Compaq's Portable 286 Has Power

Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for The Times

From the beginning, Compaq computers have offered a little something extra.

Although it was the first IBM PC compatible, the Compaq has never been just a clone. The first model was a portable (cartable, really) that reduced the dimensions of the PC circuitry and added a unique, built-in, 9-inch dual-mode monitor that could display either high-resolution text or lower-resolution graphics. You could also plug in a color monitor or even a TV set.

After IBM added a 10-megabyte hard disk to its PC, Compaq put one into its portable.

About a year ago, Compaq added a desk-top series to its lineup, and again there was something a little extra. The microprocessor, an Intel 8086 instead of the Intel 8088 in the IBM, ran programs about 25% faster than IBM.

The dual-mode monitor was retained, but enlarged, of course, and offered in amber as well as green. IBM has only green. To compete with IBM's 10-megabyte hard disk, Compaq installed a 20-megabyte unit.

Built-In Drive

And to make it easier to make a backup copy of all that data, Compaq offered a built-in cartridge tape drive. IBM doesn't.

You can still buy the original portable model. But now you can also buy something in the same case that is an altogether different animal.

It's called the Portable 286 and, along with the Deskpro 286, is Compaq's newly released answer to IBM's most powerful microcomputer, the PC AT.

What all the machines have in common is Intel's 80286 microprocessor, a chip promising major advances in computer sophistication once the software developers catch up with its potential.

Compaq manages to stuff the following into its new Portable 286: a 1.2-megabyte floppy disk drive, a 20-megabyte hard-disk drive, a 10-megabyte cartridge tape drive, 2,688 kilobytes of random access memory, a parallel (printer) port, a serial (modem) port, a key lock to thwart unauthorized users and the familiar dual-mode monitor. Even then there is one expansion slot left over inside the chassis if you can find anything to put in it that Compaq left out.

It's not cheap and it's not for everyone. Equipped as described, the portable lists for $10,378 and contains about $3,000 worth of extra RAM memory that cannot be utilized by any application software programs now on the market. (It can be used to simulate a disk drive to speed up programs, however.)

$18,000 Price Tag

If you're not daunted by a pricey portable, you can doll up the Deskpro 286 even more, filling it with 8.2 megabytes of RAM memory (equivalent to the memory of 128 Commodore 64 home computers). You can also substitute a 70-megabyte hard-disk drive for the standard, high-performance, 30-megabyte version. And you'll spend more than $18,000 to do all that.

So let's talk a little reality.

The present-day version of Compaq's and IBM's operating system, MS-DOS or PC-DOS, can use only 640 kilobytes of RAM memory and store no more than 20 megabytes of data on a disk. (To use disk capacity greater than 20 megabytes, you have to divide the disk electronically into segments no larger than 20 megabytes each and treat each segment as if it were a separate disk drive.)

PC-DOS and MS-DOS also cannot make use of any of the multi-tasking, multi-user capabilities of the 80286 chip.

IBM has shipped limited quantities of another operating system, called Xenix, for its PC AT, which will also run on the Compaq 286 machines. It can support multi-tasking and multi-user functions, but there is no application software for it yet. And IBM's PC-Xenix has so many limitations that Compaq has no plans to offer its own version, according to Mike Swavely, vice president of marketing.

What the IBM PC AT really offers right now is the ability to run your existing programs considerably faster than on a PC. Compaq's 286 machines beat the AT's speed by about 30% by running their microprocessors at a faster speed than IBM's (8 megahertz compared with 6 megahertz).

512 Kilobytes of Memory

A standard Compaq Deskpro 286 with 512 kilobytes of RAM memory, a 30-megabyte hard disk and a monitor is priced at $6,254, compared to IBM's similarly equipped enhanced PC AT that offers only a 20-megabyte hard disk. The Portable 286 with 512K of memory and 20-megabyte hard disk lists for $6,299.

At the same time it introduced the new models, Compaq lowered prices on its existing units. For instance, the standard Deskpro Model 3 with 20-megabyte hard disk dropped to $4,499 from $4,995.

Swavely said Compaq considered building a microcomputer with the Intel 80286 chip about the same time IBM was readying its PC AT. But it decided not to after concluding that, instead of competing with Compaq PCs, the AT would go up against Altos and Fortune machines used for small multi-user systems. A multi-user system typically consists of one powerful computer that acts both as a work station and as a sort of mother ship for several other inexpensive terminals attached to it by a wire cable.

"We found out we were wrong," Swavely said.

The multi-user market has yet to develop while the AT was bought by potential PC customers who were seeking higher performance for traditional stand-alone PC applications, Swavely said.

"At this point in time, there is absolutely more power there than most people can use," Swavely said of the new crop of 80286-based microcomputers.

Catching Up

But he expects the software to begin to catch up with the hardware's capabilities by late this year.

Swavely said he expects improvements in performance from the next generation of software to be more dramatic than the change from VisiCalc to Lotus 1-2-3.

With the much greater RAM memory and processing speed available in the 80286-based computers, programs can become much easier to use, Swavely explained.

"With that kind of RAM and its speed, you'll be able to see much more user-friendly software," he said. "You've got the performance there to wade through a lot of code and put things into English. I feel very good about it."

The Computer File welcomes readers' comments but regrets that the authors cannot respond individually to letters. Write to Richard O'Reilly, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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