Retrocomputing, Time To Hang Up The Original Hardware?

For those of us with penchant for older technology, there’s something special about operating with older hardware. Whether it’s a decades-old camera, a vintage keyboard, or a home computer from the 1980s, the modern equivalent just doesn’t quite compare. But working with older parts definitely isn’t for the faint-hearted, as the passage of time has taken its toll on their reliability. Is it time to recognize that the supply of replacement vintage parts is not infinite, and to switch from using original hardware to more modern alternatives? [Retro Recipes] poses this question after a particularly difficult-to-find Amiga fault, and discusses it while evaluating a replacement Amiga made entirely from modern parts.

The new Amiga in question is a recreation of an A1200 with a re-manufactured case and keyboard, and the guts of an A500 Mini retro console taking the place of the Commodore board. He goes through the process of making an Amiga hard drive image on a USB drive using the image from his original drive in his teenage years, and boots it both on the 500 Mini based machine and on the UAE emulator on a Mac laptop. You can follow him in the video below the break.

We can see the logic in treating original hardware as a precious resource that’s not to be run up for fear of breaking it, but by the same token we’re still standing by that first sentence. But should the enjoyment of an older machine be limited only to those who have an original? We think not, so if enjoying an Amiga without an Amiga can be as good as the real thing then we’re all for it.

Of course, for those whose original Amigas have already broken, there are other ways to bring them back.

57 thoughts on “Retrocomputing, Time To Hang Up The Original Hardware?

  1. If you don’t use old hardware for fear of breaking it, then it might as well be broken already. It’ll be unused either way. It’s like old cars – you need to have the time to keep them up. If you don’t, then maybe sell them to someone who does.

    We will eventually run out of the obsolete ASICs. They will all eventually break. But the beauty is in the design – the arrangement of gates to produce the unique performance. It’s ok to replace that in the form of FPGAs and keep the external look of the keyboard/shell. The heart is in the design, not the chip.

    1. Are FPGAs an panacea? Or aren’t they just lame, over-engineered logic blobs with lots of ARM processor cores to assist them? To me, that’s as if we watch animatronic animals mimicking movements of real animals. However, that’s not the same. It’s as if we’re watching a sun rise on a hi-res film vs a real sun rise in the open wild, on a mountain or at the sea.
      Don’t get me wrong, both has its beauty.

      But what some vintage people love is interacting with “live” hardware. Hardware that has its glitches, hardware that we can put ourselves in, trying to follow the functioning of a machine. Imagine, which blocks of the hardware do exactly what now. On the physical layer.

      That’s as if we run a real model steam engine vs. running a simulated model steam engine with simulated sound effects from an MP3 module and some fake steam produced by some electric module. It may look similar, but it’s not. And that’s the culprit: We know it’s fake. It does destroy the atmosphere that connects us mentally with the model.

      To those people, a true blue emulator is more real than an impostor device (emulator box).
      Because they know it’s an emulator, it doesn’t play the masquerade game. Emulators used to be development tools, even. So, say, running an old school emulator that was used during development when a a certain system was new can be more authentic than an visually authentic looking imposter device.

      1. A real FPGA implementation is as close to the original as you can get without recreating the production line of the old chips, as its all real logic gates, set up and doing the same logical operations to replicate the old CPU/APU/Logic chips (at least in the case when the design is known so that it is possible to have a true replication and not a reverse engineered best guess). So I would call FPGA versions an honest homage if not outright replication – about as good as the ‘real’ thing.

        The fact that many FPGA come on the same die/dev board as an Arm core or two is simply that general computing of a CPU may be desired and isn’t efficient to create as a softcore in the FPGA. Even tiny FPGA are monsters at massively parallel operations and data throughput for simple logic operations, great for ‘real-time’ tasks that CPU really are not, and CPU can turn their hand to any computational task quite simply.

        1. Well said. A computer made from glue logic TTL or CMOS is no more real than the same computer implemented in a FPGA. What was the original ASIC but a sea of gates, which was designed from another set of glue logic . On the other hand a computer software simulation, is just thst

      2. The problem with real steam power is both the impact on users (particularly when low grade coal and softwood is used) as well as the massive condensation makes even the brightest OLED 4K displays damn difficult to read.

        Of course, if you were to run your steam engine off alternative heat sources (many GPUs run awful close to 100°C, I know I certainly burnt the crap out of the back of my hand just brushing up against the back of the board) and could have closed condensation systems. While this might not run a train, I wonder if an over clocked GPU couldn’t just generate enough steam to power a mechanical record player.

        Can you draw enough power off USB 3.2 to power a vacuum tube amplifier?

