My HP 200LX: More Retrotech…
My latest retrotech acquisition is a HP 200LX. I bought it on ebay, still sealed in its plastic wrapper, though the box was a little scuffed and bent. It looks like this:
I guess it looks more interesting when it is open (some items added for scale):
So what is it?
Essentially it is an IBM XT-compatable computer in a very small form factor. It has a CGA screen, a ramdisk as c: and keys rather like those of a calculator. It uses a PCMCIA card to add an ‘a:’, which can be many MB in size. This is most easily done using these parts:
The CF-to-PCMCIA lets me put the CF into the LX, and the USB-to-CF lets me put the CF into any modern machine, so connectivity is pretty trivial, the only trick being that it is simpler to use smaller-capacity CF cards (mine is 64MB, which given the compactness of DOS programs is plenty).
The LX can be typed on, most easily using your thumbs, and it is comes with a suite of built-in software which does its job extremely well. The Appointment application is your calendar and diary, there is a simple word processor, Lotus 123, Quicken, file management, calculator, and so on. I am not bothering with internet connectivity, but it can be set up to connect to ethernet.
It is basically an organiser, except the vast DOS ecosystem supplies all kinds of useful tools. My favourites are VR (one of many links), which lets me use it as a book reader with the screen on its side as a single column of text, rather like a column in a newspaper (here is a post about a big ugly font I made for VR), and LXTEX, which is an abbreviated installation of the marvellous emTeX, a DOS (and OS/2) implementation of LaTeX, and BCFortran, an old FORTRAN compiler that can work without a DOS extender or a 32-bit processor.
There are plenty of time wasters (games) including the old classics, which are the right age and degree of complexity for me to be able to play (in other words, old and simple).
Other stuff that runs on it includes Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS, Lotus Agenda (both now ‘free as in beer’ and findable around the web), the very popular VDE, which is tailored to the LX, and suitably ancient (but highly usable) versions of gnuplot, perl and so on.
Commercial software which I have heard will work on the machine but needs appropriate licenses includes WordPerfect 5.1 and Procite 2.2, which in the 1990s was a very efficient word processor plus bibliography combination.
Things I like about it include:
- Instant on/off — as quick as turning on a calculator, and even quicker than my Alphasmart. Means if you have a note you want to take or a diary entry to make, there is no waiting — it is quicker than paper.
- The CF-to-USB gives me very easy file transfer in both directions.
- It runs on a pair of AA batteries, plus a coin cell to maintain backup when the AAs are swapped. No proprietary batteries and chargers needed. I find this extremely useful — if the (NiMH) batteries I use are getting low, I just grab a couple from the charger on my desk at home and instantly it’s recharged. I don’t even have the AC adapter for the unit — I don’t need one. If I am out and about I can buy a couple of batteries and it is instantly recharged.
(As an aside, the use of proprietary battery packs on modern machinery is in my opinion often a regressive step. Many packs are just assemblies of standard battery sizes anyway, but wrapped in a custom casing. As a result they can’t be charged in a generic charger, can’t be replaced by generic cells when the need is acute and immediate, and one bad cell makes the whole battery pack useless. A better solution (for the consumer, at least) would be a battery pack which can be removed from the device (say a laptop), then itself can be routinely opened up, perhaps by opening a couple of clips, to reveal the batteries inside in normal battery holders. This would allow any one battery to be replaced, or a set of charged batteries to be swapped in.. But anyway…)
- Oh, yes, and since it has no moving parts and an LCD screen, the batteries last for weeks anyway.
- No backlight means it needs an external light source to be used. But various people have come up with solutions to this, including using clip-on book-lights and fitting the LX with a proper backlight, and fitting a light that takes power from the mini-serial port on the unit’s side. Some of these of course affect battery life.
- Clearly it is not a device for doing a lot of typing; but, then, it is not a device for doing a lot of typing. My car can’t fly, either.
- The writing on the screen is inevitably often rather small, and the zoom function, while useful, does not reflow text so is not a perfect solution. But my car still can’t fly…
The device fills its role quite brilliantly. What it shows is that good design wins out over sheer processing power. An organiser that can take notes, prepare documents, do useful calculations, play some games, and have high availability and instant-on does not need 8 GB of RAM and a multicore processor. It needs designers and engineers who think carefully about what the user needs and how to package it. And, I guess, it needs users who are not lured in by flashy graphics and a million functions that add complexity but no value.