Building A Faux Retro Portable Computer

The modern laptop has its origins in the mid to late 1980s, when shrinking computer hardware and improvements to battery technology finally made mobile computing practical. But before the now iconic clamshell form factor became the standard, there was a market for so-called “portable” computers. These machines often resembled pieces of luggage with keyboards attached, and even at their peak, they were nowhere near as practical as today’s ultra-thin notebook computers. But for the more nostalgic among us, these vintage portables do have a special sort of charm about them.

Looking to recapture some of that magic with modern components, [davedarko] has started working on his own Raspberry Pi portable computer. Just like those machines of yore, his build is designed to be a self-contained computing experience that you can lug around, but not exactly something you’d be popping open on the train. Its extruded aluminum frame holds the display, power supply, and audio hardware, with plenty of room to spare for additional hardware should he decide to pack in a couple hard drives or something more exotic.

The skeletal frame has plenty of room for activities.

We particularly like the 3D printed hinge and lock mechanism he designed that holds the keyboard closed against the front of the frame. Sufficiently old experienced readers will recall this particular feature being a defining characteristic of portables such as the Osborne 1 and Compaq Portable, and it’s great to see it included here. All it needs now is a leather handle on the side to complete the look.

[davedarko] still has some work ahead of him, as ultimately he’d like to completely enclose his computer’s frame with laser cut panels. But the build is certainly progressing nicely, and frankly, it’s already at the point where we’d have no problem pulling it out at the next hackerspace meetup. Between builds like this and the growing collection of cyberdecks we’ve covered recently, it looks as though 1980s design aesthetic is alive and well within the hacker community.

[Thanks to HappyFox for the tip.]

48 thoughts on “Building A Faux Retro Portable Computer

  1. I like this so much! I used to work with a fellow who wrote reviews on PC’s back in the 1980’s, and still owned the original Compaq Portable that was used in the original PC Magazine review in 1982 or so. I was cleaning stuff out and gave it to me. I intended to resurrect it with modern hardware, but it ended up being EOL’d, unfortunately. I can see a computer such as this one being extremely useful with its real keyboard and chassis with lots of room for expansion.

    1. Yesss I love the luggables. I’ve got an old beat-up Kaypro. Was thinking about sticking a modern linux computer in there alongside the original CP/M computer (there’s far more than enough space) and having it able to switch power over and trade off that little green monochrome CRT. I want to actually keep the tube. It takes an hsync, vsync, and video signal, so it should be possible to drive it with slightly modified VGA.

      1. A lot have basically TV standard mono monitors in, so the easy way to do it is a cheapy TV box that can run ubuntu or similar and has an analog jack, or a Pi of some description with the composite out. If it’s somewhere twixt and tween then you might be able to get some graphics chips to sync that low, but might need your own driver for it. On Tomi Engdahls ePanorama pages somewhere there’s such a util for dos that works with some chipsets to bring down to TV frequencies. Probably not chipsets you’d find on modern stuff, but i you score an industrial SBC, that might have old S3, Cirrus Logic or Rage VGA for backwards compatibility reasons.

    2. I have to continually resist the temptation to stick modern guts in an IBM Portable PC (5155 m68) When I get around to figuring the monitor out though (repair needed, it’s doing that thing where the vertical has gone screwy and seems to spread the first few lines zigzagged across the screen.) I might do a reversible mod taking it forwards and backwards, with swapping in a V20 so I can play with CP/M 80 and CP/M 86 and get a little more grunt in DOS.

  2. I recall seeing 486s built the same way… Monochrome plasma screen, 16-bit ISA back-plane with space for a few slots, an industrial single-board computer in one slot. 3.5″ HDD and a floppy drive.

    Power supply was built-in.

    1. I still have mine. It boots a very early version of linux with X, and is set up to support a second VT100 terminal on a serial port.
      It’s a great form factor, I wish the Chinese still made the enclosures.

      1. I’m half tempted to try replicating something like that. Thinking a LCD monitor with a VESA mount and a custom ATX-style case with a screen cover that folds out to reveal the keyboard and a trackball (why a trackball and not a mouse: less space required).

        Looking at the space my current desktop at work takes up, this could be very doable as the monitor is about as wide as the half-height ATX case is deep so bolting the monitor to a side-panel and putting a handle on the top is merely drilling a few holes into the existing panels.

      2. If you want to design a nice custom enclosure but don’t want to cut, bend and powdercoat your own, visit https://www.protocase.com/ Fast, great quality, excellent support. Not cheap, but not outrageously costly either, especially if you want more than one. I’ve used them several times. Highly recommended.

    2. You could still get generic “lunchbox” cases way up into the early 2000s but by mid 00s when I got serious about wanting one, it was just a few specialists who wanted $2000 a pop for them or something insane.

  3. Replacing the Raspberry with a more powerful SoC and the old gas discharge display with a 10″ tft touchscreen, retrofiting an old “luggable” Compaq box, adding some geeky extension like Software Defined Radio transmitter, stuffing the remaining empty space with a 1 Gb Ethernet switch, a USB3 hub and a set of 10 amps PSU, and you have this

    https://f6itu.files.wordpress.com/2019/09/compaq-full.jpg

    … the “hardest” part of the hack was to keep the original XT keyboard and adapt it to XXI ‘s century architecture. Future belongs to bulky-nerdy stuff :- )

    1. There were XT to AT keyboard adapters way back when. Once you have the keyboard connection in AT form it can be ‘necked down’ to PS/2, then USB. Of course to do that the PS/2 to USB adapter must be a full featured “active” type. The little adapter dongles that came with many PS/2 keyboards in the early USB era were just simple things that activated USB mode in the keyboard. They won’t work with keyboards that are only PS/2 or AT adapted to PS/2.