    2. Believe it or not, I am watching home made silicon with great interest. We’re currently at the home made transistor stage but it’s only a matter of time until we can etch a MOS6581/8580. Reverse engineering of the layers of the original functional chips is needed to recreate the layer masks, but that process is already well underway for accurate emulation.

  2. Use them up.

    My dad was an IBM System/360 guy. Even though I grew up amidst the hardware, I never worked on those things, so I don’t care about owning a running system, or even an emulator of them. I grew up on a CDC Cyber 73 and a VIC-20, but my son probably wouldn’t recognize those names. He grew up on VTech toys and an Amiga 500. But his daughter won’t know what those were. She’s headed for a future of Android tablets and Linux and Windows laptops.

    People fondly remember the systems of their youth, and a few people will preserve them. But those memories aren’t generational. Once the last original Amiga owner passes, keeping those museum pieces running likely won’t be anyone’s pet project. So use them now, while people who remember them are still around to appreciate them.

    1. “Once the last original Amiga owner passes, keeping those museum pieces running likely won’t be anyone’s pet project. ”

      Appreciation can be passed along from one person to another.

      1. The irony is, that some museums do display fake hardware already.

        Not that this bad per se, if it serves a certain purpose. Just think of those replicas of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. They give visitors an idea about history, let them relive old times, connect them with their own past and their ancestors.

        But that’s not exactly ‘authenticity’ in the narrow sense. An emulator box always is an approach to the real thing. It comes closer and closer, but will never reach it. Like the speed of light, it will always be a bit out of reach.

        1. And the Sputnik replicas also give the viewers an idea of how small the first artificial satellite was, compared to, say, a Gemini capsule.

      2. I’m not saying I don’t appreciate old tech, even old tech that I never used in its day. I often marvel at devices created during the hybrid mechanical-electronic era that evolved before microprocessors and servo motors replaced cam logic. I love to see a machine with drum memory spinning, but I’m less interested in the instruction set than I am with the motors and read heads. I even appreciate something like a 1970s era video game constructed entirely from discrete TTL chips. You can see with your eyes the complexity that went into something as “simple” as Pong.

        But once all the complexities have been refactored into silicon, the sameness of the inscrutable gray rectangles means that the resulting designs are all similar, which is to say boring. As an observer who doesn’t have a particular fondness for PIC processors, seeing a PIC chip inside a cabinet is just like seeing an Atmel chip. Frankly, the schematics and architecture diagrams would be more interesting than the machine.

        The thing that draws me in deeper is experience: show me a design with a Z-80 and I can easily wax nostalgic because I developed on Z-80 systems way back when. And how will that translate into a museum experience once all the Z-80 people are gone? That’s why I say “don’t worry about using them now”. Because at some point after we’re gone, nobody will care.

        1. Maybe not quite nobody. People still keep Model T cars going, even though there are now only a small number of people who were alive when they were still in common use. (Production of the Model T ended 95 years ago, and they endured on the roads for a few more years.) But it will be a niche thing.

    2. While not quite the same I own several old cars and drive them regularly and maintain them along with a lot of other people and the cars I own were 40yrs old when I was born. I do agree though that they should be used and enjoyed now rather than sit on a shelf.

    3. I definitely appreciate some of the computers from before I was born, as they have a simple elegance and comprehensible workings. And a design language all of their own that is quite interesting. Don’t actually own any examples, yet anyway, maybe never will but that doesn’t mean they are not interesting enough to preserve for folks that didn’t grow up on them..

      Infact I have zero interest in the computer I did grow up with, as its an almost incomprehensible monster of layers in much the same way as a brand new computer (maybe even worse with all the bits that now would be at least replaceable with FOSS, so you can get some understanding of its function), and a PC tower looks rather like a PC tower, even if the old one was beige and the new one is some horrible fingerprint magnet glossy rubbish, that probably has a damn window in the side.

      About the only thing I kind of liked about it that I wish a new computer would do (but not enough to do anything about it) is let you listen to audio CD right off the CD drive without involving the computer at all – which means you get good music and whatever video game with usually rather dull repetitive soundtrack I felt like working perfectly (and a hung game/system wouldn’t cut off the music inevitably just as its getting to a really good bit of the track/album), and changing music was just muscle memory by touch action – I want the disk in slot x, open tray put current disk in its case, case in its slot (or just dumped in the pile to put away afterwards), grab and insert disk of interest, all without looking away from the game, no alt tabbing, such a minor distraction, and you can’t get caught in vast music library as you scroll to what you were thinking of and end up in that debate with yourself of if you actually want to listen to y…

      1. “About the only thing I kind of liked about it that I wish a new computer would do (but not enough to do anything about it) is let you listen to audio CD right off the CD drive without involving the computer at all ”

        There were drives that had a headphone jack. Haven’t seen in ages because…plastic disks are dead.

