One of the things that inspired me to look at old computers as cool and exciting tools for writing texts was Neil Gaiman typing one of his novels on an old Atari Portfolio Palmtop. However, the second one was Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin admitting to still using a DOS program Word Star 4.0 to write his books (admittedly this was in 2014, so there is a possibility that he doesn’t use it anymore — Neil Gaiman also prefers a fountain pen and a notebook nowadays).
The DOS operating system was something I missed completely. When people were still using it to do their work, I was playing games on my Commodore Amiga 500. When I made a move to an IBM PC computer, it was already the Windows 3.11 and soon after the Windows 95 everywhere era. So I almost never touched the command line-based DOS. But having a really small operating system with only text-mode applications seemed like an interesting thing to try!
Well, the most exciting thing would be to combine the two aspects I like — portability and a well documented, once popular operating system — how about a portable computer that runs DOS! This way, I started to investigate the small computers from the LX series made by Hewlett Packard, a few of which run a full-fledged version of the DOS operating system and can actually run George Martin’s Word Star word processor too!
I just recently managed to lay my hands on the two Hewlett Packard mobile computers that I wanted to try. Both of these early palmtops were made in the 1990s, and both ticked some of the very important for me boxes:
- Powered by just standard AA size batteries (no old rechargeable batteries to fight with)
- Able to exchange data easily via a CF card with modern computers.
- Using operating systems that allow for easy file exchange and installing applications.
- Sturdy and self-contained while featuring a full keyboard that can be used with both hands.
These are respectively the HP 200LX and HP 360LX.
The 200LX was a very popular device in the 1990s Japan – used by many businesses for mobile computing and by many hobbyists alike. It’s still very sought after as a hobby retro computer, so the price for one in-box and in good condition can be pretty horrendous. The 360LX, on the other hand, is very rare on the Japanese second-hand market, and I might have bought the first one I saw in more than a year I spent looking for it.
Both of the palmtops came to me with badly burnt LCD panels — it seems that the HP mobile computers of this period using similar screens were all very susceptible to the deterioration of the polarizing film layer. The screen turns black, looking like it was burned. Fortunately, although cleaning the old burned film off the screen is labor-intensive, it’s not technically complex and can be done in an evening while listening to an audiobook. Other than the screen burn, both devices were luckily in good shape and just needed a clean.
I think that the older palmtop, HP 200LX, is one of the most interesting devices I own. Despite its minuscule size (similar to the bigger iPhones though of course thicker), it features a full keyboard with a number pad and sports the Microsoft DOS 5.00 operating system and is almost fully compatible with the IBM PC XT type of computers! I’ll explain why this is important in a moment. The 200LX features a PCMCIA slot for extension cards, a serial port, and an infrared transceiver. As I said, it runs on two AA batteries and feels very well built and sturdy.
The standard built-in software is business-oriented — it features a very rich set of PIM applications as well as Pocket Quicken (finance manager) and Lotus 123 (a spreadsheet app). This was a lot to feature in such a small package for that time (this was 1994!). The standard writing app is very robust — it can do font styles (bold, underline, etc.) and then save the text in either .DOC files (which can be converted to .RTF) or just plain ASCII text files to the CF card with no problem. Other than this, it’s a barebones app with only the standard “copy, paste, find,” etc., set of options. No spellcheck.
The fun part, though, comes in quitting the built-in applications altogether to get to the underlying DOS operating system. Here, thanks to the awesome compatibility, a whole suite of proffessional applications can be installed! We can even use famous ’80s programs like Word Perfect, Letter Perfect, Word Star 4.1 (the George RR Martin word processor), or even the last DOS version of Microsoft Word 5.5A! All these programs run quite smoothly on the tiny computer. You can even play some retro games like Rogue or Prince of Persia, though the LCD screen is not the best for gaming. The screen (even with the repairs I did) is sharp and contrasty thanks to not having a touch-sensitive layer — no touch pen here — one operates the computer only via the keyboard.
The small clicky keyboard is the main downside — as one could imagine, typing with two fingers is the best I can do on it. It’s still better than Casio’s Cassiopeia device but still minuscule. One very interesting solution to this tough is connecting an external keyboard using the serial port. Apple’s Newton keyboard with an adapter and special DOS drivers can be used for this to great results! I promptly bought one and made the adapter to try it out — it works very well on most of the applications I tried out and is undoubtedly a cool thing to write on! Microsoft Word or Word Star on the HP 200LX and a Newton keyboard must have been a dream mobile writing setup in the early ’90s!
Overall I have so much fun using this palmtop, diving, and fiddling around with DOS software (there is a lot of applications archived online, still easy to download). I can understand why it’s so highly sought after!
The second HP palmtop — the 360LX, also received a successful screen surgery. I was afraid that this one would be difficult to fix due to its backlight and touch layers. The fix went smoothly, though, and now I can finally have a go at using the 360LX too.
The 360LX is a bit bigger than the 200LX, and thanks to this, it has several advantages — an additional CF card slot, a bigger screen (with resistive touch and backlight), and a bigger and more comfortable keyboard. Despite it still being a chicklet type, the keys are big enough to type faster using four or even six fingers.
The 360LX sadly got rid of the DOS operating system in favor of the Windows CE 2.0. This environment is quite full-featured out-of-the-box with mobile versions of Word, Excell, and PowerPoint. The Windows CE 2.0 update also gives some additional features — the ability to save written texts to .RTF files is the useful one for me. The software is fast and responsive. I know it well from the Cassiopeia and NEC Mobile Gear.
Overall the 360LX is a very well-rounded device, but it has some downsides that are enough to discourage me from making it my favorite mobile writing device. The screen is really, really dark and hard to read, even when the backlight is on. It may partly be because of the screen burn (which is still visible even after replacing the polarizer), but the LCD panel is the darkest of all the mobile devices I currently have in my collection. Even on some photos I found of the device online, taken when it was launched, it looks like the screen was really dim and dark originally too.
The second thing is the operating system. In the exact opposite of the 200LX’s DOS, the Windows CE 2.0 has a very small (and currently almost impossible to find) software library. It gets better on my main Nec MobileGear, which sports Windows CE 3.0 PRO, but here, on the 360LX, I was hard-pressed to find anything useful. Even the tiny Microsoft-made apps that add simple functionality like word count for Word can’t be used.
Overall I’m very happy that I managed to get hold of and resurrect (by fixing the screens) both of the HP palmtops. The 200LX exceeded my expectations and will certainly be explored further as a retro DOS platform and a writing device. I want to try to write something using the old DOS word processors, learn how to use DOS, and maybe even install more old games! The 360LX’s screen sadly defeats its use for me, no matter the purpose — a great shame as the rest of its hardware made it a very promising candidate for a great writing machine.