How I Got Started in Vintage Computing

Alone...with computers...I was recently listening to the celebratory 200th episode of my favorite vintage computing podcast, the Retro Computing Roundtable, which has been running for nine years. Marking the occasion, the early hosts of the show were in attendance and much reminiscence did ensue. Among the things discussed was the topic of how everyone’s relationship with the retro computing endeavor had changed over the past decade. In the discussion, the hosts touched on how it is that they got started in the hobby, and when. I’ve never really written specifically about that on this blog, as far as my own history, but the RCR folks have inspired me to do so presently.

Looking back, while I had an Atari VCS since 1979 or 80, I received my first proper computer on Christmas day, 1982: a TI-99/4A “home computer.” I expanded the system and enjoyed it well, but the platform wasn’t doing so hot around that time, so after a while, I sold it and moved to an Apple //c. It was great, and I really loved that machine, but I spent more and more time with the Macintosh at the local computer dealer and My first TI994A setup from 1983reading MacWorld magazines, so I eventually sold the //c and got a Macintosh 128K. When I went to a (different) store to buy some floppies for it, I encountered a Commodore Amiga in person for the first time. Blown away, I turned right around, returned the Mac after only a week, and got the Amiga 1000. And, so it would continue, on and on, one machine sold for the next, for quite a few years. It wasn’t until 1999, though, that I began “doubling up” and acquiring what I would call “vintage computers.”

At the time, I had been recalling some of the fun I had with my original Apple IIgs back in 1988 or so. One day I looked around eBay and found a few clean, complete systems. I bid and won one. Setting it up and running old programs on it turned out to be a whole lot of fun. I was quite glad I had gone ahead and acquired one of my favorite machines from days gone by (and so, it began…). It was around that time that I read online that there was a guy working out of a storage unit in nearby Frederick, MD, selling refurbished NeXT machines. I called him up to inquire, it sounded like a good proposition, Amiga 1000 from 1985so I drove up from my Arlington office on my lunch break and picked up a NeXTstation Turbo Color system including a 21-inch NeXT color display and a CD-ROM drive, all for $250. (I well recall that carrying that massive CRT up the tiny spiral staircase to the computer room in our first Northern Virginia home almost did me in.) And that’s when I decided it would be nice to have an Amiga again…

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A Progress Update From a “No Man’s Sky” Time Traveler

Ice moon, lake in foregroundEarly in the year I posted A Few Words from a “No Man’s Sky” Time Traveler, detailing my decision to put my 1,600-hour No Man’s Sky journey on hold and jump back-in-time to late 2016 and the Foundation (v1.1) release of the game. (My help page provides assistance to those wanting to do the same.) In that post I explained my motivations for so doing and I won’t restate them here other than to say, in brief, I missed the wilder nature of the early games’ (pre-NEXT) worlds and that greater sense of the unexpected, waiting around every corner. That was over half a year ago and it seems a good time for an update. (And to the bulk of my readers who came to read about vintage computing adventures rather than those taking place in a boundless, procedural universe: thank you for your patience with another off-topic post!)

As I wrote the aforementioned blog post, I was 25-hours in on a new Normal-mode game started in the Foundation release (version 1.13 specifically), having archived my mainline progress to resume later. I ended up playing in Foundation for 10 straight weeks before archiving that save and going back to the then-current release (Visions v1.77) in order to get back into the active swing of things in preparation for the impending release of No Man’s Sky Beyond.

Beyond promised to bring VR gameplay, far deeper multiplayer, and a large bag of various quality-of-life improvements to enhance the overall experience. Shortly before it was released, I purchased an Oculus Rift S VR setup in order to immerse myself as fully as possible in the game. No Man’s Sky Beyond (v2.0) arrived on August 14 and it did, indeed, deliver on its promises. No Man’s Sky in VR is pretty amazing; I’ve spent hours in the game just slowly wandering about, examining prairie flowers blooming inches from my eyes, marveling at clusters of desert cacti towering above me, and running my fingers through blades of grass carpeting valleys that stretch off into the distance. And, what’s more, I’m liking the deeper online play mechanics introduced through the Nexus in the updated Space Anomaly (a sort of hub where players can easily find each other, explore together, visit each others’ bases). I didn’t expect to find particular fondness with expanded online play, but it feels like a nice addition.