        1. Not quite dead, but definitely on the way to being so.

          If I was to go through the effort to recreate that sort of feature now I think I’d have a decent sound mixing desk type thing in miniature with onboard music player and a few dedicated buttons for playlist (as being entirely free from needing the primary computers resources is handy, for one thing these days I often have it turned off as the Pi can do the job cheaper and your music is never ruined when something crashes).

          This would combine something I wish I had so I don’t have to alt-tab for music while busy, and something I feel all computers really should have a physical slider software mixer so when the audio from one or other application is too quiet/loud you can fix it, again without having to tab out and see to it. Would also be a mixing desk to allow the myriad of other electronics that spend time on my desk to be connected to the sound system – so when x machine beeps for attention it actually can beep (if I want it to).

          1. Hardly any new smartphone still has a headphone jack. It’s the way technology goes. An analog port (literally a century old) in an otherwise 100% digital device is a foreign body.

            Apple is only (once again) one step ahead, and the industry is always following. But the trendsetter always gets all the bashing ;-) Like back then, when they got rid of floppy disks or when they were the first to adopt USB. And when they abandoned USB in favor of Lightning because USB development didn’t move forward fast enough. And so on.

          2. @Gerhard Seems to me like loads of devices still have headphone jacks…

            And I’d not say jumping to Lighting was at all because USB wasn’t x, wasn’t any faster than Firewire when it was released was it? Not even sure it was any quicker than whatever sub generation of USB was current at the time. It was entirely because its what they wanted to get more money, so lock and your accessories into their ecosystem, where they always get a cut. About the only really decent and somewhat unique at the time of the things release is being unidirectional – all the other small connectors of the era are not as far as I can recall…

            Apple does get to to set some trends, sometimes it even sets a sensible trends but everything it does is about keeping its users locked into the Apple walled garden and paying the Apple tax for their shiny, fashionable, but frequently abysmal performance to price ratio devices, so they can keep making boatloads of money.

            And the headphone jack I can’t see really going away time soon… Bluetooth might not be awful anymore but its still got a long way to go to really beat the plain and simple audio cable for lots of users..

      2. Not feasible with current optical drives. Not only do they no longer have headphone jacks or media control buttons, they don’t even contain digital to analog converters. (In the late days of SATA optical drives some ditched the audio connector, and SATA optical drives never had it.) All modern computers with optical drives play audio by transferring the digital audio data to the computer and playing it through the computer’s sound hardware. (I believe that was first widely introduced in Windows 98.) That not only saves money but also sounds better; the DAC in the CD drive usually wasn’t very good, and the long cable from the drive to the motherboard would pick up digital noise from other system components.

        1. No long cable to the motherboard if its coming out of the CD drives 3.5mm straight to your speaker/headphones, which is the situation I was thinking of, and maybe we just had a good drive or poor sound on the PC but it was at least as good a DAC as the one the PC had, I would say my memory of it says it was significantly better.

          1. You could also connect analog out of the CD drive to the Analog in of your ISA/PCI soundcard. (Even motherboards with an integrated soundcard had such a connector.)

  3. There is no reason to not use the original hardware and replace or even upgrade parts as needed. Either someone uses it or it doesn’t get used.

    Nostalgia for the days of yore is a strange thing. A correct FPGA re-implementation (e.g. Minimig) is a good stand-in but emulation provides rose colored glasses that may take away from the experience. As microfabrication becomes more accessible, reproductions will become more accurate but almost certainly have a modern flair to them.

    As a programmer, I find retro-computing/programming appealing because of the additional constraints rather a desire to use existing software. The constraints give you something to fight against to achieve something that would have been incredible in the days of yore.

    1. “As a programmer, I find retro-computing/programming appealing because of the additional constraints rather a desire to use existing software.”

      That can be part of it. But there’s also appreciate for what was, as well as the capacity to learn what the past could teach us.

  4. I think we’d all like to see our favorite retro computers in use as long as possible & reproductions and emulators have a great deal to offer. I use a new PiDP1170 (Raspberry Pi internals) at home where a DEC PDP 11/70 (1975 tech) would be impractical due to rarity, size, power requirements, expense, AC, etc.

    There are literally thousands of new PDP 11 users who never would have had the chance to own the original hardware due to scarcity but are now enthusiastic supporters & contributors.

    The few advantages of using emulated or recreated hardware really seem to make up for some of the original pain points that discourage continued use of our favorite hardware.

  5. I’d rather get my enjoyment out of something over having it prestine under glass never to be used just for fear of breaking it (by that point why even have it to begin with?).

