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My Zenith ZWL-184 SuperSports

My First SuperSport

(A long-ish story)
I was in high school. The year was 1994 or 1995, I don't recall. My epilepsy had been in remission for several years, but it's legacy - partial loss of fine motor control in my hands - was taking it's toll in the form of preventing me from writing stuff by hand with any speed or legibility. A Co-worker of mine who I'd met some years before in the BBS scene had a solution for me. An old, dusty 8MHz 8086 "Luggable" laptop, a Zenith SuperSport ZWL-184-02. From what I can tell, it was about middle of the line when it was released. It had the 2400BPS Modem, a pair of 720K Floppy drives, and an extended-life battery. I got permission from the superintendent of my school district to use it daily in most of my classes for taking notes. It was a hard sale, but once he realized that it was not powerful enough to lend itself to much more than word processing, he agreed.

I did pretty much everything on that laptop during my first 2 years of high school. It was just as fast as my desktop at the time (a hand-me-down 8088 from my parents) but I couldn't figure out how to get the built-in modem to work and wrote it off as broken. Regardless, I adopted it as my main workstation at home and around town. I used a small portable 9-volt battery powered 2400 Baud modem made by Viva to do my BBS and Dial-up UNIX stuff. It was accompanied by a Telecoupler II acoustic coupler for working on the road (from digital PBX phones at work, payphones, etc)

At home, most of my writing homework was done in LotusWorks Suite, and all my printing was done through my trusty OkiData Microline 182+ printer.

The Demise: All good things come to an end. I broke my SuperSport's LCD screen when something fell from one of my shelves directly onto the laptop. For a few months, I left the LCD Clamshell part off (took it apart and removed the LCD frame, hinges, and all), and used the SuperSport plugged into a CGA monitor as my main workstation. Eventually, I upgraded to a more modern NEC laptop with a color screen. Let's face it, by 1996, the SuperSport was obsolete, even if it did get the job done.

The Resurrection

Fast forward to early 2004. The Zenith's been in a box in my parents' basement for what's got to be something like 8 years. I'm hanging out with a good hacker friend of mine and we decide to raid a local surplus electronics warehouse in the blighted "west bottoms" district of Kansas City, MO. I can't recall exactly what we were looking for, but this place always sells interesting old hardware. There they were: A pair of ZWL-184's, in pretty bad shape. One's missing the modem but has the modem's cover plate. The other one has a modem, but is missing the cover plate. Only one floppy drive on each one, and both had batteries attached, but no power cords. There were lots of case screws missing from both cases, and one was missing the rear I/O Port cover. Both were missing the 8087 Upgrade Port Cover, but one had an 8087 already installed in the socket! Did I mention that this warehouse let me take BOTH of them for $5? w00t!

As it turned out, One had a hard drive inside, but it wouldn't so much as power on. The other one would power on, but wouldn't boot from floppy, and gave some obscure error I hadn't seen before about resetting a drive. I decided to take the LCD from the one that wouldn't power up, and try to get my original SuperSprt back up and running. Sure enough, it worked like a charm. I was pleased. Upon opening the one that would power on with a wierd error, I found a hard drive controller. I swapped the hard drive from the DOA SuperSport, and much to my surprise, it booted right up. The floppy drive was also trashed, which is why it wouldn't boot from floppy. I swapped the floppy drive from the DOA SuperSport as well, and ended up with two fully functional SuperSports, and a pile of parts almost big enough to build another SuperSport. I didn't bother seeing why the DOA one wouldn't power up, but I'd bet it's just the onboard power supply.

The batteries that came with these two salvage zeniths turned out to be a wash. One won't hold a charge for anything, and the other one won't supply enough energy to sustain the hard drive for more than 5 minutes. It will run for about 4 hours in the Zenith with 2 floppy drives though, but it starts beeping with a lowe battery warning after a few minutes. 5 Hours of incessant battery warnings sucks. The original battery pack that I had back in the 90's had become cracked from the incident that took the LCD too. Inside, the batteries were fine, so I hacked one of the dead battery cases to hold the larger battery array from my original battery pack. Right now, it seems to run for 6 hours straight even on the one with the hard drive. I took very good care of that battery pack. Once a week, I put it on a Ni-CD conditioner to run it down and charge it back up slowly. Considering it hasn't been used in close to a decade, and it still works great, I think I was doing the right thing. :)

Current Setups

Zenith 1 (Mostly parts from my original, not used much)
  • ZWL-184-02
  • 2 Floppy Drives (720K)
  • Internal 2400Baud Modem (Missing modem cover)
  • Normal Capacity battery pack, contains damaged cells but still works (Runs about 15 minutes before low batt warning, runs about 4 hours after that, before dying)
  • Boot Media: MS-DOS 6.20 with Zenith's offical "Mode" command to control modem and backlight
  • Software: LotusWorks stripped down on a floppy, various games and utils on floppy as well.

    Zenith 2 (Used very often)

  • ZWL-184-97
  • 1 Floppy Drive (720kB)
  • 1 Internal 3.5" Hard Drive (20MB)
  • Internal 2400Baud Modem
  • 8087 Upgrade Processor
  • High Capacity battery pack (Runs about 7 hours before briefly warning of low battery. Dies after about 5 minutes of battery warning)
  • Boot Media: Original Zenith DOS came installed on the 20MB Hard Drive.
  • Software: Almost everything listed on my SOFTWARE page, and then some! Still have about 13 Megs of space to fill.