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SGI O2 Promo Video from the Mid-’90s

I recently saw a Reddit post where someone was demonstrating an SGI O2 running the FSN (“Fusion”) File System Navigator, a 3D rendering of the IRIX filesystem that was famously featured in the movie Jurassic Park — “It’s a UNIX system…I know this!” It got me thinking about the O2, which is the one SGI machine that I happen to own. I did some googling, just for fun, and ran across a video that SGI put out in the mid-’90s (on VHS tape) demonstrating the O2, and I thought I would share.

It was quite a machine, for the time. At my last job I had my O2 in the office on the desk and enjoyed messing around with it when time permitted. I find it sad that the once bold innovator that was SGI is no longer among us.

SGI O2 on desk

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Wait … QuickTake ??

On Monday Apple held its September Apple Special Event at company headquarters to announce a variety of new products, among which are the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro. The new models brings notable camera upgrades, and one of the related new features exclusive to these models is something Apple is calling “QuickTake.”

Wait…QuickTake ??

QuickTime tweet

While QuickTake is a new iPhone 11 feature that allows a user in photo mode to take a video by simply holding down the photo button (like in Instagram, Snapchat, etc.), its also a digital camera released by Apple 25 years ago. A line of digital cameras, actually — one of the first to hit the consumer market, back in 1994. The QuickTake 100 and 150 are Apple-branded versions of Kodak’s DC40 camera (the first digital camera I ever used) while the QuickTake 200 is a rebranded Fuji DS-7. The QuickTake line was one of the products eliminated (in 1997) by Steve Jobs upon his return to Apple, in the name of streamlining the company’s product lineup.

During the Apple event, a number of us old Apple folk were tweeting back and forth about the company’s reuse of the term “QuickTake.” Among these, I replied to @jeffcarlson (above), mentioning that I believe I have uploaded more QuickTake photos to the Flickr image network than any other person, linking to my gallery of around 200 photos taken with my QuickTake 200.

Pink Rose taken by Apple QuickTake 200 camera

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A Bit of History Regarding “Tunnels of Armageddon” for the Apple IIgs

Tunnels of Armageddon title screenIn 1989 I wrote a letter (envelope, stamp, and all) to game publisher California Dreams asking a technical question about the game Tunnels of Armageddon for the Apple IIgs. But, they never wrote back.

I was thinking back on this recently, with some sadness, and that set me about doing a bit of internet sleuthing. And I’m quite glad that it did. I am happy to report that here, 30 years later, I finally have an answer, and not from the publishing house, but from the mouth of the game’s original developer, from across the world in Poland.

Of all the computer system in my past, the Apple IIgs (which we purchased in the autumn of 1986) is one of my very favorites. But, given my fickle tendency to jump from one platform to the next, I left the IIgs behind a year or two later, about the same time that several close friends acquired their own IIgs systems.

Fridays after school, a couple of friends and I would gather at one of our houses, watch movies, eat pizza, and show off this or that new game or demo we had for our respective systems. One day in 1989, I was over at my IIgs-owning friend’s house (I had an Amiga at the time) and he showed me this game that I found to be truly impressive, which was saying something (I had an Amiga at the time…). The game was Tunnels of Armageddon. It’s a futuristic 3D racing game of sorts, in which you must successfully and rapidly navigate a series of tunnels discovered under Antarctica, carved out by an alien race as a test of humanity’s intelligence. Success will grant mankind knowledge of hyperspace travel, while failure will lead to the extinction of humanity.

Tunnels of Armageddon box, front and back

The thing about Tunnels of Armageddon is its sense of speed. The tunnels you must race through are rendered as a series of rectangular wall or border sections that zoom towards you. There are obstacles and power-ups here and there, as well as many branches, some leading to dead ends. Looking with today’s eyes, it’s a rather simplistic affair, but gameplay feels extremely fast and very smooth, which is a real achievement on the Apple IIgs, which is rather limited as a high-speed gaming platform as compared to the Amiga and Atari ST, which were it’s closest equivalents.

