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What was the first display technology capable of creating a flat-panel display with 640x480 resolution? (And reasonable size, say 12" to 14".)

As far as I can see, three flat-panel display technologies that were historically used were LCD (still important today), plasma (used in the Toshiba laptops in the late eighties, later used for some TVs) and electroluminescent (what happened to that?). However, the earliest reference I can find to a high resolution panel is the Toshiba T3100 (640x400, 1986). The Grid Compass (1982) only did 320x240, but I haven't been able to find out why; what was the limiting factor?

What was the earliest display technology that could do it?

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  • I think one or two color LEDs made it to that resolution very early, in large displays like 200+ inch. – user3528438 May 16 '17 at 21:48
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    The first portable PC with an LCD screen was the Data General One. It had an 11" 640*256 graphics or 80*25 Alphanumeric, but had a poor contrast ratio in the first batch. oldcomputers.net/data-general-one.html They also had an Electroluminescent screen version (the 2T) that released about 6 months later and it was incredibly clear. There were other non-PC computers around that time, but typically quite different to the PC architecture. – Jack Creasey May 16 '17 at 21:51
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    Apparently some third-party EGA boards could do 640x480, but the first "official" 640x480 resolution on PCs was almost certainly VGA with the IBM PS/2 in 1987. So I would suspect that you are looking at the second half of the 1980s, adjusted for whenever this showed up in laptops. – a CVn May 20 '17 at 10:28
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    When I was working in medical electronics in 1985, we had to use flat panel displays for the MR scanners. The magnets played havoc with the CRTs so they had to use "alternative technology" to display the data. They only came with orange displays. They were touch sensitive and customizable in size; the ones I used were 12"x18". The drawback was they were about 2" thick. They were pixel addressable but we only used them as very long 80 character displays. – cup Sep 8 '17 at 4:45
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    The Compaq Portable SLT/286, released in 1988, had a monochrome TFT display that supported VGA (640x480) graphics. classic-computers.org.nz/collection/compaq-stl286.htm – Kaz Nov 28 '18 at 13:01
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Early laptop computers with LCD displays, such as the Grundy Newbrain or the Epson PX-8 were designed for displaying text. They were described in terms of the rows and columns of characters that would be displayed. These early machines prioritised wide displays (in order to show the same 40 or 80 characters per line as desktop machines), and could only display a few lines of text without scrolling. As LCD technology developed, more rows could be added, and the aspect ratio of the displays became steadily "squarer".

In the IBM-compatible PC market, computer manufacturers had to use display adapters (video cards) that were compatible with IBM's, in order to run the software written for them. IBM thus created a number of standards that others copied, including:

  • MDA Monochrome Display Adapter (1981): text only, 720×350 pixels
  • CGA Color Graphics Adapter (1981): up to 640×200
  • EGA Enhanced Graphics Adapter (1984): up to 640×350
  • MCGA MultiColor Graphics Adapter (1987): up to 640x480
  • VGA Video Graphics Adapter (1987): up to 640x480

So on this basis, the earliest we should expect to find a PC-compatible laptop with 640x480 resolution is 1987. (Laptop resolutions also tended to lag behind desktops: The IBM PC Convertible of 1986 had a resolution of 640x200.)


In 1988, the New York Times published a review of Compaq's first* laptop computer, the SLT/286. They note:

The machine offers a bright high-resolution display that supports the VGA video standard, the first laptop with that feature.

Note that this would be a monochrome display: colour LCDs were still several years off. Thus, excepting a non-IBM-compatible laptop getting there first, it appears that the first laptop capable for displaying a 640x480 resolution was the Compaq SLT/286.

*Compaq had entered the market in 1982 with the Compaq Portable, but this was a "luggable", suitcase-sized computer with a CRT display.

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I was going to mention devices like the Compaq Portable III in 1987, which has a gas plasma display in a "luggable" configuration. We used to call this a Lunch Box computer. It was not battery powered.

But this display is only 640x400.

We bought one of these cases as an empty clone case, and loaded up SCO Unix. We'd take it to demos, and I'd used it on trips. The idea of having a "portable" Unix workstation was novel for us at the time.

Just carry this thing and a 9600 baud modem! :)

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