Author Archive | Benj Edwards

Classic PCs vs. New PCs: Their True Cost

PC FaceoffYou’re familiar with Moore’s law.  You know all about the accelerating pace of information technology.  Regardless, you’re still amazed at how many gigabytes you can fit in your pocket these days.  Remember how your first computer’s entire hard disk only held 20 megabytes? You could accidentally swallow a thousand times as much data now if you weren’t careful.

But how much did that old hard drive cost?  I mean really cost?  Our memories get fuzzy on this point, because the buying power of the U.S. dollar has not remained constant over the years.  Inflation has decreased the value of the dollar, per dollar, continuously for over a century.  That means if you bought an IBM PC for $3,000 in 1981, you were actually spending the equivalent of $7,127.69 in today’s dollars.

Wait..what?  $7,000 for a PC?  Does anybody buy a $7,000 PC these days?  Does anybody even sell a $7,000 desktop PC now?  In our present climate of plentiful sub-$1,000 computers, surely a $7,000 PC must be the most incredible machine ever invented.  But for a business-oriented machine in 1981, that sounded cheap.

To examine this trend, let’s take six classic personal computers from yesteryear–some cheap, some expensive–and see what you could buy today for the same price.  And we’re not talking original retail price here; we’re going to take inflation into account.  For example, the Commodore 64–once considered a low-cost home computer–originally sold for $1,331.62 in 2009 dollars.  Today you can get quite a bit for that much money.  How much?  That’s what we’re going to find out.

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Inside the Macintosh Portable

Inside the Mac Portable

A Misunderstood Machine

On September 20th, 1989, Apple released the Macintosh Portable, the first true mobile Mac and a much-maligned machine. It didn’t sell well and is very rare today–not due to any particular design failure, but because the original price was a whopping $6,500-$7,300 ($11,288 to $12,677 in 2009 dollars). It wasn’t the only Mac to cost that much, but others in that price range offered top-of-the-line performance. The Portable was both too expensive and too underpowered to catch on. Its large size didn’t help, either.

Apple vastly improved upon the design two years later with the PowerBook 100, the first true Mac notebook. For now, though, it’s time to honor the design achievements of Apple’s first battery-powered computer. I’ve found there’s no better way to do that than take it apart on my trusty workbench.


Fifteen Classic Game Console Design Mistakes

15 Classic Game Console Design Mistakes

Video game systems may be toys of a sort, but they’re also complicated machines. They require precision engineering, specialized hardware design, and careful industrial design to successfully achieve what seems like a simple goal: to play games on a television set. Throughout the history of home game consoles, each generation of machines has brought new opportunities to innovate. Along the way, companies have often slipped up and made mistakes that came back to haunt them later–some of which were so serious that they helped to destroy platforms and even entire corporations.

This list is by no means exhaustive, nor are all of these consoles bad overall (see The Worst Video Game Systems of All Time for that list). And though some of these problems keep popping up in one form or another–like the bad call of feeding power to the console via the RF switch shared by RCA’s Studio II and Atari’s 5200–other errors in judgments were unique to one console. Thank heavens for that.

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Forty Years of Lunar Lander

Lunar Lander

Lunar Lander games abound on every platform. Along with Tetris and Pac-Man, the game–in which your mission is to safely maneuver your lunar module onto the moon’s surface–is one of the most widely cloned computer games of all time. But did you know that game players began touching down on the moon in Lunar Lander just months after Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did so on July 20th, 1969?

lunarlander_tinyToday’s versions of Lunar Lander are easily taken for granted; they’re generally regarded as dinky games you can get for free–“Who would pay for that?”

But the mother of all realistic space simulations wasn’t always perceived that way. In 1969, it was, in its own way, a sophisticated, ambitious piece of digital entertainment. And during the BASIC era of the 1970s and 80s, many programmers cut their teeth by attempting to program their own version of Lunar Lander. David Ahl, founder of Creative Computing magazine, called it “by far and away the single most popular computer game” in 1978 (and he was only talking about the text version!). Indeed, Lunar Lander was one of the early computer games that helped define computer games.

