Brother Super PowerNote PN-8500MDSe vintage word processor
In my recent eBay adventure I purchased a Brother Super PowerNote PN-8500MDSe vintage word processor from a local seller. The machine is powered by a Z80 processor and supports basic word processing, spreadsheet data entries as well as going online (perhaps not in the modern context of the Internet, but by using an old bulletin board system) through an optional dialup modem.
The machine is still in good condition – the front, back and side connector panels seem to have suffered from very little physical damage:
It also comes with a 9V DC adapter, which is of the negative tip variant (not the more common positive tip type) and runs off 110V AC. I also bought a mini 220V-110V power transformer and permanently attached a note to the adapter using sticky tapes to avoid confusion (and possible magic smokes!):
The machine boots up perfectly fine, greeting me with “Good Evening!” – which is the correct time of the day! Does the RTC battery still work after all these years? We’ll come to that in a while, but here is the photo of the greeting screen:
After a few seconds the main menu will now show up:
The following applications are bundled with the machine:
- Word Processor
- Address Book
- Line by Line – a type of printing application which prints each line as you type
- Communication – a terminal application
- Scheduler / Calendar
- To Do List
- File Management – to explore files on the floppy disk
- Disk Application
- Set Up
The first thing that I check is the Clock application. Amazingly it still showed the correct time as the CR2032 battery is still working:
Nevertheless I decided to replace the battery as it is quite straightforward without having to disassemble the machine – a small plastic panel at the bottom of the word processor provides direct access to this battery. The machine also has slot for the main battery, which was an option module to be purchased separately, and unfortunately mine came with no main battery:
This is the word processor application. Notice how the ruler provides the default left margin, making the document ready to be printed at any time:
To quit most applications, press the CANCEL button at the bottom row of the keyboard. If that doesn’t work, hold down the CODE key and press the MENU/FILE button, and you will be prompted to save any pending changes before quitting.
This is the calculator application, supporting only basic mathematical operations:
The address book application:
This is the spreadsheet application. On startup, if the Brother floppy disk is inserted, it will prompt you to select a template to be used from the floppy disk; otherwise it will just create an empty file:
The numbers in brackets are the sizes of the spreadsheets. The figure at the top shows how much free space is available on the machine, in this case a mere 240.6KB. This is how the checkbook spreadsheet (CHECKS.SPR, 9.7KB) looks like:
Interestingly, from the main menu, there is an option called “Disk Management” allowing users to launch Brother-specific applications on the bundled floppy disks. Only two games are provided on the floppy disk that came with my machine, Tetris and Turnabout (a Reversi clone):
There is nothing particular about this floppy disk – it is just a normal 1.44MB high density disk without any floppy copy protection mechanism commonly used at the time. It can be cloned using any modern disk copy program such as RaWrite or even MS-DOS DISKCOPY command. You can download an image of the disk here. The disk contains the following files and has 240,640 bytes free:
This is the list of the files on the disk:
- *.WPT: word processor templates
- *.SPT: spreadsheet templates
- *.APL: applications (tetris and turnabout games)
- BROTHER.001, SCONV. EXE, CONVERT.EXE, INSTALL.BAT, *.OVR and *.OVL – Brother document conversion utilities, see details at the end of this article
With the floppy disk inserted, you can select between Tetris and Turnabout game in Disk Management:
This is the Tetris copyright screen and the main game:
This is the Turnabout game:
Last but not least is the Set Up application, It allows user to change, among other things, the system password (which is not set by default) and printer configuration:
Common printers (at the time) such as Brother, HP, Canon, Epson and IBM are supported. If “Other” is selected, it allows you to set custom printer configuration such as print quality and interface type (serial or parallel port):
Only transmission speeds up to 9600bps are supported if a serial printer is selected. Most likely only text output will be supported in the custom printer configuration. I am not sure where to find working serial printers, or even working parallel port printers supported by this machine, in this day and age of USB and wireless printers.
The last thing to explore is the Brother conversion utility pack found on the floppy disk. It contains the following executables:
- SCONV.EXE: spreadsheet conversion utility
- CONVERT.EXE: word processor conversion utility
- INSTALL.BAT: batch installer utility
The batch installer utility will simply create a folder name BROTHER on the C: drive and copy all files except SCONV.EXE to that folder. Here is the screenshot of the installer running on DOSBox:
Running CONVERT.EXE after the installation and you will be greeted with a fancy-looking user interface with many options for document conversions from PC to the Brother word processor and vice versa:
SCONV.EXE, on the other hand, is just a simple command-line spreadsheet conversion utility with some simple options for file format selection:
Interestingly, although it says “Press Ctrl-C to quit”, during my experiment, Ctrl-C does not work and will simply print the heart symbol (ASCII code 3 for ETX, which represents the end-of-text character generated by Ctrl-C). This may have been a bug, or something that was overlooked during the development of this tool. Anyway, not that I am going to use the conversion tool with Lotus 1-2-3 any time soon, so it is not a problem for me.