      1. I’m going that way with my vintage PC hardware, trying to sort out the “Just as much fun” obscure clones with less popular parts, to sell off the actual IBM-PC hardware and famous cards that are getting so pricy I hardly dare breathe near them.

  6. I still love the Apple //e. Although I had a C64, the //e was my goto (pun) machine. It was the internet before the internet existed. 300 baud of pure text.

  7. Chips deteriorate sitting on the shelf, all you are doing but not using it is creating Schrödinger’s computer. There is a case that using them actually extends life as the heat bakes some of the moisture out of the chips.

  8. Well you know that since practically every piece of the most popular retro computers has a replica or replacement why not just build a replacement (not a pi but a real replicated pcb, aull the proper replacement chips you can get, the whole 9 yards), that way you can save your “antique” original, have a use machine and probably get a much better appreciation of your favourite retro machine in the process.

      1. Or use your 3D scanner and 3D printer to scan your original and print it sized up to put the bigger chip in, ZX81 the size of a pizza box! Still many people fly replica WWI aircraft because of their rarity and it’s far cheaper to build a C64 than a Sopwith Camel.

        1. That’s a good point, yes! 😃👍

          Personally, I’m fine with replicas as long as they are declared as replicas.

          Some of them are on par with the real thing, even.

          Just think of that AdLib replica (1990 model). It looks, function and sound 99,9% the same. That’s awesome. 😁

          But even if something merely looks the same and uses a different technology, it still can have its place.

          I’m thinking of that Raspberry Pi in a Mac-like shell.

          It’s fun to make and it’s a joy to work with.
          Again, I have no problem with replicas or re-creations as long as they are upright.

          That’s akin to making model planes, cars, boats or building ships in a bottle. It’s art. 🎨

          The only time I really get annoyed is if cheaply made, commercial emulator boxes (those “mini” editions) are positioned on the market to replace the original systems people have at home.

          Don’t get me wrong. As gifts, toys, party items they are fine. But not superior to the real thing. The originals should never suffer because of those imposter devices.

          Speaking of. I think it’s okay to recycle old, broken systems. Or modify them (60Hz switch etc). The modifications usually can be reversed, if needed. Holes in the plastic (for the switches) can be sealed with glue etc, after all.

          Any modification or repair job is better than if the system ends up in a landfill. In the same way, I don’t think it’s a sacrilege to gut a broken C64 and reuse, the chassis, parts or the keyboard. Like, for use with a C64 emulator. If something gets saved and makes people glad, it’s still a happy end.

    1. Slightly off topic ..well maybe not, we will see. I was an enthusiastic original owner and purchaser of a Texas Instruments TI 59 Calculator .. the Porsche of programmable calculators back in 1977. I still have it . If you don’t know what I am referring to , look it up on line, it was the cats PJs
      . By now of course the magnetic card reader is useless and the drive wheels rubber has turned to goo. The nicd ..pre nimh, cells long gone to a better place and a number of the keys very iffy. But it was a really good calculator with greater internal precision than most ,until the era of tablets and moreover it became second nature to use it and it’s logic. Well I was not the only one to think so, and software emulators were made available on The IBM PC, ..a bit naff, the Apple iTouch, the Microsoft palm devices, the iPAD, and now on every type of Android tablet and phone. . The current version on every Android phone and tablet i have is better than any original version ever was .. and emulates its special printer functions as well. Now I have tried some of the super-duper calculator apps available on iPads i Android and none would just gell with me.. I can get them to function , plot graphs solve equations , but they are just hard work .
      So this is a case where the emulator outperforms the original.

  9. The real irony is here though, that due to orders of magnitudes more charge carriers needing to diffuse orders of magnitude further from the semiconductor junctions to stop the silicon functioning in older process node chips, we will probably find that with replacement of “wear” components like capacitors, that the original silicon lasts longer than the replacements, whether they be FPGA minimigs or pi emulation boxes.

    1. Very plausible, but then production quality and part inspection and binning has also improved so that the functional but shoddy gate that will fail early is going to occur less often in modern hardware.

      I think I still agree with you short over overheating protections being lacking the older silicon still aught to last longer, but that one likely would take some serious study – The massive glut of working older CPU’s compared to compatible motherboards suggests a lifespan on newer silicon processes that is still in the several decades, and the original stuff still has its 3 (or more) decades headstart…

  10. A pi can emulate everything. That can even be fun. I have one as a game console that plays everything up to ps1.
    But retrocomputing is a different thing. When it comes to that i think adding modern parts is not an option.
    I always try achieve a museum quality. Working, as new and without modifications.

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