(From BYTE, June 1984, Vol. 9, No. 6)


The HP 110

A light and powerful portable

IN THE BATTLE for dominance in the growing market for lightweight, battery-powered, briefcase-size portable computers, Hewlett-Packard has unveiled its new model, the HP 110. The unit is outwardly similar to many of its competitors - it's about the size of a metropolitan phone directory and has a flip-up LCD (liquid-crystal display) screen that lifts to uncover a typewriter-style keyboard. But two aspects of the design philosophy behind the 110 help set it apart from the crowd.

First, the 110's combination of abundant internal memory and silicon-based software makes it an extremely satisfactory traveling computer, freeing you from a large part of the dependence on disks and other cumbersome storage media. Second, the HP 110 was seen from the very first as the hub of an integrated system of components, an ideal that has been realized with the concurrent announcement of related products from Hewlett-Packard.

The guts of the computer are built around the Harris 80C86, a CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) version of the popular 8086 microprocessor chip, running at 5.33 MHz (megahertz). Available memory consists of 272K bytes of CMOS RAM (random-access read/ write memory), which you can divide between system RAM and electronic disk emulation, and a whopping 384K bytes of CMOS ROM (read-only memory). System RAM can range from a minimum of 96K bytes to a maximum of 256K bytes. Onboard ROM contains an assortment of software, including HP's Personal Applications Manager (a shell-style user interface), MS-DOS version 2.01 (the operating system itself plus a collection of utilities for file management, directory maintenance, disk formatting, etc.), Lotus 1-2-3, Memomaker (a simple word-processing program), and a timer/ alarm program. Also contained in ROM is the communications software to drive the computer's three output ports: an RS-232C serial interface, a proprietary HPIL (Hewlett-Packard Interface Loop) interface, and a built-in 300-bps (bits per second) modem that accepts a standard phone plug (see photo 2). There is no internal disk storage, but the battery- powered CMOS chips are essentially nonvolatile; that is, you can turn off the display and come back to the computer a week later and pick up exactly where you left off.

Photo l: The HP 110 links to two optional battery-powered peripherals, the HP 2225B ink-jet dot-matrix printer and, the HP 9114 single 3 1/2-inch disk drive.

Photo 2: The back view of the HP 110. Shown from left to right are the two connections for the HPIL serial interface, the socket for the plug-in recharger, a nine-pin RS-232C port, and a modular phone jack for the internal modem. The removable panel in the center provides access to the lead-acid batteries.

Hewlett-Packard manufactures its own CMOS ROM and RAM chips at Corvallis, Oregon, home of the division that has been producing hand-held computers and calculators for several years. Designers of the 110 took advantage of this facility to engineer two other CMOS chips for this project: an ICD controller with 8K bytes of display ROM, software fonts for the character generator, and bit-mapping for graphics; and another 8K-byte ROM chip, known as "the kitchen sink," that includes the timer, interrupts, serial port, and keyboard interface. These efforts resulted in a main printed-circuit board and an I/O (input/ output) board with lower chip counts than you might expect. The final boards are not tightly packed; descendants of the 110 will have room for more interesting goodies.

The display is an 80-character by 16-line LCD, though the large expanse of plastic bezel around the screen suggests the possibility of a bigger display in the indeterminate future. In fact, HP engineers commented that they had looked at 24-line screens but had decided that product reliability and image quality were still too uncertain to make them acceptable at this time. You can select two character fonts: Hewlett- Packard's and an alternate set compatible with that of the IBM Personal Computer (PC). You can program the display in graphics mode as a grid of 480 by 128 pixels (picture elements). This is relatively high resolution, particularly for an LCD, and is suitable for most types of business graphics. Brightness (actually, darkness in this case) can be controlled with a single key on the right side of the keyboard. Characters and graphics are sharp, and screen updates are quite rapid.

The 110's keyboard is laid out in the standard Selectric format (i.e., the Return and Shift keys are in the old familiar locations) and has a full complement of computer keys: Control, Break/Stop, Escape/Delete, Caps Lock, and Print/ Enter. A key labeled "Extend char" generates a non-ASCII (American National Standard Code for Information Interchange) character and is equivalent to the Alt key of the IBM PC. An additional row of keys along the top of the keyboard includes eight soft (determined by individual programs) function keys, two menu keys that generate or remove a map of the function keys from the bottom three lines of the screen, a Select key that chooses a highlighted option within a program, and four cursor- movement keys. There is no separate numeric keypad.

