Multitech Micro-Professor II Trainer

Some of the earliest commercial microcomputers were single-board “trainers,” bare-bones systems designed to teach people computer basics. They were crude and often had only a hexadecimal keyboard for input. Trainers appealed mainly to people who already had some technical background such as ham radio operators.

By the 1980s, some of those trainers became more polished and accessible to folks who weren’t so technically inclined. The Micro-Professor is a good example. The Micro-Professor I (MPF-I) was based on a Z80 (an 8088 was available later). It came in a case that opened like a book and was targeted to the education market.

Source: Multitech, 1982

Perhaps to strengthen the appeal to education, the MPF-II had a 6502 CPU and was compatible with the Apple II. It came in a book-sized case with a chiclet keyboard, but it did not open like the MPF-I. Multitech also sold a Chinese-language version called the MPF-IIC.

Source: Multitech, 1982

The MPF series sold reasonably well and examples often come up for sale. They are still a good way for someone to introduce themselves to 8-bit computing. Multitech is still in business, too, having rebranded as Acer in the US in 1987.

Introduced: 1982
Original Retail Price: $399
Base Configuration: 6502 CPU, 64K RAM, built-in 49-key keyboard, cassette storage, Centronics port, speaker, 12K BASIC
Video: 40 characters x 25 lines, 6 colors
Important Options: thermal printer, joystick

Sord M68 Microcomputer

Japan had a thriving computer industry in the 1970s beyond the usual suspects like Sony and Sharp. By the 1980s, some of those companies began entering the US market. Sord was one of them.

Originally selling under the Socius brand, the company initially sold a home computer called the M5 in 1982. It soon rebranded as Sord (SOftware and haRDware) and expanded with a range of systems. One was the M68, a dual-processor (68000 and Z80A) system that ran CP/M.

Source: Sord, 1982

The M68 was expensive at $13,000, but it was well-equipped for business with plenty of expansion capability and a monitor included in the price. A single-processor (68000) system, the M68MX, was available later at under $4,500.

Sord survived in the US for only a few years. It’s last systems in 1986 were UNIX-based.

Introduced: 1982 (M68), 1984 (M68MX)
Original Retail Price: $4,490 to $13,000 (M68)
Base Configuration: 10MHz 68000 and 4MHz Z80A (68000 only for M68MX); CP/M-68K; three expansion slots; 256K RAM (4MB max) plus 64K RAM and 4K ROM for the Z80A (M68)/512K RAM (3.5MB max) and 16K ROM (M68MX); one (M68MX) or two (M68) 5.25-inch floppy disk drives; RAM disk (M68MX); 20MB hard disk drive (68MX); 12-inch monochrome monitor; keyboard/keypad; two serial, parallel, and IEEE-488 ports (M68)/parallel port (M68MX); system manuals
Video: 25-line x 80-column text, 640 x 400 graphics (M68)/640 x 500 graphics (M68MX), 16 colors
Size/Weight: 18.9 x 15.7 x 4.7 inches, 33 lbs.
Important Options: 7.5MB or 20MB hard disk drive (M68), 8-inch floppy disk drive (M68), color monitor (M68), mouse (M68MX)

Commodore P128 and B128

Commodore produced some obscure models in the early 1980s that saw small production runs or never really got past the pre-production phase. These units are sought after by Commodore collectors today.

At the National Computer Conference in June 1982, Commodore showed two systems it intended to start selling in the fall: The P128 and B128. The P128 was called the third generation of Commodore’s PET series, while the B128 (sometimes referred to as the CBM II and sold in Europe as the 600 series) had a similar design but was configured for business customers (hence the “B” designation).

Source: Commodore, 1982

Each of the two new models suffered different fates. The B128 lasted only about a year with low sales numbers. The P128 never made it past beta stage, although Commodore did send beta units to dealers who sold them to the public. As beta units, they did not have all the bugs worked out, so the early word on the systems was not favorable.

That and concern about the P128 cutting into C64 sales caused Commodore to cancel the product and recover whatever beta units it could from dealers. Very few P128s made it out into the wild.

Introduced: June 1982
Base Configuration: 1MHz 6509 CPU; ROM cartridge slot; 128K RAM (256K max); 24K ROM; integral keyboard/keypad; RS-232, IEEE-488, user, and cassette ports; three-voice sound
Video: 25-line x 80-column text, 640 x 400 graphics

Introduced: June 1982
Base Configuration: 6509 CPU; ROM cartridge slot; 128K RAM (256K max); 40K ROM; monochrome monitor; integral keyboard/keypad; RS-232, IEEE-488, user, and cassette ports; BASIC 4.0, three-voice sound
Video: 25-line x 80-column text, 640 x 400 graphics
Important Options: Z80 coprocessor, CP/M or CP/M-86, UCSD Pascal

Apple III Business Computer

Source: Apple 1981

The Apple III was Apple’s first attempt at a business-class computer. Development began in 1978, the company began development of a new system, code-named Sara. Apple did not launch the Apple III until May 1980.

