Sony NEWS Portable Workstation NWS-1250

1750

We do not see many vintage Japanese workstations in the West. We also do not see many portable workstations (of any make). So, what we really rarely see, are Japanese portable workstations. I feel quite fortunate to have recently acquired one, even if it is not working as of right now. But, once more, let’s start at the beginning.

Sony is, by-and-large, a consumer electronics company and is well-known for their MSX offerings back in the day and their VAIO line of PCs until quite recently. Not so well known is the fact that Sony produced classic workstations from 1987 to 1995. By “classic” I mean they started off by Motorola 68k-family CPUs and ending in RISC CPUs, and they used Unix as their operating system.

The story of why Sony was producing a class of computers that did not really fit their usual lineup goes like this: The manager of a newly established computer project wanted to create a new, cheap office computer, but his engineers wanted instead to do a computer that would replace the VAX 11/780 that was hard to get computer time on, but which they used in earlier projects. The manager settled with the wishes of his engineers and out came a machine that gave each engineer his own substantial, graphical compute power. Now, the concept of workstations is well known in 1986, but Sony competes in the market via the cheaper price and the better price/performance ratio.

The first generation of Sony workstations (1987-88) had mainly dual 68020 CPUs in them and often a Motorola 68881. The second generation (1988-90) used a single or dual 68030 CPUs and a 68882 mathematical co-processor. The third generation (1989-95) used MIPS CPUs, first a R3000, then an R4000, R4400, R4600, R4700, and the final model in 1995 used a R10000.

The operating system, NEWS-OS, was first a BSD variant, in later iterations an System V derivate.

In the long list of 60 models Sony produces, there are also two models (with two variants each) of portable workstations. Both models use the same case and look the same.

The earlier models, the NWS-1230 and NWS-1250, are second generation and have a single 68030 CPU and a 68882 co-processor. They are released in 1990 at a price of 1,250,00 and 1,550,000 Yen, respectively. The slightly larger model, NWS-1250 is the one I got.

“Portable workstation” here does not mean laptop computer, although it is certainly possible to place it on the lap. But without a battery, a weight of about 8 Kg, and measuring 35x42x10cm this is not exactly something you pack in your bag. The machine contains a black-and-white LCD, a keyboard, a 3.5″ floppy disk drive, and a (SCSI) harddisk.

How rare were portable Unix workstations at that time? Let’s have a look at the competition in 1990. There are, of course, many portable PCs available, although typically not of a workstation class. The only other portable Unix workstation that I found before 1990 are the 1985 HP IntegralPC (with a 68000 CPU and Unix in ROM) and the 1989 Opus Portable Workstation (with a 88000 CPU) for $14,000. The next models that I found are the 1992 Tadpole SparcBook 1 and the 1994 Sun SparcStation Voyager. All in all, it seems to me that in 1990 there weren’t many portable Unix workstations around (if you do not count PCs with Unix). And also: why should there be battery-less portable Workstations? The main use is probably showing potential customers your Unix programs, and that is a real niche market.

However, the design of these portables is still quite beautiful and thought-through. When you close the lid with the LCD, it brings your keyboard in a horizontal direction and basically seals it off so no dust can enter in transport. When you open the lid, the keyboard swings down a few degrees, giving you a nice typing angle.

Apart from the design, there is nothing too special about the hardware except the audio capabilities. This machine has dedicated headphone and line in, and mic sockets right at the side of the keyboard. There is also an “MIC ATT” switch (0 db and -20db) and one that switches between mono and stereo. There is dedicated audio hardware onboard, but I do not know the concrete characteristics of that.

Now, my machine is not functional because it lacks a harddrive. These things used SCSI drives and were purportedly picky with which model they chosed to collaborate (there is one guy who says that the kernel has a list of allowed harddisk models). My model had a 240 MB harddisk, probably a Hitachi DK312C-25. Let’s see whether I bring it to life, one day.

Technical data

Manufacturer: Sony
Model: NWS-1250
CPU: Motorola 68030@25 MHz
FPU: Motorola 68882
RAM: 8 MB, extendable to 12 MB
Harddisk: 240 MB
Floppy Disk Drive: 3.5″, 1.44 MB
OS: NEWS-OS
Display: 11″ b&w LCD, backlit
Graphics: 1120×780
Interfaces: mouse, audio (phones, line in, mic in), SCSI, Ethernet (AUI), serial (DB9), parallel (proprietary), SCSI (SCA?)
Released: 21.07.1990
Initial price: 1,550,00 Yen (or 25,000 DM)

References

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