The rechargeable lead-acid batteries that power the 110 are rated at 20 hours of continuous use. In actual practice, the 110 can go for a week or more of sporadic use before the batteries become dangerously weak. The system is designed to preserve memory at all costs. The display is the major power drain, and the computer shuts it off at a preset interval of inactivity; you can choose an interval of anywhere from 30 seconds to 30 minutes. When the batteries reach 5 percent of capacity, the 110 refuses to turn on the display until they've been recharged. If the 110 is not used at all, you can expect a couple of months on a single charge.

The unit is a compact device with a high-impact molded plastic shell, measuring 13 by 10 by 3 inches (closed); its color is the typical nondescript off-white. It weighs in at 9 pounds. The basic package includes a plug-in recharger (similar to those used for other portable products) and a black vinyl carrying case with a handle and a wide, adjustable shoulder strap.

The HP 110 is tested to rather severe standards. However, the Hewlett-Packard quality-control staff stresses that these are goals rather than absolute guarantees for each machine: 0 to 50 degrees Celsius for operation, - 25 to 55 degrees for storage, and 95 percent humidity for five days at 40 degrees. The units are also put through condensation, moisture absorption, and rapid temperature cycling tests. HP 110s have withstood altitudes of 50,000 feet and forces of 100 G on all axes. The fact that there are no sensitive internal drives - no moving parts at all, with the exception of the keys and the lid hinges and latches - makes the 110 an extremely rugged computer. All units must pass FCC Class B limits on electromagnetic interference; Hewlett-Packard is working with the FAA to end the controversy over computer use on commercial airliners and to establish hard, published standards for portable computer radiation.


When you first open the HP 110, the screen is blank; pressing any key activates the display. The first time you use the computer, you will see Hewlett-Packard's Personal Applications Manager (PAM), modified somewhat from the original version distributed with the HP 150 touchscreen personal computer (see photo 3). Subsequently, turning on the display returns you to where you were the last time you used the computer. PAM is an operating-system shell; most file manipulation and system configuration is accomplished through PAM's main or subsidiary menus.

The initial PAM screen shows a number of important status items: date, time, remaining battery life, and space available on the electronic disk drive (called the A: drive). Most of the display is used to show the applications you can run. At the outset, these applications are those programs resident in ROM (called the B: drive); if at some point you load programs into the RAM disk, those programs are also displayed on the screen. Moving the cursor to a program and pressing either the first function key (Start Applic) or the Select key loads and runs the program. Data files are not listed.

The second function key (File Manager) leads to a secondary shell. The File Manager displays all the files in the default directory and a list of alternate directories. On this screen, the function keys enable you to print or delete a file or a directory, create a new directory (following MS-DOS path rules), choose a new directory to display, copy a file, rename a file, or format a new disk (more on this later in the section on peripherals). The File Manager serves as the shell for most of the MS-DOS maintenance commands.

The third function key (Clock Config) provides access to the clock configuration commands, letting you reset the time and the date. The fourth key (Reread Discs) rescans the directories and updates the PAM screen. The fifth function key (Datacom Config) leads to a menu for setting the parameters (communications rate, word length, stop bits, parity, protocol) for the HPIL interface and either the modem or the RS-232C serial port (you can't run these two outputs simultaneously).

The sixth function key brings up the system configuration menu (see photo 4). Here, you can allocate system memory and RAM-disk space, indicate the number of external disk drives plugged into the computer, select a read-after-write verification of disk action, set the display time-out interval, choose between a block or an underscore cursor, select the character set, determine the length of the warning beep, and configure the printer interface.

Pressing the seventh key, either from the main PAM menu or from any of the secondary menus, produces a menu for a series of detailed Help screens on all operations of the HP 110 (see photo 5). The eighth key returns you to the main menu from a secondary menu; if activated from the main menu, the key shuts off the display.
Photo 3: The HP 110's Personal Applications Manager, an operating-system shell for most configuration and file- manipulation functions. The blocks along the bottom of the screen are a map of the eight programmable soft function keys.
Photo 4: The system configuration menu. Using the function keys, it's possible to toggle among a full range of choices for each topic.
Photo 5: Each of the HP 110 Help categories is supported with a full screen of information.

The four applications programs listed by PAM include Memomaker, Lotus 1-2-3, Terminal, and DOS Commands. Memomaker is a rudimentary word processor developed by Hewlett-Packard for quick notes, brief business correspondence, and ASCII program script files (such as the scripts PAM uses to trigger the alarm or run a program at a specific date and time). If you're accustomed to working with a full-fledged word-processing program, you might find Memomaker severely lacking in sophistication, particularly when it comes to formatted output.

