Story 2014-05-06 3K0 The Lure of Retro Computing

The Lure of Retro Computing

in hardware on (#3K0)
story imageWhat's the best computer you ever owned? Step aside with your Core Duo, son, and make some room for the gentleman who wants to tell you about his Commodore 64 . Or Sinclair ZX . Or DEC Terminal .

Retro computing is hotter than ever, attracting the interest of a whole new generation who takes interest in the machines of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. You may have missed the Retro Computing Fair in East Philadelphia last month, but that doesn't mean you're out of luck. Roswell, Georgia is hosting a Vintage Computing Festival next month, and museums dedicated to classic hardware are springing up everywhere, like this one in Ramsgate, UK. Most of them are the product of their passionate founders who have opened up their personal collections.

Can't make it anywhere? It's still not too late to play some classic Commodore 64 games courtesy of a Raspberry Pi and some clever emulation.

That's the thing about bits. Eight of 'em should've been enough for anybody.
Reply 12 comments

C64 (Score: 2, Interesting)

by on 2014-05-06 00:18 (#1DN)

We still have a fully-functional Commodore 64, along with the color monitor, disk drive, joysticks, several game disks and cartridges ... Most of sits in storage, though, with only the Commodore 64 sitting out, proudly, with our collection of obsolete technology (Lazer Tag, Coleco Electronic Quarterback, Microvision Game System, Arcade Defender, etc.).

Panasonic FS-A1GT (MSX turbo R) (Score: 2, Informative)

by on 2014-05-06 01:34 (#1DP)

It's the ultimate 8-bit machine: 7 MHz (*1) Z80-compatible CPU, 512K main RAM, 128K video RAM, FM synthesis (OPLL), MIDI, adjustable speed autofire on space bar. Full specs here .

(*1) The original Z80 took 4 ticks for even the most basic instructions, more unless paired with fast RAM. The R800 in the turbo R can do them in 1 tick. So it's a lot faster than what the clock speed would suggest. For an 8-bit machine, that is.

While I still have it wired up, I must admit that I only really start it when doing research for the openMSX emulator. If I want to play old games, I do it in the emulator: it is just more convenient with save states, reverse, cheats etc.

286 Laptop (Score: 2, Interesting)

by on 2014-05-06 12:10 (#1E2)

In the mid-late 90's I found this beast for $5. It just continued to boot loop for no apparent reason, so I opened it up and tinkered with it. I was never able to fix it, though it helped me learn about the internals of a computer. I ended up taking the hard drive out and putting it in a 386. I kept the 80286 AMD processor as well. I think I still have it somewhere.

I know all about retro computing (Score: 3, Funny)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-05-06 13:32 (#1E3)

.... just by turning up to work :p
COBOL lives!

New retro (Score: 2, Interesting)

by on 2014-05-06 13:55 (#1E4)

While I have plenty of past (and passed) loved ones (particularly a Sanyo 178^Hkg luggable /**had to leave that typo in lol**/) my "best" computer must be a relatively new eMachine 10 inch notebook. The little guy refused to stay dead (I killed it once by disassembling it and cleaning out some of the "goop" but after two weeks it came back to life). Of course the fan is long gone because I smoke two packs a day (and so does it) but it don't mind :D

Currently it's running the newest Mint and I use it primarily for small & rough Inkscape work. If it ever does die I'll still keep it.

What has this got to do with true retro computing? My point would be that a lot of the love for the old ones came from the fact that they were relatively accessible i.e. cheap, and "good enough". They could be a bit hit and miss but when they hit it was love :) "Making do" has plenty of charm on its own and there are still new-ish computers (not just awesome Raspberries & similar) that carry a lot of the retro legacy in spirit.

By the way I wonder how many used "butterfly keyboard" ThinkPads are still alive and well? Never used them but they looked damn sexy from a distance. I find it "easy" to love small laptops but perhaps it's that old Sanyo* forever leaving its mark on me :)

* I even changed the fuses on that thing several times! Fuses!!! Like those you can find in a dimmer lol! And my beard is only slightly gray.

