Cambridge Computer’s Z88: the iPad Pro of 1987

The late 1980s were heady days. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan kept the Special Relationship alive across the Atlantic. The Cold War was cooling, but Europe still lay divided into West and East, with the death strip carved through the middle of Berlin. Personal computing was as divided, between IBM PCs and their clones, Apple’s innovative Mac SE and Mac II which were adored by designers and non-conformists, and the likes of the Commodore Amiga and Atari.

Portable computers were anything but. The first Compaq models were the size and weight of a decent suitcase, and it wasn’t until 1989 that Apple offered us its 7 kg (16 pounds) Macintosh Portable. Travelling with a computer was the preserve of those who kept up their weight-training, or whose wallets were thick enough to pay for porters.

As for mere journalists, we used traditional spiral-bound notepads with a pencil or pen. Indeed, most writing about computers still clung to paper: Q&A submissions arrived by post, and newsagents had shelves filled with thick magazines such as Byte, Personal Computer World, and MacUser.

Early in 1987, that started to change. Sir Clive Sinclair‘s Cambridge Computer launched the Z88, a revolutionary A4-sized laptop computer complete with an ‘office’ suite called Pipedream (being before the days of gratuitous Camel Case). As soon as we could get our hands on them, the Z88 became essential equipment for attendance at press conferences and the like, its kudos far exceeding today’s Apple Watch. It was the only practical way of entering words into a computer in such locations, even though we later had to hook it up to our Macs or PCs with a serial cable, and run a BASIC program to transfer its files across to our desktop.

z88insleeveThe design theme for the Z88 was black rubber, something which was mentioned in rather hushed tones at the time. It came in a black rubberised envelope, its case is black plastic, and the notorious keyboard is covered in black rubber. Typing on it feels like tapping away on cold, dead flesh.

Its display was considered remarkable for the day: ‘Super Twist’ liquid crystal (LCD) which offers a hundred columns and eight rows of text characters, or 640 x 64 pixels in today’s terms. With contrast adjustment but no backlight, it works acceptably in most lighting conditions, but is tiny. At its top right a ‘WYSIWYG’ thumbnail of the document in hand was ‘modern’ but is next to useless.

z88overviewonInternally, it has a Z80 processor – not 64-bit, or even 32-bit, but plain old 8-bit – strolling along at a gentle 3.2768 MHz. At that time it was already ancient, but at least it has low power requirements. Its standard memory is just 32 KB, but it has three expansion slots which could accommodate 32 KB and 128 KB memory cartridges. Mine has a single 128 KB RAM expansion, and an EPROM containing a BASIC program to transfer files to a Mac. Several of the magazines of the day complained that it lacked support for a cassette tape data store.


z88displaycuIn addition to the Pipedream word processor and spreadsheet, which was often used as a primitive database, bundled software includes a clock, calendar, diary, calculator, and VT52 terminal emulator. In those days, graphical user interfaces were still quite novel, and demanded the power of one of the leading-edge desktop systems, such as a Mac (Classic Mac ‘System 6’), Amiga, or Atari’s GEM. Pipedream’s word processor is driven by a maze of keystroke commands, rather like traditional Unix editors such as Vim and Emacs.

z88madeinscotlandPower for all this comes from four disposable AA batteries, or a mains adaptor. Battery endurance during use is from 10-20 hours, not that different from modern smartphones and tablets. It cost from £230, was designed in Cambridge (England), and manufactured in ‘Silicon Glen’, Scotland (the area between Dundee, Inverclyde, and Edinburgh).

z88clockBy chance, my Z88 survived being toted around London, Portsmouth, and the Isle of Wight, and its batteries did not leak. Inserting a fresh set, it woke from its 25 years asleep, asking me to set its clock for September 1987, and amazingly coping with the sudden translocation to 2015. I am glad that it did not end up in landfill.