Compaqs get mixed reviews among retro computer enthusiasts. I had one in 1994 so I get it. They have quirks. But the news with Compaq isn’t all bad. So let’s look at the pros and cons of these machines, and why you may or may not want one.
There’s no better retro machine than the one you have
There’s a saying among photographers that there’s no better camera than the one you have with you at the moment. Sure, they have brands they prefer. But your $4,000 Canon or Nikon setup isn’t doing you any good if it’s at home and all you have is your phone. You take the shot with your phone in that case.
When it comes to retro computers, it seems like we have a lot of extremes. There are people who have basements full of the stuff. And there are people who are trying to get their first one. If you’re looking for your first retro PC and have a chance to buy a Compaq, you can do worse.
So just because your favorite Youtuber or other retro enthusiast doesn’t care much for Compaq, that doesn’t mean you should avoid them at all costs. There are pros and cons to Compaq, and the pros may outweigh the cons for you.
A big plus for Compaq, at least in the 486 and later era: They abandoned Varta or other barrel batteries earlier than many other manufacturers. So that lessens the chances of finding vast quantities of highly corrosive Varta juice spewed all over the motherboard. Yes, they were fond of integrated Dallas RTCs or soldered-on BR2335 batteries and they’ll probably be dead (mine from 1994 lasted 26 years for what it’s worth), but either is better than dealing with Varta juice.
Yes, a 2032 coin cell in a holder is the ideal, but Compaq gets a B- here.
The biggest annoyance with Compaqs are their nonstandard drive rails. Even their retail partners hated them. Best Buy complained to Compaq that they couldn’t install the floppy and CD-ROM drives and multimedia kits they sold in their machines because the rails they came with didn’t work. Compaq got an attitude with them, and Best Buy threatened to stop selling the machines as a result, at least according to my former manager. A bunch of Compaq drive rails showed up soon after so they could service the machines.
That doesn’t help us today.
While there are a lot of types of drive rails, style 5 is the kind I most frequently encounter, and you can get style 5 rails on Ebay if you need to add a 5.25″ floppy or CD-ROM drive to a system that lacks one. Or if you have a 3D printer, you may be able to download a suitable model. I found this one.
When it comes to pros and cons of Compaq, this is an annoyance, but not a showstopper. Especially with the ability to 3D print parts now.
Compaq’s screws are something you either love or hate, but they’re different. Rather than using the combo hex-head Phillips screws everyone not named IBM used, Compaq used a round combo Torx-slotted head screw. They’re nice to use if you have a T15 Torx driver. If you don’t, and you end up using a slotted driver, you’re not going to fall in love with those screws.
The disk controllers and video tend to be integrated onto the motherboard on a lot of Compaq systems, which doesn’t leave you much in the way of options for upgrading. Yes, you can usually disable them, but if all you have are ISA slots, what you put in will be slower, not faster. Depending on the system, the integrated peripherals can be pretty good. But if you like to mix and match parts, Compaqs aren’t usually the best choice.
The Presario 425 and 433 are the extreme case, with an integrated monitor. But they make nice project machines to upgrade them as far as they can go, and the result is a reasonably good 486 that takes minimal space and stores and sets up easily.
Cache and performance in general
Compaq systems usually didn’t have L2 cache, at least, until Intel started putting the L2 cache on the processors. My Compaq 486 has a good video chipset and good disk performance, but the lack of L2 cache and no way to add it means it’s always going to be a middling 486 performer. It’s not terrible, but it will never be great.
When it comes to pros and cons of Compaq, the so-so performance could be something for you. Then again, we often have multiple machines and can mix and match the software we want to run. And there are thousands of titles that do run just fine on a Compaq.
That’s a fair bit of downside. But on the upside, Compaqs were generally well built. While I didn’t like my Compaq 486 much when it was my main PC, it never broke. It went on to a second career as my router, routing my Internet connection to my other PCs for several years when it was no longer suitable to use as an everyday PC. Then it sat in my garage for a decade and a half while I wondered if I’d ever want it again someday. Actually I didn’t think about it much out there. It just sat there neglected and ignored.
And when I put it back together in 2019, guess what? It all worked but the hard drive, which is understandable. I put an SD to IDE device in it and soon had DOS up and running on it. No surgery required, all I had to do was find the parts I wanted to put in it and install them.
I have other 486s, but my Compaq is the only machine I have from that generation that didn’t require major surgery to get working again.
Popularity and prominence
Compaq crashed and burned hard not long after the dotcom bust, but one can’t overstate how big Compaq was in the 80s and 90s. It was Compaq who built the first 386 PC and wrestled control of the PC away from IBM. And in the 90s, Compaq did more than anyone else to drive down the cost of retail PCs while still maintaining a reasonable level of quality. Series 1 of the TV series Halt and Catch Fire is inspired by Compaq’s story. It’s heavily dramatized, but anyone familiar with Compaq’s history will recognize elements of it driving the plot.
Owning a Compaq really is owning a piece of history.
So while there are both pros and cons of Compaqs as retro hobby machines, I think they’re worth considering. Especially if you have the opportunity to buy one. They were very popular and common, so if you’re going to find a name-brand PC from that era, there’s a fairly good chance it will be a Compaq.