Where to buy vintage computers

Where to buy vintage computers

Collecting vintage computers can be fun. I also personally think it’s great that people are interested in preserving that history. Where to buy vintage computers hasn’t changed much over the years. It just may take a bit more work than it used to.

Some people think old computers are priceless. Others think they’re worthless. I don’t recommend wasting your time with people who think a Dell Pentium III laptop is worth $300. Think of the times you found a jewel for five bucks and keep moving.

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Radio Shack computers

Radio Shack computers

Radio Shack released one of the first home computers, the TRS-80 Model I, in 1977. Between 1977 and 1979, it sold 100,000 units. Radio Shack sold them just as quickly as Tandy could make them. You can count Radio Shack and its parent company Tandy among computer companies that failed, but they enjoyed a good run. For a time, Radio Shack computers, later marketed as Tandy computers, were very popular.

Radio Shack and Tandy computers included the TRS-80 Model I from the inaugural class of 1977, the pioneering Model 100 portable, and the Tandy 1000 series, which helped bring PC clones into homes.

There were several reasons why Radio Shack computers were hard to compete with in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.

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IBM PCjr and Tandy 1000

IBM PCjr and Tandy 1000

On January 29, 1984, two computers hit the market. One was Apple’s Macintosh. It needs no introduction. The other was the IBM PCjr. It was a little less successful.

Scratch that. The PCjr is one of the biggest flops in computing history. Few people know much more about it than that. It ended up being an important computer, but it certainly didn’t meet IBM’s expectations. Read more

Commodore 128, top-12 dud? By what measure?

PC Magazine presented a list of 12 computer duds, and while I agree with most of them, my old friend the Commodore 128 makes an appearance. Commodore released several duds over the years, but calling the 128 one of them doesn’t seem fair.
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So why didn’t Commodore make the Commodore 128 differently?

I grew up on the Commodore 128. We got one for Christmas 1985 (an upgrade from a Commodore 64). It was a bit of a quirky machine, but I liked it.

On the retro computing forums, it might be the most controversial thing Commodore ever did. Which says something, seeing as some computer historians have summed up Commodore’s history in four words: Irving Gould‘s stock scam. But that’s another story.

The cool thing about Commodore was that its engineers weren’t shy about talking about their projects. Bil Herd, Fred Bowen, and Dave Haynie have all weighed in over the years, talking about what they did and why and what they would have done differently.

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Dinosaur hunting

Today I slipped over to Laclede Computer Trading Company for the first time in many years. I was in search of an ISA parallel card. They’re not easy to find these days, mostly because they aren’t particularly useful to most people these days, but I figured if anyone would have one, it would be them.

No dice. But man, what memories.

Laclede has been around forever–at least 20 years, and probably a whole lot longer than that. I remember taking spare 286 and 386 stuff there in the early 1990s and they actually gave me money for it. Math coprocessors, Packard Bell power supplies, other oddball stuff like that. I’d salvage stuff from upgrade projects and get a little extra money that way.

Most of the stuff in the store now is Pentium 4-level. Recent enough to be useful, old enough to be really cheap. There wasn’t a single ISA board in sight. It was a little sad, but honestly, Clinton was probably still president the last time someone came in looking for something like that. No point in keeping that kind of stuff around.

I lingered around a while though. I saw lots of old SGI and Sun workstations. I remember in 1995, when I was taking a C programming class in college, we used to have to get on waiting lists to use one of the limited number of SGI workstations. They compiled code instantly, and unless you did something incredibly stupid, you weren’t going to crash them. They were a lot nicer than the NeXT workstations we usually ended up having to use when we got tired of waiting in line.

Those systems cost more than a decent car in those days. Each. And now, depending on configuration, you can get one for $30, $60, or $80. Incredible. They’re a lot more useful than the Pentium 75 I had back then, but PCs eventually overtook those weird and wonderful and odd proprietary Unix architectures.

I left, wistfully, but as I got in the car, I spied something. I wasn’t sure that distinctive shape sitting on a distant shelf was what I thought it was, but what else could it be? So I went back in. The clerk gave me a knowing look.

Yep, it was what I thought it was. There, on a tall shelf, on top. 1977 called. They want their computer back.

There it was. The Commodore PET 2001. The early one, with the built-in cassette recorder and the calculator-style chiclet keypad that was even worse than the IBM PCjr.

The  Texas Instruments TI-99/4A was a flop from the early 1980s but some of its technology ended up in successful machines from other companies.

