Archive: Computer Collector Newsletter / Technology Rewind, Jan. 2004 - March 2006
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What's better about going vintage
by Bill Loguidice (editor, ArmchairArcade.com)
We're celebrating the Computer Collector Newsletter reaching an incredible 100th issue milestone. However, while reflecting back on the past 99 issues, we are presented with the opportunity to think about why we as a community also share a passion for classic computers and videogames. In short, why do we do what we do when to the outside world we're celebrating nothing more than a bunch of useless junk?
It's true, to cite just a few examples, that many of us still don't use our Royal Alphatronic CP/M computers or Tandy Model 102 portables for word processing, our Apple IIs and Coleco Adams for spreadsheets, our Atari STss and Commodore Amigas for Internet access, or our RCA Studio IIs and Mattel Intellivisions to play the latest games. Simply put, many of the applications that we use regularly today work best on the latest computer and videogame systems, particularly when combined with typical compatibility requirements and modern output devices. However, for things like programming, specific types of games, and general hacking, many modern computers and videogame systems simply can't match the pure joy that can be derived from said vintage hardware.
While a modern computer can emulate most other computer and videogame systems -- and even simulate some of each environment's idiosyncrasies, like the sound of an Apple II disk drive -- no virtual representation can truly capture the unique personality of each of these classic systems, let alone their tactile response. For example, a Commodore keyboard has a certain feel, an Atari screen display has a certain look, an expanded Timex Sinclair has special handling requirements, a Fairchild Channel F has a highly specialized controller, and a Magnavox Odyssey2 generates speech from its external synthesizer to complement sounds sent to the television's speaker. In today's world of generic computer hardware and videogames that emphasize photo realism and completion at the expense of classic stylized abstraction and high scores, you simply don't see the same types of distinct traits emerge. In short, ask any enthusiast and they'll tell you that in the end, nothing beats the real thing.
Using the real thing however wouldn't be quite as much fun if we were left to fight amongst ourselves for the remaining classic product still in circulation at places like eBay and the Vintage Computer Marketplace. As opposed to a lot of modern hardware that is becoming increasingly closed and tries to remove the ability of the end user to really understand and work with the internals, vintage devices practically welcome this type of experimentation and tinkering. As a result of this, while we still enjoy a fairly healthy supply of classic hardware and software in circulation, new complementary creations are emerging from enthusiasts all the time. Whether it's a combination voice synthesizer and high score device for the Atari 2600, a professionally programmed homebrew game for the Colecovision, a flash card reader for the Commodore 64, or a semi-virtual diskette device to interface a Tandy, Apple, TI or Heathkit computer to a modern PC for easy file transfers, there are no shortages of ways to keep so-called obsolete hardware usable, exciting, and relevant.
By acquiring classic, original hardware and software, you get to enjoy the systems the way they were meant to be used. By acquiring the latest creations for this classic hardware, you can extend that enjoyment far beyond anything originally envisioned. Today's technology is undeniably great -- modern dual core PCs, Xbox 360s that work full-time in high-definition, Sony PSPs that play games and media files, etc. -- but there's still something special about the simpler technology. It's why classic technology will never die and deserves serious discussion and interest forever from and through places like Armchair Arcade and this very newsletter, which could easily go on for another hundred issues and more.
The more time passes, the better it can all get, particularly if we all keep together at what we love.
Bill's co-editor, Matt Barton, adds some thoughts of his own:
There's a funny thing about collecting. If you visit shops that sell antiques or collectibles, what you tend to notice is that the most sought after items were never intended to be "collectible." Posters and billboards for classic films, magazines, comic books, stamps-- these were all items that were meant to be used and then disposed of. However, a few people were able to appreciate the art of these everyday items and decided they were worth keeping around and preserving--both because the items themselves were fun and interesting, but also because they wanted to have them around to share with future generations.
Have you found an old television show you recorded back in the 1980s and popped it into your VCR? Chances are, you'll find the commercials almost (if not more) interesting than the show itself. The reason for this is that we don't tend to pay much attention to "disposable" things like commercials while they are new; it's only after lots of time has passed before they take on a nostalgic value and can shock us into realizing that--well, time has passed. At this point, we realize that precious things are constantly slipping under our radar. We want to hold on to those things--for they tell us who we are.
For most of their history, computers have been firmly in the "disposable" category of human things. When Commodore released its new and exciting Amiga line, many of us sold our venerable old 64s to help pay for one of these new machines. Later, we sold those to help pay for a Mac or Windows PC, since (sigh) Commodore computers could no longer do the things we needed personal computers to do for us. Who needs a 486/66 in 2006? You'd be hard-pressed to find much new software that would run on it.
Looking back, of course, we realize our mistake: those old machines weren't and never will be obsolete. What I mean is that assuming they are in good working order these "obsolete" computers still perform the tasks they were designed to perform. No one should expect an Atari VCS (2600) to play an Xbox 360 title. That's not what it was designed to do. However, if the name of the game is Demon Attack, then you won't find a better machine for the job.
In short, many of us collect vintage computing equipment because we still enjoy using it. We enjoy those old command prompts, thundering disk drives, and clackety keyboards. Even more so, we enjoy playing the games and using the tools we have grown to love. Let others call those noble machines obsolete and carelessly abandon them.
We'll more than happy to give them a good home.