My First Computer – Compudyne 3SXL/25 386 25MHz Notebook Laptop

The year was 1995, I was 15 years old and I loved computers.  I spoke about my history with computers in another post chris80502 The Early Computer Years.  This post will discuss the first machine I owned, the Compudyne 3SXL/25.

At the time of purchase it cost $684 and was already years out of date.  Especially when you consider the Intel Pentium processor was released in 1993.  However, for me, it was the best machine that I could reasonably acquire.

Specifications:

Intel 80386SX 25MHz CPU
4MB RAM (expandable to 6MB)
80MB Hard Drive
Integrated trackball
64 Shade Monochrome LCD Display
1.44 MB Floppy Disk Drive
Serial, Parallel, PS/2 & 15 pin DSub VGA Ports
100-pin Toshiba Compatible Expansion Slot Connector
24Watt/hr NiCad Battery
MS-DOS 5.00 with Windows 3.1

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The image of the laptop on the manual cover shown above is an actual and accurate representation of the real machine.  The Compudyne Microsoft WINDOWS 3.1 Concise Edition was just that, it is about 1/3 the thickness of the standard Windows manual of that era.  Unfortunately my books have “aged”, but I doubt many other copies remain today.  After a quick search on ebay there appears to be very little Compudyne related material floating around in the collector market.

A Brief but Enlightened Existence

As my first machine I was interested in experimenting with all sorts of different things that I had not had the opportunity to experiment with before.  Mostly software related, things like reinstalling the OS or doing some programming in qBasic.  I even installed Windows 95 on the machine, but it took something like 4 whole minutes to boot to the desktop.  Once booted with Win 95 the system was so slow it could hardly be used for anything.  I ended up settling back on DOS and Windows 3.1.

As you might imagine, I also played many games.  Those were the days of all sorts of fun shareware.  I would spend countless hours playing games like Wolfenstein in 3D, Doom, Packrat, Crystal Caves and Cosmos Cosmic Adventure amongst many others.  Indeed I owned some software of my own, most notably Lightspeed (a super cool early 3D RTS space sim with commerce, resource gathering, ship upgrades and combat!).

Primarily though I did a lot of programming on this machine.  I created a software program about Egypt and the pyramids for history class.  I created another program that did virtual frog dissection, and yet another that was about spider anatomy.  I was always working on some new bit of code or trying out some other fun idea.  One of my biggest projects was to create my own operating system, or rather like Windows as it was software that would run in DOS as Win 3.1 and earlier had always done.  I started work on a system which I called Isoworks.  I had created a basic user interface as well as some simple utilities, even a GUI icon creator for my new system.  When the system finally died, a lot of this code was lost, locked on a disk I couldn’t access.

Since this was a laptop I wasn’t able to upgrade much.  However I did add an external parallel port Addonics 2X CD-ROM drive.  In those days that device cost $300, if I had wanted to get the 4X, it would have been $600!

addonics_portable_cd_parallel_port_2x_cd-rom

I recently found the one shown above at a computer recycler I know.  I could hardly believe it when I saw this one, it looks very much like the one I had originally.  This one is marked 12x on the bottom and the installed CD-ROM appears to be different than the one I had in the past.  At any rate, the case is the same, as is the bold blue Addonics Portable CD sticker on the side of the drive.  Using the device was pretty straight forward.  Have the parallel port mode set correctly in BIOS, plug in the cable and use the included software in your autoexec.bat to start the driver.  With bulky cables and at a little over 5 lbs. you can imagine this CD-ROM was pretty cumbersome for portable use.

The battery on this Compudyne Notebook never worked.  I had looked into purchasing a new battery, but at the time they were quite expensive – maybe as much as $200.  Couple this with the portable CD-ROM and I practically had a desktop anyway.

The Beginning of the End

At some point not long into my ownership of the machine I started having trouble with the keyboard.  I found that the cable to the motherboard had started cracking in two.  I’m not sure if I caused the issue myself, or if it was just plain defective.  Regardless I had no warranty but I was brazen enough to attempt to fix the device myself.  Sadly though I only made problems worse.  I tried to do a soldering job to reattach the halves, that only melted the cable up.  At that point I was stuck and didn’t know what to do.  I ended up using the keyboard port with an external keyboard.  The days of this machine being a laptop were over.

