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.
This is a 3DFX Voodoo 2 V2 1000 PCI still sealed in the box.
I actually own three Voodoo 2’s. The first one is a Metabyte Wicked 3D (below, with the blue colored VGA port) that I bought from a friend in high school. The second one is the new-in-box 3DFX branded Voodoo 2 I bought off of ShopGoodwill last year. The third one (below, with the oddly angled middle chip) is a Guilliemot Maxi Gamer 3D2 I bought at the Cuyahoga Falls Hamfest earlier this year.
The Voodoo 2, in all of its manifestations, is my favorite expansion board of all time. It’s one of the last 3D graphics boards that normally operated without a heatsink so you can gaze upon the bare ceramic chip packages and the lovely 3DFX logos emblazoned upon them. It was also pretty much the last 3D graphics board where the various functions of the rendering pipeline were still broken out into three separate chips (two texture mapping units and a frame buffer). The way the three chips are laid out in a triangle is like watching jet fighters flying in formation.
It’s hard to explain to someone who wasn’t playing PC games in the late-1990s what having a 3DFX board meant. It was like having a lightswitch that made all of the games look much, much better. There are perhaps three tech experiences that have utterly blown my mind. One of them was seeing DVD for the first time. Another is seeing HDTV for the first time. Seeing hardware accelerated PC games on a Voodoo 2 was on the same level.
A friend of mine in high school won the Metabyte Wicked 3D in an online contest. I remember the day it arrived at his house I had walked home from school trudging up and down piles of snow that had been piled up on the sidewalk to clear the roads and I got home exhausted…And he calls me asking if I wanted to come over as he installed the Voodoo 2 card and fired up some games. Even though I was exhausted I eagerly accepted.
I think I saw hardware accelerated Quake 2 that day…Nothing else would ever be the same. I was immensely jealous.
Ever since personal computers have been connected to monitors there has been some sort of display hardware in a computer that output video signals. Often times this hardware included capabilities that enhanced or took over some of the CPU’s role in creating graphics.
When we talk about 2D graphics we mean graphics where for the most part the machine is copying an image from one place in the computer’s memory and putting int another place in the computer’s memory. For example, if you imagine a scene from say, Super Mario Bros. the background is made up of pre-prepared blocks of pixels (ever notice how the clouds and the shrubs are the same pattern or pixels with a color shift?) and Mario and the bad guys are each particular frame in a short animation called a sprite. These pieces of images are combined together in a special type of memory that is connected to a chip that sends the final picture to the TV screen or monitor.
It’s sort of like someone making one of those collages where you cut images out of a magazine and paste them on a poster-board. The key to speeding up 2D graphics in a computer is speeding up the process of copying all of the pieces of the image to the special memory where they need to end up. You might have heard about the special “blitter” chips in some Atari consoles and the famous Amiga computers that made their graphics so great. 2D graphics were ideal for the computing power of the time but they give videogame designers limited ability to show depth and perspective in videogames.
Outside of flight simulator games and the odd game like Hard Drivin and Indy 500 almost all videogames used 2D graphics until the mid-1990s. PC games during the 2D graphics era were mostly being driven by the CPU. If you bought a faster CPU, the games got more fluid. There were special graphics boards you could buy to make games run faster, but the CPU was the main factor in game performance.
Beginning in about 1995-1996 there was a big switch to 3D graphics in videogames (which is totally different than the thing where you wear glasses and things pop out of the screen…that’s stereoscopics) and that totally changed how the graphics were being created by the computer. In 3D graphics the images are represented in the computer by a wireframe model of polygons that make up a scene and the objects in it. Special image files called textures represent what the surfaces of the objects should look like. Rendering is the process of combing all of these elements to create an image that is sent to the screen. The trick is that the computer can rotate the wireframe freely in 3D space and then place the textures on the model so that they look correct from the perspective of the viewer, hence “3D”. You can imagine it as being somewhat akin to making a diorama.
