ULTRA-MOBILE COMPUTERS & YOU
Maximum PC|December 2021
From subnotebooks to Ultra Mobile PCs, these machines have come and gone over the years. John Knight asks if we are about to see their return.
John Knight

WHATEVER YOU WANT to call these things, in this feature we’ll be exploring the history of the ultimate in tiny computers—not including the now-ubiquitous smartphone. We’ll start with early and ground-breaking models in the 1980s, through to the more mature models in the ‘90s. We’ll also take a look at the UMPC craze of the 2000s and the wilderness years that followed, and dive deep into the resurrection of this form currently taking place in China, examining the models that are on the market today and where they’re going in the future.

So how do you classify these computers? Well, to pull some rules out of nowhere, we’re going to define these as something that can fit ideally in your pocket; has some kind of integrated keyboard; and something that has a screen that comes in under 9-inches, at a stretch, though less than eight would be ideal.

For simplicity’s sake, we also need to establish what to call these things too. We’ve decided to settle on “pocket computers” for smaller machines, and “ultra-portable” for the bigger offerings, though it’s worth pointing out these are pretty interchangeable terms, too.

Of the many super-small computers out there, we’ve had to whittle down the choices to just a select few – sadly, there are only so many small machines we can cover, but hopefully it’s enough to give you a flavor of the ultra-portable history. If there are any machines you particularly wanted to see, write in and let us know.

THE BEGINNING OF POCKET COMPUTERS

DEFINING THE FIRST pocket computer is difficult due to the popularity of electronic organizers in the 1980s. Nevertheless, the title of first real pocket computer is generally awarded to Radioshack’s TRS-80 Pocket Computer (aka. Tandy Pocket Computer), so let’s start there.

INFANCY

The TRS-80 Pocket Computer was launched in July 1980, for $249. Despite the American branding, this machine is actually a re-badged Sharp PC-1211 from Japan.

This 6oz (170g) handheld may look like a normal scientific calculator, but it also packed a QWERTY keyboard, 1.5KB of RAM, and two 4-bit CPUs running at 256KHz. Most importantly, it included Sharp BASIC, making it the first genuine pocket computer.

But this is a far cry from a x86 “IBM-Compatible” PC. For that title we need to turn our attention to the DIP Pocket PC—better known as the Atari Portfolio. Released in June 1989, the DIP Pocket PC was the first PC-compatible pocket computer, manufactured by DIP Research, UK. DIP’s machine caught the eye of American computing giants Atari, who re-badged the machine as the Atari Portfolio, or Atari PC Folio in continental Europe.

Sporting a 4.9MHz 80C88 processor, the $400 Portfolio had 128KB of RAM, half of which was used for system memory, the other half for user storage. Housed in the Portfolio’s 256KB ROM chip was DIP DOS 2.11: an MS-DOS compatible DOS clone from DIP Research. The unit measured only 7.5 x 4 x 1.25in, and the lack of an LCD backlight, hard disk, or internal floppy drive allowed for excellent power efficiency, requiring only three AA batteries to operate.

But 128KB split two ways is a tiny amount of memory and storage, so Atari sold RAM extenders, plus other add-ons such as serial data transfer modules, and software ROM cards. The weird 240x64 pixel display means there aren’t many games for this machine. None of these drawbacks matter, because the Atari Portfolio is a film star, ever since its famous cameo in Terminator 2.

In October 1989, the Poqet PC was launched by the Poqet Computer Corporation. Of all the machines here, the Poqet PC is probably the most technically impressive for its time, but at $2000 (around $4000 in today’s money) it should have been.

The Poqet’s stylish red-on-charcoal case is a bit wide at 8.8 x 4.3 x 1in, but it uses that space perfectly with an excellent keyboard. Powering the machine was an Intel 80C88 processor @ 7MHz, with between 512 and 640KB of RAM. CGA-compatible graphics were run through a nonbacklit monochrome display. MSDOS 3.3 was built into ROM, with an internal 22KB RAM drive.

The Poqet was designed around PCMCIA expansion, helping establish the standard by being one of the first machines to use it. Two slots were provided, one on each side, and special Poqet software was released on ROM cards.

The Poqet runs on just two AA batteries, which is all it needed due to pioneering energy-saving techniques. Battery life is between 50 and 100 hours, which would last most users weeks or even months.

HOW CAN I STILL USE THESE THINGS?

For anyone still using these computers, the main task is usually writing. They provide simple text editing, without the clutter and noise of a modern OS. Some use their old-fashioned Lotus spreadsheets, or as Linux dumb terminals.

Some of the more powerful devices here can be a way to play DOS games, or use OS/2 or Windows 3.x (or Windows 9.x with later machines) on real hardware. Of course, copying files between these machines and modern computers can be a challenge.

If your old computer has a PCMCIA slot, you’re in luck: there are plenty of cheap adapters online for using Compact Flash or SD cards as a replacement hard drive.

Simply remove the card when you’re not using it, then plug it into a modern PC.

CONFIDENT YOUTH

In 1991, Hewlett Packard released the HP 95LX Palmtop. While not as technically impressive as the Poqet PC, at $700 it was far cheaper.

This well-packaged pocket computer brought mobile computing to the masses. Touted as a “PC XT in your pocket”, the 95LX came with both MS-DOS 3.22 and office suite Lotus 1-2-3 built into ROM.

Rather than an Intel 8088 processor, the 95LX used an NEC V20 clone @ 5.37MHz and came with either 512KB or 1MB of RAM. The 95LX was truly portable, weighing just 11oz (312g) and measuring 6.5 x 3.5 x 1in. Two AA batteries provided around 30 hours of running time. The 95LX used SRAM storage, with a maximum card size of 32MB.

Despite the impressive packaging, it was an add-on that truly immortalized the 95LX. The Motorola NewsStream slide-on attachment would connect to a wireless online database, allowing access to email, spreadsheets, and news services— all without a phone or modem.

A weakness was the 95LX’s display, which was non-backlight, monochrome, and only allowed for a 240x128 “quarter CGA” resolution. This meant many graphical programs simply couldn’t display on its hardware. These problems were later addressed with the HP 100LX (1993) and 200LX (1994) which came with more RAM – 1 or 2MB respectively – and a 640x200 display. Coupled with MS-DOS 5.0, these machines could even run Windows 3.x.

MATURITY

In the 1990s, the Rolls-Royce of ultraportables was the Toshiba Libretto range, designed to fit a full Windows PC into the dimensions of a paperback novel. Toshiba products have always been beautifully made, and the Libretto range was no exception. Launched in April 1996, the Libretto 20 measured 8.2 x 4.5 x 1.3in, powered by an AMD 486 DX4 CPU @ 75MHz, with 8MB of RAM (upgradeable to 20MB), a 270MB hard drive, and a 6.1in TFT display. Floppy and CDROM drive access were available through PCMCIA expansion. Battery life was two hours.

The Libretto has a quirky mouse input method: an IBM-style “nub” is located on the right screen bezel, while the mouse buttons are on the top side of the lid—your thumb controls the pointer, your fingers click the buttons. These machines weren’t cheap, however, with prices starting around $2000, and the first models originally only sold in Japan.

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