First post, by MrKsoft
I bought this laptop last month from an auction during Vintage Computer Festival Midwest, very cheaply and admittedly blind to any info about it: I didn't get a good look at it and basically just knew that it was an x86 laptop made by Digital Equipment Corp (honestly I had no idea they made laptops at all), and that it had... a German keyboard (odd considering this took place in the midwest USA). Got it home and there is basically zero information available about it online. It seems to be quite the uncommon machine; it was very difficult to find specs, and I still haven't found a manual at all. (I did find a commercial on Youtube though) The lack of info is probably to be expected since DEC has been gone since before the web really took off.
Anyway, to my surprise this machine has turned out to be more than just a curiosity. I expected a cute, but limited machine that probably wouldn't have any audio and a DSTN screen or something. In fact it was quite the contrary... it is a very slick, capable DOS machine given its age, and it reminds me very much of the recent ultrabook systems out there -- very small, slim size, no external storage, and yet still doesn't feel "limited". I wanted to post some pics and information so that there's something actually recent out there 😀
CPU: Intel 486DX4/75
RAM: 16MB (I believe 8MB is onboard and 8MB is in the single memory expansion slot on the bottom, as the system is apparently expandable to 24MB)
Graphics: Chips & Technologies 65545, 1MB VRAM (VLB)
Sound: ESS AudioDrive ES1488
Screen: 9.5 inch, 640x480 active-matrix TFT (!!) with hardware brightness slider
Hard drive: Originally a 543MB IDE 2.5" drive (Toshiba MK1924FCV) -- replaced with a 4GB Sandisk Ultra CompactFlash card... now this machine has zero moving parts, not even a fan!
OS: Arrived with Windows 95 installed. I believe this laptop was released early in 1995 so it probably originally had Windows 3.1, and came with Windows 95 after that was released) I've put DOS 6.2 and WFWG 3.11 on it for a much faster, lighter experience.
Ports: Parallel, Serial, VGA (back), IrDA, Headphone, Microphone, PS/2, Power (right side), 2x PCMCIA (left side)
This thing is incredibly small and thin. Here we see it sitting atop a PowerBook G3 (Pismo) from 2000. It makes the Pismo look huge! It's almost exactly one inch thick-- really incredible for the time. The battery serves as a stand -- it can be rotated to set the system flat, or elevated as shown here.
Overall this is a very nice system to play DOS games on. It is small and simple to carry around. The screen is really awesome for the age -- a nice bright TFT, definitely unusual for a 486 laptop! It doesn't really blur and looks great. I think there is some very slight stretching in 320x200 games, but I usually can't tell and that has made it hard to verify. Sound is pretty good -- ESS stuff is usually pretty decent at SB Pro compatibility and this is no exception. Not sure where the speaker(s) are (I think under the keyboard, but I didn't notice them when I took it apart) but the sound is clear and can get really loud if you want it to. The keyboard won't win any awards but I've typed on much worse ones-- although I can't tell if I'm having trouble because of the small size, or because of the German layout on mine. For gaming, it's acceptable. The trackball is decent and rolls smoothly even after all these years, but you might as well use the PS/2 port and plug a mouse in.
Of course, the size of the HiNote also means that it lacks external storage options. Mine did come with a floppy module that attaches to the bottom of the system, which increases the bulk of the system a bit. Unfortunately, the Citizen floppy drive inside the module was completely wrecked and was destroying any disks I put inside. I opened the module up and found that the drive itself was something standard, attaching to an "adapter" for the docking port using a ribbon cable. I was able to find a Mitsubishi drive using the same ribbon cable from the floppy module of a dead Compaq Armada 1750. However that drive is too deep to fit inside the original DEC adapter housing. So, when I've needed a floppy I plug the bare board into the bottom of the system, which is not exactly a stable setup. I try to avoid using it, and in fact only used it long enough to install DOS and copy over a copy of BananaCom, and now I regularly transfer files to and from it using a null modem cable and ZModem transfers. Sure, at the max of 115,200 baud I'm only getting about 10 kb/s over ZModem, but that's really not a big deal. If I'm moving over a game I just let it run for a while and go do something else.
There are a few drawbacks to this system, some of them are just me nitpicking, but I find them mostly acceptable given the laptop's overall positive qualities:
-No hardware volume knob, so audio defaults to max on boot and is controlled by fn+arrow keys or the ESSVOL utility. I have that run in autoexec.bat so that the max volume is brought down to an acceptable level.
-The OPL implementation is mostly good but seems to have issues with some games that use the old ROL playback engine. For instance my copy of Jill of the Jungle sounds absolutely horrible. On the other hand, Jill 2 is okay, so I think this was patched at some point. Games may have patches available to avoid it.
-Text mode font looks a bit odd in text-based games like ZZT that employ heavy use of the "block" characters.
-It's very hard to access the hard drive, and requires removal the CPU module, keyboard, and about 20 screws, then trying to pull apart the two halves of the system without breaking any of the plastic tabs.
-Lack of external storage devices could be annoying to some people. Judging by how uncommon the system itself is, I doubt the attachable disk drive modules are easy to find. Apart from the floppy module, I believe DEC made a CD-ROM module called the "Mobile Media Module". I have not seen a picture of it so no idea what it looks like.
-Speaking of external storage, I'm not sure what drivers I need to get PCMCIA working. I forgot to check what chipset it used on the original Win95 installation before I pulled the drive. I have a CF->PCMCIA adapter I use on my Amiga 1200 that would probably make file transfers a bit easier.
-Haven't found where the CMOS battery is. Mine is obviously quite dead, so I lose the clock settings if I leave it unplugged for more than a few minutes. Old forum postings suggest that it is on the bottom of the motherboard, but I haven't been able to get to it and without a disassembly guide I am concerned I would not be able to get the laptop back together. No idea if it's a coin cell or something rechargeable like some other laptops of the era. Hopefully being on the underside of the board means that a leak won't be as catastrophic, but it still bothers me a lot.
-When the system freeze, I am not sure how to hard power it off without yanking the power cord. The power button on the side just puts it in a sort of suspend mode, even when held. Same with Fn+Esc (which has a power symbol on it)... It does support APM so I can use a utility called POWEROFF.EXE to shut it down from DOS. A manual would probably be able to help me.
-Some colors have a bit of a dotted pattern to them on the screen. You can especially see this in the gray parts of Windows 3.x or 95. Possibly a limitation of these early TFTs? (See below)
Overall, a surprisingly slim and light 486 laptop that I have never seen anyone mention, but has all the necessities us DOS gamers need to have a little fun. I'd give it 4/5 stars. If anyone has any questions about it, I'm glad to answer. Maybe posting it here means it won't be as easily lost to time!
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