This is my Panasonic Senior Partner a “luggable” portable MS-DOS computer from the mid-1980s.
All buttoned up like this, you might wonder if it’s some sort of old video camera case.
When you open it up and plug in the keyboard, it becomes apparent that this is actually a very old PC…A very old PC that works.
I found this Senior Partner in the Fall of 2011 at Village Thrift and it’s probably one of my proudest thrift store finds of the last 5 or so years. It’s become an incredibly rare experience to find 1980s PC hardware at thrift stores and it blows my mind that this one is still in working order.
As PC hardware goes, this is almost as basic as it gets. You have an 8088, a monochrome CRT monitor (with a DB-9 connector for color RGB on the back), a serial port, a parallel and two 5.25″ disk drives. There’s no hard drive. There’s no built-in clock. This machine predates mice on the PC by several years (unless you used a serial mouse). The only “luxury” is that this machine has is 512K RAM and a built in thermal printer hidden under a flap on the top of the computer. I suspect the computer’s name derives from the fact that with a built-in printer this machine could be considered a portable office for mid-1980s businesspeople.
But, there’s no battery. This is not a mobile machine. It’s a machine you lugged from place to place where you had a place to sit it down and AC power available to plug into.
The keyboard doubles a a cover to enclose the monitor and floppy drives.
When you detach the keyboard you have to pull the retractable keyboard cable out it’s hiding place below the “Panasonic Sr. Partner” label to the left of the CRT and attach it to the connector that hides under a cap on the keyboard.
There are also little lifts you can pull out from the keyboard to place it at a comfortable angle.
As the name entails this was a machine its designers intended for business users. The monochrome CRT is extremely crisp for word processing and spreadsheets. When (before the paper ran out) I fired up an old copy of Print Shop the thermal printer gladly printed with no additional setup.
One could imagine some business travelers in a hotel room preparing for a meeting the next day huddled around the tiny green screen furiously printing curled up thermal printed documents…Almost.
Consider the fact that this thing is 35 pounds. Imagine lugging that around an airport. There’s a good reason why the luggable form factor that began with the Osbourne and the Kaypro luggables and continued with the famous Compaq Portable was a technological dead end. The Senior Partner is even larger than the Macintosh despite that machine having a larger screen not actually being intended to be luggable.
The reason for this, as I understand it is that luggables were just normal PC components with all of their heft and hungry power consumption, wedged into an unorthodox case that happened to have a handle. The engineering advances that needed to happen to make portable computers into “laptops” happened later in the PC realm (though certainly the Grid Compass and a few others were showing the way even when the Senior Partner was on store shelves).
As an antique though, this thing is fantastic. The Senior Partner is a self-contained retro-computing party.
Easy to setup and quick to put away when you’re done. When it goes back on the shelf you can easily stack stuff on it’s hard shell.
And simply as an object it looks fantastic. Sure, it does not look (or act) like the glorious 80s vision of the future embodied in the brilliant Macintosh and Macintosh SE designs. There’s no Snow White timelessness here. But, what the Senior Partner does look like is the offspring between a Mission Control command console and an armored personnel carrier. You have no doubt as to which floppy drive is which because there are huge thick drive letters printed beneath the drives. The huge embossed “Panasonic” name looks like what you see on the back of a pick up truck. This machine looks serious in a way that I just adore.
Nothing says retro quite like a brilliant glowing green CRT screen.
When you’re sitting with a machine like this you feel a closeness to technology that is unlike using a computer today. When you use a modern computer you are swathed in warm colors and pictures designed to make you feel comfortable. You can quickly switch between multiple programs or browser tabs. There are a million things saying “use me”.
On a machine like the Senior Partner you basically have one thing in front you. You have one program with a handful of options so it demands concentration, but the high contrast of the screen makes it easier to concentrate because only the program is glowing and all else is empty darkness. This is the cyberspace equivalent of a sensory deprivation chamber.
The closest thing I can compare that feeling to is using an e-Ink Kindle.
I suspect that this machine spent a lot of it’s life “buttoned up” and that accounts for what great shape it’s in today. Despite being almost 30 years old it seems like a missing pad on the “bottom” side that faces downward then the machine is laying handle side up and a few scuffs are the only things wrong with it. There was little opportunity for dust to get into the keyboard and the disk drives. I also suspect that this machine may not have gotten that much use in general considering the lack of burn-in on the monitor.
