Buying a retro computer or console

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The retro gaming and computing scene is becoming increasingly popular, don't get caught out!

The recent popularity in vintage computers and gaming is not just by people who want to relive their youth, there are many younger people are developing interests in the origins of computing and old school games, and many computing qualifications cover an amount of older types of computer language and coding, as there is plenty of modern equipment that is being made with 1970's and 1980's processors, the Zilog Z80 being one of them.
By and large most older systems are simple to operate, set up and can be stored easily when not in use.
Added at the bottom of this guide are a few tips on what to look for on a vintage system, software, and using one today.
A nice, original, boxed Acorn Electron bundle
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A nice, original, boxed Acorn Electron bundle

Which one do I choose?

If you had a particular home computer or console years ago, this would be a good start. You may still have your Sinclair ZX Spectrum or Atari 2600 knocking about in the attic - test it out! If you want to try a different machine, I would try an emulator first. Most common vintage systems are well catered for on the retro gaming scene in terms of online community, emulators, software (both original media and backups) and peripheral equipment. For some of the lesser known machines, such as the EACA Colour Genie and ORIC-1, you may need to do a little research to see what is available and how they compare to something a little better known.

What to look for

More important than external or cosmetic condition is whether it works or not. Always ask the seller if you can see it working, either by asking to come round and see it, or ask for a video of him/her setting it up and running something.

Be wary of:
  • "Working when put into storage xx years ago"
  • "No power supply but should work"
  • "Easy to fix" (unless you want a project)
  • Seller won't let you see it working
This might mean what is being sold is broken and you are taking a gamble. If it does turn out to be a lemon, have you access to any spare parts and testing equipment for IC's?

Cosmetic condition is certainly important if you want a museum piece, or you are a serious collector. Just bear in mind you're more likely to come across something with a little wear and tear than an absolute minter, thankfully many 80's machines were designed for family use (i.e. kids!) and made out of quite sturdy plastic as a result, meaning they resist major damage. If a computer case has discoloured, look into the Retr0Bright project to restore things.

I would avoid buying something from the former Soviet Union, China and many Eastern Bloc countries. US, UK, Western Europe and Japanese computers weren't sold there, so you may actually be bidding on a native clone, or a false listing. Some systems, such as the Commodore C16 were not well received in the US, UK and mainland Europe, so Commodore sent all the unsold stock to Hungary, where it became popular, so try and do a little research into where the machine sold well.

How much should I pay?

Don't get into a bidding war, especially for an untested system. The average ZX Spectrum 48k and Commodore 64, unboxed but working sell for around £40-50* in the UK plus any shipping fees. Adding peripherals, software and the original box will naturally boost the price. A refurbished system that has been thoroughly cleaned, tested and fragile/failed components replaced will be much higher, at least £100, but ensure that "seller refurbished" isn't unscrupulous talk for wiped over with a duster.
Console prices also vary depending on what is included, but make sure you get at least one controller and one game.

*based on a search of sold eBay listings for ZX Spectrum 48k and Commodore 64, unboxed with only power supply included, November 2016.

Software and games vary wildly in price. Cartridges may only need the contacts cleaning to make them work, but tapes and discs are now getting fragile and can suffer with data rot, so it's even more important to get something tested. Working examples of any software medium will range from 50p to over £50 for a rare example.
This device connects a Commodore 64 to an IDE/PATA hard drive, or Compact Flash adapter.
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This device connects a Commodore 64 to an IDE/PATA hard drive, or Compact Flash adapter.

Using one today

For older computers and consoles which only output to an RF tuning frequency, hooking it up to a modern TV will be the biggest challenge. Some new TV's don't accept the analogue signal any more, and ones that do will often not find the weak signal given out by some of these vintage machines. You could by a portable CRT tv to use it, or future-proof the system with a video out modification, enabling you to use the easily found yellow, red & white RCA inputs most TV's still have.
There are also many suppliers who make bespoke leads to connect your vintage system to SCART, S-Video, VGA, DVI and even HDMI, so a little investment in a quality lead will help you here.

As mentioned above, the magnetic tape and disc storage media are starting to get "data rot". Basically, the magnetic signal stored on the tape/disc is losing its magnetism, and makes it harder for the computer to read it. Thankfully there are many solutions out there, once again costing a little investment, to store your software on CF and SD cards, hard drives, CD's and even MP3 players. Thankfully, unless the internal circuitry of a rom cartridge gets damaged, they are still viable today, but making a backup is much harder for the home user.

Is it worth my investment

At the time of writing, I would say a tentative yes, as it would seem that the prices for some vintage systems are continually increasing, though others have plateaued. Some very rare systems, such as the Jupiter ACE, will command a higher price because of their shorter production run.

Important notice to US buyers. Vintage video games and consoles in general the UK aren't as plentiful as in the USA, and this is reflected in our prices. US prices tend to be at least 1/3 lower.
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