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t for sale. I didn’t ask, because I couldn’t afford it, and don’t have room for it. I stood there for a minute, studying it, then looked around some more. They also had a TI-99/4A, a contender from the early 1980s that couldn’t compete with Commodore, but some of its technology ended up in the Colecovision and, if I’m not mistaken, the IBM PCjr and Tandy 1000. It wasn’t a bad system, but it was horrendously overpriced. It cost more than a Commodore 64 but its capabilities were somewhere between a C-64 and a cheap VIC-20.

They also had a Commodore PC-10-III, which was one of Commodore’s PC/XT clones. And, next to the PC-10, there was a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1, the other forgotten personal computer from 1977.

Neat stuff. I don’t really have the interest to collect these old machines myself, but I’ll stop to admire someone else’s every chance I get.

The rise and fall of Shack, and how to fix it

Wired has a nostalgic piece on the not-quite-late, not-quite-great Radio Shack. I think it’s a good article, but it glosses over part of the reason for the store’s decline.

It blames computers.But blaming computers ignores Tandy’s long and successful run in that industry. Most Apple fanatics and other revisionist historians conveniently overlook this, but when Apple launched the Apple II in 1977, Tandy and Commodore were right there with competing offerings. I don’t know about Apple, but Tandy and Commodore were selling their machines faster than they could make them.

As demand for home computers with color and sound grew, Tandy released its successful Color Computer line. And after IBM got into the PC market, Tandy became one of the early PC clone makers. They made businesslike PC/XT and PC/AT knockoffs, but their most successful machine, from a sales perspective, was the Tandy 1000. The Tandy 1000 started off as a clone of the IBM PCjr, but whereas the PCjr lasted about two years in the marketplace, the Tandy 1000 became a lasting standard for home PCs that could run IBM business software as well as entertainment titles with color and sound. It was everything the PCjr should have been, and it resulted in IBM software often being relabeled “IBM/Tandy” in stores.

In the 1980s, Tandy was definitely one of the big five companies. The first computer I ever used was a Tandy, in 1982. But the next year, I changed schools, and that school had Commodore 64s, so my allegiance changed. But I really think it was Tandy, more than any other company, that was the undoing of my favorite company, Commodore. Tandy’s computers weren’t any better than what Commodore had. And Commodore computers were sold at Kmart, but Tandy computers were sold at Radio Shack, and the prices were comparable. You had to go to St. Louis to buy a Commodore 64 or Amiga, or order it through the mail. But even in tiny Farmington, Missouri, which was a town of about 8,000 in the middle of nowhere, there was a Radio Shack on the edge of downtown where you could walk in and buy a computer.

Admittedly, the computer industry did change, and eventually it outgrew Radio Shack. By the early 1990s, when I did my stint selling computers at retail, the computer section of the store where I worked was larger than the typical Radio Shack store. Just the computer section. We sold four or five brands of computers and generally had at least four models of each brand, with an entry-level machine, something near top-of-the-line, and a couple of mid-range models in between.

If you wanted cheap, we had Packard Bell and Acer. Tandy couldn’t compete with them on price, though its machines were generally of better quality. But if you wanted quality, we had Compaq and IBM, which generally were better quality than Tandy, and by the mid 1990s, they’d gotten religion on price too.

And on the odd day that we couldn’t beat Radio Shack on price and or selection with the computers themselves, we had a much larger selection of monitors and printers, not to mention the aisles and aisles of books and software.

And if you didn’t live in the big city, another alternative sprung up in the early 1990s. You could pick up the phone, dial an 800 number, and order a computer from Dell or Gateway 2000. Just like ordering pizza, they’d build a computer to your specifications and deliver it to your door. You wouldn’t have it the same day like you would by going to Radio Shack, but you’d pay less, and you could get exactly the processor speed, hard disk capacity, and memory that you wanted.

There just wasn’t any way for the Tandy/Radio Shack model that had worked so brilliantly for about 15 years to compete with those two new models.

Eventually Tandy sold its factory to AST, a mid-range brand that fell by the wayside late in the decade but for a while was a retail juggernaut. Initially Radio Shack switched over to selling AST PCs, and later replaced them with Compaq and IBM, but there was never enough room in the store for more than one or two models.