As a retro-computing machine, it is not perfect. For one thing I have no idea how to get inside of the machine, or if that is even a good idea. On the one hand, generally if a machine has a CRT I don’t want to get inside of it. On the other hand, I can’t find an obvious way to replace the printer paper and I wonder if they just intended you to open the case for that. The back of the machine has what looks to be where an indication of an internal expansion slot, which would be more evidence that you are intended to be able to safely get inside of the machine.
Having only a monochrome screen, no hard drive, only 512K RAM, and no joystick port makes this less than ideal to play many old games or some of the more prominent software I’ve collected. As you can imagine finding software for a PC with 512K RAM, no hard drive, and only 5.25″ floppies might be an issue.
However, I’ve had some good luck in this area.
When I first bought this machine I remembered that in my parent’s attic I had saved the 5.25″ floppies from an Epson 286 we had gotten as a hand-me-down from my aunt in Cleveland in 1995. When we had discarded the Epson I had made sure to save the 5.25″ MS-DOS boot and installation disks as well as some educational programs, including the immortal classics The Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?.
This meant that when we brought the Senior Partner home from Village Thrift I had a working DOS startup disk and a few programs so I had the bare minimum needed to see the machine working.
Several months later I found this insane lot of 5.25″ PC games on ShopGoodwill. I think I paid $16.25 for this lot including ShopGoodwill’s usually exorbitant shipping cost. What I received is a treasury of late 80s/early 90s PC games.
Here are just a few of the games in that box.
Many of these games require hard disk installation but several, like Ultima I (which we saw running on the Senior Partner in the Commodore 1084 post) and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are perfectly at home running on an early floppy-only PC. It turns out that many games from the late 1980s basically assumed a PC with 384K-512K RAM so they run just fine on the Senior Partner.
Finally, last year my uncle gave me his old PC and the Commodore monitor I mentioned previously. Along with that was his box of 5.25″ disks that went with the PC.
The best thing in the box was a disk labeled IBM DOS 3.2.
The Epson MS-DOS 3.30 disk I had been using was fine for booting the machine but because it was only indented as a minimal OS to be used to install the other disks it was missing several important utilities like CHKDSK. With my uncle’s DOS 3.2 disk I could finally confirm how much memory the machine had.
There was also a disk labeled Lotus 1-2-3, which I had badly wanted to see running on a vintage machine.
There was a time when this screen was a common as the Google homepage to computer users.
Using this machine also taught me a lot about MS-DOS. Today DOS is remembered as a difficult monster of an OS; cold to use and brutal to configure. Some of that is true. Some of that was Apple advertising crud. But I think a lot of that image of MS-DOS came from the time after about 1988 until the release of Windows 95 (and even a little after) when so many odd tricks had to be crammed into DOS so that it could use more than 640K memory and use new hardware like sound cards that were not supported without strange autoexec.cfg and config.sys changes. The nonsense you had to go through to use the hardware in your PC had was truly insulting.
However, in the earlier period the Senior Partner belongs to DOS seems almost tame. You change directories. You list the files in a directory. You run a program. You change drives. You format a disk. It almost seems quaint compared to the ordeals that people had using DOS later. DOS was clearly meant for a machine like the Senior Partner; this was its heyday. After that point it slowly turned into a curmudgeonly antique.
I remember reading DOS for Dummies and seeing all of these commands the author basically told you you shouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. I wondered what had happened for these commands to have been put into the OS and never taken out in the intervening years. These were things for configuring serial ports and display modes that made made sense on machines like the Senior Partner in the 1980s but were increasingly less relevant as time wore on. The large group of people who first encountered PCs in the early 90s ran headfirst into this confusing period where DOS was a geological dig of successive eras stacked on top of each other.
To use a machine as old as the Senior Partner seems quaint not just because of it’s age but because it’s so old that DOS actually makes sense.
There was a period in the late 90s and early 2000s when finding old computers, especially Macintoshes was a regular occurrence at the local thrift stores. I’ve basically been a Wintel guy since the mid 90s but the collectability of old Macs piqued my interest. These were not generic beige boxes; Macs had well-documented stories. I quickly accumulated a Mac 128K (that had been upgraded to Mac 512K specs), a Mac Plus, a Mac SE, a Quadra 700, and a Mac LC (I still have some of these machines and plan to do posts on them someday). However, there came a point in the mid-2000s when these machines stopped showing up at thrift stores.
