|Digital Retro: The Evolution and Design of the Personal Computer|
|summary||Eye-candy mixed with a good dose of history, perfect for the library of a modern techno fetishist.|
Digital Retro is about personal-use (though not necessarily home-use) machines: there are no PDP11's or mainframes represented, nor devices like the DECWriter, which gave computer access to individuals but required a mainframe or minicomputer in the background. The book covers hardware that was sold at retail (barring the Altair and a few other mail-order-only kit machines), at prices householders could afford for their hobby use, including gaming, or that businesses could afford for their executives and other knowledge workers. All the same, the prices are sure to make you calculate every so often things like how many BogoMIPS could be had today for the $3,250 that a 613KHz HP-85 cost in 1980 -- and those are 1980 dollars. Early adoption has its risks as well as its rewards.
From iconic to obscure
Too many computer makers (and even more computers) came and went in the decade-plus spanned by this book for it to cover all of them; Laing's list of chosen machines is representative rather than comprehensive. More than 30 of the machines came from the The Museum of Computing in Swindon, and despite their age most look like they just popped out of their delivery boxes.
Digital Retro's central section starts out with a MITS Altair, the machine generally considered the first computer practical for a hobbyist to buy. (And the buyer had to be a dedicated hobbyist; the Altair was sold in kit form for home-assembly, and its display was a series of winking lights, its input facilities a row of toggle switches.) "Practical" in the case of the Altair meant affordable and accessible -- there wasn't much of a practical nature for the solder-weary user to actually do with an Altair once it was assembled; the chicken and the egg of availability and usefulness were still fighting it out at this point in computer history. The Altair also has another interesting spot in personal computer history: it provided the first platform for an operating system from Bill Gates and Paul Allen.
(There's an Apple I in homemade wooden raiment snuck into the book's introduction -- an Apple I proved too difficult to find for a full writeup and photoshoot, however, and no Apple II clones made the cut.)
From the Altair to the NeXT cube which caps off the Digital Retro's collection, the 38 machines (and in some cases machine families, such as the MSX computers mentioned below) are presented in order of appearance. The book presents too many interesting machines to give each a proper summary, but here are a few to whet your appetite:
- The Sharp MZ-80K (December, 1978) -- with its 10" screen and built-in drive (tape drive, though -- the 3.5" diskette wasn't invented yet), the MZ-80K seems ahead of its time; the choice of a Zilog Z80 processor didn't do much for its longevity as a business system, though; Z80 systems were soon eclipsed by other choices.
- The GCE/MB Vectrex (June, 1982) -- the only video game system I really wanted as a kid, and one of the seeming few I've never encountered used in thrift stores. Bright vector graphics, built-in screen and a quality joystick gave it the same kind of appeal that the arcade-console versions of Asteroids and Battlezone had for me.
- The Jupiter ACE (September, 1982) -- an impossibly simply looking machine, a terraced slab of white plastic with a minimalist typewriter layout (just 40 grey keys). The ACE was aimed at programmer-hobbyists, though, like the similar-looking Sinclair ZX-80, but the ACE ran a version of FORTH and had raised keys rather than the Sinclair's flat membrane.
- The Sinclair QL (January, 1984) -- one of which, Laing notes, was Linus Torvalds' machine (between a VIC-20 and the 386 with which Torvalds started a quaint Unix-like operating system).
Game consoles are also well represented; six dedicated game machines, starting with the Atari VCS (1977) are included; a whole book could be devoted to consoles, but the ones chosen for Digital Retro (besides Atari and the Vectrex mentioned above, the others come from Colleco, Mattel, Nintendo, Sega) are an eclectic bunch, and a good use of space.
Because Laing is based in the UK, the book features quite a few machines that most Americans have probably never encountered in person, like the Acorn Atom, the Dragon 32 (a Welsh-made near-clone of the Tandy TRS-80) and the Grundy NewBrain. If this book had been an American production, many of these UK-made machines might have gone overlooked.
No incentive to work together
In the wilder days of the personal computer's adolescence, the quest for compatibility and standardization among machines was anything but a top priority -- and when it was a factor at all, it was usually about software compatibility between sibling computers (like the TI 99/4 and its 99/4A successor) or at most within a single model line.
As the book's back cover points out, "Compatibility? Forget it! Each of these computers was its own machine and had no intention of talking to anything else." An overstatement, but not much of one.
Laing covers an intriguing exception to this one-off philosophy, a multi-manufacturer line of machines that appeared in 1983 (starting a 5-year run), sharing a Zilog processor and adherence to an early Microsoft attempt at standardization called MSX. Mostly-compatible machines were launched by JVC, Hitachi, Sony (a name that didn't pop up in the American computer market for quite a few more years) and 18 other Japanese manufacturers as well as SpectraVideo, the only non-Japanese maker. Each manufacturer tweaked their entries in the line to distinguish themselves, adding features like (in Pioneer's case) control of laser-disc players. The differences soon rendered the attempt at standardization moot, and the MSX standard fell from grace. And if you're wondering what MSX stands for, you'll have to choose from the three possibilities listed: I prefer "Matsushita Sony X, where X could stand for any other company."
Get a good lookThe photographs dominate; they give external views of each machine from several angles, over two two-page spreads apiece. (The pictures are well-chosen, but not exhaustive: there are no shots from the underside, and in only a few cases are internals exposed. Don't expect to replicate the innards of an Altair from the photographs.) You can make out what sort of ports each device provided, see what kind of display it used in most cases, and look at the included input peripherals. (Many of these machines, though, were hooked to televisions, and only the main unit and its input devices are pictured.)
Speaking of peripherals, one of the nice things about a photo book like this is for the mugshots it provides of unique physical arrangements tried by computer manufacturers: the integrated tape drive of the black-clad Amstrad CPC-464 (which sits to the right of the keyboard) makes it one of the most interesting to me; it sure is a lot neater arrangement than the cassette drive linked messily to the family C64 in the early '80s.
Besides the photographs, though, the spreads devoted to each computer provide a compact history of the machine, list its country of origin, and give a rundown of the most important specs (processor type and available I/O ports).
Digital Retro is a coffee-table book which happens to have quite a bit of interesting history, not a deep historical text. For each machine displayed, though, a chunk of text titled "What happened next" gives an idea of what developments each one led to (or prevented); some of these are only a paragraph or two, others are mini-essays in themselves. If you crave more technical and historical details, Laing's book makes an excellent companion volume to narrative-centric books which cover the same period of computer history though, like Fire in the Valley and Steven Levy's Hackers. It's a perfect way to appreciate the aesthetic appeal (and exuberant variety) of personal computers from the mid '70s to the late '80s.
You can purchase Digital Retro from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews. To see your own review here, carefully read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.