Paleo-laptop reviewed, 1983

Here's a scan of the 1983 Byte review of the Compaq, the first "portable" PC clone. I think I still have a rotator cuff injury from carrying one of these around.

Ultimate Compatibility When a company advertises a computer as being “IBM PC-compatible,” the best way to test its claim is to try to load an IBM release of PC-DOS, CP/M-86, or the UCSD p-system. I didn’t have the p-system, but I did have both PC-DOS and CP/M-86 and was able to try both of them on a prototype of the Compaq computer. The systems loaded and executed perfectly, with the exception of the BASIC on PC-DOS, which wouldn’t execute because the Compaq doesn’t have ROM BASIC. The BASICA provided on disk and all of the IBM PC sample BASIC programs found on the PC-DOS disk ran without incident. I also tried some CP/M-86 assembler-level software that I had written, and it worked without a hitch as well. I spent about an hour loading and running a number of game programs and some professional packages such as Wordstar and Supercalc. With one exception, they all worked correctly. The one that didn’t was a game program that ran perfectly but died when I tried to terminate the game. One of the programmers told me that the problem was probably a result of not initializing the hardware correctly when the system was powered up. The company assured me that the problem would be solved before any machines were shipped.


  1. What a blast from the past. We had the PC version in my house when I was young, this was the machine I was introduced to Rogue on. I was fairly young at the time (10 maybe?) and remember when it was in carrying form I could pick it up but not actually carry it anywhere.

    It even came complete with the 300 baud acoustic coupler modem, which incidentally did not fit into the rest of the case for carrying, which was my dad’s number one complaint about the thing when he had to lug it around for work.

  2. I’d argue that it’s not a “paleo-laptop” unless it has some kind of battery-powered operation, even if only for a short time. Probably the first true luggable computer was the Osborne 1.

  3. Had one with a 2400 baud modem, traded a bunch of stuff to get one a friend bought as state surplus when he got a Mac. Used to drive around with it and a generator in my car(what a geek). During college my folks gave it away to goodwill when I was away for a few weeks with it at home. It was 1991 and I could still have upgraded it to a useful machine with a new mobo and maybe a small CRT.

  4. My high school had two of these beautiful machines, lovingly (and accurately) known as “The Portables.” Kids without computers could check them out and take them home overnight to work on school projects, or more commonly, play BASIC text games in orange monochrome.

    Even today, I still on occasion unconsciously refer to my notebook that way — “We’re okay. I’ve got that on the portable.”

  5. Ah, nostalgia is certainly not what it used to be. My mother would often bring one of these home on loan from work. It was my first exposure to MS-DOS, and felt far more powerful than the Apple IIe that I was used to.
    It wouldn’t play games, but it had BASICA.EXE (GW-BASIC’s predecessor).
    Wrote many-a-useless program on those machines.

    10 print “I LOVE TRANSFORMERS!!!!!!!”
    20 goto 10

    What’d you expect? It was 1985. I was 10.

  6. These were like $5000 in 1983 dollars. Sheesh. Must be nice to be rich.

    Only the IBM programmer types who needed one for work had these. And IBM paid for it!

  7. Wow, I used to use one of those myself. Weighed about as much as a compact car. But I could haul it home for the weekend and actually have a computer…with two floppies and no hard drive, MS-DOS on a disk, MS-Word 1.0 on another.

    On the other hand, no spam, no viruses, no Windows. In a way I miss the simpler days of computing.

  8. My college boyfriend had one of these and would let me borrow it from time to time. I felt pretty smug/cool walking around with “my portable” computer. It was actually like carrying around a sewing machine. But it was a computer and it was portable. This was 1987 ish. Good times!

  9. i had an osborne in 82. but it did not run windows.

    am so happy to have macbook pro now.


  10. I still have my IBM Luggable (“Portable” is a bit overoptimistic) PC, which was a response to these. And the Expansion Chassis I used as a kind of docking station for it, with its 20MB hard drive and inch-thick bus-extension umbilical cable.

    Admittedly it isn’t quite in stock condition — I did install an 80286 upgrade card in it, along with a VGA display. But I think I still have the parts on hand to revert it.

  11. I was asked to evaluate the first Compaq luggable in 1983. (Technogeek is right on the money. It was “portable” only by Arnold Schwarznegger. The rest of us sweated the whole time we were lugging it.) I loved it, but I knew it wouldn’t work for most of the people in the company.

