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:

HP 200LX, lid closed.

HP 200LX, lid closed.

I guess it looks more interesting when it is open (some items added for scale):

HP 200LX, lid open.

HP 200LX, lid open. Curtis Cameron’s Tetris on the screen.

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:

Compact Flash stuff.

Top: Compact Flash-to-PCMCIA adapter. Left: Compact Flash-to-USB. Right: Compact Flash card.

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.

Negatives:

  • 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.

Similarly.

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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

4 responses to “My HP 200LX: More Retrotech…”

  1. Matt says :

    Hey Darren, do you know of any modern devices which we can buy today for a reasonable price like this which you can do excel input like a dream like this device does…

    I work in survey, and we used to use the 200xl until two years ago, now we use Windows Mobile palm devices with touch screen for inputting data to an excel spreadsheet because it was to hard to find these and repair them…

    • Darren says :

      Hi Matt

      I am happy enough still using my old LX. The nearest thing I know of to a like-for-like replacement is the Pandora. To me a like-for-like replacement needs to be able to be programmed and used flexibly, like a real computer, rather than just running pre-existing apps. But it is _not_ cheap, and it is Linux. The price may be reasonable given the capabilities… http://www.hermocom.com/openpandora but it not ‘cheap’, though of course when it was new the 200LX was not cheap either… they are also currently out of stock, and there have been issues with delivery and stuff, so research is important… https://www.dragonbox.de/en/16-pandora

      I have no experience with the UMPC market, and it seems to be a thing of the past anyway. You can try googling ‘7″ arm netbook’ for something cheap and possibly nasty… when I did that I came up with items like this one: https://www.amazon.com/eForprice-Notebook-Cortex-A9-Computer-Installed/dp/B00OH39T26 on ebay and amazon. Not as small as an LX, though.

      HP put out a few Windows-based follow-ups to the 200LX, using WinCE, but they are getting very old now and not really a solution.

      Sorry, I can’t offer any definitive leads. I’ve had a Acer One Netbook (Intel atom) for 5+ years now, and it was a pretty good compromise on size/performance, though of course nothing like the battery life of the LX.

  2. G. Emmert says :

    Hey Darren,

    Thanks for post. I love my HP200LX. I’ll stop using it for a while and then it just creeps back in my pack. Nothing modern that I have ever really replaces it for on the go stuff. All the things that may make the masses consider it “obsolete” are all the reasons I use it. Truly distraction free stream of consciousness into Memo that I can easily port over to modern word processor. I have Word 5.5 for Dos installed, but I find that Memo gives me a “cleaner” transfer to modern Word.

    It’s always ready in an instant. And if I want distraction, I can do black jack, tetris, snakes or some other thing. I can’t remember the last time that I started to use it and had no battery and if I do, I usually have 2 AAs that I can throw in for another month or more of daily use. I also like the built in calendar and to do list. I have three of them, one that I use daily and two other backups in case of zombie apocalypses, I suppose.

    I have always thought that I would like to attempt a backlight on one of them but in the end, I just use one of those headlamps on a strap that I keep around anyway. That usually does the trick if I need to see it in the dark. Sure–I look like a dork, but I’m already carrying a 20+ year-old palmtop around. Do I care? Nope.

    I agree with you. I can whip this out in a meeting, take a note of whatever I need. Do a quick calculation with Lotus 123 that I can repeat many times and make plots even. I have a bunch of old 123 spreadsheets that I have had for years. My solution to port these to a modern PC is I have Lotus 123 Smartsuite that allows me to open/import and then save as Excel files if I need them.

    Cheers!

    • Darren says :

      Thanks! I use it almost every day. It’s not just the form factor — the built-in software is so cleverly designed. I use Appointment, Memo, and my kids play Snake and some other old DOS CGA games in the car. I use LaTeX on it, even, though not often. I’ll be very sad when it finally gives up (or gets dropped, lost, whatever). Cheers to you too.

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