      Or you can go direct to the source, remove the electronics in the keyboard and adapt the matrix to a keyboard encoder that connects to USB.

      I’d like to see someone take a Tandy 1000 EX or HX and install a Nano ITX PC board into its expansion bay. Using the original keyboard for it shouldn’t be difficult since it’s just a switch matrix connected to the mainboard via a 0.1″ ribbon cable. Switching the keyboard between the original Tandy and the Nano board might be the hard part. Even more fun would be hooking up a dual input monitor with a TTL to VGA adapter on one input. “Watch me play both Thexder and Minecraft on my Tandy 1000!”

      1. Safest way to get an active PS/2 USB converter is to get the two head keyboard and mouse one. Even the 2 or 3 dollar ones should be active, whereas you buy a single socket one and you could get scammed on an old logitech or Microsoft mouse standard passive one for as much as $20

  4. Hmmm… RasPi, LCD, chassis made of modular aluminum extrusion and 3D-printed cruft… yeah, sorry, nothing to see here. I’m rather distinctly unimpressed.

    But then I’ve worked with actual computers from that era. I got an Osborne 1 that wasn’t booting, got it running, boy that was an epic struggle… sadly, it died from being sold and shipped but that’s not my fault, exactly… the shipping carrier could’ve done a lot better. One of my closest friends runs the local tech shop (well, okay, there are a couple others in town, but they’re honestly not noteworthy the way his is… I might be a little biased tho) and basically grew up on a succession of Commodore products… which, relatively recently, when he needed space in his house (and since he wasn’t using any of them), he bequeathed his entire collection to me, noting at the time that I was the only one in town who he trusted to do that equipment right. Presently I’ve also got an Amstrad PPC-640 that I’m trying to figure out how to upgrade in some period-reasonable ways — I’d like to give it a more modern parallel port and storage options that aren’t confined entirely to a pair of 720k floppy drives.

    A *proper* portable machine of the era would have either a small (5″-9″) CRT display embedded in it (either color or monochrome depending on precisely which end of the decade we’re discussing) or a singularly awful monochrome LCD that almost certainly, like the classic Compact Mac displays, couldn’t even do grayscale (i.e. shading). Regardless of what’s under the hood (can we please have a cyberdeck or two that manages NOT to use a RasPi, just once or twice? Sheesh!) as far as processing and memory are concerned, the OS would have inevitably been command-line based, with support for simple color graphics for gaming. Something similar to a modern implementation of FreeDOS or just enough Linux to support a bash prompt.

    Oh, and before anyone says it… yes, I’m a purist (at least regarding this sort of thing) and yes, challenge accepted >:-} not immediately, though, I’ve got a few other things to get through the pipe first… but… watch and wait, you might see something interesting in a few months ;)

    1. For a period appropriate Cyberdeck, some of those cheap toy laptops with a little mono LCD have a Z80 inside. Some appropriate hackery could bump the RAM up to 64K, add a floppy interface, even IDE for storage. There is a design for a Z80 IDE interface that plugs between the CPU and its socket. Of course for the toy laptop as a starting point the CPU would need removed to install a socket.

      1. Grant Searle’s minimal CP/M Z80 design uses a compact flash card, which are plenty adequate in size for the kind of software you could get half a dozen to the 180k floppy. Parallel IDE drives are starting to show their age these days. I’ve had 50% of mine just die off dry stored.

  5. Nice idea, but having space it could be done better. Namely using instead of a RasPi aMini-ITX with Intel or AMD CPU and a proper BIOS to mache the machine runu MS-DOS on bare hardware, there’s the space, so a nice SSD and maybe a Floyy disk drive could be fit in.

    1. PI4 is pretty decent though and I got that for free for the video because: “element14 presents”. There’s enough space for a lot of things and the video was also a big excuse to buy these aluminium extrusions :D

  6. For a stylish case for a luggable PC build, find an old portable sewing machine with a heavy duty plastic hardshell cover. It’ll have some nice curves, a sturdy handle, and latches on both ends. Find one that latches onto a baseplate to which the machine is mounted, rather than latching directly to the base of the machine. Then you have a base to mount the keyboard.

    Another option if you want more Kaypro than Osborne would be cutting down a metal ammo can. Doesn’t have to be the full original height of the can, nor does it need to keep its original paint finish.

    1. People tend to react bad when you take things apart that still work on e14p and I try to use parts and things people can order afterwards. I might go a bit overkill with lasercutting and 3D printing though. Watertight / resistant boxes to build stuff into is a concept I can get behind.

  7. very big box and … no acumulator? In my opinion You must put 20Ah acummulator for offgrid (and solar panel input, and 230V input, powerbank input).

    Second idea are solid Faraday Box for protect EMP

    1. Definitely worth to think about when upgrading it. The PI4 is a bit power hungry, so I probably have to use a drone BEC and a beefy battery to power everything and then think about how to integrate the charger and switch from battery to PSU etc.

  8. Seeing things like this are things I wish I still had:
    My sister’s old Kaypro. The Ampro Z80 motherboard. And a few other things.
    I guess one can still run CP/M and MS-DOS in emulation on Linux quite easily now.

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