The Laser Portable Computers that ran BASIC.

The Laser Portable Computers that ran BASIC.


Hello, and welcome to another episode of the 8-Bit Guy. Today, I want to show you a rather unusual
line of portable computers known as the laser portable computers and these were manufactured
from the mid 1980s all the way up to the late 1990s. These were produced by V-tech, which is the
same company that produces most of the kids toy type electronics like this, and they also
produced the Laser 128 and XT which were portable clones of the Apple II and IBM PC. They also made some other interesting computers
of their own, which I will feature in a separate episode. So let’s start with the original model from
1985, the Laser 50 Personal Computer. According to the box, it’s the BASIC learning
tool that teaches you BASIC. So let’s take it out of the box and see
what it does. One thing I really like about this computer
is the manual. It’s extremely friendly and down to earth
and it really tries to teach you how to use BASIC. It reminds me of the Commodore VIC-20 users
manual. It also has a lot of example type in BASIC
programs in the back. On the bottom it has some extendable little
legs that will prop the keyboard and screen up slightly. This is a memory expansion socket. It can take up to 16K of RAM in here. Of course, this is the battery compartment
and it will run on 4 double-A batteries. On the rear there is a 6V power input and
a jack for connecting up a cassette recorder to load and save your programs. And this connector here is for a printer. it also has a little carry handle that you
could carry it around with. So let’s power it on and see how it works. So it doesn’t show much at first. It has seveal modes of operation if you look
over to the right of the screen. The two main modes are computer and calculator. And the way you switch is by pressing the
mode button and then a number like one or two. You can see a tiny text on the screen change
from comp to calc and so on. Typing in BASIC is somewhat of a challenge
as you have a 16 character by one line screen to work with . The screen will automatically
scroll over as you type. However, they give you these left-to-right
arrows to help you see the entire lines of BASIC. The BASIC dialect itself is a little different
from what I was used to and took me several tries to make programs work correctly without
syntax errors. In fact, some of the more common commands
in BASIC are actually missing on this machine. So here’s a little example program I made. It’s just 3 lines. It asks what your name is. Of course, if you want to see the whole sentence,
you have to scroll over. Anyway, then once you input your name, it
will tell you hello. I also wrote this little program that creates
random beeps. So let’s look at the keyboard.. I hate the placement of the SPACE key.. I keep hitting it when I mean to press SHIFT. But also, that’s just a really tacky place
for the SPACE. Also, when in calculator mode, many of the
keys shift around. For example, even when I hold down the shift
key, the paranthesis don’t work. I have to use the special calculator keys
for that. So if I want to see what the SINE of 32 is,
then I have to use these special parenthesis over here. Otherwise, it is a very capable scientific
calculator. So, a natural comparison to make with this
would be one of Radio Shack’s pocket computers. And, while the pocket computer is smaller,
I think the Laser50 is actually a better computer. Let’s open it up and have a look inside. It is surprisingly spartan inside. Being this was made in 1985 and that the specs
say it has a Z80 processor, I was expecting to see individual chips such as a CPU, ROM,
and RAM. However, it appears there are only 3 chips
in the thing, these two here appear to drive the LCD as well as the keyboard matrix.. and
one of them must contain the CPU as well. Down here there is a 2K static RAM chip, and
that’s all there is in this thing. Believe it or not, this is the actual screen
here. And along with it you have a polarizer and
this metal reflector that goes behind.. Oh, look at that, I have the polarizer on
backwards. So yeah, this is actually how LCD screens
can be inverted to be positive or negative, simply by changing the orientation of the
polarizer. Let’s look at this accessory sheet that
came with it. So you can see some of the available accessories
were a custom cassette recorder, a 4-color plotter, or alternatively a small thermal
printer. And don’t forget the 16K RAM expansion. And while I have not been able to find the
original price for this computer, the order sheet has some pricing for some of the accessories
and these were probably pretty cheap accessories for the time. So, considering this thing runs on the same
CPU core as a ZX81, or as we call it in the United States, the Timex Sinclair 1000, and
has about the same amount of memory as well, I would venture to say this computer probably
cost somewhere between $100 to $150. So, I am not entirely sure who the target
audience was. But, you know, I would have loved to have
something like this as a kid to take to Grandma’s house or on a road trip or something like
that to keep me entertained. However, admittedly, with a lack of 3rd party
software and with the tiny screen it’s kind of limited functionality as to what you could
really do with it, so it might have become boring after a while. On the other hand, this would have been great
for people in scientific or engineering fields, especially if you were working out in the
field and you had a very specific set of calculations you needed to run on a regular basis. This thing will store up to 10 BASIC programs
