Regular readers may be aware that I have a certain affinity for vintage VTech educational toys, especially ones that attempted to visually or even functionally tie in with contemporary computer design. In the late 1980s, when it became obvious the personal computer was here to stay, these devices were seen as an affordable way to give kids and even young teens hands-on time with something that at least somewhat resembled the far more expensive machines their parents were using.
A perfect example is the PreComputer 1000, released in 1988. Featuring a full QWERTY keyboard and the ability to run BASIC programs, it truly blurred the line between toy and computer. In fact from a technical standpoint it wasn’t far removed from early desktop computers, as it was powered by the same Zilog Z80 CPU found in the TRS-80 Model I.
By comparison, the Smart Start has more in common with a desktop electronic calculator. Even though it was released just two years prior to the PreComputer 1000, you can tell at a glance that it’s a far more simplistic device. That’s due at least in part to the fact that it was aimed at a younger audience, but surely the rapid advancement of computer technology at the time also played a part. Somewhat ironically, VTech did still at least attempt to make the Smart Start look like a desktop computer, complete with the faux disk drive on the front panel.
Of course, looks can be deceiving. While the Smart Start looks decidedly juvenile on the outside, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few surprising technical discoveries lurking under its beige plastic exterior. There’s only one way to find out.
Back in the early 1980s, hotshot business types on the go would have used what were referred to at the time as portable computers from companies like Osborne or Kaypro. Due to the technical limitations of the era these so-called “luggables” were only slightly smaller and lighter than contemporary desktop computers, but they had integrated displays and keyboards so they were a bit easier to move around. A few years later the first generation of laptops would hit the market, and the portables predictably fell out of favor. Today they’re relatively rare collectors items; a largely forgotten first step in the steady march towards true mobile computing.
Which makes the 1984 edition of VTech’s “Whiz Kid” educational computer an especially unique specimen. The company’s later entries into the series of popular electronic toys would adopt (with some variations) the standard laptop form factor, but this version has the distinction of being what might be the most authentic luggable computer ever made for children. When this toy was being designed it would have been a reflection of the cutting edge in computer technology, but today, it’s a fascinating reminder that the latest-and-greatest doesn’t always stick around for very long.
The classic luggable hallmarks are all here. The flip down keyboard, the small and strangely offset display, there’s even lugs on the side to attach an included strap so the youngster can sling it over their shoulder. On the other hand, the fact that it’s just a toy allowed for some advantages over the real thing: it can actually run on battery power, and is quite lightweight relative to its size.
Back in the days before kids could be placated with a $50 Android burner phone, many a youngster was gifted a so-called “educational computer” to keep them occupied. Invariably looking like a fever dream version of the real computer their parents didn’t want to let them use, these gadgets offered monochromatic exploits that would make Zork look like Fortnite. Due equally to their inherent hardware limitations and the premise of being an educational toy, the “games” on these computers often took the form of completing mathematical equations or answering history questions.
The VTech PreComputer 1000 is a perfect specimen of this particular style of educational toy. Released in 1988, it was advertised as a way for pre-teens to become more comfortable with operating a real computer; since at that point, it had become abundantly clear that the coming decade would see a beige box on every professional’s desk. Its full-size QWERTY keyboard was specifically mentioned in the product’s accompanying literature as a way to get young hands accustomed to the ways of touch typing.
By the mid-1990s these devices would have progressed far enough to include passable text-to-speech capabilities and primitive graphics, but the junior professional who found him or herself seated in front of the PreComputer 1000 was treated to a far more spartan experience. It’s perhaps just as well that this particular educational computer was listed as a training tool, because even in 1988, surely a session with this toy must have felt very much like work.
But that’s not to say the PreComputer 1000 is without its own unique charms. In an effort to help cement its role as a “trainer” for more conventional computers, VTech saw fit to equip the PreComputer with its own BASIC interpreter. They even included generous written documentation that walked young programmers through the various commands and functions. Even today, there’s something oddly appealing about a mobile device with a full keyboard that can run BASIC programs for better than 24 hours on batteries (even if they’re alkaline “C” cells).
Let’s take a look inside this more than 30 year old mobile device, and see how the designers managed to create a reasonable facsimile of actual computing on a kid-friendly budget.
Our more youthful readers are fairly likely to have owned some incarnation of a VTech educational computer. From the mid-1980s and right up to the present day, VTech has been producing vaguely laptop shaped gadgets aimed at teaching everything from basic reading skills all the way up to world history. Hallmarks of these devices include a miserable monochrome LCD, and unpleasant membrane keyboard, and as [HotKey] found, occasionally a proper Z80 processor.
It started, as such things often do, with eBay. [HotKey] found that the second hand market is flooded with these decades-old educational gadgets, often selling for just a few bucks. As it turns out, children of the smartphone and tablet era don’t seem terribly interested in a “laptop” from 1991. At any rate, he ordered about a dozen different models and started tearing into them to see what made them tick.
He found that the VTech machines of around 20+ years old were using the Z80 processor, and what’s more, they shared a fairly standardized external cartridge interface for adding additional software or saving data. Upon attempting to dump some data from the cartridge port, [HotKey] discovered that it was actually connected to the computer’s main bus. He realized that with a custom designed cartridge, it should be able to take over the system and have it run his own code.
After more than a year of tinkering and talking to other hackers in the Z80 scene, [HotKey] has made some impressive headway. He’s not only created a custom cartridge that lets him load new code and connect to external devices, but he’s also added support for a few VTech machines to z88dk so that others can start writing their own C code for these machines. So far he’s created some very promising proof of concept programs such as a MIDI controller and serial terminal, but ultimately he hopes to create a DOS or CP/M like operating system that will elevate these vintage machines from simple toys to legitimate multi-purpose computers.