Laptops

The MacBook Air of the 80s: The Tandy Model 100

Debuting in 1983, the Tandy Model 100 was the first truly portable computer. It heralded the era of the notebook computer and was even more shocking than the MacBook Air. Here's a look back.

Debuting in 1983, the Tandy Model 100 was the first truly portable computer. It heralded the era of the notebook computer and was even more shocking than the MacBook Air. Here's a look back.

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Back in the early 1980s if you wanted to compute on the go, your options were sorely limited. As you saw in the Osbourne I and TRS-80 Model 4P photo galleries, you practically had to be a body builder to take your computer with you. Weighing in at over 20 lbs each, they were called luggables fora reason. Plus, to add insult to injury, unless you were near an electrical outlet, you couldn't use them for much other than a footrest.

Debuting in March 1983, the Tandy Model 100 changed all of that. It was the first popular computer that was truly portable. The Tandy 100 weighed in at just 3 lbs with the batteries (4 AAs) installed. It had the same basic dimensions as a piece of paper and was less than 3" thick.

Under the hood

Although it wasn't a powerhouse by any means, the Model 100 came with an Intel M80C85 CPU. This was a CMOS version of the 8085, a respectable 8-bit processor running at 2.5Mhz.

The Model 100 came with a base 8Kb of RAM. It was expandable up to 32Kb. That may not sound like very much memory, but for the time -- and especially in the form factor -- it was a lot.

Along with the 8Kb of RAM, you had an onboard ROM that contained the programs that came with the Tandy 100. It was instant-on. There was no waiting for the computer to boot. When you started the computer, it went straight to a main menu with the ROM programs readily available.  You could choose from such things as:

  • Basic
  • Text
  • Telcom
  • Schedule
  • Address

Text, the word processor, really didn't do anything fancy. You could only enter in basic text. There was no formatting at all. Forget about bolding, underlining, and fancy stuff like that. And naturally, there was no such thing as a spell checker.

The Telcom program worked with the interal 300-bps second modem to allow you to connect to remote machines. Most often this would have been a BBS or a service like CompuServe. Although 300 bps is incomprehensibly slow today, for the text services of the 80s it wasn't TOO bad. You could actually read the text as it scrolled on-screen.

Address and Schedule were nothing more than programs that allowed you to access text files that contained your address book and scheduled information. They were nearly useless.

Standard equipment on most computers at the time was Basic, and the Model 100 was no exception. The onboard Basic included on the Model 100 was created by Microsoft, and legend has it that it includes code written by Bill Gates himself.

You could power the Model 100 either by plugging it in or by using four alkaline AA batteries. On standby, the batteries would power the system for a full month. Running constantly, you could get 20 hours out of a set of batteries -- a feat not even matched by today's laptops.

Tandy sold the Model 100 through its Radio Shack stores. Unlike other computers, such as the Tandy 1000 that it built in its own factories, the Model 100 was built to Tandy specifications by Kyocera. Kyocera sold similar units to NEC and Olivetti, but the Model 100 was far and away more successful.

The MacBook Air of the 80s

Just as today when people marvel over the lightness and the small dimensions of the MacBook Air, in 1983 people were stunned by the small size of the Model 100. The price points were actually about the same as well. In 1983, the Tandy Model 100 debuted at $999. Adjusted for inflation that's $2,120 in 2007 dollars. Considering a MacBook Air can be had for as little as $1,799, the Model 100 wasn't that much of a bargain.

Over time the price dropped, and Radio Shack changed the unit. They debuted the Model 200, which had a clam-shell design, more memory, and more programs. They also introduced the Model 102, which was thinner and had a lower price point. By the time Radio Shack discontinued the Model 100 in the late 80s you could get one for $399.

Alive and kicking

You can still find some Model 100s floating around. Additionally, there are online clubs, such as Club 100, which support, service, and sell Model 100s. You can download programs for them and buy parts as well.

Check out the Model 100 in our Tandy Model 100 Dinosaur Sighting Photo Gallery.

8 comments
.Martin.
.Martin.

http://pc-museum.com/gallery/rcm-047-big.jpg who needs a black and white or color screen when you can have ORANGE AND BLACK!!! weighing in at only 9.5kg (about 21 pounds), it used to be a great little (or not) (un)portable computer :) Still sitting around, will have to get it working :D

Mikebanks
Mikebanks

... and you can buy a Model 100 from an eBay seller for as low as one dollar, plus six dollars shipping. The best part about the Model 100 was the fact that it ran on four cheap AA batteries. 300 bps wasn't slow in the text world, when you were emailing and transferring text files. But it really got boggy when you tried to chat with it (which I did); the letters came through slower than most people could type. (I'm going to add that to the new edition of On the Way to the Web.) Baudly, --Mike

johns
johns

There is a small group of 100 users on facebook. I saw my first bevy of 100's when Pope John Paul celebrated Mass in Texas 20 years ago. There, under a sweltering tent were a dozen or so journalists banging away on their 100's. I have a 102 I crank up once in a while. Some guy is trying to make a little SD card storage device for it. If it ever gets to market, I'd buy one and again use the 102 for some general writing. Great keyboard!

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

Man, that machine was a beast! Not only could I play BattleTech, but it was a work horse....With my 1200 bps modem, I pwned the world! On that note, does Fidonet still exist?

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

For Classics Rock, we just produced a Dinosaur Sighting Photo Gallery featuring the Tandy Model 100: http://content.techrepublic.com.com/2346-10878_11-212334.html I took a look back at the Model 100 as well http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/classic-tech/?p=155 This was a truly revolutionary product which is the great-granddaddy of every notebook computer in use today. In some respects such as battery life and boot speed, the Tandy 100 still is unsurpassed. I had a Model 200 which I'll be featuring soon. I never had a Model 100, but remember what a cool machine it was when I first saw it. Did you ever have a Tandy Model 100? And what was your first portable computer?

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

Gotta love those monochrome plasma screens. We actually almost chased down one of those and a similar Compaq unit for a Dinosaur Sighting and Cracking Open. Might be a good candidate for 2009. :)

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

I saw something similar mentioned on Club 100, the group I mentioned in the main post. I have a Model 200 and if they came out with such a device it would be kinda cool. Sure would make passing information a lot easier than through the serial port. I agree the keyboards on the 100 and 200 were really good. They have a nice mechanical feel to them.

Mikebanks
Mikebanks

To add to the TRS-80 Model 100 lore, I just unearthed the fact that a Model 100 clone was briefly planned by Nixdorf in Germany. It was manufactured by Kyocera, of course, just like the original Model 100, the Olivetti M10, and the NEC PC-8201. Nixdor had a later line of laptops that did well, and early on tried to market an Osborne-like machine, which was referred to as a "schlepptop." --Mike On the Way to the Web