Compaq Portable III Rises Again For A Noble Cause

[Autuin] found a Compaq Portable III destined for the scrap bin at Free Geek Vancouver. Upon seeing it he realized that it could still fight;  fight against the tyranny of hipsters and their shiny Macbook Pros at his  local coffee shop. Unfortunately, being a 286, the computer couldn’t do much. He could take the usual route; which is to remove all the internals, and use the vast amount of space to fit a more modern computer inside. However, he decided to go a different path and save the internals, leaving it in original working order. The computer didn’t have enough power to browse the web, but it had just enough room to fit a small single-board computer inside; to which he could connect through serial. He hasn’t taken it down to the coffee shop yet, but we’re hoping for a few horrified hipsters and a full mission report when he does.

[Sent in by Alec Smecher]

36 thoughts on “Compaq Portable III Rises Again For A Noble Cause

  1. Are you sure that an 80286 isn’t powerful enough to browse the web, when web browsers exist for the humble 6502? OK, they lack Javascript support, but to suggest the 286 isn’t “powerful enough” to browse the web is a bit disingenuous.

    I think you meant to write, “The 80286 isn’t fast enough to support today’s web applications.” That is both more correct and less inflammatory.

  2. There is an arachne browser, which runs on DOS, and if I remember correctly – it can run on 8086 and 286.

    The more acute problem is power consumption of plasma display and internet connection for that beastie (I do not know of any wifi cards for isa bus with dos drivers).

  3. Humm. Can you run X11 on freedos?
    Also just for fun you could replace hard driver with a CF card and possibly fit something like a Beagle board or Gumstix in the space where the old hard drive was. Get X11 running and you could have WiFi and Bluetooth.

  4. Haha macegr, that’s what I was thinking.

    And boy do I like that machine… That screen is amazing. I remember looking at network analyzer computers, which have a similar form factor, and the same sort of screen. It’s nice to know there’s a general purpose machine of that style.

    I really like the idea of putting a more powerful SBC in there. I may have to try my own take on this.

  5. i’ve got an original 8088 compaq portable (look them up, they are way cooler than this), and what i did with that was take a WRT54G and install dd-wrt, and mounted it inside the compaq, powering it from the 5 volt rail from one of the molex connectors.

    i use an NE1000 ISA ethernet card, and it’s connected to the router.. and of course, i have a DOS telnet client so basically the portable just acts a terminal to a moderately powerful wireless-capable ARM linux box.

    it’s epic win, etc.

  6. Hey all — glad you enjoyed the hack. miker00lz, I had one of those too and would love to put one together an older brother for the Portable III; the original portable has a standard Hercules display, so I’d probably tear out the old computer entirely. But yes, I thought about using OpenWRT for this but didn’t have a spare router lying around.

    macegr, yeah, a friend of mine already pointed that out. What instead? Take it to a job interview?

    Munch: True. What I probably meant is “I want it to run Linux.”

    Regarding VNC and the like, it’s possible, but over a 286’s 8250-based serial port it would be horrendous.

  7. vmspionage: No, unfortunately. There’s a non-standard ribbon cable (20 pins OTOH) between the display controller and the plasma panel, and a non-standard bus interface between the motherboard and the display controller. And of course the display controller is non-standard too. The whole thing resembles CGA from the software side, but supposedly offers a non-standard 640×400 monochrome mode.

  8. OK, thanks for the info. I’ve been poking around google for a controller datasheet but I’m thinking that’s unlikely given the age and oem-ness of the application.

    So far I found the display part number (Panasonic MD400F640PD5) and controller part number (M400F640BDT02) but that’s about it.

  9. I have to admit, I would have gone the ‘typical’ route of re-componenting it, but I would have stayed to a laptop-ish form factor…

    And filled the rest of that incredibly huge volume with SLA or LI-PO.

    the attraction of an 80 pound battery powered luggable is that it’s completely impractical.

    1. I’ve actually restored three of these Compaq Portable IIIs. I use my my main system frequently — as in a couple of days a week — and it’s an absolute workhorse if there is DOS software you like.

      The orange gas plasma display is simply beautiful, very easy to read, and doesn’t cause eye strain (no blue light is emitted). These PCs are the size of a small sewing machine, not a suitcase. They weight 20 pounds, only half the size and weight as the Compaq Portable. They were a marvel of miniaturization and reliability.

      When the Portable III was released in 1987, it was the BEST portable PC-compatible computer available, regardless of price, and configurations could exceed $10,000. If you wanted a PC with a handle, you couldn’t do better. Until Compaq ungraded it to a 386 motherboard and introduced it as the first 386 PC called the “Portable 386”.

