I’ll Always Have Room For A Little Aero

The Compaq Contura Aero [unrelated to the later Compaq Aero PDAs] was among the very first “smaller-than-a-letter-size-sheet-of-paper” subnotebooks. When I first saw the splashy Contura Aero display at OfficeMax in late 1994, it was love at first sight. The tiny size and slick form factor blew me away.

That doesn’t mean that it’s a great computer, though, or ever was. To achieve that form factor, Compaq had to leverage the technology available at the time to the max, and in some cases make some damning trade-offs. Since I normally write automotive and motorcycle stuff for A-T’s sister site Hooniverse, allow me to make a car analogy: The Contura Aero is the computer equivalent of the Pontiac Fiero — an ambitious, innovative design from a major manufacturer that looked good and made a big splash in the market, but was fatally compromised and faded quickly due to some misconceved engineering choices and more than a few glaring flaws.

By 1996, vendors were blowing them out closeout prices, but by then anything with a 486 chip was yesterday’s news, so they were still pretty expensive for what you got. I eventually bought mine used, shortly after they were discontinued. I even scored the high-end model with the faster 33 MHz processor, color screen, 250 MB hard drive and 12MB of memory (4MB standard, 20MB max). I loved it. It’s now horribly obsolete — practically unusable — but I still love it today and couldn’t bear to part with it.

One of the sexiest design elements of the Aero was the trackball. The Apple Powerbook’s center-mounted trackball was still considered cutting edge. Most Intel laptops still had no integrated pointing device at all, and many others had only those annoying eraser-head joysticks in the middle of the keyboard. Trackpads didn’t exist yet. The Aero’s slick thumb-driven miniball and side-mounted buttons were (comparatively) an ergonomic dream …and a mechanical nightmare. The ball’s tiny rollers were extremely intolerant of even the smallest bits of foreign matter that might find their way into the mechanism. Even with constant cleaning, the mouse skips and jerks with maddening frequency. In contrast, the keyboard is so stout and robust it could have been designed by Soviets.

Do you want a floppy drive, or Ethernet? Nope, you can’t have both!

The Aero’s small size prohibited an internal floppy drive. Remember that, at the time, floppy drives were most users’ only form of removable storage. Each Aero instead came standard with an external PCMCIA floppy drive that unfortunately used a non-standard interface. The floppy drive could only be used with an Aero, and when Windows 95 came out, getting the new operating system to recognize the floppy drive and assign it a drive letter could be a blood-boiling proposition. Compaq eventually provided an updated driver that fixed the problem …most of the time.

The Contura Aero predated low-power chips and components, so battery life was pretty poor, despite having a battery that was size of a lead pipe, and weighed nearly as much — one full pound. Nowadays the battery in my Aero provides as much power as a lead pipe might, but I leave it in place because it balances the weight of the lid when the screen is open. Without it, the whole thing will tip over backwards when you take your keys off the keyboard. This is made worse by the fact that the hinges are notoriously weak, and one of mine has broken. (All Aeros have at least one broken hinge nowadays.) It opens and shuts fine, but tends to sit at a more obtuse angle than I’d prefer.

You’ll recall that I got the top-of-the-line color model. Well, that upgrade provided a 7.75″ VGA (640×480) screen that could only display 4-bit color. That’s right, just sixteen colors. That was borderline acceptable for Windows 3.1, but in reality had very little advantage over its 1-bit black-and-white sibling. In fact, given the passive-matrix screen’s dingy, uneven contrast, the non-color version was actually sharper and more pleasing to look at.

Click the image on the right to get a sense for how truly awful 4-bit image rendering is.

I took solace in fact that the low-end model ran at a measly 25 MHz, rather than the color model’s blistering 33 Mhz clock speed.

Convenience Base

Not only did the Aero pioneer the subnotebook concept, but it also could mate with an optional “Convenience Base,” one of the first accessory docks, so that it could go from on-the-go laptop to desktop computer instantly.

The Aero connected to the dock with a single, proprietary socket that provided power and shuttled data signals between the computer and the dock. The dock had a nifty cutout for the Aero’s large-ish external power transformer, and even had a battery port to keep a second lead pipe battery charged and ready. Unfortunately, it stood up like a flagpole while charging.

Besides the docking socket, the rear of the Aero had only one serial and one parallel port. Connecting to the dock added support for an external monitor and full-size PS2 keyboard and mouse.

The Cult of Aero

I’m not the only one who’s been infatuated with the Aero. Like the Pontiac Fiero, the Aero has dedicated fans who keep them alive and have tried to adress its shortcomings. You can still find a number of web pages dedicated to it. With the advent of Windows 95 and the World Wide Web, there was a lot of talk at the time of a mythical hack that would enable a 640x400x256 color mode, but I’ve never heard of anybody getting it to actually work (given how restrictive a VGA screen is, chopping 80 pixels off the bottom would make it feel positively claustrophobic, anyway). There was even a group of hardware wonks who were attempting at one time to swap an upgraded processor into an Aero. That one never quite got, um, “perfected” either.