With 3D graphics videogame designers gained the same visual abilities as film directors: Assuming the computer could draw a scene they could place the player’s perspective anywhere they desired.
The problem with 3D graphics is that they are much more taxing computationally than 2D graphics. They taxed even the fastest CPUs of the era.
In 1995-1996 when the first generation of 3D games started appearing in PCs they looked like pixelated messes on a normal computer. You could only play them at about 320×240, objects like walls in the games would get pixelated very badly when you got close to them, and the frame rate was a jerky 20 fps if you were lucky. Games had started using 3D graphics and as a result required the PC’s CPU to do much, much more work than previous games. When Quake, one of the first mega-hit 3D graphics-based first person shooters came out it basically obsoleted the 486 overnight because it was built around the Pentium’s floating-point (read: math) capabilities. But even then you were playing it at 320×240.
At the same time arcade games has been demonstrating much better looking 3D graphics. When you sat down in front on an arcade machine like Daytona USA or Virtua Fighter 2 what you saw was fluid motion and crisp visuals that clearly looked better than what your PC was doing at home. That’s because they had dedicated hardware for producing 3D graphics that took some types of work away from the CPU. These types of chips were also used in flight simulators and they were known to be insanely expensive. However, by the time the N64 came out in 1996 this type of hardware was starting to make it’s way into homes. What PCs needed was their own dedicated 3D graphics hardware. They needed hardware acceleration.
That’s what the Voodoo 2 is. The Voodoo 1 and it’s successor the Voodoo 2 were 3DFX’s arcade-quality 3D graphics products for consumer use.
A texture mapping unit (the two upper chips labeled 3DFX on the Voodoo 2) takes the textures from the memory on the graphics board (many of those smaller rectangular chips on the Voodoo 2) and places them on the wireframe polygons with the correct scaling and distance. The textures may also be “lit” where the colors of pixels may be changed to reflect the presence of one or more lights in the scene. A framebuffer processor (the lower chip labeled 3DFX) takes the 3D scene with the texture and produces a 2D image that is built up in the framebuffer memory (the rest of those smaller, rectangular chips in the Voodoo 2) that can be sent to the monitor via the RAMDAC chip (like a D/A converter for video, it is labeled GENDAC on the Voodoo 2).
3DFX was the first company to produce really great 3D graphics chips for consumer consumption in PCs. Their first consumer product was the Voodoo 1 in late 1996. It was soon followed in 1998 by the Voodoo 2.
The Voodoo 2 is a PCI add-in board that does not replace the PC’s 2D graphics card. Instead, there’s a cable that goes from the 2D board to the Voodoo 2 and then the Voodoo 2 connectors to the monitor. This meant that the Voodoo 2 could not display 3D in a window, but what you really want it for is playing full-screen games, so it’s not much of a loss.
My friend who won the Metabyte Wicked 3D card later bought a Voodoo 3 card and sold me the Voodoo 2 sometime in 1999.
I finally had hardware acceleration. At the time we had a Compaq Presario that had begun life has a Pentium 100 and had been upgraded with an Overdrive processor to a Pentium MMX 200. It was getting a bit long in the tooth by this time, which was probably 1999. Previously I had made the mistake of buying a Matrox Mystique card with the hope of it improving how games looked and being bitterly disappointed in the results.
Having been a big fan of id Software’s Doom I had paid full price ($50) for their follow-up game Quake after having played the generous (quarter of the game) demo over and over again. Quake was by far my favorite game (and it’s still in my top 5).
id had known that Quake could look much better if it supported hardware acceleration. They had become frustrated with the way that the needed to modify Quake in order to support each brand of 3D card. Basically, the game needs to instruct the card on what it needs to do and each of card used a different set of commands. id had decided to create their own set of commands (called a miniGL because it was a subset of SGI’s OpenGL API) in the hope that 3D card makers would supply a library that would convert the miniGL commands into commands for their card. The version of Quake they created to use the miniGL was called GLQuake and it was available as a freely downloadable add-on.
