Feed the nerd: 486 notebook meets airhead
News & TrendsRetro

Feed the nerd: 486 notebook meets airhead

Martin Jud
Zurich, on 12.07.2018
Translation: Eva Francis
Finally, my dream has come true. It feels great to be the proud owner of a 486 notebook from the year 1995. But we don’t get off to a good start: My first attempt at getting my new toy running fails miserably.

Sure enough, it made it past the Italian-Swiss border. No additional costs, no damage. I felt terribly nervous before unpacking it. So nervous, in fact, that I forgot to take pictures of this historic moment.

Whatever; here’s my new notebook from the year 1995. Does it still work? I have no clue. But I’m about to find out.

The 486 notebook weighs in at 2,388 grams.
The 486 notebook weighs in at 2,388 grams.

If you’d like to know how I got my hands on this beauty, read up on the back story here:

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It’s a «Zenith Data System Z-STAR ES» with the following specs:

  • Intel i486DX4 (75 MHz)
  • 8 MB RAM
  • 400 MB HDD
  • 3.5″ floppy drive
  • PCMCIA slot
  • MS Dos 6.22 and Windows 3.1 (in Italian)

As to dimensions, this notebook is 27.7 cm wide, 21.6 cm deep, 5.2 cm thick and weighs 2,388 grams.

Welcome back, COM, LPT and VGA

How exciting! I feel like I’m time-travelling. The last time I booted a 486, I wasn’t even half the age I am today. I got my first own PC at the tender age of 15. It had been my dream to have a PC in my own bedroom ever since I first met a 286. My dad had bought one back in the 80s as a «family computer». It had a 20 MB hard disk and a 5.25” floppy drive. In the following years, my brother, a few years older than I, showed me how to work on PCs, install new drives or cards and copy games...

I’m going off on a tangent. It seems my inner nerd and my impatience have just become blood brothers. Let’s take a look at my new toy and dare to push a few buttons on it.

On the left side, there's a serial port (COM1), which I'll soon attach an old mouse to (it’s already on its way to me). There's also a VGA port, a parallel port (LPT1) and a PCMCIA slot.

The right side offers the possibility to attach a Kensington lock and features a 3.5″ floppy drive.

The mains connection (power supply is integrated into the laptop), a PS/2 interface and a large battery compartment are at the back of this device. The battery is supposed to last one hour and 15 minutes.

Power button, let there be life

I admit, I’m not always the brightest bulb in the box, but famously «where there’s a will there’s a way», right? I wanted to capture the moment when I first booted my new laptop on video and share it with you. But my first attempt wasn’t successful. Why? See for yourself. In my defence; once I’d found the issue, I resolved it and started the notebook rather smoothly.

Yes, my 486 is running just as Alberto had promised. As the CMOS battery is run down, the computer takes a short BIOS detour to initiate. Of course I'll try to replace the battery. Furthermore, the ESC key is slightly «pressed in», but works perfectly.

Windows and DOS are in Italian, but I don't mind that. I have no intention of learning Italian, but I usually reinstall everything from scratch anyway. To begin with, I need to open the notebook and replace the battery on the motherboard. Before I can do this, I first have to find out which type of battery it is and find a replacement somewhere in the depths of the Internet.

Open Sesame... or not

How on earth do I open a laptop from 1995? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t take a hair dryer to get this thing open; there must be screws somewhere. While I’m looking for those magic screws, I notice the floppy disk drive can be removed within seconds. Nice!

Underneath it, there are three screws, just as in the battery compartment. Without spending too much thought on it, I unscrew and remove the six screws, tug at the case and realise it won't work.

I find screws underneath the floppy disk drive.
I find screws underneath the floppy disk drive.

Sesame opens!

Well, looks like luck isn’t on my side today. I decide to consult my pillow – a great idea, as it turns out the next day when I take my new toy to the office.

First, I continue untightening screws like a madman. I love unscrewing things and I’m keen to show the world what’s inside my notebook. But my attempts remain unsuccessful and my work colleagues look at me with baffled looks on their faces. At least Philipp Rüegg helps me look for a black screw that falls onto the dark grey carpet. Thanks, bro.

A coffee break later, I have a sudden flash of genius. I remember how I got at the inside of an old Lenovo notebook: via the keyboard.

And that’s exactly how it works with this notebook, too.

What on earth does the tap on one of the keys stand for? O.O
What on earth does the tap on one of the keys stand for? O.O

There's a small knob behind the F3 key. A second one is attached to the F12 key. Press both at the same time and...

At last I get a clear view of the mainboard.
At last I get a clear view of the mainboard.

... I finally get to the motherboard 😁.

The battery seems to have leaked.
The battery seems to have leaked.

Finding the battery doesn't take long. In fact, there are three batteries (3.6V, 60mAH, Ni-MH) in a small bundle. After 23 years, it's not surprising that they're in a bad condition: They've leaked.

I’ve finally got it out.
I’ve finally got it out.

Never mind. Two minutes later, I order a replacement for CHF 5.20.–, shipping included.

And so the retro adventure continues – hopefully with less embarrassment on my side, lots of software and good old games.


Martin Jud
Martin Jud
Editor, Zurich
I find my muse in everything. When I don’t, I draw inspiration from daydreaming. After all, if you dream, you don’t sleep through life.

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