My next challenge would be to install a custom OS on this machine, for example CP/M. I have read somewhere that it is possible since the processor is a Z80 that can run CP/M. I am still in the process of finding out more information on this. If you have any ideas, feel free to leave a suggestion here and I will be happy to try it out.
AlphaSmart Dana, an almost perfect typewriter running PalmOS 4.1
21 thoughts on “Brother Super PowerNote PN-8500MDSe vintage word processor”
Hey! I realize this is a few years old but I just happened across it. I have several PowerNotes (various models) and use one as my primary writing machine. They’re great for distraction-free work. My main one – the one that’s hooked up on my desk, with connection to a printer and a serial connection straight to my Windows/Linux dual-boot machine – is the same one I got new for Christmas in (I think) 98 or 99. I used it exclusively one semester in college when my 486 died and I didn’t have the funds to replace or repair it. It got me through! Anyhow, as this is an older post I was curious if you’d done anything else with yours. I don’t suspect you would have had much luck getting CP/M on it since in my experience the machines are pretty seriously locked down. What I would love to figure out is the process involved to compile those *.apl files (Tetris and Turnabout). I don’t think Brother ever released an SDK for these machines and in-house support never moved beyond those two games. It’s frustrating since it’s clear they *can* do more, but there’s no easy way for even a power user to make that happen. I’ve hoped for years that somebody more knowledgeable than me might attempt to reverse-engineer the apl format, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’ve managed to make mine ‘seem’ to do more by using the COMM program as a dumb terminal to my Linux laptop. For the most part if there’s something that will run at the command line in Linux in a text-only environment, these machines can handle the display. It’s fun (if not practical) to use Lynx for instance to look up stuff on the web while I’m writing. I occasionally use Pine to check my email with it. Anyhow, nice blog and like I said, just wanted to ask about an update.
Thanks a lot for your comment. Great to hear that you’re still finding good use for the PowerNote nowadays! Yes, the built in terminal app is very useful to telnet to a modern Linux terminal and allows you to do a lot of things that would not have been possible on an original PowerNote. I also love black and white displays – they’re great for you to just focus on work without any distractions such as Internet, Facebook or youtube.
I bought the device in early 2016 and the article was written around June that year. After writing the article, I studied the APL file format in details and did come up with some useful information. I summarized them below for the benefits of those who might be interested.
There is nothing special about the APL file format. It just contains compiled Z80 instructions (64180 to be exact) with some header bytes added by Brother to identify the file. The file begins with a sequence of hex bytes 85C1010200004252 where 85 is likely from 8500 (the model number) and 4252 is ASCII codes for BR (short for Brother). Application code starts at 0x0008 with a jump or a call to the application entry point (8a6ah for TETRIS, 8d14h for TURN-ABT). I am not sure how the entry points are defined in the APL.
Using dZ80 disassembler on the APL files, I was able to identify the main method for each of the APL, which starts immediately after 0x0008 in the APL file. This method contains a lot of CALL/JUMP instructions to invoke other assembly procedures, followed by conditional jumps such as JR to check for the return value. The identified assembly procedures also contain matching PUSH/POP statements and end with RET, which means that the disassembled assembly code is making sense.
The data segments are stored towards the end of the file. For TETRIS, it starts at around 0x256c with the definition of the various Tetris shapes, followed by recognizable text (TETRIS, COL, KB, 1987, etc.). For TURN-ABT, this segment starts at 0x0eee with the game title string definition (TURNABOUT GAME). Although dZ80 disassembler does not recognize the data segment, I was able to make sense of it by looking at the raw binary data and analyzing the disassembled code. The data segment usually appears as a bunch of instructions that do not seem to do anything after the end of the various useful assembly procedures, identified by POP, RET statements or similar.
Part of the architecture of the PowerNotes can also be deduced by looking at the disassembly. For example, OUT/IN instructions for addresses 0b8h, 0b0h, 0f0h, 16h and 70-75h can be found in various places. This could be for writing to the screen or reading keyboard input. I did not have time to figure this out, but perhaps it’s possible to understand them in more details with the help of IDA Disassembler.
