COMPAQ 386/20

Back in late 1988 we bought the Compaq DeskPro 386/20. This machine was $3,500 new in 1988.

The desktop design is rather common in the CRT era as monitors were generally placed on top the machine.


  • Intel 80386 20 MHz
  • OEM motherboard
  • 3½” floppy 720MB
  • Seagate ST251 40MB hard disk
  • 100W PSU
  • MS DOS 3.3


This machine provided the new Intel 32-bit 80386 processor running at 20 MHz. The socket for a 80387 is provided for those who need faster floating point performance. The 80387-20 was $795.

Our shop uses low cost $99 motherboards stuffed into $35 flip top cases and some RAM and they were booted from the server. This meant a big cost savings as hard disks are very expensive in the 1980s. The network cards were the only peripheral card installed. The video cards were VGA and color monitors were popular. The DOS network components to connect to Netware did use a fair bit of memory which pressured some demanding DOS packages such as Word Perfect and dBase.

The machine originally came with DOS 3.3 and 2MB of memory, but we upgraded the machine to 4MB to run Netware more efficiently. The machine maxed out at 16MB. Netware would load the entire disk FAT into RAM in order to speed up the access times. The larger the disk, the more RAM needed.

The original 40MB hard disk was able to run a shared copy of Lotus 1-2-3 and Work Perfect 5.1 easily. Larger capacity disks were available but they were far too expensive for workgroup use. dBASE was also widely used for business purposes, but it was more of a developer package than an application.

We also had a HP LaserJet printer attached to the machine so that it could be shared as well. Laser printers in the 1980s were the technology of choice for professional looking documents. Laser printers in the 1980s were $2,000 and up.

Some machines of this caliber were used for accounting purposes but most were used for servers and the lower cost 286 machines were used as workstations.

Eventually we replaced the original hard disk with the IDE board and a Quantum LPS52AT hard disk which featured the new voice coil head assembly. The old stepper motor drives are much slower.

Many servers in the late 1980s used SCSI controllers and hard disks but the IDE disk was sufficient for shared storage. Over time the capacity of IDE disks grew very rapidly.


The machine included serial and parallel ports. We used MDA video as the machine was not being used for DOS 3.3. We installed Novell Netware 2.2 on the machine for use as a file server. Netware was the OS of choice in the 80s for sharing in a work group. Netware could support up to 256MB file systems. The license for Netware included 100 users which was typical for a server in the latter 1980s.

Netware used DOS to boot a very small partition. The the net$os.exe executable was loaded using the AUTOEXEC.BAT file. One Netware was loaded, the CPU was switched to protected mode. Netware 2.2 uses the 80286 protected mode which can use up to 16MB of memory. The protected mode uses the CPU memory manager to keep the 64KB pages all organized. This is where the 4 layer ring of protected mode came from.

In 1990 we upgraded the machine to Netware 3.0 which was able to enable to 32-bit protected mode of the 80386 CPU. We also installed more memory on the machine to allow Netware to cache the new larger disks. Netware 3 could support 1TB file systems using 16 volumes. Novell provided several updates which dealt with some minor issues. Databases running on Netware were also starting to come to market which forced dBase to add more capability.


When Windows NT shipped 1993, it wanted more memory than this machine’s maximum. NT ran much better on the recent 486 machines that were widely available. Many shops used NT and Netware in a mixed environment.

Windows NT up to 3.51 runs well with 64MB of memory. NT did not use memory the same as Netware, instead it used it more generally. Windows NT eventually matured into Windows 2000 and beyond.

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