Although the Apple III could run Apple II software in an emulation mode, it had its own line of business applications and programming tools. That limited the amount of software available for its target market. That and its high price (starting at more than $4,300) resulted in poor sales.

Source: Apple, 1981

Apple improved Apple III performance and reliability in late 1981. In an effort to boost sales, Apple offered an Apple III Business System configuration in 1983 that included the Monitor III, ProFile 5MB hard disk drive, 256K of RAM, and a software suite for $5,330. Later that year, Apple offered an enhanced version of the Apple III Business System called the Apple III Plus, which had an interlace video mode that doubled screen resolution. With the Apple Macintosh on the horizon, Apple did not further development of the Apple III.

Introduced: May 1980
Original Retail Price:
 $4,340 to $7,800 (Apple III)/$2,995 (Apple III Plus)
Base Configuration: 1.8MHz 6502A CPU; Sophisticated Operating System (SOS); four slots; 128K RAM (256K max); 4K ROM; 5.25-inch floppy disk drives; NTSC video interface; integral keyboard/keypad; RS-232C, printer, and two game ports; Apple II emulation and utilities disks; Business BASIC; Pascal; SOS and owner’s manuals
Video: 24-line x 80-character text, 560 x 192 graphics, 16 colors
Important Options: External 5.25-inch floppy disk drive, 5MB ProFile hard disk drive, Monitor III CRT display, Silentype printer, Apple Daisy-Wheel printer (Apple III Plus)

Stearns Desktop Computer

The IBM PC inspired a wave of PC compatibles not long after its launch in 1981. The term “PC compatible,” however, was subjective. Few systems offered complete PC compatibility at the software and hardware level.

The Stearns Desktop Computer was one of those systems. It had an ISA expansion slot like the IBM PC, but only add-on cards from Stearns would work in it. It’s not clear why, but the company claimed that the Stearns was 2.5 times faster than the IBM PC. If true, they might have tweaked the bus design for better throughput.

Another curious claim was that the Stearns was “the first stand-alone desktop computer specifically designed not only to perform high quality data and word processing, but also to provide full internal and external communications and networking capabilities.” That vague claim describes a lot of computers of the era.

What they might have meant by that claim is the fact that Stearns sold the system as a single-user system, but it could be configured for a five-user networked setup where every system on the network functioned as a standalone computer. This differs from most other multi-user systems that used diskless workstations as nodes that were dependent on the main computer for storage.

The Stearns was one of the better looking PCs. The company did not last long despite its claims of having sold 110 systems in its first month of operation.

Introduced: May 1983
Original Retail Price: $2,945 to $5,650
Base Configuration: 8MHz 8086 CPU, MS-DOS 1.25, ISA slot, four proprietary expansion slots, 128K RAM (896K max), 16K ROM, 5.25-inch floppy disk drive, 12-inch monochrome monitor, keyboard/keypad, RS-232C port, owner’s and MS-DOS manuals
Video: 25-line x 80-column text
Size/Weight: 5.5 x 21.7 x 15.7 inches, 33 lbs.
Important Options: Concurrent CP/M, second 5.25-inch floppy disk drive, 5- to 20MB hard disk drive, 15-inch monochrome monitor, CGA card, parallel port

Sony SMC-70 Microcomputer

How many CP/M systems can you name from the early 1980s that used 3.5-inch floppy drives? The Sony SMC-70 is the only one that comes to my mind. Of course, Sony had just invented the 3.5-inch format and hoped it would become a standard. It did, of course, but on IBM PC-compatible systems.

Like a lot of Sony computers of the era, the SMC-70 was a well-designed system that was never a top seller. It used the Z80A CPU, the most common option for a CP/M system at the time. Not so common was the SMC-70’s form factor with keyboard and CPU unit combined–more like an Apple II than other popular CP/M systems like the Kaypro luggable or the Zenith Z-100 All-In-One model.

Sony also offered an SMC-70G version with enhanced graphics capabilities for video editing.

Introduced: 1982
Original Retail Price: $1,475
Base Configuration: 4MHz Z80A CPU; CP/M 2.2; two proprietary expansion slots; 64K RAM (256K max); 32K ROM; TV, RGB, and composite video ports; keyboard; RS-232C, parallel, light-pen, and cassette ports; Sony BASIC
Video: 25-line x 80-column text, 640 x 400 graphics, 16 colors
Size/Weight: 14.5 x 17.5 x 3.5 inches, 10.5 lbs.
Important Options: 8086 coprocessor, expansion box, one or two 3.5- or 8-inch floppy disk drives, hard disk drive, 12-inch monochrome or color monitor, keypad, SMI-7020 printer, 256K memory cache

Albert Apple IIe Clone

Source: Albert Computers 1983

The Albert was one of the better Apple IIe clones, but it looked more like a PC in form. The company called the two-piece design “stereo styling.”