Oldies but Goodies (Score: 1)

by on 2014-05-06 15:02 (#1E5)

TRS-80 Model III ... I picked up a ton of shareware games and other utilities at a local user group on 5.25" floppies. I probably still have them in a shoe box somewhere if my wife hasn't discovered them yet and thrown them out.
Commodore 64 ... I discovered BASIC and color!
Timex Sinclair 1000 ... Worst keyboard ever! I got the one with 2K of RAM and remember loading a flight simulator from audio tape. The refresh rate was about one frame per second.
TRS-80 Model 4 ... More user groups, more games, more utilities.
TRS-80 Model 100 ... Now this is the machine I wish I still had. I maxed out the RAM/ROM to 32K and got the 3.5" floppy drive. I also got a 300 baud modem and would read SarText as fast as the the text would download.

Re: Oldies but Goodies (Score: 1)

by on 2014-05-06 18:37 (#1E6)

I can't resist the C64 myself, but took my first babysteps into the world of computing on a second generation PET, which was like the most amazing thing on earth back in the day. To this day, I'm nostalgic about it.

There's a company that has built modern keyboards out of old C64 chassis. You get a USB connection and the works, but on a C64 keyboard. I'm strangely attracted to it.

I got lured (Score: 1)

by on 2014-05-06 21:37 (#1EH)

I'm building a COSMAC ELF (with a 1802 processor from 1976) right now, for fun and to learn some esoteric machine code and Forth to wrap my mind around - and also because what I would really like to build is a spaceship .

Best Frankenstein Ever (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-05-06 23:22 (#1EM)

I remember putting together a Windows 98 machine from spare parts. That thing worked better than it had any right. ;-) That was also the last computer I owned that could run Ultima VII natively. Now we have Exult. Never underestimate the power of nerds with free time and an obsession. :-)

Re: Best Frankenstein Ever (Score: 1)

by on 2014-05-07 13:28 (#1F0)

I feel your pain. I've got FF7 CDs somewhere I've not been able to use since I switched from 3DFX to Nvidia. :(

Atari ST (Score: 1)

by on 2014-05-07 12:18 (#1EX)

I think my first computer was a TRS80 of some vintage and my friends had Commodore 64s. But, I really liked my second computer which was an Atari ST. It was great for Music and Midi. I suspect it would still function highly at this stage for that purpose, although I finally sent mine to the landfill about eight years ago.

Retro (Score: 2, Interesting)

by on 2014-05-08 12:05 (#1FV)

The joy of retrocomputing is that the computers are straightforward, and it's easy to make new add-ons for them (low bus speeds mean you only need a breadboard and whatever kind of connector the computer uses), and while you can do that kind of thing with an Arduino, the nice thing about the old machine is the built in keyboard, BASIC interpreter, and it will drive a TV screen.

Also the classic games. I'm a member of a Spanish retrocomputing organization ( and we hold a couple of regular events each year, one in Bilbao (at Euskal Encounter), and the other in November at the University of Zaragoza as part of the week of engineering and architecture. The November one is particularly interesting since the local schools bring their classes for visits, and we have a room set aside for classic gaming with a couple of arcade cabinets and about 20 or so classic computers and consoles. The teachers have trouble dragging the kids away from the games - and these kids all grew up with the XBox 360, PS4, Wii, modern PC gaming etc. It really goes to prove the old adage that it's everything about playability and less about flashy graphics.

I also run a stand at Play Expo in Manchester (England) each October, mostly with Sinclair Spectrums, and it's great to see parents teaching kids to play Manic Miner and Chuckie Egg. Since it's a whole weekend event I often see the kids coming back for repeat visits and trying to beat their old high scores. The thing is these older computers are completely open, very tinkerable, and a lot of fun.

I've designed an ethernet card for the ZX Spectrum, and we've also run tournaments (with prizes!) at Euskal Encounter with a 4 player LAN game (a tank driving capture the flag team game) which was a lot of fun. Here's a video of the event: