Few people have heard of it, yet many consider John Blankenbaker's KENBAK-1 to be the first commercial personal computer.

Koss introduced these headphones over 40 years ago, and they remain affordable favorites to this day.

The Retro Thing 'Top Ten Retrocomputers List'


Here's a list of some old-school micros that you can still get your hands on today. Some are original hardware that has been hiding in the back of a warehouse for 20 years, while other machines are modernized recreations of vintage hardware and software. Either way, they offer the vintage experience without having to scour swap meets and classified ads.

And before you start mumbling about the lack of a few classics, remember that the list only features machines that you can actually buy today. You won't find any Atari 800s or TI 99/4A's here because no one makes replicas or sells them brand new. And so, without any further rambling, here's my "top ten" retrocomputer list:

Sinclairzx81 10. Sinclair ZX81: The world's most popular hundred dollar computer, introduced in early 1981. Other manufacturers scrambled to compete with the low-cost Sinclair lineup, mistakenly believing that the low-end market was key to dominating the home computing industry. These machines were cheap for a reason: The keyboard was printed on a large flat membrane, much like you'd see on a microwave oven. They had 1K of program memory and displayed B&W text on a TV set. Only crude character-based graphics, no sound. Zebra Systems in New York still has a few original ZX81 kits for the original $99.95 price. They have thermal tape printers for $30, too. I'm not sure how many they have left in stock, but this is a great opportunity to build a seriously Retro piece of computing history.

Elf 9. RCA Cosmac Elf 2000: This is the first of two machines from Spare Time Gizmos to make the list. The original Cosmac Elf appeared on the front cover of the August 1976 issue of Popular Electronics. It was a complete computer based on the RCA 1802 CPU and cost under $100 to build from a bare board. Another $20 would get you a B&W video display. Outstanding value, and these things lingered in the classified section of magazines like BYTE throughout the early 1980s. STG has recreated the machine, and even offers discrete logic replacements for some parts that might be hard to find. The price for a partial kit is around $100, but be warned that you'll have to key in programs using 12 switches on the front panel.

Mark-8 kit 8. Obtronics Mark-8: [no longer available] The Mark-8 is billed as "the first hobbyist computer." It was originally offered in kit form, appearing on the front cover of Radio Electronics in July, 1974. The machine was based on Intel's early 8008 microprocessor and caused quite a stir in the hobbyist world. A fellow by the name of Steve Gabaly sells new kits occasionally on eBay; you'll have to keep your eyes open if you want to get your hands on one.

Briel 7. Briel Replica I (Apple I recreation): The Replica 1 is a modernized version of the original Apple I computer from 1976. $159 gets you an assembled board, although you'll have to add a power supply, serial I/O, a keyboard and composite monitor to create a working system. The original Apple I circuit board was redesigned to eliminate discontinued ICs, but I think it's fully compatible with the original (which Jobs & Wozniak announced on April 1, 1976 for the oddball price of $666!).

Pdp8faceplate 6. SBC 6120 (Digital PDP-8 Replica): [no longer available] Another Spare Time Gizmos machine, and this one's a beauty. The secret to this machine is that it's based on the Harris HD-6120 PDP-8 on a chip, the same device that appeared in Digital's DECmate series of small computers.  That means it's full PDP-8 compatible and incredibly compact. A full kit will cost $350, plus another $430 for the gorgeous front panel. Now all you have to do is find old software on paper tape!

Cone 5. C-One Reconfigurable Computer: The C-One is a unique machine designed around FPGA's (field programmable gate arrays). This enables the machine to emulate classic hardware using physical simulations of the original systems. It's actually the precursor to the C-64 DTV mentioned later in this list, and the first custom 'core' created on it was an emulation of the Commodore 64. Cores are being developed to emulate the VIC-20, TI 99/4A, Sinclair Spectrum, Atari 400/800 series, and others. The main board costs 269 euros, plus you'll have to add an ATX case, keyboard, drives, and an SVGA-compatible monitor.

Newt 4. Apple Newton MessagePad: The Apple Newton was one of the first mainstream PDAs (Personal Digital Assistant). The cult popularity of the Newton means that there are scores of websites and used equipment dealers who can supply you with like-new hardware and software for these old machines. Sure, they're kinda bulky and offer only monochrome displays, but some people swear by them for everyday organizing and note taking.

Z88pic 3. Cambridge Z88: The Z88 is a sleek notebook computer that was introduced by Clive Sinclair in 1987 and promptly forgotten.  It runs on four AA batteries and features 32KB of memory (upgradable).  The display is a 640 x 64 monochrome LCD capable of three shades of gray.  A decent productivity suite was included, too. Rakewell Limited still offers the Z88 and numerous accessories online. Prices start at a mere £80, so this might be a perfect solution for someone needing a cheap writing machine with a full-size keyboard. In fact, I have one in my office.

Dtv 2. Commodore 64 DTV: This tiny 30-in-1 joystick contains a brilliant battery-powered single chip recreation of the old Commodore 64, miniaturized onto a single VLSI chip (it's the creation of Jerri Ellsworth, who also designed the more versatile C-One). You can even attach a PC-compatible keyboard and Commodore 64 1541 disk drive -- as long as you're not afraid of a little DIY tinkering. See? Sometimes those cheapo games you find at toy stores are a little more clever than you'd imagine!

1. IMSAI Series II: The IMSAI Series Two is a hybrid; it can function as a vintage S-100 computer running the archaic CP/M operating system, but there's room for a modern Windows & Linux compatible motherboard as well. In essence, you're buying the ultimate retro case mod. If you're a true ubergeek, a USB port can be used to interface the vintage system with an external PC. The machines are made by the original Fischer-Freitas Company, formed by a couple of IMSAI employees who bought the rights to the system in the late 1970s. The IMSAI Series Two starts at $995 and includes a cabinet, power supply, S-100 motherboard, and a USB-enabled front panel with blinky lights and flippy switches.



And there you have it. Some fantastic machines that bring the past within reach. I admit that I probably wouldn't have the spare time to tinker with many of these machines, although I do own a fully functional Cambridge Z88 notepad computer that makes a fantastic writing and programming device, even though it's almost 20 years old. Long live old technology!


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