Compaq 286 Laptop Gets Raspberry Transfusion

We know, we know. A lot of you don’t like projects that consist of gutting a vintage computer (or anything else, for that matter) and replacing its internals with modern electronics. But can you really look at the clunky Compaq LTE 286 laptop that [Dmitry Brant] hacked a Raspberry Pi into and honestly say it’s a machine worthy of historical preservation? The 30+ year old laptop had all the design cues of a saltine cracker, and the performance to match. At least now with a Pi under the hood, you can play some newer games on the thing.

Besides, [Dmitry] says the machine was damaged beyond the point of economical repair anyway. The only stock hardware that’s left beyond the case itself is the keyboard, which he was able to get talking USB thanks to a Teensy microcontroller. It’s not immediately clear if any attempt has been made to get the switches above the keyboard working, but we imagine it wouldn’t be too hard to tie them into some spare GPIO pins on the MCU for a bit of added authenticity.

The bottom half of the machine was cleared out to the point of it literally being a husk of its former self, which gave him plenty of room to hold the Pi 3B and the HDMI driver board that controls the new 9-inch TFT display. Speaking of which, the new panel was a close enough match to the original’s aspect ratio that only minor bezel modifications were required to get it to fit. The modern LCD makes for a massive improvement over the original, without looking too conspicuous.

While there’s still plenty of available space inside the Compaq, [Dmitry] has opted not to include an onboard battery at this time. Instead, power is provided to the Pi and associated hardware through a bulkhead mount USB connector on the side of the machine. It looks like it wouldn’t be too much trouble to add support for an off-the-shelf USB battery bank, as we recently saw with a particularly well engineered retro-futuristic folding cyberdeck, but far from us to tell a hacker what they should do with their bespoke computer.

Installing Linux Like It’s 1989

A common example of the sheer amount of computing power available to almost anyone today is comparing a smartphone to the Apollo guidance computer. This classic computer was the first to use integrated circuits so it’s fairly obvious that most modern technology would be orders of magnitude more powerful, but we don’t need to go back to the 1960s to see this disparity. Simply going back to 1989 and getting a Compaq laptop from that era running again, while using a Raspberry Pi Zero to help it along, illustrates this point well enough.

[befinitiv] was able to get a Raspberry Pi installed inside of the original computer case, and didn’t simply connect the original keyboard and display and then call it a completed build. The original 286 processor is connected to the Pi with a serial link, so both devices can communicate with each other. Booting up the computer into DOS and running a small piece of software allows the computer into a Linux terminal emulator hosted on the Raspberry Pi. The terminal can be exited and the computer will return back to its original DOS setup. This also helps to bypass the floppy disk drive for transferring files to the 286 as well, since files can be retrieved wirelessly on the Pi and then sent to the 286.

This is quite an interesting mashup of new and old technology, and with the Pi being around two orders of magnitude more powerful than the 286 and wedged into vacant space inside the original case, [befinitiv] points out that this amalgamation of computers is “borderline useful”. It’s certainly an upgrade for the Compaq, and for others attempting to get ancient hardware on the internet, don’t forget that you can always use hardware like this to access Hackaday’s retro site.

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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.

Hackaday Retro Edition: A 286 On The Internet

While not an issue now with our 64 bit (more accurately 48- or 52-bit) processors, there was a time when 32 bits of addressing space was impossibly large. For several decades, 4 Gigabytes of memory would be the absolute ceiling, and something only madmen or the protagonist of Pi would have to deal with. This convention began, at least for the Intel/PC world, with the 386. Earlier processors like the 8086 and the 286 were quite capable for their time, but doing anything modern with them, especially getting on the Internet, is a quixotic endeavor beyond comparison.

[Caulser] over on the Vintage Computer Forums has done just that. He recently acquired a Zenith Data Systems 286 system and loaded up what is quickly becoming the litmus test for old computers on the Internet: the Hackaday retro edition

When he first received the system, it was loaded up with a rather generous (for the time) 4MB of RAM. The 20MB hard drive was dead, but with a little fiddling about with the BIOS, [Caulser] was able to get the system working with an old Quantum IDE hard drive.

There’s no Windows or even Linux for this machine, so the system is just running MS DOS 5a, mTCP, Arachne, and the relevant drivers for the NIC (that has RJ45 and BNC connectors). After upgrading the RAM to 8MB, the box performs reasonably well without any pesky ads, and given the websites he visited, he’s not dealing with any overwrought Javascript or CSS, either.

Pics of the system below.


If you have an old computer sitting around, try to load our retro site with it. Take a few pictures, and we’ll put it up in one of our Retro Roundups

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