In the end using this knowledge, I was able to create an APL file that cleared the screen and printed “Hello World” when executed. And that’s about the extent of what my APL was able to do! As for running CP/M on this machine, I tried to open the machine up and although I was able to dump the ROM and identify some text strings, finding the correct format for the ROM file and replacing it with CP/M sounded like a tall order to me, so I didn’t proceed further. The PowerNote ROM size of 64KB will also mean that your compiled CP/M will need to be pretty small for it to fit.
Another more feasible way is to create a floppy disk that contains an APL which works as a bootstrapper. When executed, this APL file would clear the screen, and attempt to boot CP/M OS stored on the same disk. A challenge with this is that Brother only accepts APL files stored on 1.44MB DOS FAT12 floppy disk, which might not be readable by many old variants of CP/M. Or maybe we’ll need 2 floppy disks, a 1.44MB disk just for the CP/M APL bootstrapper, and another in a CP/M compatible format which contains CP/M itself. Maybe someone with enough time can try this method.
As for the fate of the unit, I sold it to a Z80 hobbyist at the end of 2016 in an attempt to scale down my vintage computer collection. So at the moment I am not able to experiment any of the above idea further. If you can try them on your PowerNote, let me know. I’d love to see CP/M running on this machine!
Well, you’re certainly much farther along than I ever made it! I like your proof-of-concept ‘Hello world’ APL. Unfortunately I don’t think the PowerNote series ever developed enough of a user base to encourage many others to attempt such projects. Hopefully someone (much better-versed in assembly than me) will come across this post and your comment and take up the cause. I’d be happy if there was just a way to bootstrap BASIC into it with the capability to read and write to the disk drive.
Yes, regrettably the PowerNote never became as popular as some other similar products of that era such as the Commodore 64. With regards to the bootstrapping BASIC idea, I guess it’s possible to modify existing BASIC for Z80 source code to support the PowerNote architecture. For simple tests, just supporting reading from keyboard or writing to screen should suffice. Hope someone with enough time can explore this further …
Found this thread via a search for details on how to transfer and convert my old gray Brother PN4400’s text files into something my Linux box can read, so I can edit them again.
I discovered long ago that a Windows box wouldn’t read them, never bothered to try my Linux boxes though, since by then I’d figured out it used a proprietary file system.
I got quite ill in ’92 and I’m finally able to deal with this, I’d really like to get some of my writings back if possible.
Haven’t found anything I can do, so far, but I have poor search foo, due to a brain injury, but this conversation is at least quite interesting, even if a lot of it is beyond my knowledge base.
I also have the white larger screen version PowerNote, I found it at a yard sale in the early 90’s, but I never used it.
It was a great affordable device for anyone who wrote I took it everywhere and I also had a tiny battery powered 12V printer, so I was able to print out documents in wilderness campsites, that was quite impressive for the time!
On the other end of the spectrum of small “computers”, I recently got a GPD Pocket Laptop, but am having a devil of a time trying to get Linux or BSD on it, the bios appears to be locked down or something, grrrrr.
Carry on, I’m just rambling…
Hi Mister X! The Brother conversion software (MS-DOS) is still available, like ToughDev mentioned in the original post – his link to the image is here:
That said, if you’re running Linux it’s not going to run ‘out of the box’ as it were. Three options I can offer:
1) It’s possible to run the conversion program under DOSBox, if you’re familiar with that Linux app. That’s how I use it. You’d need some way to get the WPT files from your Brother to the Linux machine, though. I use a USB floppy for my setup at home. It’s a little convoluted (you have to ‘mount’ the floppy drive from within DOSBox in order to read the disk) but it works. If you don’t have a floppy drive like that but you still have your Brother, you can transfer the files from the Brother to Linux using a null modem cable and some sort of terminal comm program on the Linux side. That has an added benefit, actually, since you can just ‘receive’ the file on the Linux side as straight text and you can skip the conversion step altogether if that’s all you want.
2) I’m not 100% sure about the 4400 but some of the PowerNotes had the ability to save as TXT files from the machine itself. That might be an option if (again) you have a working machine. I seem to recall you could only do one file at a time that way. I looked in the manual for the 4400 (online at https://www.manualslib.com/manual/443621/Brother-Pn-4400.html) but I don’t see that feature mentioned unless I’m just overlooking it.
3) I’m a fellow writer and fellow PowerNote enthusiast, and I’ve already got the conversion software set up and use it pretty regularly. If you want and are comfortable doing so, you can zip up all the WPT files you need converted and email them to me and I’d be happy to run them through the converter to whatever format you need and send them back. My email is rogermullins (dot) writer (at) gmail.
