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I don't think the Intel 186 was in any "home computers" or PCs, but I see other people referencing it as a common chip. Also, I've heard that NEC V20s had the 186 instruction set in addition to 8088, etc. That's about the only reference I have to it actually being used. What happened to it and why did the IBM PC and all its clones jump to the 286 chip for a CPU from the 8086?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Unless someone here has significant experience in this area, this is likely to just be a bunch of opinions about likely scenarios. I have mine, too. I avoided 16-bit memory like the plague back then because it was so expensive. The 80186 did help a lot in that regard, so it was attractive. But the timing of it was poor. I think it wasn't until almost mid 1983 that I even read about it in BYTE magazine. And, if you recall, the IBM PC/AT came out in August of 1983! (I bought one, so I know this fact.) \$\endgroup\$
    – jonk
    May 4, 2021 at 23:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ The '186 had a bunch of integrated stuff (DMA, IRQ controller, etc.) that was incompatible with the chipset used on the original PC. The '286, introduced at the same time, didn't suffer this problem, while providing more performance and additional capability like Protected Mode for VM. So it made almost no sense to use the '186 for a new PC (a few were made nonetheless.) \$\endgroup\$ May 4, 2021 at 23:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've just called some folks with parallel experiences (I bought the Intel 80286 development chipset kit) around that time. We all pretty much remember it about the same way -- two different teams at Intel, one working on the 80386 and a LONG way out from producing it and another making improvements to the 8088/8086 product. Intel needed a chip out in 1983 (pressure from IBM) and accessed their 80386 team to do a detour, while still letting the 80186/80188 team do their thing. Tony Zingale was the product marketing engineer for the 80186/80188 back then. He'd know if he's alive. \$\endgroup\$
    – jonk
    May 4, 2021 at 23:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel retrocomputing SE would have been a better fit for this question. \$\endgroup\$
    – jaskij
    May 5, 2021 at 9:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ See: Retrocomputing: How was the 80186 incompatible with the IBM PC. Simply said, although the CPU part of the 80186 is compatible with the 80x86 used in IBM PCs at that time, the peripherals integrated into the 80186 were different from those in an IBM PC, so a 100% compatible PC cannot be built using one. \$\endgroup\$
    – StarCat
    May 5, 2021 at 9:47

9 Answers 9

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There was an actual PC (somewhat compatible) computer built with the 80186.

That was the Tandy 2000 from Radio Shack.

I have vague memories of being envious of the better graphics it had over the Tandy 1000 my family owned at the time.

From all that I have read, it wasn't fully compatible with the IBM PC. It did run MSDOS, and many of the commonly used programs were available for it.

The Wikipedia Tandy 2000 page refers to a second computer that I'd never heard of that also used the 80186.

That's the Mindset. It had better graphics than the Tandy 2000, and a MOUSE. It was apparently, though, even less PC compatible than the Tandy 2000.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Even the clones took a long time to become "fully" PC compatible. The very first one to succeed at it was the Kaypro 286i. It was about $2k cheaper than the IBM PC/AT. But before that moment, I'd say nothing got even close to 95%. Maybe 80%? It was really bad, at first. \$\endgroup\$
    – jonk
    May 5, 2021 at 0:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yep. I remember. The 1000 came out a year after the 2000 (the 2000 in 1983, the 1000 in 1984.) The 1000 was pretty darned near 100% IBM compatible, and got rave reviews for how well it worked. It was one of the first to use the Phoenix BIOS - a clean room reverse engineered work alike clone of the IBM BIOS. \$\endgroup\$
    – JRE
    May 5, 2021 at 0:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Came here to comment that the Mindset used the 80186. \$\endgroup\$ May 5, 2021 at 0:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Harper-ReinstateMonica Yeah, I remember reading about and thinking about possibly designing with a 80186. It was marketed as the first "real computer on a chip" by Intel. They talked about their integration of two DMA channels, the PIC, and the clock generator quite a lot. It was their big push. My interest was that this would be lots easier to design with, and since I'm just a hobbyist and nothing more, that was attractive. But by the time I got around to the idea, the IBM PC/AT was already sporting the 80286. I wasn't up to that level of design but I also lost interest in the 80186. \$\endgroup\$
    – jonk
    May 5, 2021 at 0:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Orchid mad the PCTurbo add-in card with an 80186 that you installed in an IBM PC allowing the user to switch between the two. Harris also made a 9300-series LAN server and IBM 3270 gateway that used the chip. \$\endgroup\$
    – Bert
    May 5, 2021 at 14:40
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The 80186/80188 is not a plain microprocessor but a microcontroller as it integrates some peripherals like timers, interrupt controllers and DMA controllers into it.

