Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Commodore C286LT Laptop Teardown

Hi all,

I'm about to disappear to Europe for a couple of weeks (whee!) and will try to visit something interestingly nerdy while I'm there -- the Berlin Computer Game Museum? A small computer museum at Humboldt? But in the meantime, here's a teardown in the oddly fertile vein of 286 laptops.

And that little C= logo in the corner may already be causing tears of nostalgia to well up. Good old Commodore -- maker of the infamous Commodore 64, ancient god of the home computer age. Their peak was in the middle 1980s when practically every school in North America had a few labs full of machines bleating out pseudo-educational entertainment -- Alphabet Zoo, Word Wizard, Jeopardy -- or better yet, plain old computer games like Outrun, California Games, and a thousand others pirated on cranky old floppy disks.

Aggressive pricing and excellent multimedia (for its time) earned the Commodore 64 a seat in the pantheon -- it is the best-selling single computer model of all time. But it was a gold rush that couldn't last forever; by the late 1980s, Commodore had fragmented and lost its direction.

This laptop was released during the decline of Commodore and shows little of the innovative spirit that made the company's name just a few years previous. It's a generic 286 laptop, following the same patterns already set by Toshiba and Zenith but doing a decent job with the styling all the same.

This kind of thing always kills me. The machine is old enough to buy beer in the USA -- but it's been preserved in great condition with the original Microsoft Works manual, carrying case, and an anonymous floppy disk despite being mothballed for almost two decades.

And, like almost all the old gear we process, it works.

I always like it when manufacturers don't try to overly brand and customize their BIOS and POST processes -- IBM is a major offender here -- and we can see that Commodore has included a plain old Phoenix BIOS.

The hard disk has given up the ghost, but it's a standard Connor CP2024 20MB unit and a replacement would be easy to find (if I intended to revive the machine, which I don't, already being one 286 laptop over quota at the moment).

I discussed earlier the difficulties early laptop manufacturers had offering both hard drive storage and battery-only operation, since the two disagree over power consumption. Commodore opted here to include a 2.5" hard drive -- this form factor was introduced in 1988 by Prairietek and later refined by others. The 2.5" form factor was designed for laptops and is still the most common size around.

Under the keyboard you can see most of the logic board:

The gaping hole on the left-hand side is where the hard disk used to be; the headers poking up on the right-hand side are for RAM expansion; the rotary knobs on the far right are for display brightness and contrast (those old SuperTwist displays look pretty funky by modern standards). In the center is the Harris 286-12 chip:

And beside it, the Phoenix BIOS ROM. I don't see a 287 co-processor socket.

Raising the hood completely, you can see the power circuitry, 3.5" floppy drive, and other viscera:

The power brick, barely visible in the upper-left hand corner, is a monster -- they were simply bigger and uglier back then, but also because Commodore tried to shave down the complexity of the laptop itself by moving some of the smarts into the power brick. None of the battery charging hardware is in the laptop; it's all in the brick, which attaches via a hefty DIN connector.

Just for fun, here's the FCC database entry from the dog tag on the bottom. Not much detail, unfortunately.

This laptop isn't terrible -- but it's a sad echo of the end of the crazy innovation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, where wild-haired nerds could simply build their own computers from scratch, write their own software, and so launch an industry from the garage. Everything was so rudimentary that one person could understand it thoroughly, from top to bottom. Since then the story has been more about consolidation and integration; just booting this 286 shows intellectual property from Phoenix and Award (the BIOS), Cirrus Logic (the video chip), and Microsoft (the operating system). Things simply got too complicated for the world Commodore was used to.

ps. Lest I make it sound like Commodore couldn't handle innovation after the Commodore 64, let me make brief reference to the Commodore Amiga.

pps. If you want to see a really beautiful hardware hack, check out this Commmodore 64 portable.

ppps. Reading up on the early 2.5" hard drives, I ran across a description of the MiniScribe accounting scandal, which saw the company shipping actual masonry bricks in boxes that should've contained hard drives, with plans to recall them once the funding had been secured to actually manufacture them. It's an entertaining read.

pppps. File under "most efficient way to combat Moore's Law": a Commodore 64 emulator written in Javascript.

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