Marketing for the Apple emphasized how much the Albert was like the Apple IIe, but also different. The Albert had unusual features including a data security lock (apparently the ability to password protect data), a battery/charger backup, voice recognition, a graphics digitizer tablet, and the ability to run on 110V or 220V power.

Like other Apple II clone vendors, Albert would later offer a Z80 coprocessor option to run CP/M software.

Inroduced: April 1983
Original Retail Price: $1,595
Base Configuration: 6502 CPU; AppleDOS 3.3 and Coyotesoft OS; 64K RAM (192K max); five Apple-compatible expansion slots; RGB video port; keyboard; RS-232, RS-422/432, parallel, microphone, and game ports, application suite
Video: 24-line x 40-column text, 280 x 192 graphics, 16 colors
Important Options: Z80 coprocessor, joysticks, 12-inch monitor

Ampere WS-1 Laptop

Source: Ampere, Inc., 1985

What does the Ampere’s WS-1 laptop and the Datsun 280Z sports car have in common? Both were designed by the same person: Kumeo Tamura. Technically, Tamura designed the case, which has an unusual clamshell design that resembles the wing of an airplane.

Source: Ampere, Inc., 1985

The case isn’t the only oddball part of the WS-1. Its 68000 CPU and VMEbus were unusual for a laptop at the time, and it featured an obscure multitasking operating system called BIG.DOS. Instead of bundling BASIC as the standard programming language, the WS-1 has APL.68000, a variant of APL. The machine was called the BIG.APL in early references. The system was sold in the U.S. through Work Space Computer of Torrance, California.

Source: Ampere, Inc., 1985

Introduced: November 1985
Original Retail Price: $1,995 to $2,995
Base Configuration: 8MHz HD68000 CPU; BIG.DOS; VMEbus slot; 64K RAM (512K max); 128K ROM; integral microcassette drive; monochrome LCD; integral keyboard; two RS-232C, parallel, and microphone/speaker ports; APL.68000; application suite, AC adapter, modem, battery pack
Video: 25-line x 80-column text, 480 x 128 graphics
Size/Weight: 13 x 11 x 3.6 inches, 9 lbs.
Important Options: external dual 3.5-inch floppy disk drives

IBM Portable Personal Computer Model 5155

The IBM Portable PC was not IBM’s first portable. That was the Model 5100 from 1975 (if you want to call a 50-pound computer “portable”). It was launched in response to the Compaq Portable, which was similar in appearance and was introduced more than a year earlier. Compaq had made inroads into IBM’s customer base with the portable and IBM had no answer.

Source: IBM 1984

Essentially an IBM PC/XT in a suitcase-like form factor, the Portable PC made a few trade-offs versus the desktop model. Most obvious were a smaller screen and three fewer expansion slots than the PC/XT’s eight. You could buy an external monitor and an expansion unit to compensate, but then you would have spent more money than if you had bought the PC/XT.

Quite a few of the original IBM Portable PCs survive today. They were popular and well built.

Introduced: March 1984
Original Retail Price: $2,795
Base Configuration: 4.77MHz 8088, PC-DOS 2.1, five ISA slots, 256K RAM (512K max), 40K ROM, 5.25-inch floppy disk drive, integral 9-inch monochrome CRT, keyboard/keypad, carrying case
Video: 25-line x 80-column text, CGA
Size/Weight: 20 x 17 x 8 inches, 30 lbs.
Important Options: Model 001 Expansion Unit; second 5.25-inch floppy disk drive; Color Display or Monochrome Display monitor; EGA card; serial, parallel, and game ports; Graphics or PC Compact Printer

Radio Shack TRS-80 Microcomputer System (Model I)

Source: Radio Shack, ~1978

This roomful of TRS-80s appear to be undergoing some kind of QA testing. Radio Shack, along with Apple and Commodore, was one of the first companies to sell microcomputers at scale in 1977. By 1979, it had sold 100,000 of these Z80-based systems.

Considered ugly and referred to as the “Trash-80” by some, this computer was reliable with a strong, fiercely loyal vendor and user base. Help was only as far away as the nearest Radio Shack store if you needed it.

The Model I was never officially branded as such. Radio Shack sold it as the TRS-80 Microcomputer System. The company followed it with systems branded TRS-80 Model II and Model III, and the original TRS-80 was commonly called the Model I after that, even by many at Radio Shack.

Original Retail Price: $400 to $600
Base Configuration: Z80 CPU, 4K RAM (16K max), 4K ROM (12K max), integral keyboard, Level I BASIC, user manual, AC adapter
Video: 16-line x 64-column uppercase text, 128 x 48 graphics
Size/Weight: 16.5 x 8 x 3.5 inches
Important Options: TRS-80 Expansion Interface, CTR-41 cassette recorder, external 5.25-inch floppy disk drive with TRSDOS, 12-inch monochrome monitor, Level II BASIC, RS-232 interface, Modem I