There’s A Computer In This Hard Drive

Throughout the history of personal computers, there are some unique form factors. The 3com Audrey was sold as a computing appliance, meant to sit on a kitchen counter, to display recipes or something. For some reason, Macs were cubes once, and it actually wasn’t a bad machine. At one point, you were supposed to put a monitor on top of your computer.

A few years ago, [glitch] read about an interesting system from the early 80s. The SIIG S286 was designed by the same people that made SCSI cards and external hard drives, and it shows: this is a complete 286-based system stuffed into what was probably an external enclosure for a 5 1/4 drive at some point. After finding one of these bad boys on an auction site a few months ago, he finally got it working. It’s weird, but it can get on a network, and you can read Hackaday with it.

The entire computer is stuffed into a case that’s about 5″ wide, 4″ tall, and 10″ long. There’s a motherboard with built-in VGA, ‘game port’, and a printer port. There’s a riser card for real 16-bit ISA cards, two serial ports, and a connector for a hard disk and floppy drive. Basically, it’s an entire 286 system wrapped up in a tiny box.

After acquiring this machine, [glitch] took it apart and found the usual damage. The CMOS battery leaked, but not too bad. This was replaced with a hermetically sealed lithium thionyl chloride battery. These are non-rechargable, but a quick swipe of the soldering iron disable the motherboard’s charging circuitry. The hard drive was replaced with a 128 MB Flash module, and an Ethernet card was installed.

With that, [glitch] has a complete system that can connect to the Internet. Of course, getting on the Internet with a 286 is a challenge, but we have a Hackaday Retro Edition for just the occasion. The browser is Arache, with the mTCP package. That’s about as low as you can go in Intel-land, and excellent proof that the computer will work for another 35 years or so.

21 thoughts on “There’s A Computer In This Hard Drive

  1. Arachne is/was a fairly slick browser, from what I remember of it. I believe there was a bootable floppy version of it which was fairly painless, as far as DOS web browsing went.

  2. If you can find a Chaintech (or was it Chaintek or Chaintec?) Booksize PC 80286, that would be a nifty little unit. Literally the dimensions of a medium sized paperback book. Had nono/hercules/color EGA video. RAM was 30 pin SIPP. Years ago I picked up a couple at an auction, with one keyboard. The power bricks had been cut off so I had to rig up a power supply.

    Unfortunately the manufacturer was one of those annoying ones that destroys all documentation on a product the instant it goes EOL, then denies they ever made it. So it was stuck in mono video and I couldn’t find the jumper settings to switch it to EGA.

  3. One nitpick: how can the case be “an external enclosure for a 5 1/4 drive at some point” if it’s only 5 inches wide? A 5 1/4″ form factor drive is actually 5.75 inches wide.

  4. Could he not have just stuck a diode, maybe one with a low voltage drop, in with the battery? Saves having to hack at a 30 year old computer to destroy the charging circuit, and perhaps destroying some of of whatever little authentic provenance this thing had.

    1. “Destroy” is an awfully harsh word for swiping off a 470 ohm surface mount resistor :P I suppose someone could replace it if they wanted to go back to a battery that supports trickle charging.

      I’m 100% against replacing NiCd barrel batteries with modern NiCd or NiMH barrel batteries, though. I do board level rework as part of my day-job and fix enough *old* battery damage without people putting in new potential leakers. It doesn’t help that about the only place you can get a modern barrel battery is from no-name Chinese battery houses. I’ve seen at least one new replacement leak within a year on a customer’s PLC board.

  5. Also should’ve said…

    A clip-on upgrade from a 286 to a 486. There were all sorts of these in the mid-1990s. Then you could upgrade your 486 to something Pentium-esque, although often just a 486 at 133MHz.

    It was also the time of ridiculous, ludicrous RAM prices. So companies sold adaptor PCBs where you could put 2 or 4 SIMMs into it (usually 30-pins) to make one big SIMM. So 4 x 1MB SIMMs would perform like 1 x 4MB SIMM, and only take up one memory slot. It was a bit silly and over the top, never mind being bulky, but apparently they worked (slow 80ns RAM speed probably helped), and were worthwhile financially for people to buy. I think you could even buy symmetrical versions, left and right, depending on which way you wanted the SIMMs to overhang, so as not to block each other.

    1. There were multi-level versions to avoid interference, too — I actually have some of these, I use them for testing 30 pin SIMMs en masse. Load them up and let memtest86+ have at it. Those adapters are often good sources for new 30 pin SIMM sockets, if you don’t happen to have any ruined motherboards in the parts bin from which to steal.

    1. Forgot to post a link to the Imgur album for my Ampro LittleBoard:

      It’s the “Series 100,” which was Ampro’s packaged system with a power supply and dual floppies in a nice little box. Mine is a later revision that has SCSI, though I haven’t hooked anything up to it yet. Mine was in very poor shape when I got it.

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