VCF East was a blast, and I had a great time. Most of my chitter chatter and pics are on my Twitter feed. Thanks to everyone who showed up and made the event work. I had some great conversations, picked up some new gear, and got a good solid soar throat from talking for two days straight.
When PCs were hitting their stride, handheld versions were starting to make their appearances. The early versions were pretty limited in their performance, but they were functional, mobile, and not too bad.
A fellow on one of the retro forums reached out to me recently and asked if I’d be interested in a Zeos Pocket PC. At first I thought it was another Windows CE machine, and I was really avoiding those. But this turns out to be a very basic DOS based handheld, so I said “Sure, I’ll take it!”
The Zeos Pocket PC was made in 1992, around the time the HP 95LX and similar ‘clamshell’ computers were being manufactured.
Original price: $595 ($1,108 in 2020 dollars)
CPU: NEC V30 (80C86) @ 4.77MHz / 7.15MHz
Memory: 640k RAM
Display: 80×25 LCD text, 640×200 graphics
Batteries: Two AA
The Zeos PC has a couple features on it that make it pretty interesting. The first is it has a parallel and a serial port on it. Unfortunately, they use a custom cable connector (which I happen to have), so connecting up to them can be a little challenging.
However, they also have dual PCMCIA slots, which means it’s easy to dock new cards into it (conveniently located under the case). The Zeos supports SRAM cards… these cards are Type 1 PCMCIA devices, which are pretty hard to find, and require a battery in the card to retain their storage. I have 1-2 that I use on my Newtons, so I’m looking forward to tinkering with them.
Another neat feature is it has a quite large and comfortable keyboard. That can be a win or lose – easy to type on, but it makes the entire unit quite bulky. Not something that would fit comfortably in a jacket pocket
The screen is not particularly easy to work with. It has no backlighting, so visibility requires just the right light setup (a direct light, but not one that reflects badly).
It is, however, extremely light and portable for a fully functional PC-DOS machine from 1991.
The Zeos Pocket PC is a cute representation of the state of DOS based computers in the early 90’s. Extremely limited funtionally in it’s basic state, but I’m going to see if I can get some simple applications on it. It comes with Works (an extremely simple software suite for notes and stuff), but it might be fun to get some more complex applications on it and get some connectivity going.
I first saw the Epson HX-20 back when I was working a computer store in New Jersey in the 80’s. I believe I read some articles about it in Infoworld or something similar, and thought it was awesome. At some point I got to look at one / type a few characters on it, but never got to own one.
This came to me as part of a large equipment sale not far away. It is in EXCELLENT shape, complete with carrying case, power supply, and a couple microscassettes. The printer works fine, everything is in perfect working order.
Released to mass market in 1982, this is widely recognized as the very first laptop computer. It is A4 sized, has decent battery life, a full stroke, full sized keyboard, and many expansion ports.
Original price: $795 ($2040 in 2020 dollars)
CPU: Dual Hitach 6301 CPU at 614khz
Memory: 16k RAM (expandable to 32k)
Display: 4lines at 20 characters
The unit works perfectly, and is a true delight to type on and tinker around with. I will be a great addition to my collection. I’m looking forward to learning more about it!
The year was 2005. The dotcom days were over, and even though the fear of Windows NT taking over the world was fading, Linux was still considered a “hacker” OS – something not to be taken seriously. Of course, the cool kids all knew that Linux was going to take over the world. Right? Right?
In May 2005, Nokia announced the N770 tablet. A full on tablet computer, with bluetooth, wireless, audio tools, all running Linux in a handheld configuration. While not the first portable handheld Linux device (my Sharp Zaurus SL5500 is an earlier example), the N770 grabbed my attention as something truly exciting. I wanted one in the worst way.
Alas, the reviews of the N770 were not kind. It was slow. It had very limited memory and storage. The battery life wasn’t so hot. I still wanted one, but couldn’t bring myself to fork over the couple hundred bucks to make it happen. Not 2 years later Apple released the iPhone, and the world of handheld computing was forever changed.
On the inside, the specs are interesting, but not particularly staggering:
I’ve always wanted to tinker with the N770, and at the last VCF-East (where I picked up my copy of Wizardry), a nice fellow gave me one that he wasn’t using. I was ecstatic. The device is much as I had read – small, lightweight, in a neat little aluminum shell it can slide out of. However, there was no power supply, so I couldn’t turn it on. Nokia devices in this generation (including the phones) used a very very small barrel connector for power. I didn’t have one of these. A quick ebay search and I found a power supply, and ordered it.
Two weeks later I had my power supply, and plugged in the N770… and… nothing really happened. After a few minutes, the Nokia logo would flash, then flash again, then flash again. My N770 was busted.
FINE, sez me. I had the fever, and nothing was going to stop me. eBay again! This time I waited a few days and ended up purchasing another N770 for $40 delivered. Take that!
THIS one arrived with a power supply, and in fairly decent shape (no stylus though – the first one I got did have one). I plugged it in, powered it up , and yay! It worked!
