A Computer In Your Pocket, 1980s Style

These days, having a little computer in your pocket is par for the course. But forty years ago, this was a new and high tech idea. [The 8-Bit Guy] has a great video covering the state of the art in pocket computers and personal digital assistants from the 1980s and 1990s. You can see the video below.

There are a lot of familiar faces on the video including the Radio Shack pocket computers, Palm Pilots, and some more obscure machines of varying quality.

It might impress you to know that the Radio Shack TRS-80 PC-1 pocket computer actually had two CPUs. Of course, each CPU was a 4-bit processor running at 256 kHz, so maybe not as impressive as it sounds. Still, what a marvel in its day, programming BASIC on a 24-character LCD.

The Casio PB-700 from 1983. For under $200, you got a 4-line display, with each line having 20 characters. But it also had some graphic capabilities. You could even get an optional docking station that provided a color plotter and a microcassette recorder. Unfortunately, they were not widely available, at least in the United States.

If you want ultra-portable, the Seiko UC-2000 was actually a wristwatch that could dock with a keyboard and printer. Unfortunately, [Guy] couldn’t get a battery for it, but we did enjoy seeing him take it apart to pull out the dead battery.

I suspect the personal anecdote at the end will be somewhat familiar to many people who were school-aged in the 1970s and 1980s. Times have certainly changed.

You can fit a lot more computing power in your pocket today, of course. This video isn’t the only nostalgic love letter we’ve seen for computers of that era.

25 thoughts on “A Computer In Your Pocket, 1980s Style

  1. My parents bough me the FX-880P when i was a technical school in 1995.
    Used it during university and still I carry it today and use it at work… i’m old school and don’t like to use the smartphone calculator.
    Its a dam work horse! :)

    1. I also received this same calculator in the late 1980s (not sure which year, probably 1989). It sits in my drawer and I still use it daily! Nice BASIC programming. I still have code,to,calculate the Clebsch-Gordan coefficients for mu quantum mechanics class in 1989). Quality product, batteries last YEARS!

  2. I have a PB-110, with a marvellous 544 step (0.5kB) RAM shared between code and data (you use a DEFM command to partition memory, 8 steps per variable). It’s simple version of BASIC on a 12 character screen left a lot to the imagination, but it was lots of fun and it displayed all its functions, Sinclair-stylee on its mini keyboard.

    Some of the more interesting things about Casio BASIC: the enter key was called [EXE], which is interesting since it’s only fairly recently via to social media that Enter sometimes gets redefined as [EXE] and Shift+Enter as carriage return. Also, it has a special double-struck ‘E’ for Exponents, so scientific notation for e.g. the speed of light is about 2.998𝔼5 km/s. This character is called ‘Hope’! The PB-110 had an 8-bit CPU BTW, but still clocked pretty slowly.

    However, my PB-110 no longer works. I think the issue is something as simple as a little spring that connected something on the PCB to the back case falling off, but I have no real idea.


    1. Something else used to have EXE key instead of Enter or Return (Return used to sound weird, when all Brit computers were labelled Enter) I can’t think of what it was though.

  3. Back in the eighties I bought Sharp PC-1403, and used it for years. It still works, last year I passed it to my daughter.
    I always preferred qwerty keyboards, I never understood those calculators like HP 48SX.

  4. No mention of the Psion machines of that era though. The Organiser and the 3 series were roughly contemporary and also programable (admittedly not in BASIC). The Psion 5 series was well into what he refers to as PDA territory, but still user programable.

    1. Yes I noticed it too – very US centric to the extent that all the pocket computers were “Tandy” computers when in fact they were really Sharp and Casio ones.

      It’s probably the case that the trend towards organisers does really come from the Psion organiser family which started with the 8-bit organisers in the early 1980s.

    2. I bet it was deliberate prejudice against everything else and absolutely nothing to do with having a local buddy who was a Tandy-TRS80 collector and had one of each of the machines discussed, and not any others. I bet he practically stomped on all the Psions littering the sidewalk (Because they’re sooooo common) to get there too.


  5. I often had nose pressed to the glass cabinet at Tandy/RadioShack when these were new, they were alllllmost in reach price wise, if you only saved every last cent of your birthday and Christmas money and did a few odd jobs… but I never got that close. I think my parents thought it “not a good thing to spend your money on”. Maybe true, because had they come out 5 years earlier they would have been wonder machines from planet X, but by the time we had Spectrums and Commodore 64s for a couple of years they seemed a bit underspecced, i.e. limited in the amount they were actually useful for.

    But I still had an itch to scratch, so later in my early teens, I was delighted to find a programmable calc, FX6500G for cheap at a surplus store, and had that glued to my hand for a month. Finding about half a kilobyte of RAM is kinda tight (Go figure) I nevertheless tried to program games for it, which didn’t get much more advanced than blackjack or guess the number.

    Years pass, and earlier this century, I snapped up a Sharp EL-5500 III when I saw it at yard sale. It’s identical to a PC-1403. I haven’t really done much with it, still trying to think of that “killer app” to program. However I kinda plan at some point to make it the “head” for an arduino project or something. Along the way I picked up a PC-7 (Don’t bother LOL) and an interface for I think a PC-4, which at the time I thought was close enough to mine I could adapt it, but it turned out not.

    I should be able to do more with the EL-5500 III aka PC-1403 though, here’s it’s equivalent of the IBM PC’s 8088MPH demo….

  6. Still having a lot of fun with the Atari Portfolio my dad used back in the days as a portable wordprocessor and adressbook. All that computing power in a case roughly the size of a VHS tape seemed like a miracle to me in that time.

  7. In that timeframe the IBM CE’s that I dealt with had their “bricks”. They were about brick sized wireless pager/messaging/LCD terminals. However, it was fun to watch them trying to get signal in the one (mostly secure) datacenter.

  8. I recall in Uni for Electrical in the mid 80’s, the split was between Casio, Sharp and HP-41CV or CX. That HP could get very expensive with all the accessories… printer, optical wand, ROM chips. Electrical engineering required calculating 5×5 imaginary matrices. One error keying in a number sign and the answer was wrong.

  9. Had a RS handheld back in the day. Recall writing a program to convert real numbers to floating point binary format on the thing! It helped me translate g force values into HEX so that a 8085 controller and math coprocessor could do some inertial navigation equations. Worked very well in the end. Most of the other programs I had on the thing were more play things and less real work.

  10. I remember when my dad first brought this home when I was a kid, I’d already been programming on the TI99 and the Atari’s, but something you could carry around in your pocket! I still have it, as well as several accessories – like a printer – that I’ve picked up at hamfests over the years :)

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