    This really is a blast from the past.


  12. I had one too. Well, my office did, and I used to lug it home on weekends on the the bus.

    I miss it, but I miss Byte magazine more. Dr. Dobbs Journal too.

    Gosh, I’m getting old. Time for a nap. As soon as I untie this onion from my belt.

  13. Makes me all misty-eyed for first computer: my dear old Kaypro IV.

    It ran CP/M, people. Yikes.

    So glad I got an SE30 a couple of years later. If I had to shlep that thing off to college, I can’t imagine the ways I would have injured myself.

    Good times, good times..

  14. Does anyone else remember the print ads for these things?

    They showed a gal who was obviously very fit because she was striding along in 3-4 inch spike heels while holding this thing away from her body with one hand.

    You could tell from her grin she was enjoying the tech age quite nicely thank you.

  15. I had one of these supplied by my employer, circa 1985 or so. I was a telephone tech support rep for a major computer retailer, also a stand up instructor. That thing went with me everywhere, bouncing around in the back of my Rabbit. I had the upgraded model with a 10MB hard drive. Later, I put a 20MB “hardcard” (hard drive on an expansion card) in it.

    When Pagemaker for Windows came out, I had to teach that class, so I put Windows 1.03 and Pagemaker on it. I also had a 2400 baud internal modem, and my employer regularly paid my $2-300 a month Compuserve bills.

    Anyway, that thing was rock solid. CGA AND Hercules graphics compatible, too, in wonderful shades of green!

  16. I _STILL_ have one of these. Actually it’s the similar form factor Compaq Portable II, in its original bag (which is like a duffle bag but 1/3 the length. God I hope its battery hasn’t melted yet.

    I got it secondhand for $500 from my brother (I think I overpaid a little), and ran ms-dos and cakewalk professional, outputting midi data to a midi card installed via this two inch deep ISA expansion box attached to the back. Good enough to rock the Yamaha DX and the old crappy drum machines. I also ran Wordperfect on it to write a few papers for school.

    Toxic waste, anyone?

  17. I have my Kaypro and 3 Osbornes.

    AFAIK, they still work – as long as the floppies are still readable – and the Kaypro shows no sign of rust.

    BTW, the article says the Compaq was the first portable PC compatible which is correct.

    I used to laugh when Compaq ran ads much later saying the company was based on an innovative idea. Lessee. The “innovative” idea was “What if we made an Osborne that was PC compatible?”

    Well, hey, these days they’d run right off and patent that.

  18. I’ve still got mine, think it’s the Portable II as it has something like a 5 or 10Mb HDD in it. Not sure what state its in now as its in the shed along with the lawnmower & loads of junk. Probably full of spiders! :)

  19. In 1977, I was attempting to write software for a small company in Denver, CO, called Digital Group. DG was a competitor of MITS and IMSAI, building computers based on early 8 bit CPUs. The company wasn’t doing too well, and wasn’t paying very well, so I was looking to supplement my income.

    I found a side project to work on, and since it might have lead to a few sales of DG computers, I took my DG 64K Z80 based machine home evenings and weekends.

    Not only was it heavy, but there were too many cables to dis/re-connect. There was a main system box, plus two floppy drives, a monitor, a printer, a keyboard, and perhaps a few more parts that I’ve forgotten. Tearing it down and loading it into my car took half an hour, with another half hour (or sometimes more, since the cable connectors were not robust) to set it up again.

    I mentioned to DG’s President, Dick Bemis, that I wanted a single box that would contain everything: system, disk drives, power supply, peripheral cards, a small monitor, and some place to hang the keyboard for transport. Even if it took a hand truck to move it, at least it would eliminate the cabling problems.

    I worked with a few people in DG to spec this, and we went through a some prototypes. Robert Suding and his team built it generally to my description, and I carried the prototypes back and forth, asking for design changes as problems came up.

    Eventually DG released the finished version under the name “Mini Bytemaster”. For various reasons, not many were ever sold, but I believe it was named one of Byte Magazine’s “Products of the Year” in 1978. There is some additional information, and some pictures, at If I recall correctly, the larger “Bytemaster” (without the “Mini”) was designed somewhat later, partly due to the difficulty of getting the newly available 5.25″ floppy drives.

    The Osborne and Compaq luggables didn’t come out until several years later, but the companies were better organized, and they each sold somewhat more than the dozen or so Mini Bytemasters that were built.

    James Lane

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