Greetings and welcome to an LGR thing! And this lovely device is the Samsung PenMaster 386SL/20, a touchscreen tablet computer from 1992. Back then this started at a price of $3,995, with costs heading upwards of $5,000for a fully-specced example with additional storage. But being that this was Samsung’s first tablet computer on the market and one that packed an impressive386 MS-DOS PC inside, it’s little wonder that it cost half as much as a 1992 Geo Stormback then. Shout-out to Lorne by the way, an LGR viewer who lent this example for meto review. These are not common machines whatsoever, especially this particular model from Samsung.
Ooh and he also included some Chicago popcorn, what’s this? Caramel and cheese? Mm nowthat’s some tasty stuff. Uh but anyway yeah, the PenMaster! It’s pretty large by today’stablet standards, measuring 11½”x9½”x1.8” and weighing in at five and a half pounds,or 2.5 kilograms, with the battery installed. But back when it was one of the brand newpen-based computer systems debuting at the 1991 Fall Comdex show, this was darned impressive.So much so that portable computing pioneer Grid Systems licensed the design from Samsungand sold their own, slightly better-known variant called the GridPad SL. Believe itor not Grid and Samsung weren’t the only companies releasing cutting edge tablets inthe early ‘90s either. The PenMaster was introduced right alongside offerings fromMomenta, Telepad, and Dauphin Technology. If that last one sounds familiar, perhapsyou’ve seen my previous video about the Dauphin DTR-1.
That was a pretty similar tabletPC in many respects, even running the same base operating environment as the PenMaster,yet it didn’t hit the market until a year later in 1993. On the timescale of early ‘90scomputing that may as well be an eternity, so let’s take a look at what Samsung wasdoing in these earlier days of touchscreen tablet PCs. As its name implies the PenMastercomes with a pen suitable for all manner of mastering, outfitted in a blue plastic bodymatching the word ‘Pen’ in the logo.
It has a single button on the side for right-clickingand the pen position can even be detected a centimeter away from the surface of thetablet screen. So yeah the pen is battery-powered and was pretty advanced for the time, withreplacements from Samsung costing 80 bucks each. Naturally this is intended to work withthe resistive touchscreen display here, a backlit 10-inch monochrome LCD panel thatdisplays VGA in up to 32 shades of gray. Coincidentally the title of my upcoming romance novel.
Andalong the top of the device there’s an assortment of stubby sliding switches, including thepower, brightness and contrast controls, a tiny reset button, and LED indicators forpower and hard disk activity. A majority of the I/O functionality is found on the right-handside with a spot for the 17.5 volt DC power brick, a PS/2 keyboard port, 9-pin serialport, Samsung floppy drive interface, parallel port, VGA video output, and a 2400 bps data/faxmodem. Around the left side of the unit is where you get the single PCMCIA slot for expansioncards, on top is where the rechargeable 1.7 amp hour battery is installed, which originallyboasted a two-hour battery life. And along the bottom edge is absolutely nothing. Justa nice rounded butt. And underneath is all the expected model number and FCC text, aswell as four rubber feet, signaling how it’s built for plopping down on a flat surface.
Yeah, at five and a half pounds and a couple inches thick it’s just not the type of tabletyou wanna hold in your hands for very long. However you choose to set it up though, themain thing to do is make sure it’s charged up or plugged in so you can get it turnedon. [power switches on, PenMaster softly whirs to life] At this point the PenMaster bootsup like any PC of the time period, performs the standard hardware checks, and begins loadingthe operating system. Go Corporation’s PenPoint and CIC PenDOS were both available as optionsfrom Samsung, but this one came with Microsoft Windows for Pen Computing version 1.0. Basedon Windows 3.1 for desktops, it’ll feel darned familiar to anyone used to that, withthe main additions being the Microsoft Pen Tools applications. Things like the Pen Palettefor handwriting recognition, the Trainer program for helping it understand your sloppy handwriting,and the On-Screen Keyboard for when all other inputs inevitably fall flat on their face.