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Fifteen Classic PC Design Mistakes

PC Design MistakesThere’s no such thing as the perfect computer, and never has been. But in the personal computer’s long and varied history, some computers have been decidedly less perfect than others.  Many early PCs shipped with major design flaws that either sunk platforms outright or considerably slowed down their adoption by the public.  Decades later, we can still learn from these multi-million dollar mistakes.  By no means is the following list exhaustive; one could probably write about the flaws of every PC ever released.  But when considering past design mistakes, these examples spring to my mind.

Special thanks to Steven Stengel of the Obsolete Technology Homepage for providing many of the photos in this article.

Apple III (1980)

Apple III

The Apple III was Apple’s first computer not devised by Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder.  Instead, a committee of engineers designed it to be the “perfect” business system.  With an absurdly high price (options ranged between $4,340 to $7,800–about $11,231 to $20,185 in 2009 dollars) and numerous bugs at launch, the Apple III was doomed to failure.

Problem #1: No Power Supply Fan

The Apple III’s lack of power supply fan caused system to heat up, warping the motherboard and unseating certain socketed chips.

Apple III ChassisWhat Were They Thinking?

According to Apple insiders, Steve Jobs’ zeal for a simple and silent computer design forced the Apple III team to exclude a cooling fan for the power supply.  Apple later suggested a simple fix for the heat-warping problem: raise the Apple III a few inches off a hard surface and drop it, hopefully re-seating the chips in the process. Fortunately, that advice wasn’t required for later Apple computers that lacked fans.

Problem #2: Limited Apple II Compatibility

To run an Apple III in Apple II mode, one had to first boot from a special floppy disk.  Once in Apple II emulator mode, the user could not use any of the Apple III’s enhanced hardware, including 80 column text mode or the real-time clock.  Compatibility with Apple II software was not perfect, as many software packages used direct memory writes in the form of PEEKs and POKEs that didn’t line up with the Apple III’s memory structure.

What Were They Thinking?

Like IBM and the PC/PCjr, Apple wanted a clear product delineation between their “home” machine (the Apple II) and their “professional” machine (the Apple III).  As a result, Apple II compatibility on the Apple III was intentionally crippled.
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Game Boy Oddities

Game Boy Oddities

When Nintendo released the original Game Boy twenty years ago next week, wheels of capitalism and creativity immediately started turning in noggins across the globe.  From artists mesmerized with the gaming gadget’s iconic status to inventors who saw it as a way to make the world a better place to folks who just wanted to cash in, the Game Boy has inspired weird accessories, variations, and tributes.  After seeing the items I rounded up for this extravaganza, you’ll probably agree that the public’s infatuation with this classic handheld has grown far beyond Nintendo’s wildest dreams.


iPhone Prototype Seller Speaks: Phones Are Still in Private Hands

iPhone PrototypeAfter reading Harry’s posts about the auctioning of two iPhone prototypes on eBay and auction and accompanying YouTube video being removed at Apple’s request, I decided to dig a little deeper.   Early today, I conducted an interview with the seller of the prototypes, Jon F. (aka $$billions_of_money$$), via email about his rare and historically important offerings.  Interestingly, he has no official connection to Apple.

He previously documented his iPhone find on the MacRumors forum in January.

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Atari’s 1984 Touch Tablet: A Retro-Unboxing

Atari Touch Tablet

The next time you use your shiny new Wacom tablet and Adobe Photoshop CS4, think back to a time before time–a time before blends, morphs, heal brushes, and 10-megapixel images.  A time like 1984, which, for computer graphics, was darker than the Dark Ages. It was a time when you could buy an $89.95 Atari CX77 Touch Tablet for your Atari 8-bit home computer.  Luckily, I bought mine for considerably less last year, although it was still in new, unopened condition.  Safely sequestered in the official Vintage Computing and Gaming computer lab, I recently began the task of unpacking the antique peripheral and documenting the process.  Here’s an account of the experience.