Sunday, June 19, 2011

Mystery Laptop

I wrote here about the difficulties laptop manufacturers had in the late 1980s combining hard drives and battery power, and made the suspect statement that the Macintosh Portable in 1989 was one of the first to feature both.

I might have found a better contender. It's definitely a strange one:
This is a HALiKAN LA-30A 286 laptop, and as long as you have sturdy legs and don't mind losing circulation to your lower extremities, it is an honest-to-god laptop -- that recognizable flip-up screen shape that's reigned supreme for over 20 years, built-in batteries, an external power brick, and both internal (a hard disk) and external (a 720KB floppy drive). From 20 miles up, that's a pretty modern feature list.

This one came into Free Geek Vancouver's laptop evaluation station and would've certainly been dismantled and scrapped if it hadn't been a Thursday. And that would've been fine -- this certainly isn't a historically important machine, unless it's actually rare in some kind of desirable way; Chaplet Systems USA, who made the device, is almost impossible to find anything official on -- a number of InfoWorld articles announce products (including this one) and then another tech periodical suggests in 1999 they're to be acquired by Toshiba. But I'm a sucker so I ended up taking it home.

So what's so unusual about this machine, besides this early a combo of internal hard drive and battery power, and the obscurity of its manufacturer? Let's take a look at it. I'm going to include a lot of photos because there aren't many elsewhere.

Oh -- but first a word on my plans with it. Documenting the machine turned into a bit of a restoration project, which has gotten it back to fully working condition notwithstanding a few cosmetic dings suffered during its 22 trips around the sun. Later I'll try to modify it by adding modern guts. Stay tuned for that post.

Here it is, lid closed:
The four screws visible on either side of the screen hinge aren't stock -- it came to Free Geek with the hinges snapped off internally, and this was the only good way I could find to repair them . Here's a pic of the inside of the hinge:
As you can see, I've used motherboard standoffs to back the other end of each screw because that's what I had on hand. Works solidly enough -- but this brings me to a problem with the machine. The plastic was either bad quality from the outset or has aged poorly; the inside of the machine contained a little heap of broken flakes of plastic and stress fractures abound. There are a couple of parts that are genuinely broken -- but luckily none of these are apparent when the machine is used normally. A few dabs of epoxy to fix problems like the one below --
...and it's good to go.

With that first foray into the internals complete, I fired it up and had a look around. The screen is a horrendous white-on-blue LCD:
There's a white button below the screen. Here's what it looks like when toggled:
Yes! We've gone from hideous white-on-blue to awful blue-on-white! Let it not be said that they didn't provide options.

Let's take a look at the exterior of the machine. Left-hand side:
Pretty plain, with the power jack snaking in. The square vent is for the hard disk (more on that later) and the round vent is for the power supply fan.

And the right-hand side:
Now we're getting somewhere. You can see the 720KB floppy drive, some I/O ports (PS/2 keyboard and mouse jacks, and a DB-9 serial port), and some space for expansion. The expansion is particularly interesting -- but more on that later.

Here's the back:
The brace that it's sitting on does triple duty -- it's a carrying handle, a leg when deployed as pictured, and folded up, it covers up the two ports visible here (printer port, apparently broken, and a DB-9 display port, probably CGA).

So let's take a look inside!
With the back popped off, you see the power supply on the right-hand side, and hidden underneath it, the battery -- a great huge lump of toxic chemistry wrapped in paper wrapped in plastic. And more on that later too. But if you were thinking you saw an ISA card installed on the left-hand side, you'd be right -- and below that, another. There are two ISA slots in this beast!

Expansion like this is pretty rare to find in a laptop where space is a premium. But PCMCIA, the first common standard for laptop peripherals, was still a couple of years away, and office networking was already on the rise -- this is how manufacturers made it possible to install network adapters and other peripherals.

(An aside: I used to have a Toshiba T3200 laptop -- a similar machine in many ways -- and it also had two ISA expansion slots. It couldn't, however, run from battery power; the beautiful orange-on-black gas plasma display was too power-hungry, among other things. And on the subject of Toshiba and expandability, did anyone ever have one of these? They're insane and I want one.)

