Greetings and welcome to another LGR laptop thing! This time around we’ve got this delightful beige beastie: a Packard Bell 810400 series, known as the Statesman. It may not look like much, but this thingcost a whopping $2,400 when it hit store shelves around January of 1994, or about $4,200 adjustedfor inflation. And that’s without any RAM or coprocessorupgrades. Just a 33 megahertz 486SLC processor, 4 megabytesof RAM, a 640×480 color display,
And up to 200 megabytes of hard disk space running MS-DOS6 and Windows 3.1. [laptop slowly whirs to life] [floppy drive grunts] [beep!] Shoutout to longtime LGR viewer Justin fordonating this one he found at a thrift store a while back, as it’s one of those machinesthat wasn’t on my collecting radar at all. And now that I have one and have spent the last couple weeks going down a retro tech rabbit hole, I’m rather happy to have aStatesman. Because for starters, dude, that name! The Statesman [chuckles] How snobby is that?
Packard Bell may have been known for their budget-minded computers but that didn’t stop them choosing the yuppiest of names. Same with the Statesman’s smaller sibling,the Diplomat: a tiny-for-the-time subnotebook that was arguably the more exciting offering in ‘94. Making computers as small and lightweightas possible was the new hotness in the mid-90s, and while the Diplomat fit that bill, theStatesman? Heh, despite its relatively compact size itweighs in at 6 pounds 9 ounces, or just shy of 3 kilograms.
Not that the design of the Statesman or theDiplomat could be fully attributed to Packard Bell, as they were both rebadged offeringsfrom Zenith Data Systems. The Statesman was Control-C Control-V’dfrom the ZDS Z-Star 433, the most notable difference being the logo on the case andthe retailer selling it. Yeah, Packard Bell and Zenith Data Systems had quite the close relationship in the early 90s. Leading to them acquiring ZDS for $650 million in 1996, in what was the PC industry’s largest ever merger at the time. The whole Packard Bell story is worth a video on its own but yeah, today it’s all about the Statesman. Or States… men.
This is getting out of hand, now there aretwo of them! Really I just grabbed this other one for thepower supply and the spare parts, but lo and behold, it works perfectly fine after youremove or disable the battery. If you leave its 1700 milliamp hour nickel-cadmiumbattery in there when it’s dead, these Statesmen won’t power at all, and get stuck in a faultycharge loop. And yeah, when I got my first Statesman itdidn’t have a power supply, and due to its slightly funky 4-pin mini-DIN power connector, I didn’t have many options for getting it working. So the original 21 volt AC adapter is a must-havehere, unless you feel like rigging something up with a test bench power supply.
The rest though is all mercifully standardstuff, starting around back with a parallel printer port, a 9-pin serial port, and a 15-pinVGA output port for external displays. Note there’s no line out or headphone jackthough. The Statesman machines don’t have a soundcard, only an internal PC speaker. It kind of looks like it’d have stereo speakersabove the keyboard, near the power button and brightness/contrast controls, but nope. They’re only half-cosmetic cooling vents. Oh and look at this cute little button belowthe LCD screen! You’re not meant to press it, it’s justhow the computer knows the top is closed so it can turn off themonitor. Cheap but effective,
I approve. On the left side is a Type II PC Card slot,a ubiquitous 1990s expansion option letting you connect modems, sound cards, storage mediaand so on. Then on the right side is a slim 3.5” highdensity floppy drive supporting 1.44 meg disks, along with a PS/2 port for connecting an externalmouse. Something you’ll feel compelled to use straightaway, cuz uh. Well just look at this silliness. Folks, say hello to the J-Mouse, the inputmethod of choice on Zenith and Packard Bell laptops for a fleeting moment in time. Kinda similar in concept to the IBM TrackPointnub, but almost certainly worse in practice.
Pressing down the J key on the keyboard fora second activates the mouse cursor, and you move its position by nudging the key fromside to side. It doesn’t tilt or rock in place, it justfeels like a normal J key with a concave finger bowl on top. And it works about as well as it looks, so…not well at all. Especially since the key mechanisms themselvesare low-quality, rubbery garbage. Furthermore, there’s all these other keysfor different mouse buttons and clicking combos. Spacebar and F left clicks, the D key rightclicks, S is the middle mouse button, and G double-clicks the left mouse button.
And it doesn’t stop there, as you can seefrom this friendly training program. You get commands for things like copy, paste, undo, shift-click, control-click, delete and ugh whyyy. This poor keyboard! It’s cumbersome enough with its weird littlekeys all cramped in place with a weird layout, but then the J-Mouse keys are performing tripleduty on top of that! We’ll get back to your oddness another day,J-Mouse, I’m not done with you yet. Another feature I didn’t anticipate wasthat this second Statesman turned out to be a grayscale model. Something increasingly uncommon in 1994, butdefinitely not unheard-of in economy priced machines like this.
Inside is the same 512K Chips & Technologies65520 VGA chipset as the higher-end Statesman, but it only displays things in shades of gray,regardless of the actual color of your programs. As a result, companies like Packard Bell oftenincluded a “reverse” function key, so you can invert the colors as needed sincesome programs look better in reverse grayscale. Being that it’s still technically displayingcolor though, you can use the VGA port to hook it up to a color monitor and see everythingas vibrantly as intended, but on the laptop itself it’s a world of black and white. That being said, the color Statesman is nobastion of usability either. 256 colors are nice and all, but it’s stilljust a 9.5” dual scan supertwist nematic display, or DSTN passive matrix.
