In 2014, I published a few pictures of my first NEC PC-2001 pocket computer here. Now that I had found a second one, I decided to share more about this odd pocket computer and use the opportunity to discuss the topic of the missing documentation: a plague to any vintage and rare computer collector. NEC released the PC-2001 pocket in 1982, right when many handheld systems were sold. But the PC-2001 stands out immediately by its size (225 x 130 x 32 mm). Larger than a classic pocket computer but also smaller than an A4-sized computer. To illustrate my point, I took pictures of this handheld next to a SHARP PC-1500 and an NEC PC-8201a. At the same time, the PC-2001 is exceptionally light (~640g) with four AA batteries.
The benefit of this oversized format is a better typing experience with more and larger keys and a better display. The latter used a 2×40 characters LCD and had good contrast. Unfortunately, it is not graphic. But, a rich character set and redefinition mitigates this limitation a bit. True, it is asking too much for a 1982 display. By default, the second line displays the functions assigned to the five function keys below the display (shiftable, giving ten f-keys). Because it is hard to find information on this computer, we can read many errors here and there about the display. First, you can disable showing the function keys. Second, doing so doesn’t give you a second line – to browse your programs, for example –, but a single long one. The magic of the CONSOLE instruction! I use the opportunity to commend the one-line editor that makes editing your program simple using the cursor keys. Also, note that the machine has a single mode. So no program or run mode to switch between!
The heart of the PC-2001 is the 8-bit NEC µPD7907 CPU (@4MHz). Without any memory extension module, the user can access 8KB of RAM, six available, and 20KB ROM (36 KB max with a ROM/RAM module). The user can add more memory via the extension port. On the I/Os side, a cassette, a serial, and a printer port are available. The serial port is critical for the machine’s use model. Indeed, NEC positioned this system as a field terminal connected to a PC-8000 computer. The partial compatibility of their programming languages – more on this topic shortly – and the ability to share data as-is highlights NEC’s intentions. That being said, it is also a fabulous pocket computer.
The main problem with this computer for a collector is the lack of documentation. Sure, a few fellow collectors have the original manuals, but none made them available on the Web. So what can you do? Well, first, you can rely upon your experience with other vintage computers. Indeed, although there are many ways to implement a feature, unfortunately, they are often alike. Worst, most of them can the traced back to a common origin: a blessing and a curse at the same time. For example, it is a curse because Microsoft’s BASIC made all these machines taste similar to the programmer’s palate. This is why I appreciate computers like the ЭЛЕКТРОНИКА MK 90 and its genuinely original BASIC. In today’s case, it is a blessing, though. Indeed, the PC-2001 uses the N20-BASIC, derived from the N-BASIC by NEC, itself derived from the Microsoft Disk BASIC. It is therefore extensively compatible with the other NEC N-x basics. Meaning, that the available documentation of the N80 BASIC helps! After that, it boils down to a trial and error game, which is the absolute pleasure of retrocomputing.
But the Rosetta Stone and cookbook to the vintage computer collector remains the specialized press. Indeed, magazines of the ‘80s-‘90s are plastered with listings – often games – pushing the target computers to their limits. Well, you will find all you need right there, as I did myself. The good news is that you can find metric tons of PDF of such magazines on the Web. I capture a few listings from the excellent マイコン BASIC magazine to illustrate my point. So, read the code! As a final note on the PC-2001, if you want to play with one without having to buy one, you can use the excellent PockEmul program. If you read French, have a look at this article here. Unfortunately, the NEC PC-2001 doesn’t come for free – which is fair –, but why do I have to buy the license on Google Play if I don’t own an Android device and want to enjoy the program on Windows? I didn’t, but if you wish to, find all the information you need here.
Last, I truly regret that NEC never released another pocket computer after the PC-2001, making it a real oddball.