In retrospect, I think the best thing Radio Shack could have done in the late 1990s would have been to go back to its DIY roots, selling computer components like cases and motherboards to people who wanted to build their own PCs rather than settle for what larger retailers offered off the shelf. It’s not a large segment, but it’s a niche that the large retailers have never had much success catering to. (The exception being regional chains like Fry’s and Micro Center.) And while the independent clone shops almost without exception can offer better advice, better selection, and, probably, better prices, Radio Shack is almost always closer, and the clone shops can’t compete with Radio Shack’s hours. Radio Shack is open on Sunday, and it’s open until 9 PM on other days.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I was tinkering with a PC in the evening or on a Sunday, needed something, and Radio Shack was the only place open. So I went, whether I thought they’d have what I needed or not. Sometimes they actually had what I needed.

If Radio Shack wants to reverse its sagging fortunes, I’m not sure that it’s too late to take that DIY road. Stock a book on building PCs and a book on upgrading and repairing PCs in order to grow that market. Limit the selection in order to accommodate the limited space in most stores, but carry one or two of everything that’s needed to build a PC, or to upgrade or repair a PC when the competition is closed.

Deciding exactly what to carry could be difficult, but a safe and non-creative approach would be to just pick a couple of price points and sell whatever they can find at that particular price point while remaining profitable. Keep it simple, using multiples of $25. Have computer cases priced at $50 and $75. Have power supplies for $25, $50, and $75. Have hard drives for $75 and $100. Have a motherboard for $100, and CPUs for $50 and $100. AMD or Intel? Carry both, or see if one or the other is willing to cut a deal to have an exclusive.

And this also opens the door to oddball gadgets and adapters, like 20/24-pin ATX converters, ATX power supply cable extensions, USB cable extensions, USB hubs, serial, parallel, and PS/2 to USB converters, and other small, profitable niche adapters. And if there’s room, of course they can carry an Ethernet switch, Ethernet cables in a variety of lengths, and perhaps even cable and DSL modems.

They can take the same approach to selling computer components as they’ve always taken to selling discrete electronics components. When I need a resistor or an LED, I can get it a lot cheaper by ordering it online or by driving to an electronics supplier. But I can be at Radio Shack in five minutes, and they’re open late and on weekends, so I usually end up going to Radio Shack and putting up with their cellphone pitches.

If they’re still able to eke out a profit selling resistors and heat sinks by virtue of being the most convenient option, I think they can do even better selling computer components the same way.

And that would still leave room in the store for cell phones, the odd adapters and components that no other major retail chain sells, and cheap R/C toys.

I think it’s a better plan than officially unofficially renaming itself to Shack (next door to Hut, where you buy pizza) and harassing customers about cell phones at the checkout.

IBM dumping its PC business?

John C. Dvorak comes full circle in his column about IBM possibly dumping its PC business. He starts off saying it makes little sense, but by the end of the editorial, he has his mind made up that IBM should have done it years ago.

Of course, this was probably written before word got out that its talks are more of a joint venture or spinoff than a complete sellout.Here’s the logic: IBM makes about $100 million a year on its PC business. To IBM, that’s not a lot of money, especially since it sells about $10 billion worth of PCs every year.

IBM wants to be a consulting company more than anything. I heard it said when the PC division was losing $1 billion a year a few years back that the PCs helped them sell more than a billion in consulting, so it made sense to stay with it. Maybe IBM no longer feels that way.

IBM’s desktop machines are uninspiring, but business PCs are supposed to be uninspiring. The original IBM PC was designed to blend in with file cabinets and other office furniture. It was underpowered, but it had one thing going for it: the ability to take more memory than anything else on the market at the time, which made huge spreadsheets possible and made the machine a success.

IBM tried to make its PCs inspiring in 1987 by giving them 256 colors, but most of the M68K-based computers on the market at the time had better graphics capabilities and they all had much better sound. The IBM-compatible PC didn’t become inspiring until the early 1990s when SuperVGA graphics and the Ad Lib and Sound Blaster sound cards became available and software started making use of them. None of this had anything to do with IBM, but it didn’t have anything to do with Compaq or Microsoft or Intel either.

IBM’s PS/1 and Aptiva lines of home computers sold reasonably well, but when the dawn of the $999 PC came around, IBM got out. Compaq and Packard Bell were outselling it, and then Emachines upped the ante with a $399 PC. A company that sells 7-figure mainframes isn’t going to be very interested in trying to compete with a $399 desktop. Besides, IBM tried before, in 1984, to compete with $400 PCs made by Commodore by responding with its $699 IBM PCjr. Commodore sold about 30 million computers while the PCjr took its place in history next to the Ford Edsel, New Coke and clear Pepsi.

So what’s one to do?

IBM’s PC business is going to be like a business that sells filing cabinets. Every office needs at least one, but it doesn’t matter much who made it or whose name is on it. A certain brand name on your filing cabinets doesn’t make people think any more or any less of your business, and, with very few exceptions, the same is true of computers.

By the same token, IBM’s ThinkPad is the best laptop on the market. It’s been the best laptop on the market, almost without exception, since 1993. During some points in history it’s been not only the best, it’s been the only laptop worth buying. So why doesn’t everyone have one? I don’t know. You can get a ThinkPad for as little as $899. It’s hard to find a cheap and nasty laptop that’ll fail the day after its warranty expires for more than $200 less. So for 22 percent more, you can get something worth having.

I suspect that if people knew that, and if they could go into a store near them and see one, they’d sell a lot more of them.

I don’t blame IBM for not wanting to sell home desktop PCs. HP and Dell are able to sell a lot more of them than IBM ever did, and Gateway/Emachines isn’t far behind IBM, but if any of them are actually making money doing it, it’s Dell. Dell’s PCs are as uninspiring as they come, but somehow their corny marketing works.

But that brings up a question. Dell is able to sell buttloads of PCs and make a lot of money doing it, even on razor-thin margins, so why can’t IBM? Sure, Dell has its sweetheart deals with Intel, but why can’t IBM negotiate a sweetheart deal with AMD? IBM’s manufacturing facilities have been AMD’s Plan B or Plan C in case it needs more production capacity for years and years. Couldn’t IBM manufacture AMD chips under license for its own use and sell PCs containing them and get better margins than Dell? They’d need to go get a couple of ex-Calvin Klein models to advertise them and give them sex appeal, but they can do it. People still buy $10 pairs of Tommy Hilfinger socks even though they can get a huge bag of no-name socks for $5 at Kmart. If cotton socks can have sex appeal through marketing, why can’t a sturdy laptop, or, for that matter, a desktop PC?

Maybe this is what IBM is thinking. They know sturdy and attractive computers ought to sell but they just don’t know how to do it. So they seek out a partnership with a company that can make them cheap, give them economies of scale, make it someone else’s responsibility to sell it, and just lend their name to the effort. Maybe IBM figures they can cut $10 billion in expenses from their bottom line and reap more than $100 million in revenue from licensing their name.

They’ve tried goofier ideas.

How IBM and DOS came to dominate the industry

Revisionist historians talk about how MS-DOS standardized computer operating systems and changed the industry. That’s very true. But what they’re ignoring is that there were standards before 1981, and the standards established in 1981 took a number of years to take hold.

The reality is that in 1981, IBM and DOS was just one player, and while businesses did embrace IBM (or its clones) and MS-DOS, during the early 1980s you were just as likely to find a Z-80 based microcomputer running CP/M, a Tandy, or an Apple computer in a business setting, and in the late 1980s the Macintosh was more common in businesses than it is today.

The first mass-produced PCs hit the market in 1978. While all of them claimed to be first, in reality the Apple II, Commodore PET, and Radio Shack (Tandy) TRS-80 Model I all came on the market about the same time. (The Apple I, from 1977, was just a board, not a complete computer.) All three machines sold briskly, to a combination of hobbyists, businesses, and home users. The successors to those three machines would duke it out for years in the home. Business came to be dominated by computers based on Intel 8080 and Zilog Z-80 CPUs from a variety of manufacturers. Kaypro and Osbourne were the most famous. Vector Graphic is the most criminally overlooked. All ran the CP/M operating system and were somewhat compatible with one another.

Apple went so far as to run an ad welcoming IBM to the microcomputer market, thanking them for bringing legitimacy to it. And of course, by 1982, you could buy IBM clones.

While there were plenty of clones available before 1985, proprietary offerings from other companies remained cheaper. In the mid 1980s, inexpensive clones manufactured in the Far East, such as the Leading Edge Model D (which relied heavily on Mitsubishi engineering) and the Blue Chip Personal Computer XT (manufactured by Hyundai) appeared, giving IBM compatibility at a price competitive with Commodore or Atari. Although forgotten today, the Model D got rave reviews from computer magazines and even consumer magazines like Consumer Reports for its high degree of compatibility at an unheard-of price. For $1,495, you got a 4.77 MHz 8088 processor, 640 KB RAM, and dual 360K floppies. For comparison’s sake, a Commodore 128 with a 2 MHz 8-bit 8502 processor, 128 KB RAM, and dual floppies would have cost $950 the same year.