All the best!
First, Thanks to ToughDev for posting this great bio of the Brother Netbooks, I used mine daily for some years and it never let me down.
Thanks Roger, I shouldn’t need the disk zip, I still have the box, docs and floppy from when I purchased my PN4400 new.
I’ll try using my null modem cable to one of my Linux boxes and see how that goes.
Now all I have to do is find them in storage.
Are these things worth any serious money, I keep looking at the empty battery tray and seeing a Raspberry Pi in there and a similar sized touch screen, it would be a pretty cool retro-modern box.
Honestly I would say no. They’re on the rare side, just because they never really took off in the market, but they’re also not terribly sought-after. I have ebay alerts set up so that I know whenever one gets listed and they usually go fairly cheap. I haven’t paid more than $15-$20 for one, and I’ve got six or seven now and a couple more for parts. I like your idea. Off the top of my head I think mapping the keyboard might be the hardest part, but with enough trial and error it would probably work. You wouldn’t have to give up your battery compartment either, if you don’t want to – there’s enough room inside the case for a Pi. The later models (the PN-8xxx series) had an optional Franklin Bookman card reader, and if you get one that doesn’t have that built in the whole front right corner under the keyboard/in front of the disk drive is open space. On the other hand if you know you’re not going to be using the battery compartment it’d be handy to have that sort of access to the Pi. I have quite a few batteries but as could be expected after 20 years they’re getting to where they don’t hold a charge very long. You can still get new old stock but those don’t hold up much better. I’d be interested to see any build you come up with!
Thanks for writing this up a couple years ago, I’ve found it very difficult to find much info about dedicated word processors of any sort on the internet. Have an Alphasmart Neo 2 arriving soon, which I’ll try using in large part because I can’t find much info about dedicated word processors on the internet.
I used to have an AlphaSmart Dana a few years ago. A very useful and portable device for note taking or essay writing without distractions, unlike modern smartphone or tablets. The battery also lasted for months. Unfortunately the LCD eventually died and the device ended up in my junk box. I still collect dedicated word processors, although I must say it’s hard to find one in good condition and at a reasonable price nowadays.
I briefly considered the Alphasmart Dana, but for two reasons I passed on it: FIrst, horrific battery life (several hours?) compared to the Neo 2 (700 hours); and two, I have a Palm Vx, which I ended up having to store in the closet once I started using Win10, and now I’m running Linux, so would likely be impossible to interface with anything to get the files off of it.
Would be cool if you set up a dedicated word processor site or section, maybe even like Old Computers or HP Calc Museum. Why do you think they’re rising in price? The Neo 2 is several times what it was going for 2 or 3 years ago, I assume the articles on it spiked demand; but dedicated WPs, haven’t seen any articles praising those. If you could recommend any dedicated WP, let’s pretend price doesn’t matter, what would you in 2021, and why?
P.S. I wrote a letter to Brother that went out in the mail yesterday, 29-Jan-2021, laying out a request for them to restart production of electronic typewriters and dedicated WPs, in a modernized format. It’s quixotic, but would be really cool if they did, too.
My version of the AlphaSmart Dana runs on 3xAA batteries, and during the year I owned the device, I replaced the battery twice. I used it a few times a week, mostly for taking short notes. The specs quoted 25 hours, which refers to continuous use and is rather conservative I believe. If you do not use it continuously the battery will last for a while. Obviously like what you said it cannot beat the AlphaSmart Neo 2 with 700-hour battery life, which is much longer than any modern laptop
As for which dedicated word processor I would recommend in 2021, the answer depends on your need, your budget and what is currently available for sale. All things considered, a vintage but working device is still a better deal than any modern equivalent you can come up. That said, a few months back I came across the Freewrite Traveler https://getfreewrite.com/products/freewrite-traveler which seems to satisfy the requirements (modern design with e-ink display), although stocks are not expected until the next couple of months. The Traveler Indiegogo was also an attempt to build such a product, https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/traveler-ultimate-distraction-free-writing-tool#/, but the fund raising campaign has stopped and I cannot find any website to purchase this device.
Portable word processors have a niche market; there is not enough demand out there so it is rather difficult for manufacturers to even consider designing new devices. Still, it will be interesting if Brother responds to your letter and I do hope to see new devices coming up.
