Before technological advances allowed engineers to cram a tiny supercomputer in a pocket-sized device we now call a smartphone, the computer market was full of interesting miniature computers.
Since contemporary processors were small enough to provide a truly portable computer but not as tiny as they became in the mid-00s, devices called handheld PCs were most popular in the ‘90s. Most handheld PCs eventually lost ground to modern smartphones that merged the power of a laptop with the functionality of a portable device.
True enthusiasts will point out that some of the devices in the following list should be categorized as subnotebooks. The latter usually was equipped with an x86-compatible desktop operating system, while handheld devices ran an OS specifically designed for mobile use.
However, we merged two terms to expand the selection based on the size and formidable functionality of devices in both categories. While the distinction was meaningful in the ‘80s, handheld PCs and subnotebooks shared many similarities in the ‘90s. Take a look at some of the finest tiny retro devices we’ve come across.
TRS-80 Model 100 (1983)
The result of cooperation between Tandy, Microsoft, and Japanese electronics manufacturer Kyocera, Model 100, is one of the first notebook-style commercial computers, with a keyboard, liquid crystal display, and a battery-powered package.
Originally, Koycera built Model 100 for the Japanese market, but Tandy bought the rights to the device and started selling the tiny computer in Radio Shack stores in North America.
Initially, the device cost $1,100 or around $3,000, adjusted for inflation. The device was a commercial success, with Tandy selling over 6 million units worldwide and proving the idea of a small portable computer a viable option for computer manufacturers.
Olivetti, NEC, Epson, and many others soon followed Tandy with their own adaptation of a book-sized portable computer.
Interestingly, journalists were among the most vocal buyers of the device as, for the first time, it allowed doing digital write-ups with a lightweight and low maintenance device.
Atari Portfolio (1989)
Released in 1989, Atari Portfolio is credited as the first MS DOS-compatible pocket computer. The device was also fully IBM PC compatible, even though the tiny screen made it somewhat challenging to use dedicated software.
With a release cost of $400 ($900 in 2021), the device would fit in the premium segment smartphone of the modern era.
The device ran on three AA removable alkaline batteries or plugged in a socket. Atari Portfolio had an LCD screen, a 63-key keyboard, and even a tiny speaker, making it a tech wonder weighing an only tad over 500 grams.
The futuristic look of the device won Atari a feature on the big screen. The device appeared on the James Cameron 1991 blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day, where young John Connor used the device to break into an ATM.
HP 95LX (1991)
Released in the early ‘90s, the device was HPs first MS-DOS-based pocket computer. The device was influential in bringing ‘digital personal assistant’ into the mainstream. To that effect, the device was a mild commercial success, selling over 400,000 units over its production run.
On its release, the 95LX cost $550 ($1,100 in 2021), with businesses as HP’s core target. The tiny computer weighed only 312 grams and was powered by two AA batteries.
Devices’ success prompted HP to develop a further line of LX branded computers, helping the company dominate the market segment throughout the ‘90s.
IBM Palm Top PC110 (1995)
Even though the device was released exclusively in Japan, even from a modern perspective, it seems to be a tech wonder. Released in 1995, the machine had a plethora of features.
The Palm Top PC110 had a functional 89-key keyboard, a lithium-ion battery, and a digitizer to make handwritten notes with a dedicated stylus.
Most impressively, the device was equipped with a dedicated modem, speakers, and microphone that allowed the 600-gram device to be used as a phone. The Palm Top PC110 even had an optional webcam available to purchase, making it somewhat similar to a modern multi-purpose smartphone.
The device cost $1,500 ($2,800 in 2021), putting the computer far in the premium section of the gadget industry.
Toshiba Libretto 20 (1996)
At the time of its release, the Libretto 20 was the world‘s smallest mini-computer. The device was a third of an A4 page and weighed around 800 grams.
Since the device was running Microsoft Windows 95, it could be categorized as a subnotebook. However, the mid-90s mark the time when handheld PCs and subnotebooks start to merge.
Uniquely for a device its size, the Libretto 20 had a 6.1-inch color LCD screen. The Libretto 20 was first released in Japan, with later models going worldwide.
NEC MobilePro 200 (1997)
MobilePro was a series of devices by NEC. MobilePro 200 was released in 1997, entering the market relatively late in the game. NEC, however, offered novel features, like the ability to easily connect the device to a PC.
AA battery-powered device was equipped with a full keyboard, had a PC Card slot, and even ran Windows CE. The choice of the operating system allowed the device to be synchronized with a personal computer via an infrared port.
NEC released numerous successors to the MobilePro 200, with the last one, MobilePro 900c, released in 2004.
Vadem Clio C-1050 (1999)
The release of the Vadem Clio marked the end of the ‘90s and handheld PCs. Following Moore’s law, the computational capacity of devices increased, allowing to make smaller devices a lot more capable.
Vadem Clio was an impressive feat for its time, with a battery life of 12 hours difficult to match even in 2021. The device was equipped with a touchscreen and ran Windows CE operating system.
Most notably, Clio was equipped with a ‘swingarm’ named TriPad, which allowed the screen to be positioned in multiple ways. The device signaled what was to come in the handheld PC era. The C-1050 resembled a laptop, a subnotebook, and a tablet at the same time.
The trend indicated a growing need for multifunctional portable devices with a computational power far greater than offered by the digital personal assistants of the early ‘90s.
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