Reboot for the retro PC relics

BY DAN KAUFMAN
Last updated 05:00 30/07/2009

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A running gag during the first season of Flight of the Conchords, the cult television comedy about New Zealand musicians living in New York, is that their incompetent Kiwi manager uses an old Commodore 64 as his office computer and considers it state of the art.

Yet even though this home computer was created in 1982, runs more than 1000 times slower than a current PC and can display only 16 colours, some people are still using it to perform modern tasks.

Belgian engineer Johan Van den Brande recently created a Twitter client for the Commodore, called Breadbox 64, which lets C64 users tweet messages and see their friends' timeline (it can be downloaded free at www.vandenbrande.com). Van den Brande says the attraction of tinkering with old computers is that their simplicity allows programmers to understand every facet of how they work.

"Nowadays, a computer system is so complex and there are so many layers between the user and the hardware that you can never know everything," he says.

Store manager Shane Wood uses his Commodore 64 as a web server (you can link to it from his main site, c64web.com) and says that one advantage is that it's more secure from hackers than any other platform.

"Viruses and trojans are non-existent in our world," Wood says. "Hacking is impossible: you just can't write to the drive remotely and change the HTML. How many websites wish they could claim that?"

Not to be outdone, Apple enthusiast Simon Williams turned his Apple IIe into a web server as well after finding out about Wood's Commodore.

"The good old platform wars ... it simply wouldn't do to let those guys (Commodore users) have all the glory," he says, adding that the Apple IIe is slow but surprisingly stable.

"The computer is as bare bones as possible - just the Ethernet card and a single 5.25-inch floppy drive, which gives me a whopping 140KB of online storage to play with.

I would imagine that adding an accelerator card and a decent mass-storage device (such as a hard drive) would really improve performance but to be honest, I get a kick out of running the absolute bare-minimum configuration. It runs 24-seven and only occasionally needs rebooting - maybe once in 60 days or so."

Because their computers were created more than a decade before most people had even heard of the internet, both Wood and Williams have to use specially made network cards and Contiki, an open-source operating system designed to allow simple devices such as surveillance sensors to connect online (Contiki has since been ported to platforms such as Game Boy, Nintendo Entertainment System and VIC-20, as well as Commodore 64 and Apple II).

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In fact, a whole community has sprung up creating devices that help old computers interact with the modern world.

Anthony Westbrook, for example, created a hardware interface that allows any PlayStation controller to work on the Commodore, Amiga, Atari 2600 and Sega Master System. This allowed him to then program a version of Guitar Hero called Shredz64, which can be played with the PlayStation's guitar controller.

"I like having retro computers performing modern-day tasks to prove that they can - that they're still useful," Westbrook says.

"People automatically think a computer is useless if it's old but I don't believe that's the case. Those old machines just have more style, personality and soul than any new PC or Mac. It's great to see them still rising to the challenge."

The Shredz64 game can be downloaded free from toniwestbrook.com/shredz64 and the interface is available for sale.

Another advantage of old computers is that they boot up almost instantly, which inspired Paul Qureshi to turn his Amiga into an MP3 car stereo system.

"It did work perfectly - no skipping or jumping," Qureshi says. "From turning the key to the start of playback is a little under eight seconds, faster than many CD changers."

Unfortunately for Qureshi, however, it was stolen when someone broke into his car.

A lot of people use the beeps and tones of vintage computers to create music (which is sometimes referred to as Bitpop). Taking this further - much further - Canadian James Cochrane used the hardware sounds of an operational scanner, floppy drive and old Atari and Texas Instruments computers to recreate Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, which you can see demonstrated in a video clip at bit.ly/ncc6w.

Musicians are particularly fond of using Game Boys to create music. For example, you can buy Nanoloop, a cartridge that turns a Game Boy into a synthesiser and sequencer, inspiring guitarist Joey Mariano to then modify his Game Boy by attaching multiple foot pedals to activate different loops while playing (see bit.ly/8pksS).

An alternative to actually using a vintage computer is to emulate it on a modern PC or Mac. Emulators for most 1970s and '80s computers have been available for years but a new development is that they're now being made for Symbian mobile phones and can so far emulate the Commodore 64, Amiga and Game Boy.

Considering how addictive and playable the old games were, it (almost) makes sense to port them to mobiles that don't have the highly developed graphics and power of modern desktops - especially as you can use a mobile's tilt motion sensors as a joystick.

Then again, if you do own an old computer but can do without the software experience, you can always junk the insides and turn the computer into an aquarium. This is most often done on old Macs, leading to the term MacQuarium. See bit.ly/aKdm0 to learn how to make your own.

 

 

- Sydney Morning Herald

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