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I'm Andrew. I write about the past and future of tech, music, media, culture, art, and activism. This is my blog.

Tiny DOS Computers

Posted: May 2, 2020

I have a bunch of tiny DOS computers for sale (among other things) and some of the DOS machines are super weird, so I wanted to take a minute to talk about them, their strengths, and the kinds of flaws, compromises, and limitations that only Early 90s computers have.

Machines I’m discussing:

  • HP Omnibook (300, 425, 600, 800)
  • HP 200 LX
  • HP Omnigo
  • Gateway Handbook 486
  • Toshiba Libretto 50 CT
  • Lexicomp Gradebook

HP Omnibooks

The HP Omnibook 300 and 425 are my favorite machines on this list.

I use a 300, with the ROM card out of a 425. That doesn’t matter much.

Let’s talk pros (many) and cons (not as many, but some of them are Bad.)

Pros: several days of use on a set of rechargeable AAs, small and light, good keyboard, CF cards, serial port. Other stuff.

Cons: Slow CPU, limited RAM, black and white screen, no back light, no video out, Windows 3.1 in ROM, Very Stiff Keys

A lot of people look at the omnibooks and see a perfect writing machine.

I did!

And mostly, it is. It has a word processor and a text editor in ROM, it’ll run DOS and early Windows apps. It’ll save to an external drive, or let you sync over serial (which can be done wirelessly with the right gizmos.)

But that stiff keyboard can be a complete deal breaker for some folks and it’s worth calling out. It does not get better, although I got used to it really quickly and I like it.

For the Omnibook 300 and 425, the PCMCIA slots are non-standard, or the BIOS is non-standard or something. Some PCMCIA cards won’t work, even though it seems like they should. I don’t know why. And they must boot from it’s ROM. Without the ROM card, you can’t turn it on, you can’t boot anything other than DOS/Win3.1.

This, as I said, is my favorite line on the list. I’ll be keeping at least one of these. They are legitimately excellent computers.

Now, the other omnibooks:

The later omnibooks use recharagable batteries, which are mostly dead these days.

Otherwise, they’re capable Windows 95/98 machines. They’re Tiny, and they have some compromises in terms of feature set and performance, but they’re pretty standard laptops all things considered, other than that little pop-out mouse.

The Omnibook 800 is my favorite Windows 98 laptop. It’s the smallest one that doesn’t compromise on usability IMO.

HP 200 LX

It’s an IBM PC compatible with a thumb keyboard that fits in your pocket! I love it! It boots DOS from an internal ROM and can use CF cards for storage. It’s got a CGA screen, and there are a ton of pieces of custom software written specifically for this device. It was, far and away, the most popular DOS palmtop.

Mine is a double speed unit (which requires a special video driver, but that’s fine) and has 8MB of RAM (mostly for storage!)

It’s got an HP calculator style chicklet keyboard, which I kind of like? But also, it has a full number pad, which means that you’re thumb typing asyemtrically, and I have a hard time with that these days. Didn’t bother me ten years ago, maybe I’ve just got some RSI.

Regardless, I used to use one of these every day, and now I just don’t. I stopped carrying it with me about six months ago because I wasn’t using it enough to justify keeping it in my pocket.

I love it. I’m sorry to see it go, but I’ve completely supplanted it’s usecases with my phone and my Omnibook 300.

HP Omnigo

This is like an upgraded 200LX, almost. It has a touch screen, and runs Geos. but the screen resolution is odd, and the bezzels are huge. The Keyboard is much better! Also has a PCMCIA slot, so technically it should be able to side load files, but the included OS is locked down in some strange ways. You need to install something called a DOS Driver (which I think can only be done over Serial? I haven’t tried it yet) to actually access DOS and the contents of the CF card.

I think it’s a really neat little machine, and it has a lot of potential, I just haven’t been able to unlock that potential, and I don’t really have time to keep poking at it right now.

Gateway Handbook 486

It’s a tiny laptop that runs windows 3.1, can technically boot from AA batteries with a special adapter, and has a backlit screen! Should be an easy win! But the PCMCIA slots aren’t supported in the BIOS, so you have to load a card services driver, and I can’t find the right one (gateways website is long since dead, and all links online point to gateways website.)

The battery packs are dead, and the battery pack must be inserted in order to power the thing from the Very Non Standard power supply. Themouse is picky about how it will work, and the screen’s contrast is fiddly.

Almost a really neat computer! I’ve used mine to do Real Work, but it falls short of the level of Neat I require in enough serious ways that I ‘m not keeping mine.

Toshiba Liberetto 50 CT

The smallest keyboard on the list! A competent pentium laptop in a very small package. Too powerful for it’s own good, the tiny size makes the battery life (even with a good extended battery) horrible. With the docking station, at a desk, it’s a great Windows 95 machine. Without the docking station… it’s a laptop that was made smaller than is comfortable in the name of portibility.

It is Neat As Hell, but once the novelity wears off, the flasws and compromises really stand out to me. If you need tiny and pentium, it’s the best option. But … do you need those things?

Lexicomp Gradebook

This is my most recent addition to my old DOS machines. I don’t remember where it came from, honestly, or how long I’ve had it. It’s like an HP 200LX with a full keyboard. Slightly larger than the LX, with slightly worse power management.

Allegedly, it’ll boot from it’s PCMCIA card, but I haven’t tried that yet. I think that only works for SRAM cards, and I don’t have one of those handy to test.

Full serial and parallel ports, which is a big win.

Honestly, after the omnibooks and maybe the OmniGo (if I can figure that out), this one has the most potential to me, especially if I can get it to work with CF cards. It’s the one that I’d be the least worried about not selling (because it’s tiny, and because I kind of want to keep it.)

But I haven’t had the time to explore that potential yet, and if someone else does before me, that’s fine. I’ll find a similar machine eventually.


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