      The case is made of ABS plastic that really holds up well, and it is rare to see a damaged case. The entire case is lined with copper foil to control RFI, and there is an internal metal cage with rubber mounts for the drives.

      100% of these computers have two problems — the keyboard cable has dry-rotted, and the real-time clock backup battery has died. You need to have a working floppy drive and a system disk to boot them up if the CMOS settings aren’t correct. The BIOS config software was supplied on a floppy, not in ROM.

      And there is no usable “huge volume” inside — very little empty space unless you i) gut them, or ii) replace the memory expansion and modem cards, or iii) locate new components in the air cooling tunnel which could block the air flow. Since Compaq had their own proprietary driver card for the gas plasma display (it could emulate both CGA and monochrome displays under software control), you will probably need to keep it.

      Personally, I don’t go online with mine. That’s a big part of the appeal; they are secure! If I wanted to go online, I would prefer to leave a beautiful retrocomputer unmolested, and instead find some sort of external WiFi to serial port adapter box and run a DOS terminal emulator.

      I know that’s going against the grain for this community, but retrocomputers are becoming rarer by the day, and are the only source of original parts for restorers. Love them for what they are!

  10. Haha that’s great…I’m from Vancouver so I know first hand the threat that hipters pose! I’ve always wanted to lug an old Macintosh Classic into a coffee shop and start playing some Oregon Trail…and sip my latte, of course!

  11. i wonder if there’s enough room in my IBM PS/2 laptop to do a similar hack, i guess i could use the battery compartment and make a more modern battery pack for it.

  12. @ AUTUIN
    I’m fairly certain tht I have one or more Linksys WRT54G routers laying about, if you want one for the project.
    The only cost would be in mailing it.

  13. HeyAllen, thanks for the offer, but I can probably scare them up from Free Geek Vancouver for less than the cost of shipping. (If you’re not familiar with the Free Geek concept, google it up. It’s awesome and there might be one near you.) I’ve got a couple fun OpenWRT projects I’ll blog about soon. Thanks, though!

  14. I agree: The reason why the proud owner will crush all the Hipsters and reduce them to tears is that all their carefully selected accessories are fly-shit in comparison to the crown-jewel belonging to the Hipster King.

  15. And on a note to Microguys’ longing for a cellphone brick: There has to be bluetooth inside and be hooked up to Skype, while his IPhone lies at home, forwarding all calls to his Skype Account.

  16. There should be a national day for this and flash mob a Starbucks at a Barnes and nobles with old pc’s like my Olivetti portable. or be really funny and take a apple newton and a apple 2c and setup shop talk about strange looks.

  17. Nice! I inherited a Compaq Portable PCIII a while ago, which turned out to have had its original guts replaced with a Tyan S1590S Trinity Super7 mobo running a Cyrix K6-2 CPU. I swapped the 3.5″ HDD for a 2.5″ and added a USB 2.0 and wi-fi card, then installed Win 98SE and managed to get onto Facebook:

    I also had a blast playing Prince of Persia, Keen, Megablast, Dune2, etc and running Impulse Tracker and watching a bunch of old demos.

    Unfortunately it’s currently bricked following a failed BIOS update. The existing K6-2 has to be underclocked to avoid overheating and I wanted to fit a K6-2+ instead. The mobo doesn’t support these but I found a custom BIOS image that claimed to do the job. Either it was bad or I screwed up. Tyan say they will re-flash the BIOS chip for a nominal cost. It’s been on my todo list for a couple of years now…

  18. I´ve looking for the MD400F640PD5 plasma display data sheet for over 15 years since my Portable III released its magic smoke …

    I´d love to make that display work again … any help ?

    It would be a step forward if someone could check the display voltages. There is a small diagram near the power supply connector:

    I´m guessing the voltages should be:

    -HV [5] to +HV [3]: ~ 200V
    -HV [5] to -LVCC [4]: 5V
    +HV [3] to GND [1]: 5V
    GND [1] to -HV[5]: (-200V) – (+5V) = ~ +195V

    Thanks !

  19. Wow..I just got one myself tonight (also here in Vancouver). However, I paid $40CDN for it but I think it is well worth it. It will join my other collection of retro compuers such as OsborneI, AppleII and Commodore PET2001.

    I frequent FreeGeek but never had seen any like that. However I picked up old Commodore Amigas.

    I makes me crinch when I see people just throw them now into the rcycle bin (being a Govt very big initiative). It is getting harder now to find old retro comoputers.

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