3.24.2016

My COMPAQ PORTABLE III 286 PC!

I'm typing this in WordPerfect 5.1, from 1989, on my Compaq Portable III PC, which I got a few days ago from the place I worked over the summer. My old boss sent me an email asking if I wanted this machine - they had found it in the back room in maintenance and were going to get rid of it.
The original picture I received of the computer
As soon as I got back from spring break, I headed over and grabbed it, complete with carrying case and a PLC, which I really have no idea how to use. (The hardware and software are all here, but I've gotta read the documentation to really figure out how it works.) Meanwhile, though, let me tell you about what I've gotten done so far with this machine. Upon receiving that email, all I got was the front of the machine, and I didn't know if it had a 3.5" or 5.25" disk drive. This was critical, since I don't have any machines that have the latter kind of drive. After a bit of reading, I found that the 3.5" drive was optional, as Compaq saw it as a necessary evil while the 5.25" ruled the roost as far as they were concerned. I got a bit of hope since I saw that they had installed a controller program I was familiar with, copyrighted 1993. By this point the 3.5" floppy had essentially taken over, and to run that software this machine must have a 3.5" drive. Luckily, this machine has a 3.5", 1.44MB drive, but getting it working was a bit of a puzzle.
The computer as I received it - note the pieces of rubber fallen off of the keyboard cord
When I received the computer, it was a bit dirty, given that it sat in a manufacturing plant for the better part of 28 years. The bag was absolutely covered in dirt, so I left that in the basement for the time being.After cleaning it off with dampened paper towels, the first thing I noticed was that the keyboard cable was literally disintegrating before my eyes. After a couple Google searches it became clear that dry rot of the keyboard cable was a common problem with these machines. Handling it gingerly, I booted the computer and the familiar C:\> prompt appeared before me in glorious orange monochrome on this sick gas-plasma display.
Real quick spec rundown before I get ahead of myself:
Step 1 for me when getting an old computer is to get it running Oregon Trail. So, I loaded up the files on my ThinkPad and copied them to a floppy using my trusty IBM USB Portable Diskette Drive.
Popped the disk into the Compaq, and dir yielded a list of all the files. Great, I thought. But upon running the program OREGON.EXE I received a disk access error complaining that the sector could not be read. I tried a different disk and the same thing happened. Given that I was using brand-new disks out of the box, I figured there was a problem with the drive type in BIOS, since the drive itself clearly worked fine (otherwise I wouldn't even have been able to dir myself up a list of files). Hmm...time to enter the BIOS and select the drive type.However, this computer does not have BIOS built in, so one needs to run a setup program off a disk. I found a program online that allows you to create a setup disk, but that program itself requires DOS, which is running on NONE of my current computers. Luckily someone (Theo, here)has copied the files off of one of said setup disks into a zip file and uploaded it, so I downloaded that zip and thought I would be ready to go. Step 2, though, was to create a disk that would be read by the Compaq, since it had trouble with my 1.44MB Oregon Trail disk. I figured the only other type of disk that it would accept would be a 720K single sided one, so I looked up how to make one. Simple - put tape over the right-side hole on a 1.44MB floppy. To format this 720K disk in Windows with my USB floppy disk drive, I ran the following command under cmd: FORMAT A: /T:80 /N:9 Luckily, it worked - according to the site, it won't work with some newer USB drives since they only support 1.44MB disks. Once I had the disk formatted, I was able to copy the files from the zip file onto it in Windows just fine. Popped that disk into the Compaq, ran SETUP.EXE, and up popped the COMPAQ logo!
All I needed to do was change the drive type to 3.5", 1.44MB, and I was good to go! Another stroke of luck is that the CMOS battery is not dead, which is nice since otherwise I'd need to run SETUP.EXE every time I booted the computer; not fun at all.




So Step 3 was to finally run OREGON TRAIL, and I stuck the disk in, ran OREGON.EXE, and was greeted by the familiar splash screen.


I did all that a couple nights ago. Today, I wanted to get a couple more programs, and figure out a temporary and permanent solution for that crummy keyboard cable. In the short term, I'm using a spare old keyboard we had laying around. I only found out that the keyboard is removable, though, today - turns out that the plastic cover is just that. To remove, according to the repair manual I found here all you need to do is "gently" pull on the connector. Right - I braced myself against the computer and literally YANKED, and finally it came out. Plugged in the alternate keyboard and it worked perfectly, no worrying about any sort of layout issues or incompatibility.

The computer sitting on my computer desk, with alternate keyboard attached
I also got a port of Battlezone, the classic 1980 Atari vector graphics tank shooter. It looks awesome on this display, and while I am not very good at it, it's pretty fun to play.
video


One odd thing is that since this was a PC booter game, there is really no exit. You need to reboot or (Ctrl+Alt+Del) to get back into DOS! (Booter games were so named because you popped in the disk and the computer automatically booted into the game, not into your OS. This meant that to get back to DOS, you needed to literally reboot the computer with the DOS disk in the drive.) Another thing I knew I'd want is a word-processor. I looked into WordStar 4 and MS Word 5.1, both of which are easily found online, but I checked on the hard drive and saw that WordPerfect 5.1 was already installed! Why bother with other ones if I've already got one? Sweet! Similarly, I will use Lotus 1-2-3 for all my spreadsheeting needs - I've even got a reference manual for it which I picked up from the Vintage Computer Festival Midwest 10 (link goes to my photo album). The big project last night was getting that bag cleaned up. I used leather lotion to get the thing looking nice again, and apart from accidentally turning the inside logo a bit yellow, the bag cleaned up quite nicely compared to what it was. Overall, given that the thing works fine, nothing's smoking at all, and the floppy drive works well too, I'm an EXTREMELY happy camper. This computer is so much FUN to use!! Between the so-bad-it's-good PC speaker to the behemoth hum of the startup sequence, and of course this clear and bright ORANGE screen, the Compaq Portable III is a real sight to behold. Considering it cost the equivalent of $12,000 today (2016, original price $5,799 in 1987), you certainly got what you paid for. 29 years later, the Portable III is going strong! Upcoming is a cable replacement for the keyboard; I've got a 6-ft coiled DIN extension cable in the mail. Stay tuned!
Stay COOL!
Vikram

4 comments:

  1. Sure is a neat gift. As long as those old PCs still run and you do not mind the slow speed they are great.
    If it is still available, go to the Allen-Bradley site and down load a free copy of Micro Mentor. It'll at least get you started with a PLC. They are all a bit different, but the principles are the same. A web search may turn up a copy also. I think Eliver (not certain of the spelling) has a free ebook on PLCs too. I used one from Cox or Dover ( I think it was The Technician's Guide to the PLC) publishing when I taught at the community college, but I think beginning students got as much out of MicroMentor as the expensive books the college required.

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  2. Do you know if the keyboard is XT or AT type? I have one of these for parts and I'd like to put a Raspberry Pi running a DOS emulator in it. But to use the original keyboard, I need an XT-to-USB or an AT-to-USB. I've been looking but getting conflicting answers on this question.

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    Replies
    1. Hi, I'm pretty sure it's AT since it has an AT connector on the end.

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  3. I can now confirm, after having bought both an XT and an AT to (PS/2 to) USB adaptor, that the keyboard is AT.

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