Continuing the dissection by removing the power supply and more of the chassis:
You can see the size of the battery here; it's big. Heavy. And 1989-vintage Ni-CAD -- probably not very effective even when new, for reasons that will become apparent. Not to mention totally dead after 22 years.

Under the keyboard you can see the rest of the motherboard:
The 286 chip itself is one of the two silver squares towards the right-hand side of the board; there's an empty socket for a 287 math co-processor on the right-hand side, likely to remain unpopulated unless I get really lucky. There's an expansion jack of some kind on the left-hand side and a bit of empty space, probably for additional RAM. (1024KB is installed by default, and that ought to be more than enough for anyone, right?) There's a speaker for hi-fidelity beeping at the bottom.

I've alluded to problems powering the thing by battery before, and the reason starts to become apparent: behind the grey metal grillwork is the floppy drive on the right hand side, and the hard drive on the left. The hard drive is in fact a full-size IDE hard disk:
There it is again on the left. It's a Conner Peripherals 20MB hard drive, the same kind that would've been installed in a desktop machine -- without any design consideration for battery power. This is a hungry bit of machinery.

This leads us to one particularly charming quirk of the machine: the other switch on the front panel:
The orange push-button switch towards the bottom left, believe it or not, is a hard drive power switch. If it's lit orange, you'll hear the drive whirring. If it's not, the drive is off. No subtlety here -- in fact, the machine gives a BIOS error (HDD controller failure; press F1 to continue) if you're daring enough to try booting it without the HDD installed.

Between this and the crappy plastic, I'm beginning to suspect that Chaplet Systems wasn't the highest-quality manufacturer. This was long before there was any kind of power standard like APM to allow hardware and software to cooperate to manage power use for portable devices -- if you're using this machine and you shut off the drive, any software that expects it to be there is going to be sorely disappointed and tremendously confused.

I removed the hard drive, dusted it off, and wiped it clean of personal data. (It didn't get a clean bill of health from the formatting process, but I haven't seen any evidence of data integrity problems yet.) Then I installed a subset of FreeDOS from a floppy -- I cut my sysadmin teeth on DOS commands from this era and somehow I'm still using them almost 20 years later.

At this stage the machine worked fully with one major exception -- the battery. I remember discussions from my HAM radio days about Nickel Cadmium batteries and the ills that could affect them: the memory effect (apparently apocryphal but still legendary), metal dendrites forming short-circuits between terminals, chemical leaks, cell polarity reversal and the like. One common recommendation was to blast the battery briefly with a large amount of current. Others suggest trying several complete drain/charge cycles to jar something loose. But after 22 years, I don't think anyone can expect this kind of battery voodoo to have any effect -- the pack needs replacement and the prospects of getting a matching pack aren't high. I decided to rebuild it completely.

Here's what the pack looks like, fully removed:
...and shelled from its shrink-wrap plastic...
That's 10 cells, roughly C sized, wired up in serial. There's something resembling a temperature sensor strapped to the battery pack, probably to cut the charger off if the pack starts to overheat. All logical for a 12-volt Ni-CAD battery pack.

I zipped down to Battery World near Boundary and 1st, where I got a fistful of regular Ni-CAD C cells. The fellow there was really awesome -- when I told him I wanted to rebuild the pack myself (they'll do it for a nominal charge) he threw in some heat-shrink tubing and tabbing material at no charge.

This is the part of the exercise that I'm both proud and embarrassed to describe. I'm not a great craftsman -- too much time writing software has ruined me for that. When you write software you're free to charge in headlong, and if doesn't work, you can usually try again without repercussions. Impulsiveness has few risks. If you try the same approach with, say, carpentry, or electronics, or car repair, you'll probably spend a lot of money on wasted materials (and maybe a little time in the hospital). But also: I don't have all the tools for this. Proper assembly of a battery pack requires a heat gun for the heat-shrink tubing and a tiny arc-welder or something to connect the tabbing material to the batteries themselves.

