All modern Intel and AMD PCs can trace their roots to a single system: the IBM Personal Computer. Originally released in August 1981, this computer became so popular and long-lived that competitors reverse-engineered its BIOS so that their computers could use the same software and peripherals, a practice that eventually resulted in a de facto standard whose descendants we still use today.
If you want to experience what using an old IBM PC was like, you could drop a few hundred dollars on a used one on eBay. Or you could roll the dice on this new oddball laptop on AliExpress. The “Book 8088” laptop PC combines modern components with an Intel 8088 processor and 640KB (yes, that’s kilobytes) of memory. A few more modern amenities make it nicer to use than a 40-year-old desktop, like a 640×200 16-color LCD screen, and built-in interfaces that allow USB accessories and CompactFlash cards to interface with the ancient components (a 512MB CompactFlash card serves as the system’s hard drive).
Intel’s 8088 was a cut-down version of the original 8086 with an 8-bit data bus; in the Book 8088 and the IBM PC, it runs at a clock speed of 4.77 MHz. That slow speed and low memory limit means it’s best suited to MS-DOS, with its text-based interface and general lack of multitasking support. You can run very early Windows versions on it, up to version 3.0 but, according to retro-tech YouTube, it seems like a bad time.
There are several accessories meant to extend the Book 8088’s capabilities; there’s an open socket for an Intel 8087 floating-point coprocessor, a Sound Blaster-compatible sound card accessory from Yamaha, and an external dongle with three slots for ISA expansion cards.
There are reasons to be skeptical of the Book 8088, and a bit of digging has turned up very little on whatever company is making these things. The images are attributed to Xinrui Technology, a Hong Kong-based manufacturer that mostly seems to make cheap PC accessories and AV equipment but whose (very old) site doesn’t mention the Book 8088. A visible boot screen in one of the photos pointed us to 8086cpu.com, which lists the Book 8088 and other retro PC projects, but no information not already provided in the AliExpress listing. The same company appears responsible for the sold-out “Hand386” retro computer, a handheld system with a much more capable Intel 386 SX inside.
The AliExpress seller, DZT, mostly seems to sell small CNC machines and has 90 percent positive feedback, so it seems likely that you’ll at least get something in a box if you order one of these.
Whoever is making these laptops isn’t making many of them; the basic $200 version with no accessories is sold out, as is the version with an included 8087 coprocessor. As of this writing, there are still around 80 of the ones with a sound card preinstalled, available for $221. There are around 20 of the $241 version with the sound card and an external ISA expansion dongle.
Obviously, you don’t need to buy a laptop with an 8088 to experience what life was like in the MS-DOS days. Sites like PCjs Machines will emulate the original IBM PC directly in a browser window, complete with period-appropriate software. Most people can fire one of these emulators up for half an hour and learn all they need to about retrocomputing (mostly, it was slow). But for die-hards who demand a bare-metal hardware experience, this could be a neat way to get the functionality of the IBM PC in a package that takes up considerably less space.
Update, 5/20/2023: After this story was published, Ars was contacted by developer Sergey Kiselev, who maintains an open-source 8088 BIOS on GitHub. He alleged that the creators of the Book 8088 re-used his BIOS for the system while removing his name and language about the GPL v2 license that the BIOS is distributed under; we can’t confirm the claim by comparing the code directly, but there are several distinct similarities in a screenshot Kiselev shared and one used in the Book 8088 retail listing.
“While my work is open source, and I don’t mind people using it in their projects, I do care deeply about the principles of open source software development and licensing. And whoever manufacturers this machine, bluntly violates copyright law and licensing,” wrote Kiselev to Ars detailing his claim. “Since you start your article with the discussion of how Compaq reverse engineered IBM’s BIOS, I think it would be suitable to mention that the manufacturer pirated the BIOS, without crediting the work, and they violate GPL by not releasing the source code of their modified BIOS.”
Listing image by Xinrui Technology