Saturday, June 4, 2011

Old Gear Lives On: A Hack

For some unaccountable reason, the Compaq Portable III is one of my favourite computers. When you first see one, you're not sure if you're looking at a printer, or a disk array, or what:
Look at the size of that handle. Meaty. Around the side, a 5.25" floppy drive gives only a hint:
...but once you flick a couple of plastic tabs, all is revealed:
OK, I take back the "unaccountable". With just three pictures and almost no explanatory text, you already know that this is a great little machine. More than great -- it's downright lovable.

This machine was unleashed on the world in 1987 for roundabout $5,000 USD -- that would be just shy of $10,000 today. But just look at it. You get a blazing 12MHZ 286, 20MB of hard disk storage, a 1.2MB 5.25" floppy drive, and a 10" gas plasma screen in productivity-inducing orange. All this in a svelte, attractive 20 pound beige chassis. Now stop laughing -- this was actually pretty good at the time. (Two years later, Apple released the Macintosh Portable, which had similar specs but could also run from a battery -- until then, anything portable had either a hard drive or battery power, but not successfully both. And in standard Apple fashion, they were bloody expensive.)

So this beast came into Free Geek a few months back and was facing the scrap bin. I've personally sent many old digital friends to the grave and I'm pretty hard-hearted -- well, OK, I'm a big softie, but I get the job done -- but this was too much. I had to rescue this one.

But what can you do with a 24-year-old 12MHz 286, dwarfed in pretty much every way (save size) by the most humble cell phone?

Hint: It runs Linux. It's got wireless Internet.

I'll post the technical stuff later. [It's online now: see part 2. -AS]


  1. OMG I have one of these on a shelf! Please post your tech details, I would love to resurect the old beast!

  2. Hey John -- Have a peek at the second part, posted yesterday; there's a link there to the Compaq FTP site with rescue disk images and a description of the hack. If I were to put some money into it, I'd probably use a cheap android device or a flashed router instead of a Cyrix SBC -- I used what I had lying around.

  3. Very nice, but I have to disagree with your statement as the Macintosh Portable being the first battery-powered portable with a hard drive. Have you missed the Zenith ZFL 180 series? It featured them both in 1987, probably 1986. Ok, it only had a 8086, not that beast labeled 80286. I once had one, but I have to admit: it lacked the wireless internet. Even though I figured out how I could have that done in the late 90's, just before I sold it.

  4. HS: are you sure the Zenith ZFL 180 had a hard drive? The ones I've seen had double floppies (in a weird pop-up arrangement, similar to the IBM PC Convertible).

    There probably is an earlier combo of HDD and battery power, and I'm curious if anyone can remember one :)

  5. Autuin: Yes, I'm sure it had a HDD, but I'm not so sure it was really the ZFL 180 series:) I was stupid enough to sell my Zenith some years ago so I don't have the exact model number at hand. The ZWL 180 series looks like a better guess:

    Unfortunately no one seems to know the exact production dates.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.