Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Tale of Two Tandys

That I own a large number of old computers goes without saying. Perhaps I'm making up for the 1980's, when I was a serious but underprivileged nerd who lacked the funds to buy a computer (though, to be fair, I did have a really cranking Texas Instruments TI-99 4/A for a goodly chunk of it). During the late 1990's, I satiated that need but went perhaps a bit overboard, and rid myself of them. Now, my obsession is with portable computers.

My first portable machine of note was a Bondwell B-200 laptop. I purchased that in late 1996, and it served me as well as any dual floppy MS-DOS based machine could (I actually used IBM PC-DOS version 5). The machine I followed that with, though, was truly impressive, and I still own it.

A Tandy Model 102.

Just do a quick search on the Internet for Tandy Model 100 (the original design). This machine is legendary. Back when I did a little work as a space writer, I'd see rows of these things at the press site during shuttle launches. When I began my job at AT&T, a number of techs used them as well, and that was my first real introduction to them.

I bought mine for the princely sum of $15 in July of 1997, when it was 9 years old. In its basic form, it is almost useless; you can write on it all day long, but without a way to print or transfer documents, you're pretty well stuck. So, I built a transfer cable and used my Bondwell as its hub. In time, the Bondwell was simply ignored, being used less and less (finally lost it in 2000) while the Tandy took up more and more writing chores. When I officially completed my transition to Macintosh in 2000, it simply took an old Imagewriter II cable to allow the Tandy to transfer. It was a beautiful thing.

But this little essay is about two Tandys and the dangers in not thinking things through.

I have another Tandy laptop, a 1100 FD. And it's dead.

Now here's an example of good idea, bad implementation. When it was released in 1992, it was, for all intents and purposes, obsolete. But it was, in many ways, similar to the Macintosh PowerBook 100, the first real Apple laptop (not counting the Portable). Both use a fairly basic processor; the Tandy 1100 FD uses an NEC V20 (a better derivative of the Intel 8088) moving at 10 mHz. while the PowerBook 100 uses a Motorola 68HC000 (a lower power version of the venerable 68000 CPU). Both were designed to be entry level.

But Tandy dropped the ball this time. While it is in many ways comparable to the PowerBook 100, it is far behind it. First, it more closely resembles a PC laptop from the late 1980's than a laptop from the 1990's. The lack of backlit LCD is a sore point, the processor used another (286 laptops were common by this point and the first 386 equipped ones were appearing). The ROM based MS-DOS is nice, as is that most basic of GUIs, Tandy's DeskMate, but lacked an internal harddrive (though they did appear later). The floppy drive (something which was not internal to the PowerBook 100) was only a 720kb. There are other problems as well (it feels a little flimsy, to be honest).

But this was the line that was supposed to take over the Model 100/102 market. And it didn't last as long.

From a user standpoint, I believe that one of the reasons the Model 100/102 remained so popular had to do with the battery. The Model 100/102 uses regular old AA batteries. No need to carry around a recharger; simply run to your nearest store and grab another pack. And it runs forever on those 4 AA batteries. Okay, not quite forever, but you can easily get 24 hours straight. The Tandy 1100 barely managed two hours, and used a lead acid battery, requiring a recharger.

Did I mention that the Tandy 1100 seemed flimsy? It looks nice-ish, but... seems... well... not as well thought out as the Model 100/102. This probably has to do with the fact that this little computer is actually a Kyocera. They introduced the line in 1983, but for some reason didn't sell that well, so Tandy purchased and rebadged them. I can tell you that I've dropped, poured milk on and have many times simply punished that little laptop, and yet after a little cleanup, it continues to run. On the other hand, the Tandy 1100 FD is dead; at some point, a liquid was introduced to the keyboard and it failed. The belt driven floppy drive is also dead (the rubber band/belt broke).

Not that I wouldn't mine if the old Tandy 1100 FD ran; it'd be nice to have an XT class machine running in the Little household. But it is not to be.

But at least my Model 102 (named "Tandy"... duh...) still runs and gets used from time to time. How many laptops that are more than ten years get used these days, let alone one that is twenty?

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