This friend of mine had also gotten into Apple IIgs assembly language programming and had the associated Apple hardware reference texts (which are currently sitting on my shelves) on hand. Flipping through them, I had learned of the “Fill Mode” of the IIgs graphics chip, which was basically the one trick it was capable of using to help unburden the CPU during screen drawing. In a nutshell, with Fill Mode activated, only the outline need be drawn in order to render a solid, filled shape; the graphics chip would do the rest. It was a standard feature of more advanced “Blitter” chips on other platforms of the day, like the Amiga and Atari ST, but it was the IIgs’ one graphics boon. I was intrigued by this hardware capability and assumed that Tunnels of Armageddon utilized it, but I wasn’t certain, and so I wrote to the publisher to ask that question. And, I never got an answer.

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I Laughed Just A Little Too Hard…

Spotted on Instagram. Also: relevant.

( Modified by ? Original artist is Jake Likes Onions. )

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Memories of a Software Rental Shop

I remember the first video my family ever rented. It was a James Bond film, Never Say Never Again. We rented it (on Beta videocassette) from the video rental counter that popped up in our local five and dime, a place that was called Gibsons, in Grafton, Virginia. That was sometime in 1984. I’ve rented hundreds of videotapes and DVDs over the years from many different shops ranging from tiny mom & pops establishments to Blockbuster. But the rental store I enjoyed most was a family-run place called Family Video & Computer Center at the Hilton Shopping Center in Newport News, Virginia. What made that place special to me was that, in addition to movies, they also rented computer software.

What got me thinking about FVCC (no connection to the “Family Video” rental chain found in the Midwest and Canada today) was a recent episode of the Retronauts podcast I listened to, with video and game rental stores as the topic. The show talks about game console rentals — cartridges and CDs/DVDs. Now, while I did rent the odd PS2 title here and there in the early ’00s, I didn’t do it often. What was unique about FVCC is that they rented games and apps for computers. I’m talking about magnetic media. They had titles for the Commodore 64, Apple II, Amiga, and DOS / Windows PC.

I don’t remember just how I found out about the place but, just after it opened, I remember going in and renting the game Echelon for the Apple II. I recall that there was a “NO PIRACY” sign on the wall, but the guy working the counter let me know I could get a free rental by providing a new parameter to copy one of their games (one that wasn’t part of Copy II+ or whatever parameter copier you might have used). Good times.

The way it worked was — as I recall — you were technically buying the software, with an option to return it for retail price minus $5 within five days, or something along those lines. There were/are laws against renting computer software in the United States and things were setup in a way that got around them.

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Computer Classifieds Dating Back Over 35 Years, Uncovered

As often happens, I got an idea for a blog post about a place of my past that readers may find interesting, and jumped online to scour the search engines for some tidbit of history I could use to prop up the piece. And, as often is the case, I found nothing. Memories that make for an interesting post on this particular blog, by their very nature, often concern places and events that happened pre-internet. There’s all too often just not a trace out there about the topic in question.

In this most recent search, I was using keywords that would target the local newspaper where I grew up. I wasn’t having any luck, when I stumbled across a newspaper index / archive site that seemed to offer possibilities for my search, for a monthly fee. So, I went in on it and almost instantly found a full-page article concerning the place I had in mind. Stunned, I quickly searched for a number of other ideas I’ve had for both this blog and my other, Nostalgic Virginian, that were search engine dead ends. Boom — relevant material on every count materialized. (There are some nice posts in store, I think!)

Collection of classified ads for computers from the 80s and 90s

Sitting there quite satisfied, it then occurred to me that classified ads over the decades may be part of this archive. I was something of a serial platform monogamist way back when, moving through a great many machines over the years. I would put one up for sale in the local paper  and then, when it sold (usually with $ome help from mom and dad), I would jump to the new platform. So, I began searching on my home phone number for the two houses we lived in while I was growing up in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, and — voila! In no time, I located ten scanned classified ads that, in my youth, I had written up and phoned in to the Daily Press newspaper. It’s amazing for me to sit here today and look at these decades-old artifacts from my computing past. The dates that these ads ran in the paper have adjusted my memory a bit as to what was happening just when, but I do remember it all.

I hope readers find this collection at least an interesting glimpse back, if not so profoundly fascinating as I do.