Okay, yeah. It’s slow. Connecting to wifi can take 2-3 minutes (!), and if you get the password wrong, you have to go through the process again.
The interface is… confusing. I understand it’s Maemo, which is a GUI on top of the linux core, and has been updated and modified a lot since then but there’s a lot of guesswork involved between the navigation buttons, the touchscreen controls, and the buttons on the top of the unit. It really feels like they didn’t quite know what to do with a tablet. Is it all touchscreen stuff? Or are there buttons and light keys, with the touchscreen stuff being tacked on as a ‘cool’ factor?
Nonetheless, its’ a cute little toy to play with, and I love having a working one as part of my collection.
While up at MakeIt a few weeks ago, a fellow maker came up to me and handed me a Samsonite briefcase. With a wink and a smile, he said “Take this. You’ll like it.”
Ohhhkay, I’ll bite. Lets check this out.
Opening up the case revealed… an HP 75C handheld computer, made by Hewlett Packard in the early 80s. This machine has some pretty nifty functionality. A built in BASIC, expandability, magnetic card reader for loading / saving programs, a full QWERTY keyboard, and rechargeable batteries.
Writing code on it is remarkably easy, with a clear easy to read screen and nice tactile feel to the keyboard.
“The Curta was conceived by Curt Herzstark in the 1930s in Vienna, Austria. By 1938, he had filed a key patent, covering his complemented stepped drum, Deutsches Reichspatent (German National Patent) No. 747073. This single drum replaced the multiple drums, typically around 10 or so, of contemporary calculators, and it enabled not only addition, but subtraction through nines complement math, essentially subtracting by adding. The nines’ complement math breakthrough eliminated the significant mechanical complexity created when “borrowing” during subtraction. This drum would prove to be the key to the small, hand-held mechanical calculator the Curta would become.”
I’ve been hunting around for one of these for years, and I’m happy to say I finally acquired a Type 1 a week or two ago. This one is serial number 20120, manufactured in November, 1952 in Lichtenstein, where all Curtas were manufactured.
My unit functions perfectly, and I’m happily going through tutorials learning not only how to do basic math, but also more complex operations like roots and long division.
This one has been on my bucket list from the beginning, and I’m happy to say, I was able to make my way through an eBay auction and pick up a mint condition unit that looks great and works even better.
In 1989, DIP Research in Surrey England developed the DIP Pocket PC. They licensed it to Atari in the US and UK, and Atari rebranded it as the Portfolio.
The Portfolio is widely recognized as the first MS-DOS Compatible palmtop computer. It runs a slightly modified version of MS-DOS 2.11.
This unit is in pristine condition, complete with expansion cards with several applications, we well as a card reader that can be plugged into a desktop PC for transferring files.
Manufactured: June 1989
Operating system: DIP DOS 2.11
CPU: 80C88 @ 4.9152 MHz
Memory: 128 KB of RAM and 256 KB of ROM
Display: monochrome LCD (no backlight) 40 characters × 8 lines
Graphics: 240 × 64
Power: 3× AA size removable alkaline batteries (Optional AC adapter)
In 2003, Sharp started making a series of PDAs under the ‘Zaurus’ name. The designs ranged from a small clamshell to a mini-tablet form factor. The SL-5000 was a development version, with the 5500 being the full release.
These units got very popular in the Linux community, because they ran a full on Linux distribution, and were easily modified. The original firmware (referred to as SharpROM) while functional, had some limitations. A new project, called OpenZaurus, was born that built a new Linux distribution specifically for these devices, coupled with an opensource graphical environment called OPIE. Later, this work was rolled into OpenEmbedded.
The SL-5500 is a full on Linux device, with enough hardware and expandability to make them really interesting to use. A built in mechanical keyboard behind a sliding cover, a good screen, CF slot for external cards, and SD card slot for storage made it a great mobile device.
Running Openzaurus (linux distro) and Opie (desktop environment)
Screen resolution of 240×320 TFT Active Matrix display
Back in 1997, Apple realized there was a market for computers designed specifically for classroom use. They had built much of their success on Apple II+ and IIe computers liberally distributed through schools, and, facing pressure from IBM and the ‘clone’ world, decided to leverage their moderate success with the Newton line of PDA’s.
Thus, the Apple eMate 300 was born. Building on the Newton platform, Apple took the top end configurations of the Newton Messagepad 2000 and 2100, and built a small, laptop-like device. The touchscreen remained, with the stylus, backlighting, and much of the NewtonOS, but Apple added a keyboard, rechargeable internal battery, a durable case, mounting hardware for securing the devices to desks, and some additional management tools for teachers to be able to work with roomfuls of eMates. Other changes were the addition of an internal memory expansion slot that allowed the units to be upgraded with additional RAM or customized ROM cards.
The device is quite attractive and easy to work with, light and easy to carry, and the 85% sized full stroke keyboard is comfortable to type on. As with all Newtons, it has no inherent networking support (short of Localtalk, a serial protocol used to communicate with printers and other similar devices), but does a PCMCIA socket that allows for network cards.