I had neither, but necessity is the mother of invention -- it turns out you can shrink tubing just fine over a gas stove, and with a little persistence and a lack of common sense, you can solder directly to C-cells. Here it is, looking for all the world like a b-movie explosive:
I popped it into the chassis, plugged in the 3-pin connector linking it to the power supply, and with fingers crossed, flicked the power switch. This is the moment any electronics hobbyist both dreads and anticipates -- I'm sure it releases some particular mix of endorphins, because it's a powerful moment. Unfortunately nothing happened. I'd wasted a fistful of bills on batteries that weren't working and in all likelihood it was some part of the power supply's battery switching / charging circuits that was broken -- and specifications on that would be impossible to track down, given Chaplet Systems' near invisibility on the Internet.

As a Hail Mary attempt to get this working, I checked the connector linking the battery to the power supply and found some green corrosion on the terminals:
I scraped this clean and plugged it in again, and just like a stereotypical screenwriter's trick would've dictated, the damn thing worked! Here it is, whirring away on battery power, hard disk and all:
It's charging now for its first full test, so I don't have any idea yet how much battery life I'm going to get out of it -- but I'm not holding my breath for much over half an hour. Maybe even that much is wishful thinking.

One more thing before I put this post to bed -- I mentioned the power brick. Here it is:
The scotch tape is in there for scale. This thing is pretty big, and emits an ominous hum suggesting that I should prepare to find a replacement. Here's the label and the laptop end of the jack:
Chaplet Systems has hit on a pet peeve of mine here: why did they put a gigantic 5-pin DIN connector on the end of it when only 2 wires are necessary? We have enough trouble matching supplies with devices when we're just dealing with voltages, currents, polarities, and the usual variety of sizes of cylindrical connectors without manufacturers throwing in their own bizarro plug designs...

Stay tuned for a part 2 on this if I'm able to mod the machine to run something modern. FreeDOS is great, but... this machine has good potential for a similar hack to the Compaq Portable III I posted about before, but since this one can accept a network card, I won't be limited to a 9600 baud serial link -- I'll be able to run a full VNC client to get a modern GUI onto the 286. But there are some big challenges here; I don't have a suitable single-board computer lying around and there's less room here than I had in the previous hack. But I'm up for a challenge.


  1. What a nice surprise! Ten years ago, I bought a laptop of the same model as a curiosity. Even then it was hard to find any information about it. Now I search for the first time in several years and find your fresh and shiny post.

    I cleaned the dust off my laptop and turned it on. It still works, but the screen is very dim and emits an unpleasant loud whine. It is definitely screen-related (backlight inverter?) because it goes away when power saving shuts display off.

    My laptop specimen has seen a lot of travel. The original keyboard markings are in French. Somebody has added Cyrillic letters, not simply by sticking labels to keys, but by impressing or engraving the letter shapes and painting them. Character ROM has been reprogrammed to show symbols from the DOS code page that was popular in my country in early 1990s. (The display adapter doesn't allow to do this in software.)

    By the way, have you found out what the rightmost indicator below the screen is for? The first six are, from the left: power, HDD activity, floppy activity, Caps lock, Num lock, LCD color inversion. It's not Scroll lock, at least it doesn't react to that key. Or maybe mine's just broken?

    The ports on the right-hand side of the laptop are labeled KBD, COM2, COM1. KBD and COM1 have standard connectors, but COM2 has an unusual round PS/2-sized connector with 9 holes. Google tells that such connectors were used by "bus mice".
    Curiously, your floppy drive also has black front panel. I thought mine was an aftermarket replacement, but perhaps Chaplet Systems just saved on a custom-colored panel. The hard drive is 40 MB, also from Conner.

    Thanks for the nice pictures of the insides. I never figured out how to get below the keyboard and was afraid to break the fragile plastic. That memory expansion connector appears to have 2 x 30 holes. There used to be 30-pin SIPP modules, usually installed in pairs.
    When searching the web some years ago, I found an EMS driver for this laptop. (That site has disappeared, I'll send the driver to you if you need it.) It includes a small utility that changes some BIOS settings that make the RAM above 640 KB available as EMS or XMS. The bundled configuration files give a hint that the memory could be expanded from the onboard 1 MB to either 2 MB or 5 MB.