It’s a slight step up from standard STNdisplays, but still, bleh. Awful contrast, poor saturation, plentifulghosting and smearing, and the very nature of dual scan means that you can get weirdscreen tearing since the panel is divided into two sections refreshing independently. Of course, what you’re seeing here lookseven worse than in-person, these older LCDs are a nightmare to record. Either way though, viewing angles and backlightbleed are abysmal. That’s just the way it goes with mid-90sDSTN displays.
At the time, TFT panels were a lot more expensive, adding four or five hundred bucks to the manufacturing cost. So hopefully, whatever you planned to runremained usable with a display that looked like vaseline coated in drunkenness. [Goodbye Galaxy sounds beeping] [unfortunate DSTN-induced death] However, there’s one thing the Statesmanuses that was both affordable and capable, and that was the CPU inside made by the Cyrix Corporation. Ahh, Cyrix. Now that’s a name I’ve not heard in along time. Throughout the 90s, they were constantly throwingwrenches into the Intel x86 market, beginning with their FasMath coprocessors and pin-compatible386 CPUs. Packard Bell made use of each of those in the Statesman, with the confusingly-named486SLC being the processor of choice.
Yeah, despite the name it’s actually a souped-up 33 megahertz 386SX of sorts, with on-chip L1 cache and 486 instructions. That’s on the original Statesman though,it got better in 1994 with the Statesman Plus, which is actually what my color model is right here. The Plus was upgraded with a Cyrix 486SLC2 rated at 50 megahertz, otherwise everything else remained the same. It still accepted a coprocessor, the aforementionedCyrix FasMath, which was their version of the Intel 80387. One that reportedly performed twice as fast as Intel’s in some cases. I’d test that out but I don’t have oneof those. Yet.
What I will test though is TopBench, so wecan see what kinda performance we’re getting out of that 386-based SLC2 CPU. Sure enough, it earns a score of 64, rightin line with a 30MHz Intel 386SX and below what you’d get on an Intel 486SX at 50MHz. So not blazing fast, but it cost less thanthe competition, ran a lot cooler, and required less power, making it ideal for laptops. Especially for one specced the way this oneis, with a color passive matrix display and 12 megabytes of RAM. Heh, speaking of RAM check this out, I’venever seen it installed quite like this before. You snap off and remove this plastic coverbelow the LCD to upgrade the memory, revealing three RAM slots and the battery charging LED.
And the RAM itself comes on these tiny modules with two orange connectors that snap it into place. I’ve no idea what this connection is called,but what a neat little design! Now as for what you can actually do with the Statesman? Well it’s actually pretty solid for gaming,at least if you’re looking to play specific types of DOS and Windows games from back then. Single-screen puzzle games like Tetris orSnake-eqsue arcade games like Pizza Worm are ideal for example, since the smeary passivematrix display doesn’t completely ruin what’s going on due to the way those games function.
But side-scrolling platformers? Eh, not so much. Even simpler ones like Crystal Caves heresuffer immensely on LCD panels like this, it’s just visually confusing and eye-straininglypainful to look at for very long. And first person games like Doom, yeesh. Admittedly, it’s cool that it runs it atall really. Seeing a 3D game running on a laptop in ‘94 in any way whatsoever was pretty amazing in and of itself. But yeah, visually unappealing is puttingit mildly with Doom, at least without hooking it up to an external display. Oh and in case you’re wondering, nope, itisn’t fast enough to play later 90s shooters like Duke Nukem 3D. I mean, it’s got enough RAM, it’ll runit. Technically.
But we’re talking serious slideshow territory,the game is utterly unplayable on this CPU. Of course, gaming was never the intended usageof the Packard Bell Statesman anyway. In late ‘93, early ‘94, the kinda folkswilling to spend several thousand bucks on a portable computer? Chances are the primary purpose wasn’t gaming. No, the real meat and potatoes of a laptopwere things like word processing, keeping track of finances, maintaining spreadsheets, writing papers for school, filling out tax returns, that kinda thing. Or if you had a PCMCIA modem, maybe even dialinginto Prodigy or CompuServe, or a local bulletin board system to send electronic mail and downloadshareware applications.
And whenever you had some downtime, it camepreinstalled with Solitaire, Minesweeper, and the Microsoft Entertainment Pack, so aquick game of Rodent’s Revenge, Klotzki, or Tetravex were always tempting diversionsresiding only a click away. Yeah man. As much as I prefer my more capable IBM, Toshiba,or Gateway laptops, I’m still in love with clunky old dorks like the Packard Bell Statesman. It’s a fountain of retro personality andcharm, stemming directly from its limitations. These are in kind of a weird spot too, wheremost collectors don’t wanna bother with ‘em at all, since they don’t have a TFTLCD and the Cyrix CPU is weird and there’s no sound card or CD-ROM and mleh-nuh-neh. Whatever! There are tons of better-equipped old laptopsout there, I’ve got plenty of myself.
But I also find value and enjoyment in experiencingthe limitations of old machines for what they are, instead of calling them out for whatthey’re not. [lid clicks closed] [lo-fi jazz beats] And if you enjoyed this 90s computing retrospective? Well then, welcome home. I post new LGR videos each week on old computers,software, games, and yeah. There’s plenty more where this came from. And as always, thank you very much for watching!