Today, it has become really difficult to find classic computers at thrift stores. Partly I think this is because the larger stores such as Goodwill are concerned about the privacy and licensing issues of selling old PCs. They have to be concerned with with the previous owner’s data and would rather recycle the PCs than deal with wiping them properly and the license hassle of reinstalling software for resale. I think it’s also because the smaller stores don’t understand there is a collector market for vintage PCs and they think that older computers are too difficult to sell. People alo probably only keep one or two generations of old computers in their house so in many cases they’ve already trashed most of the really vintage stuff. The good old days I experienced in the late 1990s and early 2000s have come and gone. As a result, I have decided as a general policy that if I see an interesting computer at a thrift store I should pick it up because I never know when I’ll see one again.
However, for whatever reason I never saw Macintosh laptops at thrift stores, even in the good-old-days.
Imagine my surprise one day in 2011 when I saw this lovely Apple Powerbook G3 sitting on a pile of old furniture at the Abbey Anns off the Circle in Tallmadge.
It was really dirty and covered in stickers but as far as I could tell it was complete. There was no power supply included and the battery was clearly dead so I ended up buying it for about $15 without knowing if it worked. After buying a knock-off power supply from eBay I was amazed to find that it indeed still worked! With that said the hard drive now makes some awful sounds and sometimes takes several attempts to start so it could probably die at any time.
Going from this badge I believe this Powerbook G3 to be the “Wallstreet II/PDQ” model as that’s the model that came with the 266MHz processor while still having the colored Apple badge.
The Apple System Profiler says this machine has 128MB RAM, so someone probably upgraded it at some point.
This machine because is clearly from a very transitional period for Apple shortly after Steve Jobs returned in 1997. On the lid is the new transparent/white Apple logo and on the inside is the color striped Apple logo they had used since the late 1980s (also my favorite version of their logo). The machine is powered by the Power PC G3 processor that would also power the first iMacs (the first stellar success that Jobs would have after returning to Apple) but the back of the machine reveals an Apple Desktop Bus port and a DIN-style serial port that would have been more familiar in older Macs from about 1986 onwards. You can immediately tell from the dark gray exterior that this is a Powerbook descended from the first Powerbooks in the early 90s. And yet, the generously large screen and the still-good-by-today’s-standards touchpad remind me off today’s Apple laptops. This is a computer with its feet in two eras in Apple history.
This Powerbook G3 is also a computer that feels like it represents the best of the era of Apple that was soon to be wiped away by brushed aluminum. The Apple of today produces really well engineered computers but they have turned brushed metal into the new beige. They want computers to look like fashionable Braun radios. Today’s Apple would never put a processor badge on their computers or build a laptop with two docking bays and a removable battery. We will surely never see a return to this philosophy, but this machine is a nice reminder of what once was.
There was a wealth of old software on this Powerbook G3 including Mac OS 9.2.2, iTunes 2, Mozilla 1.0, Netscape, Internet Explorer 5 for Mac, and some Adobe software including Photoshop.
Seeing this ancient version of iTunes was particularly interesting for me because I use iTunes today on Windows.
It’s hilarious to see iTunes without AAC encoding.
As a die-hard Firefox user since 2003, I was also curious to see what Mozilla 1.0 looked like.
I also like silliness so here is the Goodtimes video from the Windows 95 CD being played on the Powerbook G3.
I have quite a large collection of old software (which I will get to in future posts) but I was surprised to find that I had very little that will run on late model classic Mac OS. I tried SimCity 1.4c, but that complained about requiring 256 color mode and I wasn’t too keen on entertaining that foolishness.
I did remember however, that one of my favorite games from the late 1990s, Close Combat: A Bridge Too Far, came with a Mac OS version on the same disc as the Windows version (surprising for a Microsoft published game).
Here is what the installer looks like.
The game doesn’t run badly and is surprisingly playable with the trackpad.
Looking at this Powerbook is kind of like looking at an Art Deco building and thinking about the 1930s. The swooping curves of this machine remind me of the dynamism right before the Dot Com crash when the promise of all of that “multimedia” bunk from the early 90s was finally going to pay off with the Internet. It also reminds me that the Apple of the 1990s that almost died also died with this machine and that the Apple of the 2000s that changed the world in some ways was born with this machine.