The company was very proud of the engineering that went into the machine, but to modern eyes, what is most striking is how much PCB's and ICs needed to be crammed into the box to make it work.
The HP-75 has the standard HP/IL interface, meaning that it can very easily hook up to various HP devices such as printers - but also data acquisition devices. That made it into quite a capable laboratory instrument.
Texas Instruments TI-92
The TI-92 from 1995 shouldn't really be on this page, as it is very much a educational calculator from a later period. It also is not made by HP, which will make some connoiseurs switch off. But there's three reasons to end the Weird but Wonderful page with the TI: first, it's software is based on the classic Derive math software from the CP/M era; secondly, it is an amazing tool to teach yourself the beauty of math and thirdly - I like the machine a lot and it is my web site... Possbily, a better reason could be to show the final shape and development stage of pocket calculator/basic computers. This is pretty much it until Mathematica gets its own hardware.