at a time. So you could setup specific BASIC programs
to run whatever calculations you needed to run on a regular basis and you could even
print them out if you had the printer. Now, one thing I should mention though is
that you can’t type more than about 20 words per minute on this, or it starts either repeating
characters or just skipping characters. The keyboard matrix algorithms don’t seem
to be able to tolerate faster typing. So a few years later in 1988, they followed
this thing up with an entire series of portable computers for every budget. We’ll start by looking at the Laser Compumate
1. It’s hard to actually call this thing a
computer. It does have 8K of RAM and runs on a Z80 processor,
but it only does three functions, a spell checker, calculator, and telephone directory. One thing you may notice is that they tried
to stay with the same size keyboard as the Laser50, only this time you get a real space
bar, but they have removed the row of number keys from the top. However, I do consider that to be an improvement
for typing. If you want to press a number, you have to
use the virtual number pad here. So let’s pick one for spell check. So you can already see it suffers from the
same problem as the Laser50 when it comes to not being able to type quickly. Let’s try a little experiment. Ok, so I didn’t actually make any typing
mistakes there, but you can see it didn’t come out well. The calculator is really nothing to brag about
either. It doesn’t even have any advanced scientific
functions like the Laser50 did. And so let’s briefly take a look at the
phone book. It’s not very clear what is going on here,
I had to actually look at the manual to figure it out. Overall, this part of the system kind of stinks
too. It does have a 12V Dc port on the back, and
you can remove this door for RAM expansion, although I can’t imagine why 8K wouldn’t
be sufficient for this thing. And it does have a little reference guide
on the bottom here. And it runs on 4 AA batteries. So, moving along let’s take a look at the
Laser PC3. This one has a full keyboard, at least, with
a real space bar and number keys too. Powering it on, you can see it has 32K of
RAM and a much nicer 2-line display. And you can see it has 10 built-in applications. The one I find most fascinating is the word-processor. I had a hard time believing you could write
and edit documents on a 20 by 2 line LCD display. However, apparently you can. Its not exactly what I’d call fun, though. It also suffers from not being able to handle
fast typing, as you can see. However, if you try to keep your typing speed
down to about 20 words per minute, it seems to be able to keep up with that. The irony behind this is that one of the applications
on here is a typing tutor, designed to help you learn to type faster. I guess if you can only type 10 words a minute,
then great, it will help you get to 20. But don’t bother trying to go any faster
than 20. So, I guess you could take this to Starbucks
and write up your memoirs, school reports, or whatever it is people go there to do. But don’t expect it to be easy to transfer
the document off to your PC. It does have an alarm clock on here. I’m going to try setting the time, one of
the things I’m wondering about is how it will handle the year 2017 considering it defaults
to 1988. Well, it does take it, althoug we can easily
say it is not year-2000 compliant since it only uses 2 digits. You can also configure the way you want the
date and time to be displayed on screen, which is pretty cool. So let’s look at the back. So it has a communications port, which is
used for a printer or connecting to your home PC. It also has a cassette port so you can load
and save your documents to tape. So that’s pretty cool. I’d hate to fill up that 32K and not have
a backup somewhere. And, a standard 12V power port. On the bottom you’ve got the battery compartment,
and that same RAM expansion as the previous model. And here’s the cable it came with for connecting
up a standard Centronics style parallel printer. I say standard, that was standard at the time. I do not have the cable necessary to connect
this to your PC and transfer data. So, one of the menus it has is a communication
menu, and there seem to be a lot of things you can configure here about serial ports,
printer ports, connecting to your PC, etc. One interesting thing is it has an option
for dialing. And I did notice on the side that there were
little knock-out sections labelled for telephone jacks. So presumably this was available with a built-in
modem. So, I can only imagine the torture of dialing
into an online service using a 20×2 character LCD screen. But, you know, I guess in a pinch it’d be
better than nothing. So moving on to the high end unit, the PC4. This one has a larger screen and also the
nicest keyboard of all of the units. When powering this one on, you’ll see it
has 128K, quite a bit a RAM for a system like this. It has quite a few different applications
built in. Let’s start with the calculator. This one does at least give us the advanced
scientific functions. And the word processor is a little bit less
of a joke since you have a screen large enough to actually see what you are typing on. it also includes BASIC, so you can write your
own programs. That is what makes this computer significantly
better than the previous two, in my opinion. However, BASIC appears to be much of an afterthought
on this computer. In fact, this machine has a really thick manual,
but unlike the laser50 manual which was almost entirely devoted to teaching you BASIC. This little section of the manual here is
all that it has even mentioning BASIC. In fact, I find it interesting that it doesn’t
