In today's world of tablets, slim MacBooks, and incredibly capable wireless pocket computers (aka "smartphones"), tiny is typical. In fact, it's what we've come to expect from consumer computing products. Every year, technology pushes companies to introduce ever smaller, ever lighter computers that will some day become so small that we may inhale them by accident.
By extension, the further you peek back into computer history, the bigger you may expect computers to get. After all, computers less powerful than my pinky finger once filled up a whole room, right? That may be true, but as it turns out, older doesn't always mean larger.
Astounding advances in computer integrated circuit design in the 1970s opened up all sorts of avenues to computer miniaturization that spawned the first golden age of tiny PCs in the early-mid 1980s. That trend continued throughout the decade, with most compact PCs evolving from low-cost desktop models to higher-end portable units.
In the gallery below, we'll see 10 such machines that pushed the limits of computer size in the 1980s. When you're done reading, feel free to mention any I left out (and yes, I did not include every single tiny 1980's machine) in the comments below.
(This story was originally published on Sept. 4, 2011.)
Sinclair ZX80 (1980)
The Sinclair ZX80 is without a doubt one of the smallest fully functional desktop PCs of all time. With dimensions of 6.5 by 8.5 by 1.5 inches and a weight of a mere 12 ounces, one could easily mistake this tiny British computer for a futuristic Star Trek prop. Its miniscule size could only be matched by its miniscule price: $200 in the US, which was unheard of at the time.
A few drawbacks accompanied the ZX80's tiny size, however, including a cramped membrane keyboard, no color video support, no sound, and only one kilobyte of memory. But those sacrifices seemed completely reasonable to the parents of countless UK kids who learned to program on this mighty mite.
(Photos: Steven Stengel / OldComputers.net)
Atari Portfolio (1989)
Near the end of the decade, Atari released the world's smallest IBM PC-compatible computer, the Atari Portfolio, measuring about the size of a VHS cassette when closed. At its heart lay an Intel 80C88 CPU at 4.92MHz and a built-in MS-DOS 2.11-compatible OS in ROM called DIP-DOS. Users stored programs on removable battery-backed memory cards.
Around the same time as the Portfolio, a small company called Poqet Computer Corporation released a similar compact IBM PC clone called the Poqet PC, which also deserves mention. Neither one stormed the market, but both presaged what was to come in pocket PCs.
Epson HX-20 (1981)
Epson, now a popular printer manufacturer, once designed and sold its own PCs. In 1981, the company introduced what many consider to be the world's first laptop computer, the HX-20.
Epson threw in everything but the kitchen sink when designing its portable computer; the HX-20 included a 120-by-32-pixel LCD screen, a built-in microcassette drive for data storage, a full-stroke keyboard, and even a tiny dot-matrix printer—all powered by rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries.
With a length and width roughly equivalent to a sheet of letter size paper, a thickness of only 1.75 inches, and a weight of just 3.5 pounds, the compact HX-20 stunned many in the industry at a time when monstrous 20- to 50-pound desktop computer systems ruled most corners of the market.
RadioShack TRS-80 Pocket Computer (1980)
In 1980, RadioShack released the world's first hand-held portable PC, the TRS-80 Pocket Computer. It included a 24-character LCD display, a full QWERTY keyboard, and the BASIC programming language in ROM. This 6-ounce computer contained 1.5 kilobytes of RAM and ran off three AA batteries. Sharp, the company who designed the pocket computer for RadioShack, released a nearly identical device in Japan, the PC-1211, the same year. For more, check out The Golden Age of TRS-80: A Look Back at RadioShack Computers.
In case you're wondering, yes, that's Isaac Asimov's hand holding the Pocket Computer.
Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 (1983)
Shortly after Epson released its aforementioned HX-20 laptop computer, other companies joined the portable computer act. Japanese company Kyocera designed the Kyocera 85, a small portable PC with a rather large LCD display for the time. RadioShack licensed the design and sold it in the U.S. as the TRS-80 Model 100, seen here.
The Model 100 packed an amazing keyboard for its size and ran for many hours on only four AA batteries. Both of those features, and a built-in 300 baud modem, made it a favorite for journalists on the go. A few diehard Model 100 users still swear by their machines to this day.
The machine also holds a valuable place in history because its built-in ROM software contains some of the last commercial programming Bill Gates ever did himself.
Sinclair ZX81 / Timex-Sinclair 1000 (1981-82)
In 1981, Sinclair Research reduced the chip count and the price of its well-received ZX80 computer and released the result, which could easily be confused for a doorstop. The ZX81, was the world's first personal computer available for under $100 in the US.
The following year, watchmaker Timex teamed up with Sinclair to market the ZX81 more extensively in the United States. The result was the Timex Sinclair 1000, which retained most of the features of the ZX81 but doubled the system RAM to two kilobytes. The TS 1000 beared limitations similar to those of the ZX80, but at a mere $99.95, few buyers lost any sleep over them.
Seiko UC-2000 (1984)
The Seiko UC-2000 was the world's first wristwatch PC. As a standalone watch, the UC-2000 served mostly as a data display device. To program the gadget, Seiko sold a special keyboard that used the watch's display like a computer terminal for BASIC programming and more.
Check out this site for more details on Seiko's amazing line of computer watches, as well as our roundup of Ultra-Nerdy Watches of Yore.
Radio Shack TRS-80 MC-10 (1983)
Following the success of ultra-low cost computers like the Timex Sinclair 1000 in the US, RadioShack dove head first into the low end of the PC market with its TRS-80 MC-10. Slightly larger than the TS 1000, the MC 10 packed four kilobytes of RAM, color graphics, and even sound capabilities. At $120, it was the world's cheapest color-capable PC at the time of its release.
Shortly after the MC-10's debut, much more capable PCs (including the TRS-80 Color Computer) quickly came down in price. Those cheap midrange home PCs rendered the ultra-low-end PC market, with its extremely limited-use computers, largely irrelevant in the US.
Texas Instruments Compact Computer 40 (1983)
Much like RadioShack and Epson before it, Texas Instruments introduced its own portable, battery-powered, LCD-based PC in 1983. The Compact Computer 40 shipped with six to 18 kilobytes of RAM and with BASIC in ROM. It also included a cartridge slot for program expansion and could run for over 200 hours (!) on a set of four AA batteries. The unreliability of its proprietary tape drive limited its appeal to consumers, and the machine never took off.
(Photo: Steven Stengel / OldComputers.net)
Sinclair ZX Spectrum (1982)
Last, but not least, we drop in on the diminutive Sinclair ZX Spectrum, an immensely important machine in UK computer culture. This unabashedly British follow-up to the ZX81 sold over 5 million units worldwide in eight different models while inspiring countless international clones.
The ZX Spectrum packed a 3.5MHz Z80 CPU, 16K of RAM, color graphics, and built-in BASIC. It was low in price for a capable British computer at the time (125 Pounds Sterling at launch), though its compact 9.2 by 5.6 by 1.2-inch size (at 1.25 pounds) made it more ideal for young hands than those of adults.
Curiously, the ZX Spectrum never took off in the US due to intense competition from US home computer companies like Commodore, Atari, and Texas Instruments— and also due to a botched American version of the Spectrum called the Timex Sinclair 2068. But that's another story for another time.
(Photo: Bill Bertram / Wikipedia)