I’ll pretend I have a budget of $200, that a built-in printer is unnecessary and if present use normal paper, that a 3.5″ floppy drive is fine as long as it’s a standard format of some sort (I have an external IBM USB floppy for the Linux end, and a surprising number of mint floppies around), that being able to run on readily available batteries is preferred but not necessary, and it has to save docs in some sort of format readable by LibreOffice, but precise formatting transfer unimportant. Programs beyond word processing interesting, but unimportant. Backlit would be nice, or that nice old orange plasma type thing, although that would be bad for battery life. A usable LCD display, like the dot matrix kind, would be fine. Screen should display 1/3rds to 2/3rds or more of a letter-size page. Running some form of MS-DOS probably undesirable, as I’d just start figuring out what spreadsheet programs and stuff I can get working on it.
A review I watched on the Alphasmart Neo 2 stated that it had a keyboard reminiscent of a ThinkPad keyboard; I am currently writing this on an external ThinkPad keyboard. So keyboard quality is very important. No particular brand preference, because the only one I know is Brother, but I am in general a fan of Brother. Thanks if you can draw much from the above.
Haven’t heard of the Traveler before, looked good, but Indiegogo funding is “closed,” last listed in prototype stage, and est. delivery was Fall 2019. So yeah, definitely looks dead. Too bad, it is very close to what I’d like to see in one.
Wonder if the Freewrite Traveler was a continuation of the defunct Traveler project. But while I’ve read about the Freewrite, it is way too expensive, has questionable styling, and I want my backspace.
FreeWrite also has the Smart Typewriter (https://getfreewrite.com/collections/writing-tools/products/freewrite-smart-typewriter). but the design looks ugly – spaces on the left and the right are wasted with the Folder/Wifi buttons. I would have liked the machine if only the LCD could be bigger. Still $549 seems too expensive for me.
And yes, I love Thinkpad keyboards and their red trackpoint. My old (but trusted) IBM Thinkpad laptop running WIndows 98 @ 233 MHz is still working well after all these years
Oh, I’m dumb. I thought the Freewrite Smart Typewriter was the Freewrite Traveler; the Freewrite Traveler appears to be the same as the Traveler, guessing that’s how it ended up going into production. I’d have considered the Freewrite Traveler, absent the price.
I was using a T61, lasted for about 12 years, although had to replace the screen hinges once, and the screen, but having the G86M for a GPU, late last year it started spewing corrupted output, either internally or externally. Not being able to afford a new TP, I’m currently using an HP 11 G5, SETZER, ex-Chromebook, that’s now running GalliumOS 3.1, a Ubuntu 18.04-based LTS distro. It does have a significant bug, where something appears to be grabbing the mouse pointer at random and not letting go from the built-in keyboard’s trackpad, although isn’t an issue with the ThinkPad ext. keyboard and it’s godlike Trackpoint. GalliumOS devs seem asleep at the wheel, so may move to Arch if the bug gets to bothering me enough.
For those who have mentioned connecting the PowerNote to a PC using a cable, what cable are you using? Does this only work for older machines that still have a serial port, or are you using a USB to serial cable? A link to a page where the appropriate cable could be found would be appreciated!
Hi, a USB to serial cable will work fine as long as it supports transmission speed of 9600bps. Some cheap modern ones only supports higher speed such as 28800, 57600 or 115200. Mine supports speeds as low as 300bps and has no issues with the serial port on this word processor.
I have what’s probably an odd setup… I have my PowerNote’s null modem cable running to an A/B data switch along with the serial out from my ham radio. From there I have a straight serial cable running to a Belkin RS232-USB adapter into my modem Linux box. But if you take the data switch out of the equation you’d have the setup you’re describing.
Null Modem Cable – StarTech.com 10′ RS232 Serial Null Modem Cable – Null modem cable – DB-9 (F) to DB-9 (F) – 10 ft (SCNM9FF) https://a.co/d/6sI6Spr
USB adapter – Belkin USB-to-Serial Portable Adapter for Notebook with LED Indicators https://a.co/d/dz79DnV
Hi, thank you for your article and especially for disk image, that I could use to write fresh files again, as my original floppy disk is not readable anymore.
I was happy to see it has at least 2 games, acually games that I always loved to play on other devices.
Sometime ago I had made some tool for ZX-Spectrum games, that allows to find sprites and extract them from rom-files. So I could apply same tool here to find and replace picture inside Tetris game:
Hope you will like it.
If interested I can share this tool with you. Thanks
Glad to hear that the floppy image is useful for you
Yes, I am interested in the ZX spectrum tool that you’ve written to study how you’ve managed to replace the image as shown in your photo. Do share with me the link.