The Most Notable Obsolete Computer Platforms

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Geek!This is Brian Patrie’s submission for the HP Magic Giveaway. Feel free to leave comments for this article as you see fit – your feedback is certainly welcomed! If you’d like to submit your own how-to, what-is, or top-five list, you can send it to me. Views and opinions of this writer are not necessarily my own:

Before 64-bit. Before 32-bit. Before even those old archaic 16-bit machines of the mid to late ’80s. We used 8-bit microcomputers. Okay, before that there was 4-bit; but I’m not that old. By 8-bit, I mean fully 8-bit. The 8088 CPU had an 8-bit external data bus; but internally it was the 16-bit 8086.

Here is a hastily compiled list of a few noteworthy machines from the heyday of 8-bit computing in the mid 1970s through mid 1980s.

I’ll start with the Apple II—mainly because it was the first micro that I ever knew. I was immediately enthralled with the idea of being able to make it into anything that I could programme it to be. Electronic Lego-blocks, I called it. Eventually I got my hands on the Apple ][ / ][ Plus Technical Reference Manual, and read of an electronic logic ecosystem that didn't waste a single gate. Its wide open architecture made it a hit with hardware hackers (and, no doubt, made hardware hackers of many of its initiates). Its handling of addresse decoding on the motherboard made it a simple matter of checking one of two lines for a card to detect that its memory or i/o space was being addressed. It did have some limitations compared to some of its later contemporaries, such as monochrome text, and some bizarre graphics idiosyncracies (things that Apple were slow to improve, due to being distracted by other major projects, like the Apple III, Lisa, and Macintosh). But it was a great machine, nonetheless.

It's fairly predictable that the Commodore 64 would turn up in the list. It’s most obvious strength was its price—which made it one of the most popular personal computers of its time. For a few-hundred bucks, you could have a working system. Its design didn’t match the austere elegance of the Apple II; but it had some attractive features beyond it, including chroma/luma video output (which is what s-video is), multicolourable text (limited to one background colour for the whole screen), and sprites. It made for an attractive game platform. (I gather that Commodore did attempt to market a C-64 based game console; but it failed miserably.) The worst criticism that I have of the C-64 is the disk-unfriendly initial user interface. Starting a programme from disk required a rather cumbersome LOAD “*”,8 followed by RUN (versus the short and sweet 6 ctrl-p of the Apple II, or nothing for the auto-starting II Plus). And when developing a BASIC programme, one had to specify the device number for every stinking SAVE. (I was spoiled by the Apple II’s feature of remembering the last drive you used.) It was also impossible (without 3rd party software) to list a disk directory without stepping on the BASIC programme in memory. (I confess, though, that the directory-as-a-BASIC-programme was a cute trick.) These things may seem trivial; but they were enough of an annoyance to turn me off to an otherwise reasonably attractive platform.

Most people never heard of the Panasonic JR-200U. A friend of mine found one at a yard sale, and it ended up in my hands. Apparently it had a bit of a following in Japan and Europe (where it was usually sold under the National brand). It sported many of the features of the C-64, plus the ability to colour the background on a per character basis. Unfortunately its display was only 32×24 characters (versus the 40×24 of the C-64 and early Apple II,II+ and 80×24 of the later Commodore models and Apple IIs). It also had an 8 colour 2×2 per character block graphics mode that allowed any text character cell to display 4 independently coloured blocks, along with some higher resolution modes that acted like colour custom character sets. One of the little things that made me smile was the ability to use hexadecimal numbers simply by prefixing them with a $ (the old Berkley convention). This could also be used with the val function to convert a string to decimal within a programme; and there was a hex$ function that worked like str$ to convert the other way.

The Kyocera Kyotronic (best known in the guise of the TRS-80 Model 100) was one of the first notebook computers. The Epson HC-20 has the honour of being THE first; but its calculator-sized display was a bane to its popularity). The Kyotronic sported a 40×8 character display which made it practical for basic word processing. It’s ability to run for several hours on a handful of AA cells made it particularly popular with field journalists. it came in 16 and 32kB RAM configurations—the rest of its 64kB addresse space being reserved for firmware modules that contained application software. (It is also noteworthy as the last project to which Bill Gates personally contributed the majority of code.)

I should probably put the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (ZX-82) here; but I know almost nothing about it. Instead I’ll mention its predecessor, the Sinclair ZX-81. This was an extremely frugal machine that came with a whopping 1kB of RAM (expandable to 16 or 64k with one of two rather cantankerous modules, that you’d better not bump whilst in use). It was available assembled or in kit form. It had a 32 column monochrome text display with the curious feature of being firmware generated—which allowed software to take it over and produce highish resolution graphics. It’s not a machine that I would be terribly interested in using for anything anymore; but it warrants mention by virtue of being interesting and weird. (Maybe I should have included the TRS-80 or Atari 800 instead. But I’m not very up on those, either.)