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By Philip L. Harrison & Margaret A. Taylor

IN 1946, the first American electronic digital computer, ENIAC (for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator), was unveiled. It ran on 18,000 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors, 6,000 switches and 10,000 capacitors. It weighed more than 30 tons, occupied 1,500 square feet of floor space and consumed 140,000 watts of electricity. Commercial versions of this machine ran to the tune of $5 million.

Today your neighborhood computer store can sell you a computer more capable for less than the price of a compact car. It’ll use less electricity than a 150-watt bulb and won’t even clutter your desk top.

And there’s more. Today you can buy an honest-to-goodness science-fiction dream machine: a computer that you can hold in your hand and carry around in your pocket, which compares as favorably to most current micros as those desk tops do to the ancient ENIAC.

There is a point of confusion that has to be cleared up first: Just what is the difference between a pocket computer and some of the more sophisticated hand-held programmable calculators?

From a practical standpoint, it all depends on the type of information (data, if you will) that you manipulate. For many problems, numbers and mathematical formulas are all that are involved. And if number crunching is your game, either product may be suitable. (Astronauts, in fact, have often used programmable calculators to determine the data to be entered into on-board spacecraft computers.) Pocket or hand-held computers, however, not only allow you to crunch numbers (and in greater quantity), but to save them. You’ll also be able to save and manipulate letters and, in some cases, graphic symbols. This opens up problem solving to other-than-strictly-mathematical areas. In fact, it opens up the whole field of information storage and retrieval for virtually any purpose, from nuclear physics to household recipes.

Among the machines currently making their way to the marketplace, the two that most amply fit the criterion of pocketable are the Radio Shack TRS-80 Pocket Computer (manufactured by Sharp and also sold as the Sharp PC-1211) and the Quasar/Panasonic HHC (developed jointly by Matsushita of Japan and Friends Amis of San Francisco—those wonderful people in Silicon Valley who originally brought you the Atari video games and the Craig/Quasar/Panasonic language translator).

These computers are versatile tools that can put cheap but powerful and useful computing capability into the hands of everyone. And, while patience is a virtue in learning to operate these hand-held marvels, you don’t have to be an Einstein to figure out how they work or a mathematician/engineer to make practical use of them.

Lightest in weight (a mere 6 ounces) and least expensive (at $229.95), the Radio Shack/Sharp pocketable is the first to have come out in mass distribution.

The computer is just under 7 inches long, less than 3 inches wide and about 3A inch thick. It has a standard typewriter-format alphabetic keyboard with seven additional special-function keys. Twenty numerical and other notation keys are arranged for calculator-type convenience.

The Radio Shack/Sharp computer has a 24-character dot-matrix liquid-crystal display that can be automatically scrolled if a line is longer than 24 characters. Its workings include UK bytes of ROM (read-only memory) and just under 1.5K bytes of user-available BASIC programmable RAM (random-access memory).

Four mercury batteries (nonrechargeable) give a life of 300 hours. Additionally, a small amount of power remains on at all times— even when the unit itself is switched off—to protect the memory (and whatever data you have put into it).

When the display indicates (via gradually fading characters) that it’s battery-replacement time, just pop out the old and stick in the new; a built-in capacitor retains the electrical charge for about a minute, allowing the batteries to be replaced without losing anything in memory.

Among other important features to note are a built-in edit and debug mode. For the computer novice, the edit mode allows you to easily correct or change your programs. The debug mode executes a program one line at a time, which is very valuable in determining where program problems exist since it enables you to follow the computer’s actions step by step.

The computer also boasts a reservable memory system that allows you to store frequently used commands in any of 18 keys for one-touch recall along with a definable key system that lets you easily execute up to 18 frequently used programs. Within certain limits, this allows you to customize the computer.

Optional accessories (or peripherals, in tech talk) include a dot-matrix printer and a cassette interface for program and data storage. A nice touch is that this cassette-stored data can be accessed by your BASIC programs, which allows large amounts of data to be read or saved quickly.

