The first Compaq computer

Last Updated on April 23, 2023 by Dave Farquhar

The first Compaq computer was its eponymous Compaq Portable. It was a suitcase-sized clone of the original IBM Personal Computer, with an Intel 8088 CPU running at 4.77 MHz running Microsoft MS-DOS. It was hardly the first non-IBM computer to run MS-DOS, but it was the first legal IBM PC clone with a high degree of compatibility.

Compaq announced it in November 1982 and shipped the first unit in March 1983. It originally cost $2995 for a single-drive unit. A dual-drive unit, which was much more useful, cost $3,590.

The Compaq portable - the first Compaq computer
The first Compaq computer, the Compaq Portable, weighed almost 30 pounds and folded up like a briefcase for transport. This example has two floppy drives and a hard drive.

The first Compaq Computer

The Compaq Portable wasn’t very portable by today’s standards. It was the size of a suitcase and it weighed 28 pounds. But you could pack up and move it a lot faster than an IBM PC. In the days before laptops and LCD screens, the Compaq Portable was as portable as you could get.

Portable suitcase-sized computers existed before Compaq, but Compaq was the first to make a suitcase-sized computer that was compatible with the IBM PC.

What “Compaq” meant

The name “Compaq” allegedly meant Compatibility and quality. It also resembled the word “compact” but may or may not have been a play on that word. In time, Compaq also made desktop computers, but even in the 1990s, I had to remind people of that. Many people thought Compaq only made portables.

Compaq’s Deskpro 386, announced in September 1986, was the beginning of the end of IBM’s leadership in the PC market. From 1986 onward the industry followed Compaq, not IBM.

When it came to quality, Compaq meant it. In the early 1990s, I worked on a lot of Compaq Portables. Note I said worked on. I never had to fix one. I would install upgrades in them to make them useful past their point of obsolescence. By the time I was working on them, they were well over 10 years old. Y2K did them in more than anything, because it provided a convenient excuse to replace the old beasts with something newer.

Compaq’s strategy and philosophy

Compaq set industry records for profits in each of its first three years.
Compaq didn’t try to beat IBM’s prices. And they didn’t get fancy like Vector Graphic and build a hybrid machine that tried to run both MS-DOS and CP/M. Instead, Compaq’s founders noticed that portable computers were popular, and IBM didn’t make one. They bet that an IBM-compatible portable would be just as popular as a Kaypro or Osborne portable running CP/M. They were correct. Compaq’s idea was to build something as close to the IBM PC as possible, but in a form factor IBM didn’t make.

IBM built the IBM PC with off-the-shelf chips and other parts, so Compaq could just buy the same chips. Compaq could license MS-DOS from Microsoft. The only thing Compaq couldn’t buy was IBM’s BIOS, a ROM chip that many programs relied on. Compaq had to clone the BIOS. To do this, they treated the BIOS as a black box, entering every possible value, observing the output, and writing code that behaved identically. Programmers who had seen IBM’s BIOS code couldn’t work on Compaq’s BIOS.

The result: Essentially 100% compatibility. It sold a relatively modest 53,000 units in 1983. More importantly, it was profitable. It took nearly 4 1/2 years for Compaq to sell 1 million computers, but the company set industry records for profits in each of its first three years. Profits matter a bit more than sales, as Commodore can attest.

Compaq thrived through the early 1990s, but stumbled late in the decade with its acquisition of Digital Equipment Corporation. Ultimately this acquisition made Compaq vulnerable as well, leading to it becoming an acquisition target itself. Today, the once mighty upstart that took on IBM and became the darling of the industry is little more than a memory.

Later Compaqs elicit mixed feelings from hobbyists today, but hobbyists put up with the quirks of the early Compaq models. Partly that’s because of their historical significance, and partly it’s because in the early days, almost every brand-name XT clone had some quirks.

The first season of the TV series Halt and Catch Fire was inspired by Compaq’s origin story. It takes a fair number of liberties but the story is recognizable.

Upgrading a Compaq Portable

If you have a Compaq Portable and want to soup it up a little, there are a couple of completely reversible mods involving the NEC V20 CPU that you can do that will nearly double its speed.

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