And in 1985, Tandy introduced the Tandy 1000. Tandy hoped it would ride the coattails of the IBM PCjr into the home. While the PCjr flopped, the jr-compatible 1000 sold well. Its successors sold even better.

Availability of IBM-compatible computers at Radio Shack spurred adoption, because at the time, Radio Shack was the only nationwide consumer electronics chain. And the Leading Edge Model D sold briskly as well, spurring something of a price war. Suddenly, IBM-compatible computers were cheap enough that people could think about buying one for the home, and you could buy them in stores that didn’t have commissioned salespeople wearing three-piece suits. Businesses bought them and people bought them for home as well. It was practical to buy a computer like the one you had at the office and take work home.

Prior to 1985, you didn’t see a lot of IBM and IBM-compatible computers in the home partly because there weren’t a lot of games for them. The price hurt too, but an Apple IIe wasn’t much less expensive than an IBM PC. There were people willing to spend money on a computer, but they wanted something other than a spreadsheet to play with. And while there were literally thousands of games available for an Apple II or a Commodore 64 (by the end of the decade both platforms had racked up libraries in excess of 10,000 titles), the count for the IBM PC in the early 1980s numbered in the hundreds. King’s Quest, Zork, and Ultima were all good games and available for PCs, but there really was very little outside of those series. And they were also available for the Apple II.

So there weren’t PCs in the home because there weren’t games for them. But there weren’t games for them because there weren’t PCs in the home.

Tandy wasn’t going to sell a computer without making sure there were games available for it, so that helped. And the Leading Edge Model D was so cheap that some people bought it without even researching what kinds of software ran on it. So by 1986 and 1987, lots of companies were making entertainment software for the growing installed base of IBM-compatible PCs.

Apple, Atari, and Commodore fans mostly ignored what was happening. They still had the bigger libraries and significant marketshare. I remember reading a lament in Run magazine, a Commodore rag, in 1986 complaining that the general press divided the computer field into Apple, IBM, and Tandy, and ignored everyone else. But Commodore was still selling more than a million 8-bit computers a year so they weren’t exactly hurting (yet). The August 1987 issue of Compute! told its readers they could expect to see a lot more entertainment software for IBM compatibles very soon. But its editorial content and advertising was pretty evenly divided between Apple, IBM and compatibles, and Commodore audiences. Atari got some print as well.

And in the August 1988 issue of Info, a Commodore and Amiga magazine, an editorial talked about the looming threat of Tandy. The Amiga was safe, for a time. The Amiga was competing against a 286-based Tandy, and the Amiga had more processing power, better graphics and sound. But it warned that in a year, the Amiga would be competing against a 386-based Tandy that would have more processing power. (The Amiga would retain the edge in graphics and sound for several more years.)

And we all know what happened. The 8-bits from Apple and Commodore made it into the 90s but faded quickly. The Atari ST and Amiga lasted a bit longer–I still have Amiga software I bought at Babbage’s in Crestwood Plaza in 1991 and 1992. But by 1992, pretty much anyone who was buying a new computer was buying a Macintosh or a PC. The editorial in the June 1992 issue of AmigaWorld lamented that the majority of new Amigas were being sold to someone who already had one or six.

The PC, of course, steamrolled the Amiga and Atari ST, and by the late 1990s, reduced the Macintosh’s marketshare to a single digit.

Old computer magazines

I guess I need a “retro” category here. Anyway, I found this on Slashdot this morning: The Computer Magazine Archive. Don’t let the URL fool you–it’s not just Atari stuff.
You can go into the Compute!’s Gazette section and download the disk for the November 1991 issue to find the only program I ever published, a C-64/128 sprite utility program called MOB Mover. The text for the accompanying article isn’t present, alas. I think I got a cool $175 for that project (I had to split it with my co-author). I have no idea what anyone would do with the program these days, but hey, it’s out there.

I spent a good deal of time (when I should have been fixing dinner) in the Creative Computing archive. I never saw a copy of the magazine when it was in print but I knew it was well-regarded. Browsing a few articles, I can see why. Take a gander at its review of the Apple Lisa and its preview of some weird computer called Amiga, which contained a rather amusing prediction: “For, regardless of the fact that the IBM standard is a decidedly mediocre one, the [IBM PCjr.] is bound to become the home standard.”

Well… Within a decade, that prediction had become half right.

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