There’s also the handy Notebook application, much more involved than good old Notepad.This is meant to take the place of a personal organizer and rid your life of pesky papercalendars once and for all. In theory. Yeah all this handwriting recognition stuff withWindows for Pen Computing never really struck me as something I’d wanna use for anythingmore than a few minutes. Once the novelty of it actually recognizing a few simple wordswears off, you’re left struggling with the awkwardness of everything else. Even aftertraining the software, errors are commonplace, and the fact that the remainder of the Windowsinterface is basically unchanged from the desktop PC version doesn’t do it any favorsin terms of usability. At the same time though, this was 1992, and the PenMaster was likea glimpse into the future. It was a portable touchscreen computer with an integrated 20MHz386SL CPU and up to 20 megs of RAM, more than enough to take on most anything you’d careto throw at an early ‘90s tablet.
Which nowadays, I mean, is mostly gonna be Solitaireand Paintbrush, am I right? Sure it cost between four and five grand when it was new, but c’mon:screwin’ around with classic Windows 3 applications using a touchscreen and a stylus is just agiggle-worthy spectacle. Especially since it’s on hardware that was absolutely atthe forefront for the time period, rarely used by the average home computer user. It’sno surprise that a good number of the PenMaster machines from both Samsung and Grid endedup being sold directly to professionals instead of through general retail. After all, itsprice and functionality fit more in line with the needs of government, medical, business,and education sectors, not the rando at Radio Shack who just wants to play Wolfenstein 3D.Not to say you couldn’t play Wolfenstein 3D on here, it’s certainly capable of doingso, but there were a thousand cheaper and more suitable options for that in ‘92. Andas much as I’d love to show something like Wolf3D running on here, unfortunately I raninto some roadblocks preventing that. For one thing, the 3.5” floppy drive it camewith no longer reads diskettes at all, making this rather concerning noise anytime you try.
[noises of floppy disk concern]
And to make matters worse, the hard drive barely workseither at this point crapping out seemingly at random.[tapping on frozen screen] This not only froze the system constantly, but the entire drive eventually refused toshow up in the BIOS at all. And yes I’ve taken everything apart, reseated all the things,and put the machine back together half a dozen times. But that cranky old 63 megabyte QuantumGoDrive just wants me to get off its lawn and let it rest in peace. I ended up gettinga blank refurbished one that works perfectly, but even after days of trying I haven’tbeen able to get the old drive working again to make a backup, and I don’t have copiesof the original software either. Ah well, at least this gives us an excuse to gaze uponits delightful internals! Which really looks a lot like a laptop smashed together withoutthe keyboard and with some extra circuitry for the touchscreen. Speaking of which, thePenMaster relies on a chipset by none other than Wacom Company Limited, who made severalpioneering pen-controlled computing products and still sells digital drawing devices today.Also making a standout appearance is that lovely Intel 386SL/20 CPU with an accompanyingsocket ready to make use of a 387 math coprocessor.
And up above that there’s the small butdensely-populated power supply board, right next to the internal PC speaker and the TadiranTL-5186 coin cell for the CMOS and real time clock. Yeah overall I’d say Samsung dida nice job fitting so much into a relatively small package, considering the early ‘90stech they were working with. The chunky battery, 2.5” hard drive, and full-sized I/O portsbulk this thing up quite a bit, there was a long ways to go in optimizing portable computingtech that’s for sure. And that’s about it for the Samsung PenMaster: a fascinatingearly entry into the tablet PC marketplace, though one that didn’t make much of a lastingimpression it seems. That was undoubtedly due in part to its limited distribution andlofty price point, but also because this was Samsung’s first tablet and one that wassimply early to the tablet party in general. Exciting as they were in 1992, tablets wouldn’treally become a thing until the 2010s. And even then when Samsung released their firstAndroid tablet, the Galaxy Tab, I recall plenty of naysayers and derisive opinions questioningwho actually needed a tablet computer.
Samsung strikes me as one of those companies thatthrows every new form factor at the wall to see what sticks, even if the timing isn’texactly optimal. And the PenMaster is an enjoyable example of that from all the way back in 1992.You know, I don’t really have any profound point to make here, except to say that I’mcontinually amused by the fast-moving trends in tech and how quickly consumers forget thenumerous milestones along the way to where we are now. Forgotten devices like the PenMasterpaved the way for the future, decades in advance, and for that I think things like this deservea second look. If you enjoyed this look at the PenMaster, might I suggest my video onthe Dauphin DTR-1. Or any number of other bits of retro tech history, I cover a lotof stuff here on LGR. As always though, thank you very much for watching!