Screen: 480×320, 6.8″
Battery life: 28 hours
Processor: 25 MHz ARM 710a RISC processor
Initial cost: $799 ($1150 in modern value)
Storage: 2mb Flash
In many ways, the eMate laid the groundwork for the OLPC XO-1 computer which came out 9 years later.
Unfortunately, the eMates only lasted less than a year, when Steve Jobs cancelled the entire Newton project after Gil Amelio was fired as the CEO of Apple.
The Newton was Apple’s first handheld ‘tablet’ computer. The first generation of these were the 110, 120, and 130. They were pioneers in the handheld computing realm, bringing unseen features such as full handwriting recognition and high resolution (for the time) touchscreens , with an intuitive and easy to understand interface.
The Messagepad 130 is interesting because it’s the first in the line to not only come with the vastly improved NewtonOS 2.0, but it included a backlight. The monochrome screens in all the Newtons is tricky to use in less than direct light, so this feature was a welcome addition.
Manufactured in 1986, the Organiser II was really the first successful PDA. Psion started with the Organiser in 1984, billed as the ‘First Practical Pocket Computer’. This unit came out 2 years later and had a larger display, more RAM and a faster CPU.
One of the big innovations were ‘Datapaks’ – modules that could be plugged into the unit with either pre-loaded software or additional storage.
The Z88 Laptop Computer was designed and developed by Clive Sinclair’s Cambridge Computer, Limited. It is a Z80 based, A4 sized computer running a 3.2MHz Z80 processor with 32k of RAM and a 64×640 LCD display. The membrane keyboard has a light touch and is quite a delight to type on.
These machines were more popular in the UK than in the US – over there the Sinclair line (ZX80, ZX81, etc) were phenomenally popular. I’d actually never seen a Z88 before, and had to do some research when I found it at the local MIT Flea market, but once I read up on it, I had to add it to the collection. This one was manufactured in 1988.
This particular one has 3 cartridges installed in the slots: some extra RAM, and 2 32k EPROM carts, one of which is labelled “PC Link” (a communications package. Looking forward to trying that out!)
I’m super excited about adding this piece of history to the Vintage Handheld Computing Collection. When i was in high school, I had a total geek crush on these units when they were came out. Handheld, ran basic, battery powered, very nifty looking.
I acquired one back in the day (and have an interesting story about using it in a Physics exam), but haven’t had a chance to play with one since.
This one was donated by one of my coworkers. It includes the cassette interface, the original docs and boxes, and the plastic overlays that were used for ‘functions’ – basically defined keys. It’s in good physical shape, but has a bad display. I haven’t had a chance to run up the batteries and dock for it, but physically, it’s in great shape. Even came with some financial add-on software.
This particular unit is a PC-1 – the first generation of the pocket computer. They were actually made by Sharp as the PC-1211, and rebranded as the TRS-80 Pocket Computer. The PC-1 moniker was added later as the line expanded into more models.
When I was working at in the IT Department at Wildfire Communications, the number one toy the execs and managers wanted was the Toshiba Libretto ‘palmtop’ computer. They ran Windows 95, were compact and functional (for the time), and made great conversation / showoff pieces. I had to have one for my collection.
I’ve let people know I was collecting vintage handheld computers, suddenly everyone wanted to donate! I quickly put together the collection home page and made the wishlist known. Lo, a friend I know from Arisia said “I have a Libretto that’s just lying around. Want it?” – Heck yeah!
This weekend, it arrived via a somewhat circuitous route, and lo, it is a 110CT – a slightly later model than the ones I worked on (which were 50CT and 70CT’s), but still the same form factor and awesome design. One of the niftiest is the integrated touch-mouse on the right side of the screen. The mouse buttons are actually on the lid, so you move the mouse with your thumb, and grip the buttons on the reverse side.
This one appears to have a screen problem that won’t let it show video properly, but I’m excited to have it in the collection. Thanks Ben!
For the curious, here’s the specs on the 110CT:
Manufacture date: 1998
Pentium 233MMX CPU
32meg RAM (!!)
7.1″ 800×480 display
Came with Windows 98 or Windows NT
UPDATE 10/3 – Blank screen on startup / video problem solved
I finally googled around long enough to find the problem. The Libretto shows an absolutely blank screen until any boot device is ready. I noted that if I held down F12 on startup, I’d get the BIOS update screen, so the screen worked, the problem was elsewhere. While on the BIOS screen, I heard a very light noise – and realized it was the HD trying to spin up, but failing. This is not an uncommon problem in older computers. The drives get ‘stuck’ and can’t spin up after sitting for a while. Sometimes referred to ‘stiction’.
There’s only one cure for stiction. A vigorous shake of the computer, or… yes, I really did this, rap the laptop on the table a few times. For a book-sized computer, this was easy. A few taps, and I heard the hard drive happily spin up, and lo! A windows 98 screen appeared! We’re in business!