even mention all of the available commands. As an example, I didn’t even know this machine
had a sound command until I just tried it out of curiosity. It uses the same format as the old Laser50. Typing on this machine is really comfortable
as the keyboard has a really nice feel to it. However, it does suffer from the same problem
as the other machines in that about 20 words per minute is the maximum it will accept. It might be a natural thing to compare this
unit to the old Tandy portable series. And it has some significant advantages. For example, the built-in software that comes
on the Laser is so much better than the Tandy that words just can’t describe. And the Laser has 128K versus 24K in the Tandy. Also the contrast on the Laser is a litte
sharper and easier to read, but the Tandy has a bigger screen, plus the screen is capable
of doing graphics. And from a programming perspective, the BASIC
is better on the Tandy as well as you can do assembly language programs on this too. So, from a programming perspective, this is
the better machine. So let’s have a look at the bottom. So it uses the same 4 AA battery configuration. And it has this same port, but it turns out
this isn’t for memory expansion after all. According to the manual on this thing, it
is for additional program ROMs. So most likely that is what it was for on
the other machines too. of course, it has the same expansion port for printer and PC
interface, but it seems to be lacking the cassette connection, even though it is still
labelled on the back. And it has the same 12V power input. Also the manual shows that it uses a Z80 processor
running at 3.58 Mhz, which is interesting. So you might think a machine like this could
be a great machine for typing up documents in a more distraction free way since you can’t
be tempted to open Facebook or check your email. And, while that would almost be true, except
that it is such a pain to get the stuff you’ve written transferred over to a modern computer. As such, when I need distraction free writing,
I tend to grab one of my iBook G3 computers since it is too slow to really use the internet
these days, but at least it’s new enough that I can copy my finished document over
the wireless network or onto a USB stick. OK, so moving ahead, this is the last model
of Laser portable computer, which came out in the late 1990s. Now, this one has a much nicer bit-mapped
graphical screen. So let’s take a look at the word processor. Notice it has this really big 40-column font. But you can press the 40/80 key here and it
will alternate between 40 and 80 columns, I guess depending on how good your eyesight
is. But The 80 column by 8 line display is actually
quite adequate for word processing. The calculator is not bad, also retaining
the scientific functions. It has a homework calendar, suggesting this
product was marketed towards schools. And, It has a spreadsheet, but nothing notable
to really say about it. Now here’s where things get interesting
to me, anyway. On the rear you’ll notice it has the same
printer and data interface as the previous models, and it has a DC input. But it also has a video output. However, I can’t find anything about it. The users manual only mentions it one time
right here, just saying that you need an optional video converter. The bottom has that same expansion module
port. And the usual 4 AA batteries. But I was kind of interested to see what is
under here. The last model had a similar looking area. So I decided to investigate. So it turns out there is a flash memory chip,
probably containing the firmware. But also some really nasty corroded battery
cells. So, looking inside, you’ll see the screen
and keyboard here, and over here is the logic board. So you have the firmware and the system memory
here. But the more interesting bits are here. This is a somewhat modernized Z80 compatible
processor, along with the LCD video controller and the video RAM chip. I was hoping to uncover something about that
video output jack, but just didn’t come up with anything. So, that’s too bad about the video port. I think given time I could figure out if it
is some kind of composite or S-video signal in there. I could probably sort it out using some oscilloscope
or something like that. I really just don’t have the time for it. And it may actually require some additional
external circuitry, so it may be a lost cause. So, I’m just not going to worry about it. While I had it opened I did take the opportunity
to remove these corroded cells,since they are obviously dead. at least they won’t be leaking anymore. In fact, there is virtually no information
on any of these Laser portable computers. It’s really hard to find anything out about
them at all, both from a historical standpoint or from a technical standpoint. In fact, pretty much everything I’ve shown
you in this video is about all that’s known, at least publicly, about them. In fact, I’ve never even heard of this line
until Andrew Craner donated this PC4 to me late last year. Then I got kind of interested in it so I started
trying to collect the rest of the series so I ended up with these to go along with it. Now, interestingly enough, the Laser50 is
not hard to find. You can find these all over ebay and they
generally run $20, $30, $40 Dollars. So they’re not hard to find. The rest of these, particularly, the PC4,
PC5, and the PC6 are tough to find. They rarely show up on ebay. They’re not particularly valuable, they’re
just hard to find. So, anyway, thank you for watching and I hope
you found this interesting. And I hope you find what I have coming up
next interesting, so stick around for that and I’ll se you next time.