You messed up. Big time.
You’re working on a network device, making some major configuration changes. As soon as you hit enter, you lose communication with the device. You need to console in, but your laptop doesn’t have a serial port. Time to pull out a USB to serial adapter. But you also need a rollover cable, and you need terminal emulation software on your computer. Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a nice little portable machine that JUST WORKED with serial with no fuss or muss? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could combine your love of networking, Atari, and serial cables all at the same time!?
Okay, that last one might have been very specific to me. But in all seriousness, making serial connections was a lot easier with classic computers. I’ve spent many an hour trying terminal emulation programs on my Mac that just didn’t work, or were too clumsy before I found one that I liked. And I’ve also found that not all USB to Serial cables are created equal – some are quite cheap and flakey or have terrible drivers that don’t work.
Maybe… I already have something more convenient than my Mac lying around for consoling into my lab equipment…
Enter the Atari Portfolio
The Atari Portfolio was the first palmtop computer. What’s a palmtop you ask? Before tablets and smartphones, there were computers the size of a pocket calculator, these guys were arguably way ahead of their time. Typically a clamshell form factor, The Atari Portfolio debuted in 1989 and was largely marketed for really basic business tasks like schedules, contact lists, light word processing, and spreadsheets.
For the time, the Portfolio is quite small—at 7.5” x 4” inches and 1.25” inches thick (when the clamshell is closed) and weighs in at 500g. As you can see above – it’s actually a fair bit bigger than an actual palm. A little beefy, but that’s not terribly far off the rough dimensions of a Samsung Fold 3.
It has a small text-only screen that can display 40 characters wide by 8 rows. It runs on 3 AA batteries and can typically run for several weeks with one set. Sorry, no rechargeable battery cell just yet.
The Portfolio runs on DIP DOS 2.11—which is largely compatible with MS-DOS 2.11. It has several built-in applications including a text editor, spreadsheet, contact list, and a schedule.
And no… It can’t DOOM yet. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.
One of the Portfolio’s biggest claims to fame was its placement in the Terminator 2 movie. Yup, the scene where a young John Connor hacks an ATM for money to go play in the arcade? That’s an Atari Portfolio.
I wanted to take a picture of myself with my portfolio attached to an ATM at my local bank, but my editor refused to let me do that. Something about it being a bad idea. (Editor’s note: It’s still a bad idea.)
The Portfolio also has some really interesting storage.
This is a little down the rabbit hole for this article but bear with me here. In the picture above you can see the 64K Atari Portfolio Memory Card – next to a 4GB SD card for size comparison. The Portfolio Memory Card is both significantly larger (physical form factor) and significantly smaller (a mere 64K to the SD’s 4GB). The SD card can hold 60,000 of the Portfolio Memory Cards shown.
But the large physical size (which was actually small for the time of release) isn’t the most interesting point about these memory cards. Let’s look a little closer:
Battery “+” side down?
That’s right! There is a very tiny battery in this card. It’s not flash memory like the SD card shown next to it. IT’S RAM! Backed up by a tiny battery so the contents aren’t lost when the Portfolio is turned off or the card is removed.
While it sounds like a crazy thing today, it was a decent solution for storage for the first palmtop at the time. Because it is RAM, it’s lightning-fast. And even the smallest floppy drive of 1989 would have added significant size to the Portfolio. Battery-saved-RAM was common practice for game saves on many cartridge-based game consoles, including the NES and the Gameboy. And yes, when the battery dies – your files are gone (sorry, all your Pokemon from your childhood are dead). Thankfully these Portfolio cards can run for one to three years on a battery. With great care, you can even replace the battery while retaining your files.
Atari also sold ROM cards in the same form factor containing preloaded software. The majority of commercial software for the Portfolio was productivity. Only one commercial game was ever released for the Portfolio – Chess.
For expansion, the Portfolio uses a sidecar system much like the TI-99/4a. Expansion modules can be plugged into the right side of the Portfolio to expand its capabilities and much like the TI-99/4a, some of these expansion modules themselves (like the memory expansion modules) also have an expansion port so the modules can be daisy-chained. In Terminator 2, John Connor had a parallel expansion interface on his Portfolio, attached to a custom device that was used to hack the ATM.
Here you can see my Portfolio with the serial interface expansion unit. It supports speeds from 110 baud to 9600 baud. Look a little silly? Yes. Kind of defeats the purpose of a “palmtop”? Yeah. But this silly serial interface will be central to how we’re going to get the Portfolio to console into our network gear.
Prepping the test
The Serial Interface has a 9-pin serial connector which we can use to plug in a rollover cable.
We’ll also need a terminal emulator program to communicate with the Cisco gear. The DOS utilities ROM card shown above contains a program called X-Term, which is a terminal emulator for the Portfolio. We’ll attempt to use that program first. The Portfolio defaults to using 9600 baud, no parity, 8 data bits, and 1 stop bit for serial communication. Those defaults will work fine for connecting to a Cisco device.
The Test: Can the Atari Portfolio act as a terminal emulator?
Good sign: The ROM card showed up in DIP DOS as drive A—much like a floppy disk would for an MS-DOS machine. I can navigate to the A drive in DIP DOS just like you would in MS-DOS, by typing “
I can then type
xterm to load xterm from the ROM card.
That worked!? Just like that?! I’ve spent so much time fussing with my Mac to get it to connect to the console port reliably, and all this time I had a beloved machine in my desk drawer that JUST WORKS?!
I get the X-term instructions, and after hitting enter I can already see a prompt from the Cisco 1811 router that I just turned on and plugged the rollover cable into.
? to see a list of available commands on the Cisco router:
Here’s our first hiccup. The Portfolio’s screen is 40 characters wide and 8 rows tall. It’s tiny. The text is wrapping weirdly and it’s already scrolled by multiple pages of text (from the Portfolio’s perspective) before the more prompt comes up. But we can fix that:
terminal width 40 terminal length 8
Much better! This is much more usable.
For those following along at home, this isn’t a permanent solution. The two commands above are only for the current session. The next time I connect with the Portfolio it will be back to default.
So let’s see if we can make the Cisco router play nicely with the Portfolio by default.
enable configure terminal line console 0 width 40 length 8 end
Success! Now each time the Portfolio connects the text will be formatted nicely for the Portfolio’s tiny screen.
As silly as all this mad science is – this is seriously a very easy and convenient way to console into lab equipment. The Xterm terminal emulation program on the DOS Utilities ROM card just works. The serial interface on the portfolio also works with no need for additional drivers, and even the default settings play nice with Cisco.
The whole setup… It just works.
Ironically, this 33-year-old device is definitely one of the easiest, cleanest and simplest console setups I’ve done. The Portfolio is actually a decent machine for the task of quickly consoling into a router or switch. It’s not perfect—I wouldn’t want to do a deep dive reading through a device’s config on the Portfolio’s tiny screen (that’s better for an SSH session or within Auvik). But for those times when I get over-enthusiastic when playing with my homelab networking gear and I accidentally shut myself out, the Portfolio is a perfect tool to hop in and fix it.
An Atari Portfolio fan recreated the output shown on the Portfolio in Terminator 2 with a homebrew program. I highly recommend you check it out: