Tandy didn’t invent the laptop, but Radio Shack sold more laptops than anyone else in the 1980s. Here’s a look back at the pioneering Radio Shack laptops. They may have been unsophisticated by today’s standards, but they were very innovative for their time.
Radio Shack also sold desktop and home computers, but its laptop line was a huge success.
TRS-80 Model 100 and 102
The TRS-80 Model 100 was one of the first successful portable computers. Tandy sourced it from Kyocera of Japan, and introduced it in the United States in 1983. Even though it wasn’t particularly successful in its homeland of Japan, it sold 6 million units in the United States. That’s a success of Apple II proportions. It ran on four AA batteries and could give up to 20 hours of use. It had an Intel 80C85 CPU running at 2.4 MHz, anywhere from 8 to 32 KB of RAM, and an 8-line 40-character LCD display, in monochrome of course.
Unlike some computers of its era, it had a 56-key, full-sized, full-travel keyboard. It had several simple applications built in, including a text editor, and it had enough memory to hold about 11 pages of text.
The Model 102 was a direct replacement for the 100, released in 1986. It was more lightweight and came standard with 24K of RAM, expandable to 32K.
Tandy Model 200
The Tandy Model 200 looks more like a modern laptop, with a flip-up LCD screen with a resolution of 240×128 pixels. It was essentially a Model 100 with a larger screen and came standard with 32K of memory, with the same CPU and operating system, so software could run on both machines as long as it could adjust to whichever screen the system had.
The Model 200 could display 40 columns of text like the Model 100, but it had room for 16 lines. The larger screen was an improvement but was less than professional computers of the day, which displayed 80 columns of text, matching the number of characters per line of a dot matrix printer printing on a standard sheet of paper.
It weighed four and a half pounds and could run for 16 hours on a set of AA batteries. The Model 100 and 200 were a compromise but were successful, partly because of their low cost and convenience.
Tandy Model 600
The Tandy 600 is an improved version of the Model 200, but it was much less successful. It had an 80-column screen with 25 lines of text and a built-in disk drive and a faster 80c88 CPU, but the CPU change meant it wasn’t compatible with the Model 100 or 200. The 80c88 CPU is a close relative of the IBM PC’s 8088 CPU, but Tandy didn’t make the Model 600 compatible with the IBM PC or Tandy 1000. It did ship with improved software, with Microsoft Works and Multiplan built in.
The Model 600 didn’t sell well, likely because IBM PC-compatible laptops appeared on the market around the same time it did. The ability to run Lotus 1-2-3 on a laptop computer made its competitors much more compelling. Radio Shack only sold 25,000-50,000 Model 600s, making it the least successful of the Radio Shack laptops. It was just too expensive and too incompatible to make it.
Tandy 1400 series
The Tandy 1400 series replaced the Model 600. Unlike the Model 600, it ran MS-DOS and was compatible with software for the IBM PC. It shipped with one or two 3.5-inch disk drives and a 20-megabyte hard drive was available as an option.
Success and significance
Radio Shack laptops, especially the Model 100 and 200, are significant partly because they contain the last software Bill Gates personally wrote himself. The Model 100 line was especially popular with journalists, who used them well after their technical obsolescence due to their long life on commonly available batteries and a built-in modem and terminal program that made it easy to transmit stories back to the newsroom from the field, long before the Internet made such things trivial. These computers survived in the field well into the 1990s because they were easy to keep working.
These laptops are collectible today due to their historic significance, but are common enough that they aren’t terribly expensive.