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Last month, OnlySP produced a guide to help those who are thinking of getting into collecting retro video game consoles. As a follow up, here is a guide on getting started with collecting other types of retro hardware: the microcomputer.

A Matter of Terminology

The terms thrown around by collectors and fans of retro technology can be confusing, so here is a bit of a breakdown: A games console is defined as a device that can only play video games. A Microcomputer, also known as a home computer, can perform other functions such as word processing, spreadsheets, or writing computer programs. In the world of retro technology, what most people would consider a ‘PC’ (as in, capable of running MS-DOS or Windows) is usually referred to as an ‘IBM Compatible’ to differentiate those types of devices from what will be listed here.

Microcomputer

Different Challenges

One of the first things that potential collectors need to be aware of is that a microcomputer, on the whole, is more fragile than consoles. As such, readers best be aware of the common problems when they pick a device to shop for. Also a good idea is to become comfortable and familiar with how to use a soldering iron and multimeter for if (and when) the machine develops a fault. For capacitors on old hardware to need replacing is pretty common, so the ability to do this is a big bonus.

Microcomputer Hardware

Once again, when selecting what hardware to buy, websites such as Price Charting offer valuable insight into what is reasonable to pay. If you are confident in repairing electronics, scouring eBay listings for ‘spares and repairs’ can result in great bargains, or at least spare parts to repair a primary machine. Regional variations are also worth remembering, as machines such as the ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro are common in the United Kingdom, but not in the United States.

Microcomputer

Tandy Color Computer

For many Americans, the microcomputer affectionately dubbed the ‘CoCo’ by fans will have been the first computer in the home. Not to be confused with the earlier TRS-80 model of microcomputer, the various models of Tandy Color Computer have a high level of cross-compatibility, which will be reassuring to those diving into the collecting arena for the first time.

An unboxed Tandy CoCo goes for between USD $70-100 in the US. They are considerably rarer in the UK and Europe, though, so collectors in that region will need to be prepared to pay a premium.

Things to Watch Out For: The main Video RAM chip has been known to fail fairly regularly and fill the screen with garbage characters; make sure you see it displaying something on screen before purchase.

Good Games To Get Started: Arkanoid, King’s Quest, Zaxxon

Microcomputer

Commodore 64

The Commodore 64 is listed in the book of Guinness World Records as the highest-selling single computer model of all time, with up to 17 million units being sold over its lifetime. The computer’s massive popularity ensured it has a firm place in the hearts of many, and as such, despite the number of units sold, the Commodore 64 is actually at the high end of the pricing list. Working unboxed examples go for over USD $110/GBP £95, while a boxed example can cost over USD $150/GBP £125.

On the plus side, such a huge fanbase means that a considerable knowledge base exists for those getting to grips with owning a Commodore 64. A bewildering array of upgrades and modern modifications are available to make life with a C64 a bit easier.

Things to Watch Out For: The biggest problems C64 tends to run into is ‘black screen on power up’. This is usually caused by faulty PLA chips, damaged by heat stress. An unresponsive keyboard is another common issue, but this can often be resolved by disassembling and cleaning with isopropyl alcohol.

Good Games To Get Started: Bubble Bobble, Turrican, Ultima IV: The Quest of the Avatar

ZX Spectrum

The aim of Clive Sinclair when creating the ZX Spectrum was to bring computing and coding to every household in the UK. He arguably succeeded, as the inexpensive ZX Spectrum single-handedly birthed an entire generation of ‘bedroom coders’ and many have hailed it as launching the UK games industry.

The ZX Spectrum is still relatively affordable today, with unboxed examples being sold for as little as £60. Those who remember the ‘Speccy’ fondly might also be interested in checking out the Spectrum Next project, a crowdfunded successor to the ZX Spectrum which is basically the old machine with a lot of modern conveniences.

Things To Watch Out For: On the original ZX Spectrum, the keyboard membrane wears out fairly quickly, becoming sticky and unusable. Luckily, replacements are easy to get hold of.

Good Games To Get Started: Elite, Manic Miner, Rainbow Islands, R-Type

Amstrad CPC

Though the Amstrad CPC was never as successful as the Commodore 64 or ZX Spectrum, it still did fairly well across Europe. The CPC also has an advantage compared to its rivals in that the tape deck was integrated into the main unit, instead of being separate (and more easily lost or damaged) peripherals. The system came with its own dedicated monitor, though finding a complete package with the monitor can now be somewhat tricky.

A full package, including the monitor is likely to cost upwards of GBP £150, while the keyboard/tape deck unit by itself can be as little as GBP £50.

Things To Watch Out For: The power switch can often be faulty, usually due to a dry solder joint. A reflow with a soldering iron can often fix this issue.

Good Games To Get Started: Fantasy World Dizzy, Get Dexter, Prince of Persia


If you would like further articles on retro gaming and computing, or if you have anything to tell us about the topic, be sure to comment below, or give OnlySP a follow on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, or join the discussion in the community Discord server.

Rebecca Hills-Duty
Rebecca Hills-Duty lives in the UK and has worked as a video game and technology writer since early 2017, utilising her background in technology and computing. She has been a gamer and console collector since the days of the Commodore 64, and often acts as the resident expert in VR. She also hosts a weekly gaming related radio show on RadioSEGA.

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