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:
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:
Let's take a look at the exterior of the machine. Left-hand side:
And the right-hand side:
Here's the back:
So let's take a look inside!
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:
Under the keyboard you can see the rest of the motherboard:
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:
This leads us to one particularly charming quirk of the machine: the other switch on the front panel:
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:
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:
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:
One more thing before I put this post to bed -- I mentioned the power brick. Here it is:
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.