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

Hayes Stack Smartmodem 300 and 1200

If you wanted to go online in the early 1980s, you either used an acoustic coupler that you set a telephone headset into or a slow, expensive internal modem made for whatever bus your computer used. Hayes changed that with the introduction of the Smartmodem in 1981.

The 300 bps Smartmodem was an external device that connected to a standard RS-232 serial port. It had several features that set it apart from the competition. Dual-mode operation was an innovation that provided for a data mode and a command mode. This allowed the modem to distinguish from data being sent and commands such as hang up or dial a number. It also had its own microcontroller, which was unusual at the time. The Smartmodem could also tell the speed setting for the computer’s serial port.

The Smartmodem was renamed the Stack Smartmodem when the 1200 bps was introduced in April 1982. The term “stack” referred to its case design which allowed for a desk phone to sit on top. Hayes also planned to introduce other peripherals that could be stacked on the Smartmodem.

Many of Hayes’s competitors soon tried to imitate the Smartmodem’s features. Those modems were referred to as “Hayes compatible.”

Introduced: April 1981 (Smartmodem 300), April 1982 (Stack Smartmodem 1200)
Original Retail Price: $699 (Stack Smartmodem 1200)

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

HomeComputer Software SuperMicro Handheld Game System

“Is there a future in hand-held electronic entertainment?” So opened the press release announcing HomeComputer Software’s Supermicro on November 1, 1984. The company claimed it was the “world’s first pocket-sized computer that features interchangeable game cartridges.” Earlier game systems were cartridge based. Whether the SuperMicro was the first of its type depends on your definition of “pocket sized.”

Source: HomeComputer Software 1984

As the photo shows, you would need a really big pocket to fit the SuperMicro, especially with the LightPak accessory in the top photo that illuminates the screen. Tellingly, the press release does not provide dimensions. In fact, it’s light on details other than to say it has an LCD and dual microprocessors. Three games were available at launch.

Introduced: November 1984
Original Retail Price: $59.95

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

I am merging Vintage Computer Photos with my other website, Classic Tech. I will continue to post original, period photos of computers, peripherals, screen images, and other computer-related items from my archive of vendor press material there along with commentary on the vintage computer hobby.

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