Just as a lot of car guys have a daily driver and a hobby car to tinker with, the Aero is a “hobby PC” that has rarely done much real work. For most of it’s life, I’ve done purely academic stuff with it. I did my first Linux install on it (Slackware 3), and later on ran Debian 7 on it for a while. I also set it up as a sort of low-tech DIY web apliance at one point, thanks to the awesome Arachne DOS browser. I also used litePC’s 98lite to install a totally un-webified version of Windows 98 with the Win95 GUI. I last used my Aero for anything meaningful in 2007, when I ran Pegasus as my Internet E-mailbox for a while. It’s back to a plain-vanilla version of Windows 95 at the moment, although I might go back to Windows 3.1, as it was originally equipped.

Nowadays, it spends most of its time in a box on a basement shelf. But every once and a while I take it out and set up, just for the fun of it. And I have no intention of getting rid of it anytime soon.

  • Neat little device, and I can see why you'd remain attached to it.

    However, I'll go on record as saying there was almost no Compaq anything from that era that I'd touch with anything but an industrial degausser. Packard Bells got a lot of flak for some reason, but for my money the Compaqs were *horrible*. On some level this is a Ford v. Chevy debate, but still… *shudders at the visage of rows of old Compaq Cobra cases staring down on him*

    I remember Toshibas of the time had clip-on trackballs. They were no less infuriating to use, but easier to clean.

    • Fieros were pretty horrible too…but I want one.

      • Agreed. I've always loved the '87 Fiero GT… that subtle restyle was pure sex.

        Hey, you've got 4-bit color on that thing. And windows 95 Wallpaper…. time for an Aero Fiero!

        • I'd have to either go with a well-preserved '88 Formula in yellow, or for an ultra-cheap beater, the original 2M4.

      • P161911

        I propose that as a "Hooniverse asks?" What horrible car do you really want? For me it is a toss up between a Land Rover Discovery and a Buick Regal Turbo.

        • I once worked with a guy who collected 1979–1985 Buick Riveras. He had a warehouse with a complete collection of them—one from each year, completely optioned out. He even had a side business restoring them. I asked him why he liked that particular car. His reply? "I can't give you one good reason. They're complete crap. I've seen latrines built with more care and attention."

          • P161911

            Maybe he was just secretly a big fan of Raw Deal.

          • CaptianNemo2001

            I know a guy with one and he is trying to fix it up but parts are hell a hard to come by.(in good condition that is)

    • dwegmull

      I have also mostly negative memories of Compaq but it was due to their non-standard motherboards and chassis (I'm talking about desktop PCs) that could not be upgraded. Worst of all, they would change their internal designs with each new generation of PC so that even newer Compaq motherboard would not fit in previous gen cases… AARRGG!

      • That's my big problem with Compaq, and why I never owned one.

      • I will have to pull my slotless, USB-less, Ethernet-less, MediaGX-chipped Presario 2200 desktop from the basement and do a story on it. It's about as non-standard and hamstrung as you can get, and currently the world's most charming doorstop.

        Oh, and I think my niece still has her dad's old Monorail All-in-One…now THAT was suck-y!

        (Apologies if this is a duplicate post. Hoonibbles seems to have dined on the first version of this comment.)

        • There is ONE Compaq I wouldn't mind finding. It was some blue, toaster-looking thing they sold in 2000, as a crippled "internet appliance" deal. Remember the 3Com Audrey? It was sorta supposed to compete with that.

          Nonstandard as hell, but the design of that stupid toaster case fascinated me for some reason. Have no idea what it was called though.

  • Charles_Barrett

    "Is that a spare battery pack in your docking port, or are you just glad to see me…?"

    • (DId you read my tags for the article?)

      • Charles_Barrett

        Oops, I did NOT see that…!
        Great minds obviously think alike (and love Mae West).

  • Oh, Windows 95, you look so wittle bitty!

  • OA5599

    Many owners ended up changing some of the plastic parts to give these a new appearance.

    <img src=""&gt;

  • Baron Von Danger

    I can kinda match that with my Acer Travelmate 313t
    <img src="; width="400/">
    Ultra portable with a screaming 266MHz P1 mounted inside, no awesome dock though. It does have PCMCIA floppy and CD-Rom drives. My challenge with this laptop is to see what OS I can pack into this. I just want something light that can just run a browser and a wifi card. It has MMX extensions, so it might be possible.
    yeah…you see that trackpad. badassssssss

  • Plecostomus

    Three words. Macintosh. Powerbook. Duo.

    That is all.

  • CruisinTime

    You said in this old article that you could not bear to part with it,do you still have it? Nice to read these old technical stories.