Compared to an IBM PC which had separate chips for timer, interrupt controller and DMA controller, these 80186/80188 integrated peripherals are either different or at least mapped to different addresses than on IBM PC so you can't build an IBM PC compatible computer with 80186 or 80188.

But a 80286 is again a plain microprocessor so same external timer/interrupt/DMA chips can be connected to it at same addresses than on an IBM PC and the 80286 also had the extended instruction set from 80186/80188. PC compilers usually called these simply as 286 instructions as that was the CPU that introduced them to PCs, in the IBM PC/AT.

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"Common" and "common in PCs" are two different things. The 80186 and the 80188 were great chips for embedded application, with -- for the day -- a very high level of integration. For many applications it was the core of the lowest-chip-count solution you could have at the time.

As mentioned, it was incompatible with the PC -- but I'm not sure that's what Intel was thinking when they made it.

It'd be nice to have sales numbers for the 80186/80188 vs. the 8086/8088, just for comparison -- and how many 808x ended up in embedded applications vs. PCs.

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Research Machines Ltd. (RML UK) shipped a large number of 186 machines to UK schools under the name Nimbus PC. I recall seeing it on server-type full-height Ethernet cards too.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Nightmare. It ran MS-DOS and even Windows after a fashion, but was not quite hardware PC compatible. I seem to recall that if you plugged an IBM compatible mouse into the mouse port, there would be a bang and a flash as your 5 V rail shorted out: same physical connector, different pin connections! \$\endgroup\$ May 5, 2021 at 19:39
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Noting that other people have made comments about machines from Tandy and Research Machines, but there was also a very early laptop called the Tava Flier which used it.

https://vintage-laptops.com/?page_id=228&lang=en

Apart from that I agree with everybody else: it was far more commonly encountered in embedded systems and development labs, and was more often than not programmed using Intel's own development systems.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ ooof—WAY too early in the morning to view up the vintage-laptops circa-1988 site design \$\endgroup\$
    – wistlo
    May 5, 2021 at 14:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ Probably qualifies more for (trans)portable (or "luggable" as some would say) than laptop. \$\endgroup\$
    – jcaron
    May 5, 2021 at 15:53
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Convergent Technologies put out a business desktop computer, the NGEN, that was initially based on the 80186. This was a follow-on from their 8086-based IWS and 8088-based AWS, and ran an updated version of their CTOS operating system that maintained compatibility with the earlier products. These computers were also marketed by Burroughs as the B25 (following the B21 [IWS] and B22 [AWS], and by several other companies under their own respective brands.

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Another 80186-based PC was the Goupil G4, released in 1986 and notable primarily for being one of the very few PCs to ship with the originally-planned multitasking MS-DOS 4 (although the OEM version of the OS that shipped with the G4 was not actually capable of multitasking) - in fact, the G4 was apparently the main reason why Microsoft completed multitasking MS-DOS at all.

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CompuPro had add-on CPU cards using the 80186 - SP186

A typical system would have one 16-bit main CPU handling all disk access, running the main operating system (e.g., an 80286 running MP/M-86) and a combination of 8-bit (SPUZ - Z-80) and/or 16-bit (SP186) processors. Terminals could be connected to serial ports on the SP boards, providing a better user experience than a single-CPU system (more total CPU power) and better than a typical network (effectively a network of computers in one box).

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This does not make it "common", but I recall there were co-processors for the BBC Micro attached via the "Tube" interface with an 80186 in. I think the original Acorn one had an 80186. I had a clone made I think by Watford Electronics, which definitely had an 80186.

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