Eleven ready-to-run cassette programs are available, including some that cover areas such as civil engineering, business, real estate, aviation and personal finance, along with a selection of games.

The Quasar/Panasonic pocket computer is the latest that technology has to offer and consequently the highest-priced pocketable (starting at $525).

A bit bigger than its TRS-80/PC-1211 brother (about 9 inches long, 33/4 inches wide and about VA inches thick) and 8 ounces heavier, the HHC comes standard with 16K bytes of ROM and either 2K or 4K (at an additional $70) of RAM, of which about 700 bytes are not user-available.

In the 2K version, this would appear to make the HHC less powerful than the TRS-80/PC-1211, but there is more. Unlike the other machine, this hand-held wonder is expandable. Three slots in the back each hold optional 16K ROM capsules, allowing a total on-board capability of 64K bytes of application programs or data. External programmable RAM banks are available in 4K modules, each expandable to 8K, and up to six such modules can be attached to the HHC at any one time, for a total of 48K.

That’s a respectable amount of computing power even for a desktop micro. Of course, adding those external modules onto the HHC eliminates its hand-holdability, but the unit is still quite portable.

In fact, Quasar sells an attache case to go along with the HHC and its accessories which include, besides a dot-matrix printer and a cassette interface, an acoustical modem, color-TV adapter and an RS-232C interface.

The result is a hand-held computer that can tie into any of the popular telephone-line data banks (like The Source, CompuServe or Dow Jones) or carry on a discussion with your company’s big mainframe from anywhere in the world (even a public phone booth) or can interface— through the RS-232C—-with any of hundreds of other peripherals manufactured by scores of companies.

Power for all of this is handled through the HHC itself, which utilizes 12-hour rechargeable Ni-Cads that are good for up to 600 hours, depending on accessory control and programming applications. Only the color-TV adapter (which produces displays in eight colors) requires AC power.

Like the TRS-80/PC-1211, the HHC is on even when you’ve shut it off. This means that what you’ve placed in memory remains there until you decide to change it, even if you accidentally hit the Off key. The unit also has an automatic shutdown after about ten minutes of inactivity.

Among the HHC’s other advantages is a built-in real-time clock that allows you to use the unit as an electronic secretary to remind you of appointments and important future dates. It does this, regardless of what mode you’re in, with a musical tone. You may continue with whatever you were doing or acknowledge the tone and check the secretary files.

Additionally, all 65 keys on the keyboard can be redefined, virtually customizing the computer for any individual need.

About the only complaint of substance concerns the HHC’s editing and debug features. For starters, there are two different editing procedures, depending on whether it is a text (the kind you would put into the secretary) or a program file.

The program files are listed in two menus but can only be changed from one (the BASIC menu).

The text file editor is easy to use, but the BASIC file editor is complicated by the software’s inability to move backward through a program. On a regular computer, this would be no particular problem, but keep in mind that the HHC’s 24-character display—like the TRS-80/PC-1211— shows only one line at a time. And unless you personally have a real good memory, you’re out of luck.

This problem, however, can be greatly alleviated through the use of the TV hookup, since the HHC then displays 16 lines at a time.

Also, data entered into a text file is not accessible by the BASIC language. As such, your programs can’t obtain any information you’ve put in this file. More-sophisticated users can, however, access these text files by using a language called SNAP, which also is available with the HHC.

Since there seems to be no end in sight to computer miniaturization, a fond dream of science-fiction writers is rapidly becoming a reality. By the year 2000, there seems to be little doubt that you’ll be able to hold in the palm of your hand a computer as capable as the most powerful machines now on the planet.

Couple this with such technical abilities as modern satellite communications and it’s quite possible that the sum total knowledge of the human race could eventually be at the tip of your fingers.

  1. NefariousWheel says: March 17, 200912:34 am

    The sum total knowledge of the human race at your fingertips — how beautiful is that?

