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NEC UltraLite

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NEC UltraLite
Typeportable computer
Release dateOctober 1988; 32 years ago (1988-10)
Introductory priceUS$4,000 to US$5,000
Operating systemMS-DOS 3.3[1]
CPUNEC V30 at 4.92Mhz and 8.14 MHz
Memory640k RAM
DisplaySupertwist electroluminescent backlit 8.25x4.25 LCD screen
GraphicsCGA compatible, 320x200x4 or 640x200x2
Connectivitybuilt-in 2400bit/s modem
Mass4.4 lb (2.0 kg)

The NEC UltraLite was an MS-DOS-based portable computer in a "notebook" size.

PC Magazine featured the UltraLite on its cover in November 1988[2] and shortly thereafter journalists began referring to the A4 sized computer as a "notebook" to distinguish it from the larger and heavier laptops of the time.


  • Storage: battery-backed storage memory (non-volatile RAM drive)
    • PC-17-01 had 1 MB
    • PC-17-02 had 2 MB
  • RS-232C port
  • ROM/RAM card slot (NEC proprietary interface)
  • optional accessories:
    • external 3.5 inch floppy drive reader
    • SRAM cards using proprietary interface
    • ROM cards using proprietary interface
    • parallel port adapter cable
  • internal software in 456Kb integrated ROM
    • MS-DOS 3.3
    • Laplink 2
    • Microsoft DOS Manager Version 2.0


The product was originally developed by an NEC Japan telecommunications engineering team that was trying to make an inexpensive lightweight terminal for programming PABX systems. In 1988, as NEC was trying to create products to update their best selling MultiSpeed, the NEC engineering team in charge of developing personal computers showed the UltraLite to a product management team from NEC Home Electronics USA.

Tom Martin, the Vice President in charge of the group, asked, "Can you make this thing run MS-DOS"? When an affirmative response was received, the NEC team knew they had a hit product on their hands.

The product was launched shortly before COMDEX in October 1988 at a gala event in New York City. It was applauded by the media, who were dying to find a small lightweight computing platform that could be used for note-taking and article writing. Unfortunately the publicity surrounding the UltraLite did not reflect itself in consumer demand. This was due to the UltraLite's two Achilles heels ... the lack of a hard drive which prevented storage of one's work (for more than a week or so without charging the internal RAM drive) and the use of a relatively slow 8086-compatible processor when the market was moving to the 80286 class. The main downside to the Ultralite (which weighed only 4 pounds) was its price. It sold for between 4 and 5 thousand dollars which was significantly higher than other, albeit heavier, less innovative, computers of the time. Given its use of the ram drive boot times were actually faster than 80386 class computers.

So although the UltraLite ushered in a new era in portable computing, its original design as a telecommunications maintenance terminal proved to be its commercial downfall. Commercial success in that product category was not achieved until Compaq launched its LTE brand nearly 12 months later.

Data Storage

Data storage can be done by an optional external 720kb (in fact it supported "Japanese" 1.2Mb format but did not support more common 1.44Mb) 3.5-inch floppy drive, by the internal non-volatile RAM drive (silicon hard drive), or by proprietary RAM and ROM cards.[2] The internal ram drive is powered by an auxiliary battery inside the unit which needs to be recharged every week or so in order to keep the contents of the ram drive. The credit-card sized, battery-powered RAM cards come with capacity sizes of 256kb or 512Kb. Both RAM cards and ROM cards use a proprietary NEC interface because this laptop came out at a time when there were no standard portable computing interfaces. The PCMCIA standard did not exist until 1990. The RAM cards were powered by a replaceable 3 volt lithium coin battery and had a write-protect switch.

ROM cards

Software can be bought running from ROM cards.[2] Examples include:

Other Models

There are other models in the NEC Ultralite series—for example, the Ultralite SX/20, which was released in 1991. The Ultralite SX/20 had a 80386 processor and runs Microsoft Windows 3.0

Others in the series include the NEC Ultralite 286F, 286V, and the NEC Ultralite Versa models.

See also


  1. ^ NEC Ultralite specifications, NEC FastFacts
  2. ^ a b c d Front Cover:NEC's Incredible 4-Pound DOS Laptop, 1988-11-15, Volume 7 Number 19, PC Magazine
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NEC UltraLite
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