Gifts for the Nostalgic Geek
Perhaps the ultimate holiday gift for any technology geek is a vintage artifact plucked from the pages of computer history. In the following slides, we'll look at an array of classic computer platforms (many of which are included in our feature "The 25 Greatest PCs of All Time"), and I'll offer some tips on how and what to buy--especially for readers who are new to computer collecting.
The popular auction site eBay is the best place to find such vintage treasures. Other options include flea markets, yards sales, and thrift stores. Also, ask around among family friends--they just might have a vintage treasure lurking in their closet.
Near the end of the slideshow, we'll also take a quick look at some magazines, films, and books that a vintage computer fan might enjoy. And when you're done, feel free to check out my blog on the subject. Happy holidays!
Recommended model: Apple IIc
The IIc is compact and easy to set up, requiring only one power cable. The IIc is less common than the Apple IIe, but its ease of use (built-in disk drive, no fiddling with internal cards) justifies the small premium for casual Apple II fans. It's also widely compatible with most Apple II software. If you want to see the guts of this classic beauty, check out "Anatomy of an Icon: Inside the Apple IIc."
Expect to pay: $15 to $40
Examples: $15 for a working, nondamaged Apple IIc with no accessories. $40+ for an Apple IIc equipped with a second external drive, lots of software on disk, and maybe a monitor.
Photo by Steven Stengel
Recommended model: Original C64
The original brown "breadbox" Commodore 64 model is the most common C64 unit, and it works as well as any of the later variations. (We've gone all CSI on this vintage machine as well. Take a look at "Inside the Commodore 64.") The Commodore 64C, with a light beige case, is also common and works well.
Availability: Extremely common
Expect to pay: $10 to $40
Examples: $10 for a bare-bones working C64 with a power supply but no accessories. $15 to $20 for a working Commodore 64 unit and a 1541 disk drive, all the necessary cables, and some disks or cartridges. $40 for a C64, a disk drive, a monitor, books, and a large collection of disks.
Photo by Steven Stengel
Recommended model: Original TI-99/4A
The original black-and-silver TI-99/4A is the most common model, and it looks the most retro, which earns it extra coolness points. The later beige-colored model works just as well but might have minor compatibility issues. Texas Instruments also released an earlier TI-99/4 (with no "A" in the model name), but that machine is exceedingly rare and is better left to collectors. In fact, we named the TI-99/4 one of the "The 10 Worst PCs of All Time."
Availability: Very common
Expect to pay: $10 to $30
Examples: $10 for a bare-bones working TI-99/4A with power and video cables. $30 for a working unit with cables, speech synthesizer, joysticks, and a handful of cartridges.
Photo by Steven Stengel
Recommended model: Atari 800XL
The 800XL presents a good mix of small size, compatibility, and ruggedness. With 64KB of RAM, it will run nearly all Atari 8-bit software out there. Other good models include the original 800 and the 130XE, but those units are less common. (We recently tore apart the Atari 800 in honor of its 30th birthday.) Avoid the Atari 400 and the Atari 600XL, which typically shipped with only 16KB of RAM and thus can't run many later games.
Expect to pay: $15 to $70
Examples: $15 for a bare-bones working Atari 800XL with power supply. $30 for an Atari 800XL with 10 cartridges. $50 to $70 for an Atari 800XL with all cables, an Atari 1050 disk drive, 10+ cartridges, and lots of software on disk.
Recommended model: Macintosh SE
The SE is a dependable, classic compact Mac that earns bonus points for compatibility and expandability (with one internal PDS slot, RAM SIMM slots, and room for an internal hard disk). Avoid the SE/30. Though some people believe that the SE/30 is "The Best Mac Ever"--and it certainly is faster than the original--it is much harder to find, costs far more, and can present compatibility issues with older software.
Expect to pay: $20 to $50
Examples: $20 for a working Mac SE with mouse, keyboard, power cable, 1MB to 4MB of RAM, and one or two floppy drives. $30 to $40 for the above with 4MB RAM and a 20MB internal or external hard drive. $50+ for a big set with a hard drive, high-density floppy (FDHD model), lots of software, and some accessories.
Recommended model: IBM PC 5150
The 5150 was the world's first PC. As such, it is highly regarded by collectors. You'll pay more for a 5150, but due in part to the absurd proliferation of PC clones, few other vintage IBM PCs have the cachet of the original.
Expect to pay: $100 to $300
Examples: $100 to $150 for a bare-bones working 5150 in good condition, with 256K RAM and one disk drive. $150 to $300 for various configurations, including original IBM monitors, 640KB of RAM, internal hard drives, improved graphics cards, or other accessories.
Photo by Steven Stengel
Recommended publication: Byte Magazine
Few computer magazines are as collectible as Byte. With beautiful, lushly illustrated covers by Robert Tinney, most issues of Byte published between 1976 and 1986 are worth owning just to frame and hang on a wall. Inside each issue, you'll find heaps of nostalgia with vintage ads, news, and features from computing's yesteryear.
If your gift recipient is young enough (1975 to 1998), buy an issue or set of issues from the person's birth year--it makes a great unexpected gift.
Availability: 1975-1977, rare; 1978-1989, somewhat uncommon; 1990-1998, common
Expect to pay: $10 to $50 for a year's set; $2 to $10 per issue (à la carte)
Examples: $30 to $50 for a 12-issue set for one of the years from 1975 to 1977. $20 to $35 for a 12-issue set for one of the years from 1978 to 1989. $10 to $20 for a 12-issue set for one of the years from 1990 to 1998.
Recommended titles: WarGames, Tron
Few Hollywood movies have managed to get computers "right"--that is, portrayed the machines in a cool enough way to catch a tech geek's fancy. Here are a couple that succeeded: WarGames (1983) stars Matthew Broderick as a teen who inadvertently hacks his way into a potential nuclear war; Tron (1982) stars Jeff Bridges as a programmer trapped inside a video game. Both are classics that any technology fan will love. (For more movies geeks will love--or hate--check out "The Best and Worst Movies About the Internet.")
Availability: Very common (currently in print)
Expect to pay: $5-$14
Examples: $13.99 for Tron 20th Anniversary Edition DVD new at Amazon.com. $10.49 for War Games 25th Anniversary DVD new at the same outlet. Cut those prices in half if you buy used or find a good deal at a discount store.
Tech History Books
Recommended titles: Core Memory, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon
Computer history is a tricky thing. Many current books on the subject are amateurish efforts that contain significant factual errors. However, I can wholeheartedly recommend Core Memory, a gorgeously illustrated coffee table book filled with photos of computers from the 1950s to the 1980s; and iWoz, the autobiography of Apple cofounder and Apple II designer Steve Wozniak. iWoz is an easy and fun read that delves into the tech exploits of personal computing's arch-geek himself.
Availability: Common (currently in print)
Expect to pay: $6 to $25
Examples: $20 to $25 for Core Memory in hardcover (new). $6 to $10 for iWoz in paperback (new).