James Martin works for PC World, PC Advisor's American sister, in San Francisco. It's home to hippies and many new media companies… and some geeks, who like nothing better than old computers.
MP3 players, personal digital assistants, and digital cameras continue to be popular holidays gifts for the digerati. But a 20-year-old PC with no hard drive, no CD-ROM drive, and only 64KB of memory? Now that's a really cool gift.
In recent years vintage computers such as the 1982 KayPro II described above have been growing in popularity among technology fans and collectors. Websites, newsgroups and mailing lists, including the Obsolete Computer Museum and the Classic Computers Mailing List pay homage to obsolete, obscure, and discarded PCs.
A recent check of EBay's Vintage Computer category turned up more than 1,400 items for auction, including such rarities as an early eighties IBM portable with an orange gas-plasma display, a Momenta pen-top tablet PC from the early nineties, and a NeXT workstation from Steve Jobs's failed post-Apple computer company.
Revived and Resold
Why would anyone want an old and discontinued computer? Looks, for one thing. Many of the vintage computers being collected today had a style that went beyond the typical beige box.
"What makes a collectible computer cool is its physical appearance," says Sellam Ismail, founder of the Vintage Computer Festival show and website.
Computers with lots of lights and switches, particularly those from the 1970s, always strike the fancy of collectors, Ismail says. For instance, the MITS Altair 8800, considered by many to be the first personal computer, was code-named the 'blinker' during its development because of all its blinking LED lights.
The Altair 8800 is one of the most sought-after collectible computers today, Ismail says. Recently, an Altair 8800 sold on EBay for $1,967.39. The computer's original price, when released in 1975, was around $500.
History can be another factor determining a vintage computer's popularity — and price. The first Apple computer, released in 1976, recently sold in a private auction for a whopping $25,000, according to Ismail.
Despite their age, some discontinued computers not only look cool, but they're also still useful for specific tasks. Consider the Apple EMate, for example. The portable computer in the green translucent casing first shipped in early 1997. The EMate was based on Apple's Newton operating system. It was sold exclusively to the education market, received scant advertising support, and was axed in February 1998 in an effort to refocus the ailing Apple on Macintosh OS products.
But because the EMate weighs only 4 pounds, has a screen that's legible indoors or out, has no moving parts, runs up to 24 hours on a battery charge, and can exchange files with a PC via a serial cable, many collectors still covet them as portable word processors. Equipped with a modem, an EMate lets its user send and receive email and surf the internet as well.
EMates appear regularly on EBay, going for up to $680 in a recent auction — just $120 less than the original price more than four years ago. Most sell for $200 to $250 on EBay, however, according to a recent check of concluded auctions.
Some outdated computers such as the Altair, the Apple Lisa, and Digital's PDP-8 continue to fetch top dollar, Ismail says. But prices have fallen with the recent dotcom demise.
"During the internet boom, nerds flush with stock options drove the prices of old computers up," he adds. "With all that phoney wealth gone, prices for old computers have come down incrementally in most cases, dramatically in some." Many vintage computers can be acquired now for less than $100, Ismail says.
What's Hot? (Again)
Other discontinued computers that appeal to collectors include the Commodore Pet 4032, the original Compaq 'luggable', the Tandy TRS-80 model 100 portable, the Poqet PC (a forerunner to today's Pocket PC palmtops), the Macintosh Color Classic, many Atari and Commodore models, and yes, even the oft-berated IBM PC Jr.
Online, you can find vintage computers at EBay and Haggle Online. You can also find collectible computers at flea markets, ham radio rallies, electronic surplus shops, metal recyclers and school surplus sales, Ismail says. But don't let the deadline of an approaching holiday, birthday, or anniversary cause you to lose control, he warns.
"You shouldn't feel compelled to pay whatever it takes to get a machine you're really after," Ismail adds. "Another one will eventually come your way — and probably at a much lower price."