It’s a little hard to show you this today, but this is what GLQuake (and the Voodoo 2) did for Quake. First, a screenshot of Quake without hardware acceleration (taken on from the Pentium III with a Voodoo 3 3000):
Now, with hardware accelerated GLQuake:
Suddenly the walls and floor look smooth and not blocky. Everything is much higher resolution. In motion everything is much fluid. It may seem underwhelming now, but this was very hot stuff in 1997 and blew me away when I first saw in 1999.
What we didn’t realize at the time was that it was pretty much all downhill for 3DFX after the Voodoo 2. After the Voodoo 2 3DFX decided to stop selling chips to 3rd party OEMs like Metabyte and Guilliemot and produce their own cards. That’s why my boxed board is just branded 3DFX. This turned out to be disastrous because suddenly they were competing with the very companies that had sold their very successful products in the 1996-1998 period. They also released the Voodoo 3, which combined 2D graphics hardware with 3D graphics hardware on a single chip (that was hidden under a heatsink).
The Voodoo 3 was an excellent card and I loved the Voodoo 3 3000 that was in the Dell Pentium III my parents bought to succeed the Presario. However, 3DFX was having to make excuses for features that the Voodoo 3 didn’t have and their competitors did have (namely 32-bit color). Nvidia’s TNT2 Ultra suddenly looked like a better card than the Voodoo 3.
3DFX was having trouble producing their successor to the Voodoo line and instead was having to adapt the old Voodoo technology to keep up. The Voodoo 4 and 5, which consisted of several updated Voodoo 3 chips working together on a single board ended up getting plastered by Nvidia’s GeForce 2 and finally GeForce 3 chips which accelerated even more parts of the graphics rendering process than 3DFX did. 3DFX ceased to exist by the end of 2000. Supposedly prototypes of “Rampage”, the successor to Voodoo were sitting on a workbench being debugged the day the company folded.
Back in the late-1990s 3D acceleration was a luxury meant for playing games. Today, that’s no longer true: 3D graphics hardware is an integral part of almost every computer.. Today every PC, every tablet, and every smartphone sold has some sort of 3D acceleration. 3DFX showed us the way.
To the extent that it’s possible for a pocket calculator to be legendary, that’s what the HP-12C is. When it turned 30 in 2011, it was covered in the Wall Street Journal and on major blogs like Technorati. HP even posted a celebratory video on YouTube entitled HP 12c Calculator — Then & Now. Despite the fact that it was first released in 1981 (the same year as the IBM PC) it’s still being sold today. You can buy one new at Amazon, or from Staples, or OfficeDepot, or Walmart and the price you will pay is not what I would call cheap.
I don’t actually have much use for a financial calculator but I bought this HP-12C for two reasons: First, because a Reverse Polish Notation calculator seemed like a great nerd novelty item and second because it’s a classic of early 1980s technology.
Today the vast majority of pocket calculators and small desktop calculators you see are extremely cheap commodity crap. But, there was a time when a calculator was a prized possession, probably the most advanced piece of technology a person owned. The HP-12C is one of the last remnants of that era.
The HP-12C is a member of a line of calculators that HP created for different professions in the early 1980s including the HP-10C, HP-11C, and HP-15C scientific calculators and the HP-16C programmer’s calculator. The HP-12C apparently has endured because finance professionals loved their portability and reliability of the HP12-C and required newcomers to learn how to use them.
Unlike most calculators the HP-12C uses Reverse Polish Notation (RPN). In order to add two numbers you do not type 2 + 4 and press =. Instead, you press 2 and then press Enter. Then you press 4 then you hit the + button and your two numbers are added together and 6 shows up on the screen. You enter the numbers first and then the operation. Why would you want a calculator that works like this?
It’s best if I let this page at HP’s site about RPN explain the difference:
Believe it or not, the process of using RPN is similar to the way you learned math. If you think about it, you have to modify the way you learned math in order to use an algebraic mode calculator.