Lotus 1-2-3, on the other hand, is a delight to use (see photo 6). Maximum system memory enables use of a spreadsheet with 2048 by 512 cells, certainly more than adequate for most modeling problems. Because everything (even the Lotus Help screens) exists in electronic memory, movement, recalculation, and graphics are all blindingly fast; in fact, the slowest part of the system is the LCD. Unless you're dealing with an extremely large spreadsheet and very complex formulas, chances are you'll wait longer for a screen update than for number crunching.

The Terminal program can be used for data transfer for all three of the HP 110's output interfaces, RS-232C, auto-dial/ auto-answer modem, and HPIL.

The DOS Commands option lets you dispense with PAM entirely and operate the 110 as you would any standard MS-DOS machine.

You can, of course, load other software into the electronic disk - within reason (a large program that needs full system RAM would be impossible). The HP 110 is essentially a "generic" MS-DOS computer; any programs that use only operating-system calls, rather than direct calls to the system ROM BIOS (basic input/output system), and can be configured to use the 110's smaller screen size should run acceptably. Also, any programs that are written for other Hewlett-Packard MS-DOS computers (significantly, the HP 150), that can be configured for the screen, and that use only HP escape sequences should be okay. Thus, the 110 isn't fully compatible with any other machine; it bears a family resemblance to the 150, but it's not an identical twin. Many programs that run on the 150 should run on the 110, but there are no guarantees.

Hewlett-Packard claims to have done more market research on this product than on any other HP device before it; much of that study went into determining the software bundle. The company apparently believes that the current package will best suit the needs of today's portable computer user.

Although the ROM chips that will be distributed in the product will be permanent (unerasable), the ROMs used during prototype production and testing were EPROM (erasable programmable ROM) chips, and the company candidly admits that it is working with potential high-volume customers to help those firms develop customized software packages for their employees. There is no talk at present of optional software configurations for single users, but Hewlett-Packard representatives will not rule out the possibility. It stands to reason that a skilled hardware/software hacker or entrepreneur could implement alternative firmware for the HP 110.

Photo 6: Lotus 1-2-3 on the HP 110 (6a). All Lotus features are fully implemented, including 1-2-3's Help system. 6b shows the bit-mapped graphics chart produced from the table in 6a.


The 110's HPIL interface enables you to connect the computer to two battery-powered peripherals specifically designed to be part of a component system; the Thinkjet printer (see the April BYTE West Coast, page 82) and the new HP 9114 portable disk drive. Both units weigh about 6 pounds, have the same exterior dimensions, and operate for about eight hours of continuous use without recharging. The Thinkjet is a high-speed dot- matrix ink-jet printer that handles 8 1/2 by 11-inch single sheets or the equivalent tractor-feed fanfold paper; the 9114 uses one 3 1/2-inch Sony microfloppy-disk drive that stores 710K bytes per disk. It's possible to set up the two peripherals and the 110 on a picnic table and run a full computer system without a single wall socket. Hewlett-Packard even sells a vinyl carrying case for all three units that fits under an airline coach seat. HP is marketing (along with a card that drops into an IBM-PC expansion slot) software on a 5 1/4 inch PC format disk that enables the 110 to use the IBM's disk drives for mass storage. If the microcomputer industry has surrendered the Fortune 1000 personal computer market to IBM, as many analysts think, Hewlett-Packard is attempting to gain control of the Fortune 1000 portable computer market. The HPIL can be connected to a wide variety of Hewlett-Packard interface converters, enabling the 110 to talk to the large range of HP peripherals (plotters, controllers, hard-disk drives, etc.) and devices designed to link to other HP computers. To make things even easier, the 110's Terminal program includes emulation of the HP 262 I terminal. The 110 can be linked to up to eight peripheral drives or devices; one 110 could conceivably use eight others as temporary disk drives.


The HP 110 is a fast little computer, as functional as most desktop units, with a large line of peripherals available. But the portable computer market is mushrooming; new products are multiplying at a tremendous rate. What might very well distinguish the 110 from the rest of the pack is its simple approach to solving the problems of portability. Software in ROM and disk emulation in RAM are not new ideas. As employed in the 110, though, they free you from both the constant fussing with mass storage and the waiting time associated with disk access. Can a computer user accept that much freedom? The Hewlett-Packard 110 makes that a good question.


Ezra Shapiro is a technical editor at BYTE's West Coast bureau, He can be reached at McGraw-Hill; 425 Battery St., San Francisco, CA 94111