It wasn’t long after having to use the external keyboard that I started looking into getting a new computer.  The truth is, I don’t remember what finally killed this machine.  All I know for sure is that it must have died, because I wasn’t able to retrieve my data (programs/code I had written) that were on that 80MB disk.  I had pulled the disk thinking I could use it with an adapter in a desktop machine, however I never found the right type.  I do still have the drive, maybe it works, who knows though after all these years.

compudyne_toshiba_hard_disk_drive_80_mb_dos_5.00

Regrettably this is all that remains of my Compudyne 3SXL/25.  I believe I got rid of the rest of the machine with some other computer waste in the mid-late 2000’s.

Rambling Bits…

Though it wasn’t much of a machine it allowed me to learn skills I later used and improved upon throughout my life.  I will always have a fond memory of this machine for that reason.  But it also reminds me of a time when I had dreamed of becoming a millionaire, having my own multi-national computer software company and creating my own user interface!

chris80502 – The Early Computer Years

This is a brief overview of my early years with computers.  I’ve been interested in computers as long as I can remember.  My first computer related memories are playing with the Logo program on Apple IIe machines when I was in first grade (I think 1st).  But it wasn’t until I turned 10 that I really first started learning about computers.  In 1990 my family moved to a different city where they had a much newer computer network comprised of IBM PS2 series machines.  One of those days, early after moving, I was talking to the network system admin and I believe I wanted to copy a disk.  He was kind enough to write down the DOS (v3.3 I believe) commands on a piece of blue ruled yellow paper, copy a>*.*, or something to that effect.  The more I think about it, the more I feel like that must have been some defining moment in my life’s development, almost as if the door had been opened or something.  I can remember that moment in time very vividly, in such clear detail- the admin, the paper, the look of his printing on the paper, the room, our position in the room, the 286 PS/2s in rows around the room.  Okay, anyway… that was the very beginning.

In 1993 my dad purchased a 486 Packard Bell 33MHz, 4MB RAM (IIRC).  I learned a little about Windows and DOS on that machine, however I never messed with things too much because I was nervous I would break things- and at that time I think he had paid about $1850 for the complete setup.  He used it for word processing and spread sheets, and we did go online as early as 1994 (I still have paint brush files that my siblings and I created).  My father is not technical so he also didn’t want me messing with things.  However, I was able to play with the school network a little throughout middle school.

I acquired my own computer in 1995.  It was a Compudyne 386sx 25MHz laptop with 4MB RAM, 80MB HDD 64 color monochrome screen, integrated trackball, and a dead battery.  It cost $684 and my dad bought it for me as an advance Christmas/birthday gift.  I started programming that year.  My high school offered a few qbasic programming classes so I joined and then proceeded to purchase the book Learned qBasic in 21 Days.  Within those 3 weeks I had learned far more than even the teacher knew about the language (what did she know anyway?  She was a math teacher, ugh…).  It was at that point that I became a nuisance to the school faculty.  While I wanted to learn more about computers I was far beyond everyone else in my classes – including the teachers.  So I ended up spending lots of time helping others.  Of course, that got old fast, I am a terrible teacher unfortunately.  Soon I was off to discover how the schools network worked and how I could get to DOS (or whatever the system at the time).  Though never on purpose, I did crash the entire network on at least one occasion.  Each year our high school attempted to rework their network software infrastructure.  After my first year there I guess they decided the network had too many holes, and indeed it did.  You could get to DOS from Microsoft Works somehow, lol!  Our network admin always suspected that I was to blame for some of the problems, however he could never prove that it was me, and quite probably, it wasn’t.  The big problem then was you could use a custom boot disk to circumvent the system startup and deliver you right to DOS.  From there you could do a ton of stuff, plus there were many other ways into DOS- and I was by no means the only person who knew these things.

