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Wednesday
Nov282012

Retro Priorities - Part Two

As comedian Steven Wright says - you can't have everything. Where would you put it.

I've found, though, that until pretty recently, you could have almost everything in your retrocomputing collection. Sure, maybe an Apple I is out of reach (especially nowadays), and maybe even an Altair or IMSAI (although if you saved up, the latter two were probably doable). But for the more common selections and even some big iron, it was all there and you could have it. Sometimes for free.

This seems like an awesome blessing until you suddenly look at your pile of vintage gear, and discover with some dismay that you have dozens of computers, including peripherals, software, books, etc. And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

I'm not in a wild hurry to sell off huge sections of my retro collection. In fact, I just acquired a nice desk from Freecycle (thanks!) for my budding museum in the downstairs family room. But, I do need some focus, primarily because I want to spend less money, have more time to really enjoy some of these systems, and go deep on some projects.

I need to pick some favorites.

For someone like myself who has suffered from multiple computer disorder (MCD) in my life and career, it's tough to choose. All the systems in my collection have some meaning for me - whether they were computers of my youth, awesome gifts from podcast listeners (thanks!), or simply just a really, really interesting device. So, perhaps I can soften the blow by selecting ones that I'lll just focus on for now, and not treat this as a permanent list. (Mental games, I know, but it gets me through the day.)

How To Prioritize

At first blush, I just want to play with everything. But there's not enough time or money to do so.  So here's how I picked:

  • Which computers am I drawn to? If I spin around in the room and glance, which computer do I most want to start writing software for, or hooking up to the Internet? Are there ones with a bigger nostalgia factor?
  • What computers have the most peripherals, books, etc.? In other words, besides the computer itself, in which systems do I have the most investment, or potential for fun?
  • Are there systems for which I have a higher chance of contributing something back to the retro community (software, hardware, ideas, etc.)?

Chewing on all this, I came to some conclusions. For the moment, here's my list:

The Commodore 128

I've made no secret that this is my favorite retro computer of all time. It's really 3 computers in 1 - a C128 with lots of RAM and a great BASIC, a C64 with near 100% compatibility, and a CP/M 3 computer with a Z80 chip. Designed by Bil Herd and team at Commodore, the C128 is arguably the most capable 8-bit system of the era.

Commodore was the brand of my youth - the first system that I owned was a VIC-20 (starving student), followed by a C64. Price was a big motivator, as was my employee discount. I started a user's group in the LA area that grew to more than 100 enthusiasts, and we computed our hearts out. Fun times.

The Epson PX-8

As a kid I always wanted to work for a computer company. And I did. Once. I've worked for several tech firms, including software houses, an internetworking company, but only once for a firm that made hardware. Epson.

While there, I had the privilege of being on the laptop tech support team, covering portable products including the PX-8 and HX-20. The PX-8 was a big hush-hush project. When it unveiled at a show in Hanover, it was big news. It didn't end up selling that well, though. Still, it was a very capable device for the time, and the fact that it used CP/M meant there was tons of software for it right off the bat.

I've been trying for years to create a portable, new-fangled virtual drive unit. I think 2013 is the year. Unless the Mayans spoil things for me.

The PDP-11/23 Plus

In the 80s, I used a PDP-11 system in college. It was a big one - an 11/73 with tons of terminals and dial-up lines. Although we had access to other big iron systems, I always liked the PDP-11 the best. The operating system, utilities and documentation just seemed to resonate with me. Programming on it for my coursework was a pleasure.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine having a PDP-11 system at home. But last year, I had the great fortune of coming across one on Craigslist - for free. Just needed to pick it up. After several trips in my Honda CRV, the system was at my house, and working - along with about 40 disk drive cartridges, and enough spare parts to (literally) build another PDP-11.

The Apple IIe Platinum

A few years back I sold my Apple IIe. This was a mistake, for a handful of reasons, not the least of which is that this year, I was able to attend KansasFest, an annual gathering of Apple II enthusiasts. Before heading to KFest, I wanted to make sure that my rusty Apple II skills were polished up just a bit. David, a great friend and co-host, provided me with an Apple IIe Platinum and disk drive (thanks!), effectively propelling me back into the land of Apple II goodness.

The Apple II was the first microcomputer I ever used. As I've stated before, I still remember the first time seeing it. Although I never owned one back then, I used them at school and work, and at the home of friends, and it continues to hold a big spot in my heart. Also, I'm consistently amazed at the modern-day project activity for the Apple II, both software and hardware.

The TRS-80 Model 100

Another gift, the Model 100 is truly a long-lasting workhorse and really cool portable computer. To this day it retains a solid following, and also has some cool hardware add-ons. I have used it on more than one occasion to write the show notes for Retrobits episodes.

The IBM PC/XT

Along with the PDP-11, I received a somewhat smaller but equally welcome gift - a working IBM PC/XT 5160. Pow, I was transported back to my aerospace PC support days in the mid 1980s, where I supported fleets of these systems.

You've got your hobby computers, and you've got your business computers. I never owned a true-blue IBM at home (had a Compaq Deskpro), but spent so much time on these systems at work that I could probably take one apart and reassemble it with my eyes shut. Our team knew every corner of DOS - every nuance of interrupt vectors and hard drive controller firmware commands. I could network these babies to Novell Netware almost telepathically. OK, perhaps I'm romanticizing - but wow, I can't imagine the hours I spent with this style of computer. It's a true joy to have one in my collection.

That's it - for now. For the time being, the other computers in the Evans museum will have to wait their turn. I've got projects brewing for all of the above, and it's time to get started.