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A Baker’s Dozen for High Score Week

Thirteen computer game screenshots in a thumbnail grid

The subreddit r/Retrobattlestations is one of my favorite vintage computing project outlets on the net. The sub runs frequent competitions, and last week’s compo was High Score Week. During a High Score Week, members pick a game for their favorite vintage platform, score up as best they can (on actual hardware — no emulators allowed), and submit photographic evidence of their pixel pounding badassery. Others join in and rank on the scoreboard and, in the end, winners are regaled with prizes. (I’ve made a habit of festooning a door in the Byte Cellar with mine.)

During this High Score Week, I made thirteen submissions on as many platforms and had a lovely time so doing. As a nice side-effect of my labors I became reacquainted with the old classic from Japan, Silpheed from Game Arts (and brought to the states by Sierra), and am presently somewhat addicted to playing it at length, and on as many platforms as I can.

Photo of desk with two DOS PCs and an Apple IIgs, all running Silpheed

Head over to my r/Retrobattlestations entries photo gallery for a closer look.

Good times!


Visit a gallery of all my r/Retrobattlestations entry photos. A complete list, with links, of the fun I've had with challenges in that subreddit over the years can be seen below. Good times!

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Let’s Talk About Capacitor Failure

Photo of a bulged capacitor on a motherboardI spend a good deal of time these days on various telnet BBS that are (naturally) focused on vintage computing. As such, much of the discussion being had in the message bases is in the form of help / advice requests posted by people with ailing systems of yore and replies by those offering up helpful suggestions. More and more I’m seeing these responses come in the form of something like this:

Ok, so your Amiga 500 powers on but goes to a full yellow screen just seconds after boot? I’d suggest you test the power supply with a voltage meter, re-seat the socketed chips on the motherboard, and, of course, replace all the capacitors.

I began collecting vintage computers in 1999 — 20 years ago. The modern computer I had at that time is now considered to be vintage and collectible. I now have a sizable room full of computer systems, setup and bootable at the flip of a switch. Some of them are nearly 40 years old. In all of that time, I have never — not once, ever — replaced a single capacitor. I have never encountered a blown or even bulged capacitor on any of these fully functional systems. And I use these computers quite frequently.

From Wikipedia’s capacitor page:

A capacitor is a passive two-terminal electronic component that stores electrical energy in an electric field. The effect of a capacitor is known as capacitance.

The physical form and construction of practical capacitors vary widely and many capacitor types are in common use. Most capacitors contain at least two electrical conductors often in the form of metallic plates or surfaces separated by a dielectric medium. A conductor may be a foil, thin film, sintered bead of metal, or an electrolyte. The nonconducting dielectric acts to increase the capacitor’s charge capacity. Materials commonly used as dielectrics include glass, ceramic, plastic film, paper, mica, air, and oxide layers. Capacitors are widely used as parts of electrical circuits in many common electrical devices/

An unfortunate thing about capacitors is that every type of capacitor will, at some point, fail. The type and quality of a given capacitor plays heavily into its life span — and some vintage systems used rather poorly constructed capacitors. I have seen many examples online of a system malfunctioning and, in diagnosing, a blown capacitor was found and replaced and the system was healed. I can’t say for sure that I have ever seen an example of a capacitor failure utterly destroying a system.

I would like to continue on as I have always done, using these systems as-is with the plan of replacing capacitors on a given system in the future, as they inevitably fail. But, I would like opinions as to just how risky this is.

I am hoping, with this post, to get feedback in the comments from other vintage computer users users of vintage computers (I almost walked into that one…) regarding the issue of capacitor failure. What experiences have you had? What advice can you offer, here? Those of you who have suffered capacitor failures in such systems, were any of them catastrophic, unrepairable? Please leave a comment, I appreciate any feedback.


UPDATE: Hackaday has picked up this piece and published their own post, “Ask Hackaday: Experiences with Capacitor Failure“. There are some good accounts in the comments thread, including much discussion regarding the “Capacitor Plague” that came from Asia, afflicting systems made between 1999 and 2007.

Also, the Retro Computing Roundtable podcast (my personal favorite vintage computing podcast out there) saw this post and has made a discussion of capacitor failure the host topic of “Episode 191: Re: Recapping.”

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