    My laptop has an open jumper labeled JP6 under the ISA slots, next to printer and display connectors. Your motherboard seems to have two solder pads at that position.

    Oh, and the battery was missing when I bought the laptop. I saw it for the first time in your pictures.

  2. If you are going to repeat the impressive hack you've done with the Compaq Portable, but with graphics, it'll be quite a challenge, not least because of the display. The LCD panel has a resolution of 640x400 pixels. You'd expect the display adapter to be some kind of enhanced CGA, but it is Hercules-compatible. Hercules adapters have two display modes: 80x25 character text mode with two brightness levels and 720x348 pixel monochrome graphics mode. The built-in LCD panel displays the text mode well (except that there is some empty space at top and bottom), even distinguishing between the brightness levels. It also displays the graphical mode, but there is an empty space at left, top and bottom, and the right part of the image is off screen! Maybe the guys who "localized" this laptop (character ROM) messed up something? Does yours behave the same way?

    I found out how to program the CRTC registers to display a 640x400 mode. (Ask if you're interested.) My intention was to hack Windows 3.1 display driver into showing a perfect full-screen picture, but I didn't get far with the idea.

    Another challenge will be the VNC client. I did some searching and found 3 clients that are able to run on an 80286 CPU. One is closed-source and written in QBASIC. The other two are open-source and written in C. With enough determination, they could be modified to support the Hercules-compatible adapter with the mismatched-resolution LCD. Here are the links:
    VncViewer for 8086

    Good luck in your hacking! Please post any interesting stuff you discover!

  3. sandijsr, thanks for the info -- yours sounds like a really well-traveled machine! If you get the chance, send me a pic of the Cyrillic keys and I'll post it up here.

    I'll bet the last indicator is for the external screen -- probably it's three-way switchable, i.e. internal only, external only, or both. But I haven't got a Herc display to test it with.

    If you can track down the EMS driver, it would be much appreciated. I'm hoping I don't need it, but you never know...

    As for graphics, I've gotten as far as trying it out with Borland's BGI drivers that ship with the now-free Turbo C. It does work with the Hercules display in hi-res graphics mode, but I didn't check to see that the borders matched the screen's capabilities. Plus I remember well from long ago that BGI was terribly slow.

    I've toyed with both of those VNC viewers, plus one or two additional ones that I scoured out of old Usenet posts, but so far none works. They negotiate with the server but somewhere around graphics initialization they crash. I suspect they aren't coded to drop visuals down to 1 BPP and I'll be damned if I can get a modern X setup to provide that kind of visual. I do intend to tinker further, but it's hard to get motivated to write software for fun when it's also my day job :)

    You're right re: the bus mouse. I assumed it was PS/2 but looking at the connector it's not. I had a Logitech bus mouse a hundred years ago -- maybe the theory was that not everyone had a spare serial port? I suspect the combination of bus mouse and controller was simpler and therefore cheaper than a serial mouse and serial port, but the availability of extra serial ports on most machines probably did the design in.

    The battery pack is a 10-cell NiCad unit with some kind of temperature sensor built in to prevent overcharging or something. Unfortunately it's not charging very well at the moment, so I'll have to crack the power supply and do some investigation.

    So much work for such a crappy laptop!

    Anyway, thanks for your comments -- I'm sure there are a few more Halikan 286's kicking around out there if they made it as far as Eastern Europe!

  4. Huh -- and you're right, Borland's Hercules BGI library addresses the screen just as you describe. Looks like this is a non-standard Herc.

  5. Hello there, I am very interested in this post. I recently stumbled onto a Halikan LA-22 that seems to be in very good condition. But, I would like to further refurbish it and learn more about the system and model. I am unable to find any information online about the Halikan LA-22 but it seems to be similar to this laptop that you are working on. Do you have any tips or links that you can recommend so that I can find more information or parts for my Halikan LA-22? Thank you Kindly!

  6. Hi. I recently bought a Halikan LA-30A without the power adapter. My idea was to just use a newer power brick but I can't find what the polarity of the old one was. Do you know what the polarity of the old power adapter was? Is there a way to find out without measuring the original power brick? Would a newer power brick even work?
    Thanks :D


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