IBM Made A MIPS Laptop. Will It Make You WinCE?

We’re used to our laptop computers here in 2022 being ultra-portable, super-powerful, and with impressively long battery lives. It’s easy to forget then that there was a time when from those three features the laptop user could usually expect only one of them in their device. Powerful laptops were the size of paving slabs and had battery lives measured in minutes, while anything small usually had disappointing performance or yet again a minuscule power budget.

In the late 1990s manufacturers saw a way out of this in Microsoft’s Windows CE, which would run on modest hardware without drinking power. Several devices made it to market, among them one from IBM which [OldVCR] has taken a look at. It makes for an interesting trip down one of those dead-end side roads in computing history.

In the box bought through an online auction is a tiny laptop that screams IBM, we’d identify it as a ThinkPad immediately if it wasn’t for that brand being absent. This is an IBM WorkPad, a baby sibling of the ThinkPad line intended as a companion device. This one has a reduced spec screen and an NEC MIPS processor, with Windows CE on a ROM SODIMM accessible through a cover on the underside. For us in 2022 MIPS processors based on the open-sourced MIPS ISA are found in low-end webcams and routers, but back then it was a real contender. The article goes into some detail on the various families of chips from that time, which is worth a read in itself.

We remember these laptops, and while the IBM one was unaffordable there was a COMPAQ competitor which did seem tempting for on-the-road work. They failed to make an impact due to being marketed as a high-end executive’s toy rather than a mass-market computer, and they were seen off as “real” laptops became more affordable. A second-hand HP Omnibook 800 did the ultra-portable job on this bench instead.

The industry had various attempts at cracking this market, most notably with the netbooks which appeared a few years after the WorkPad was produced. It was left to Google to reinvent the ultra-portable non-Intel laptop as an internet appliance with their Chromebooks before they would become a mass-market device, but the WorkPad remains a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been.

Windows CE occasionally makes an appearance here, and yes, it runs DOOM.

Fail Of The Week: WinCE Is A Noun And A Verb

A few years ago, [localroger] found some incredible hardware on sale: a very tiny laptop with a seven-inch screen, full keyboard, trackpad, Ethernet, WiFi, USB (with support for a lot of HID devices), and a battery that would last hours. They were on sale for $30 USD, and [localroger] bought four of them. A great deal, you say? These machines ran Windows CE. No, owning a WinCE device is not the Fail of the Week.

Figuring he should do something with these machines, [roger] thought, ‘a clock will do’, and began to figure out how to program or write an app for these things. These tiny netbooks did come with a programming language, JavaScript, in the form of the built-in IE6 web browser. This was actually a really, really good solution – WinCE apps formatted for portrait displays just didn’t work with the ‘widescreen’ laptop, and a hand-coded HTML table is probably the best solution anyone could have hoped for.

These machines – [roger] used three of them over the years as alarm clocks – did their job well, even if NTP had been left out of the OS image. The real fail here comes from buying a $30 WinCE netbook, and using it for something as mission critical as an alarm clock. The displays burned in, the batteries began puffing up, one unit somehow wouldn’t allow IE to run (probably a bad Flash chip), and the trackpad in another one sent the cursor on a random walk. You get what you pay for.

These WinCE netbooks have finally been put out to pasture, hopefully the same one laser printers go to. It’s all for the best, though; [roger] made a much better alarm clock with Nixies.


2013-09-05-Hackaday-Fail-tips-tileFail of the Week is a Hackaday column which runs every now and again. Help keep the fun rolling by writing about your past failures and sending us a link to the story — or sending in links to fail write ups you find in your Internet travels.

Hackaday Retro Edition: Pen Computing

Although we’re well past the heyday of ‘pen computing’, and seemingly into a retro revival with laptops and tablets that come with Wacom styluses and digitizers, this doesn’t mean the pen computers of old weren’t useful. While they were mostly used for industrial applications, they were useful and some of the first practical applications of touch screen displays.

[Jason] got his hand on one of these ruggedized handheld PCs – specifically, an Itronix T5200. This three-pound mini notebook runs Windows CE Handheld PC Edition 3.01. The specs include a 74MHz RISC processor, 16 MB of RAM, 16MB of Flash, and a 7.3 inch monochrome touch screen with 640×240 resolution. It’s odd and old: when closed, it’s over two inches thick. You’ll be hard pressed to find a modern laptop that thick. [Jason]’s hardware is a pre-production version.

Unlike a lot of retro submissions that have somehow managed to pull up the Hackaday Retro Edition on old hardware, this machine actually has a browser. It’s old, it’s clunky, but it works. There are three options for getting this old computer up on the Internet – either IrDA, an RJ11 modem port, or RS232. [Jason] didn’t tell us which port he used to load up the retro edition, but he did send in a few pictures. You can check those out below.

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Windows CE On A Raspberry Pi

From all the BSDs and Linuxes to extraordinarily odd operating systems, it seems just about every OS has been ported to the Raspberry Pi. All except Windows, that is, but a few people are working on it.

This build comes to us from [ideeman] who wanted to show off his Raspi running Windows Compact Embedded. It technically works, but there are still a few problems. In his own words:

Unfortunately, as it is now, I can’t really control it through anything else than via the kernel transport layer (through serial, directly to visual studio, and I still get lots of checksum errors, must me from the cheapo USB<==>TTL 3.3V adapter I’m using). The original developer (dboling) is still struggling with native USB drivers, but as you can see, he already got a (unaccelerated) running display driver.

If you’re interested, I can send you the compiled kernel image, but I don’t think you’ll do really much without the serial debugging provided through Visual Studio 2008 (+Platform builder 7.0)… I’m not sure it can be legally released to the public though.

While running Windows Compact Embedded isn’t as cool as running Windows RT on a Raspi, the latter will never happen. Windows RT requires 1 GB of RAM and a 1 GHz ARM v7 processor, neither of which the Pi has. Still, it’s a very impressive hack and with a few more devs on board, [dboling] and [ideeman] might end up with a truly functional system.

Below are pics of [ideeman]’s Raspi running WinCE. For [ideeman], feel free to link to a torrent in the comments.

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