At the end of my freshman year the admin told me they were going to upgrade the system to a new software that we wouldn’t be able to hack through.  He even offered to let me have a go at the system before the school year started.  Well, the software was installed but they never let me try to get into things.  As you might imagine this kind of made me upset, and I then made it my passion to find every hole in the system.  As an interesting aside, at the beginning of the year, there were new users for every student from the previous year, all without passwords.  So we (my friends and I) added passwords to every student we could think of that left school that last year, to gain extra accounts to use while we attempted to get into the system.  Once again, the admin had no way to track us.  Within the first quarter of the school year we had identified a numerous holes in the new system.   So many in fact that I wrote a small book and left a copy in the library computer lab where I was sure it would be found by an appropriate person.  I guess I just felt super burned by the whole situation.  Certainly, I never did anything to damage things, and by presenting the book, I was only doing what I had originally offered.

During the beginning of my junior year, I acquired my next computer.  To be clear, I did have a few other machines previously, but nothing I considered a real computer, lol.  An old science teacher had given me an old Apple IIe compatible (probably a Franklin).  I played some games on that one, but promptly ended up taking it apart and destroying it – I’ve never had much respect for Apple, then or now.  I also had an old IBM 8088 machine that was gutted and we used an oxy-acetalene torch to remove all the sockets from the motherboard.  I can’t for the life of me recall why we did these things.  Anyway, this new computer was the first I built myself.  I was so worried that I would damage the CPU and RAM that I purchased those parts with the motherboard and had them installed by the seller.  It seems funny to me now, you could can be entirely careless with those early socket 7 CPUs, bend a few pins, no worries, bend them right back.  Nothing like how easily motherboards of today can get a damaged pin, and they can be hard if not impossible to fix.  For this first build I spent some pretty big money for a 16 year old, about $3462!  I was lucky my father was willing to loan me this much via his credit card.  All of these purchases were through companies who advertised in Computer Shopper.  That was my favorite magazine of the 1990s.  I used to carry that huge book around all over, when I found an item I liked, I wrote the page number on the cover.  Back in the 90s it seemed like every part was about $200.  Need a sound card, okay $200, how about a video card – sure $200, RAM upgrade – no problem – $200.  Here is a quick list of the system specifications:

Intel Pentium 150MHz (was supposed to be a Pentium Pro 150MHz…)
32MB RAM
3GB Quantum Fireball HDD
Diamond Stealth64 2001 Video Card with 4MB Video Memory & TV Tuner
Sound Blaster AWE32
Cadet AM/FM Radio Tuner Card
Iomega 100MB Zip Drive
8x CD-ROM
6 Disc CD-ROM Changer

For the time, this was an impressive machine.  Kids I went to school with questioned the need for 32MB of RAM, which was certainly a valid point for me in particular, because I really didn’t use the machine to its full potential.  The TV tuner card was awesome, and the radio card was a neat novelty as well.  I also had an ISA fan card installed that was pretty unnecessary.

During those years I was sure of what I wanted to do in life.  Be a programmer.  It was something I thought was fun, and it was something I knew could make a good living.  By my junior year in high school I had moved on to the final programming class our school offered, which switched to the Pascal language.  For some reason I didn’t go after learning Pascal as I did qbasic.  I think I felt it was a bit archaic.  I probably also felt that it wasn’t worth learning another language that I wouldn’t use in a professional career.  Unfortunately, the teacher of the class and I did not get along.  This jerk-off was my math teacher too.  I have never been good at math, and this guy wasn’t a good teacher.  At the time I suppose I was a bit of smart mouth as well, which generally doesn’t bode well for most students.  Due to a combination of the aforementioned issues I did not do well in his class.  I also found myself wasting too much time playing around with things I shouldn’t have been, and not doing work.  I suppose that at the time, network computer time was a premium that you could only have access to so much of per day.  My plan at the time was to get into the advanced placement college courses for computer programming at a local technical school for my senior year in high school.  But as one might expect, that same teacher had to sign off on that, which he was not willing to do.  I was furious, I left the computer lab and about half way down the hall I punched a locker.  I had to trot down the hall quickly as I heard a different teacher came running out to see what caused such a commotion.  All this culminated in my first “walk away” from computers.