Here’s an example
Or (3+5) / (7+6) = x
Algebraic method: Add 3+5=8. Write down the answer or store it in memory. Add 7+6=13. Now enter the 8 from the first answer and then divide it by entering the second answer to get x=0.62.
RPN method: Touch 3 then the ENTER key. Touch 5 then the + key. Touch 7, and then ENTER. Touch 6 then the + key. Note that the answer to the second sum is displayed. Now here’s the magic part. Touch the divide key and the calculator gives the answer, 0.62.
Algebraic: 13 strokes, not counting the effort to write down or memorize the first answer while you calculated the second answer.
RPN: 9 strokes, and no need to write anything down.
The beauty of this is that in RPN the order of operations is explicit. As computer science buffs are aware, RPN works on a stack. Basically each new number you put in is pushing down a new entry on the stack and each operation is popping off numbers from the stack in a last-in, first out order.
The tricky bit to imagine in that example above is that each time you enter numbers, the stack is being pushed down. So 3 is pushed into the stack and then 5 is pushed into the stack and then + pops them off the stack and then pushes the answer 8 back onto the stack. Then 7 is pushed onto the stack, 6 is pushed onto the stack and they’re added together to make 13, which is pushed back onto the stack. At this point the stack looks like this:
As a result, when the divide button is pressed 13 and 8 are popped off of the stack and 8 is divided by 13 giving us 0.62. Because there’s a stack there’s a fairly sophisticated memory function basically built in.
The HP-12C is actually a small computer. Unlike most pocket calculators which have a relatively primitive fixed-function calculator IC there is actually a CPU inside of an HP-12C. When you push a button the calculator is actually loading a tiny program into the CPU.
The HP-12C and the other members of the HP-10C line all used the same CPU, referred to as Voyager, with different code assigned to the different buttons on each model.
The HP-12C is actually programmable. That is to say that it has what we would today call a macro language where you can store up to 99 lines of operations and recall them at a button press.
Because it is programmable there are honest-to-goodness games (warning: PDF) people have written for this pocket calculator. You have to key them in one line of code at a time, like old BASIC programs on early home computers.
On the back of the HP-12C is this sort of quick explanation of some of the calculator’s functions. The fact they’re written in gold lettering, and that there’s a ton of information contained in them that’s somewhat hard to decipher reminds me a bit of the pictograms on the Voyager Golden Record.
The gist of these things is that the programs trigger by those buttons are capable of some sophisticated data conversions, like finding the number of days between two dates. Additionally there are five special registers (basically memories) for Time Value of Money financial calculations called n, i, PV, PMT, and FV. A wide variety of financial calculations can be done by entering numbers into those registers and running the little programs on them.
If this serial number decoding explanation is correct then my HP-12C was made in the United States during the 43rd week of 1988.
As you would expect from a consumer electronics device that has been made for three decades, there have been several revisions of the HP-12C over time. Suffice to say that over the years they have kept the button arrangement and external appearance the same but re-arranged the innards several times.
According to this site, the HP-12C originally had two chips: a CPU chip and a ROM/RAM/Display Driver chip. By the 28XX series like mine the two chips had been merged into a single chip where the Voyager CPU chip also contained the other chip’s functionality.
Interestingly, if you buy an HP-12C today what you get is outwardly nearly identical but very different inside that the older one I have. The old Voyager CPU has been replaced with an ARM-based CPU. ARM CPU cores have been famously used in everything from the Game Boy Advance to the iPhone and Android devices. They’re ideal for situations where you need a CPU that uses a tiny amount of power for a specific task.
In the HP-12C, I believe what they’ve done is created an emulator that uses the ARM CPU to faithfully reproduce the functionality of the old CPU, but with faster execution speed.
These newer HP-12Cs can be identified visually by the fact that they now have two button batteries that go in horizontally, rather than three that face vertically.