What is retro in computers? It’s a fair question, because there’s a fine line between junk and treasure when it comes to old computers. And the answer definitely depends on who you ask. It means the computer is old enough to be collectible, but there’s no universal standard for “old enough.”
As a general rule, if it’s obsolete and no longer being made, someone considers it retro. But not necessarily everyone will, so there certainly are degrees of retro when it comes to computers.
Retro computers are in the eye of the beholder
According to my criteria, Windows 7 won’t be retro until 2021, when it goes out of support. For now, it’s still being manufactured. So is a computer from 2009 retro? It’s obsolete and not being made. If you run Windows XP or Vista on it, I suppose so. I don’t just consider the hardware, at least when it comes to a PC. I consider the full stack: the hardware, the operating system you’re running on it, along with the software.
That doesn’t mean Windows 7 PCs will become collectible in 2021. I’ll bet I could accumulate a hundred Windows XP PCs, circa 2005, if you gave me a year. I also bet I’d pay an average of $20 apiece for them. I know there are people who grew up with these PCs who collect them now, but they don’t pay a lot for them. That’s probably part of the appeal.
What about Macs? Any Mac with a non-Intel CPU in it is retro by that definition. But Macs from before 2009 no longer can run any of the supported versions of Mac OS. So even early-generation Intel-based Macs arguably count as retro.
Less-disputably retro computers
Go back a quarter century or so and there’s less disputing it. The owner of the local retro gaming store told me a lot of his customers are building Windows 95 rigs now. Some Win95-era hardware is getting expensive, but not all of it is. That plus the large amount of software that ran under Win95 makes it an appealing retro platform.
Anything older than Win95 is indisputably retro. I’m talking Motorola 68000-based Macs, Amigas and Atari STs. But I’m also talking 8-bit computers like the Apple II, Atari 800 series, and Commodore 64. I’m also talking PCs that couldn’t run Windows 95 well, or might not have run any version of Windows well. Interest in computers like these is definitely growing, fueled in part by GenXers who can afford to reacquire their childhood computer, or acquire the dream computer that was out of reach for them in the 80s or early 90s.
And there’s interest in business-oriented early desktop computers too, like CP/M boxes and Commodore PETs.
Like anything collectible, some retro computers are very valuable and some are worth very little. If it’s old enough, it’s probably not junk, but don’t count on it making you rich.