Recently I have got two very interesting computing devices: the first Hewlett Packard palmtop computer – the 95LX and their last DOS-powered one – the 200LX. Both are relatively small and light devices that look as very small notebooks. Of course, they are much bigger than the Ben NanoNote: one of them occupies more space than two Bens standing side by side and it is also heavier. But the screen size is also bigger than two Ben screens.
The HP 95LX was sold from 1990 and it’s latest successor, the 200LX was sold until 1999 (it was probably the last PC XT-compatible computer in production).
From engineering point of view these machines were special mostly for their small size. The rest of them in more or less normal: a NEC-produced 808186-compatible processor, MGA or CGA graphics, serial port and so on. They have a build-in DOS operating system and some applications. The most important is an advanced (for the time) spreadsheet calculator Lotus 123. They also have a calendar/reminder program (simple but nice), a quite powerful graphing calculator, a text editor (which is used to produce this text, by the way) and few more. Thy are able to run unmodified DOS programs – this ability was probably their most important selling point. There are limitations (only 286-compatible real-mode programs can be used) but during 1990s it was a great advantage over their competitors: most PDA devices used special operating systems (PalmOS, EPOC and so) whose required specially written programs. Even successors of the HP 200LX were not able to run PC programs so the 200LX was produced so long.
The 95LX was a state-of-art device when it was new: a MGA-resolution screen, a relatively fast 5 MHz processor and standard-sized memory (“640 kB should be enough for everyone…”) was comparable with desktop PCs. There were also advanced features like PCMCIA slot and the infrared port. The 100LX and 200LX have faster processor (9 MHz), better screens (CGA) and larger memory (up to 2 MB) but that’s all.
If you remember the parameters of pCs and laptops in late 1990s (200 MHz and faster CPUs, 32-128 MB RAMs, at least SVGA screens) you must thing that people who buyed these laptops were insane. I don’t think so: the device offered a DOS software compatibility, a good keyboard and an extreme battery life (up to 30 hours of active use). So it was able to replace bot laptop and PDA for certain users (people weren’t so addicted to on-line services in that time and they were able to work offline – do you remember?).
These devices aren’t perfect, of course. Their PCMCIA ports somewhat predates the official standard so 95LX can accept only now obsolete SRAM cards and only a few more other cards and the 200LX can also accepts flash cards. So one can not insert it’s WiFi or ethernet card and expect that it will work. It will not. Also the infrared support is very basic: you have to install addon software to be able to send files to other computers.
But they are very good for many tasks. Ad they ARE fast. The 5 MHz (for example, the Ben has over 300 MHz) processor clock doesn’t mean that they are sluggish. Actually, all the build-in applications are perfectly responsible. And it is even possible to switch between running applications, even the older 95LX can do that (no, it’s not a multitasking, and it’s limited by available memory). I also have tried the Gnuplot 3.2 for DOS: it is bit slower but not so much. And the functions look surprisingly nice on the monochromatic screen.
Without any additional software these devices can be used for notetaking, time planning (there is a good calendar program with alarms), as portable spreadsheets and as desktop calculators (the 200LX has also a database program and some other things). And you can install DOS programs to get other functionalities: there are people who use the graphical Arachne WWW browser on their 200LXs (I’m not crazy enough to try this).
P.S. This text was completely written on the 200LX’s keyboard. It’s intuitive and easy to use but it’s still bit unusual for me. So I’m sorry for typos…