    Now, if I could just get this Sturgeon’s Law filter to work…

  2. Casandro says: March 17, 20092:10 am

    Well the main problem was the advent of bad software and far to fast computers. Back then it was easy to build a computer which ran for hundreds of hours as you could just put it to sleep when you didn’t need it, or clock it with a fairly low clock rate. Today however a computer with less than a hundred megahertz of clock-rate is considered to be unusable. As in CMOS the power consumption is proportional to the clock-rate those computers need a lot of power.

  3. scud says: March 17, 20099:54 am

    So are these more of early palmtops or early netbooks? I guess the 1st was a palm and the 2nd a netbook, but they don’t look like neither, I must say – more like the nuclear bomb controlling suitcases.

  4. KentD says: March 17, 200912:11 pm

    The price shown for the Quasar/Panasonic pocket computer, $525, is equivalent to over $1100 today.…

  5. michael Jordan says: March 17, 20094:51 pm

    Following the PC-1 was the PC-2 which came with 8K in workspace and 8K in BASIC ROM with a cartridge memory upgrade of 16 K or 64 K.

    I bought the Radio Shack PC-2 (Sharp 1500) when it came out and it was the best and most useful computer I have ever owned. The printer which was offered with it was a four color plotter– black, green, red, and blue ballpoint tips with 9 sizes of type and graphic software included which plotted functions. I drove a cab at the time and used to print my receipts for customers with it while teaching myself to program in BASIC. The BASIC dialect was very flexible and better than what Microsoft offered at he time on their PC’s with DATA statements and computed GOTO statements. I lost it though when it was stolen from my cab. The dot matrix LCD on the detachable main unit was really cool with a thick piece of hardened beveled glass over the LCD panel. It was way cooler than a Blackberry or an Iphone is today and much easier to type on. The computer and printer together cost $450 and was well worth it.

  6. beagledad says: March 17, 20096:33 pm

    What’s that round thing on the front of the phone?

  7. Seba says: March 17, 20098:16 pm

    Does anyone else stop to read the Lectric Shave product?.Amazing.Wonder why is not on sale anymore.Great invention.And the modem and tiny computer stuff also is good.

  8. Torgo says: March 17, 200910:08 pm

    Everyone should go here:…

  9. katey says: March 17, 200910:53 pm

    Seba, it still exists! Can’t vouch for if it works, though.

  10. Charlene says: March 19, 200912:24 am

    The problem with a Sturgeon’s Law filter is that it would affect both input and output.

  11. Ken says: April 30, 200912:33 am

    Seba, the Lectric Shave works exactly as advertised; it’s great stuff.

    I don’t work for the company – just a long-time customer.

  12. Branimir says: January 28, 201010:12 am

    I still have Sharp PC 1403 and it works! Great software, BASIC much better then today’s, easy to use. And all with 32KB RAM…

  13. Don says: January 28, 201011:20 am

    How come we still say “dial” a cellphone? Or “tune in” a TV??

  14. jayessell says: January 28, 201012:22 pm

    Don: Linguistic inertia.

    Come up with a suitable substitute and we’ll see if it will displace the anachronistic version.

    I’d say “I fingered the wrong number and got the Sam’s Club Pharmacy by mistake.”

    but people are sure to misuse ‘fingered’.

  15. Paul says: February 7, 201012:38 pm

    Well, the total knowledge of the human race is indeed pretty much at our fingertips – the only trouble is you have to wade through pages of ads, scams and porn to get it.

  16. Firebrand38 says: February 7, 20104:01 pm

    Paul: Don’t forget urban legends and conspiracy theories presented as “fact”.

  17. JDT says: November 1, 20103:21 pm

    “The sum total knowledge of the human race at your fingertips.”
    Boy, I sure wish we had that now…

  18. jayessell says: November 3, 20103:20 pm

    The Krell had that in ‘Forbidden Planet’ and got around the porn
    by not permitting likenesses of Krellians.

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