Microcomputers of the Modern Age

In the mid to late 1970s many companies around the world, such as Apple, Commodore, Atari, Sinclair, and Acorn, began producing computers for use in homes by the general public. Some of the most popular examples would be the Commodore64, the BBC Micro, and the ZX Spectrum. Almost all of these devices presented the user with a text interface that allowed the user to control the machine with a set of simple DOS-like commands as well as some form of the BASIC programming language. Collectively these devices are what is most often meant when people refer to “Microcomputers”.

Here in the year 2020 however, one could soundly argue that our smartphones are the microcomputers of our time, given their diminutive size and their computing prowess. However, in my mind there are two major problems with smartphones being considered in this way,

  1. The human interface devices are all wrong – a touch screen is a whole other paradigm than the “keyboard with a monitor/tv at a desk/couch” setup.
  2. Cost. Except for the cheapest and most limited options, smartphones are considerably more expensive than the microcomputers of yore.

To me, this Lenovo Ideapad 100e (Gen1) that I am typing on and similar laptops with 11.6″ screens, are what I consider to be the microcomputers of the modern age, because their properties are very much in the spirit of those old home computers. They’re small self contained units that are affordable and extremely capable for their price point and design. In fact, be they in either their Chromebook or Windows 10 formats, these 11.6″ laptop computers are a way better value than any of the original microcomputers, even after the heavy discounts those machines saw by the mid 1980s. And all the while, these modern machines are capable of much more in terms of productivity, entertainment, and connectivity.

Consider the following table detailing the important components that are included with the purchase,

Model Name Keyboard Pointer Screen Sound Storage Operating System Price
Ideapad 100e Yes Trackpad Yes Speakers 128GB Inteneral, MicroSD & USB Windows 10 Pro $270 CAD
Commodore64 Yes No No No None Included MS BASIC 2.0 $350-$150 USD
BBC Micro Yes No No No None Included BBC BASIC $235 GPB
ZX Spectrum Yes No No No None Included Sinclair BASIC $125 GPB
Tandy 1000EX PC Yes No No Speaker 5.25″ Floppy Drive MS DOS 2.1 $1000 USD
Amiga 500 Yes Mouse No Speaker 3.5″ Floppy Drive AmigaOS 1.2 $600 USD

Not even considering currency conversions or inflation, it’s immediately obvious that the 100e is the best deal given that it comes with all of the components one needs to use the device while also being very inexpensive. Even the Tandy 1000EX and Amiga 500, which were some of the most affordable and capable computers of the late 1980s, can’t even come close to the value of the Lenovo 100e, because they are far more expensive while also lacking several important components, such as…

  • A screen!
  • Internal data storage.
  • A battery (that lasts for 10+ hours).
  • A modem or network interface device.

The same is true for all of the affordable 11.6″ style Chromebooks and Windows 10 computers, though I would argue that the Windows 10 devices are a better deal, because they can do everything that a Chromebook can do while also allowing the user to easily run any x86 based software.

Tangent: Having used an x86 based Chromebook for a few years, I can confidently say that’s way more of a pain in the ass to use Linux on it than it is to use Linux, FreeDOS, or Windows on my similarly spec’d 100e that came with Win10Pro. Truthfully, my HP Chromebook 14 was $100 more expensive than my Lenovo 100e, despite the Chromebook having half the RAM, half the amount CPUs, 8 times less storage, and no Windows license. I suppose the HP 14 did have a 14″ screen, but our 11.6″ HP Chromebook is similarly inferior to the Lenovo 100e (it has 4GB RAM rather 2GB like the 14″ Chromebook). If you want to install a full Linux ditribution, run Windows software, or use software emulators or virtual machines, buy a Windows computers rather than a Chromebook. At least that way you can easily use whatever you’d like, including a legit copy of Windows, without having to do anything weird to the machine, such as installing a third party BIOS or opening the chassis to remove a “restraining bolt“. That said, Chromebooks running only ChromeOS are excellent computers just as they are, especially for students and folks who do most of their computing in a web browser anyway.

Given that it’s possible to run pretty much all the old software from the original microcomputers (and DOS/Windows 3.1/95/98 and game consoles!) by way emulators, one can sit down at one these 11.6″ style laptops and feel like they’re using an old computer from times gone by. And my personal favorite part is that we’re able to do so with the seamless integration of battery backup – its awesome to use a computer all day without having to plug it in and it’s even more awesome that the computer is completely silent while doing so!

Having sung those praises, I will happily admit there are also some downsides to the laptop form factor when it comes to the nostalgia of ergonomics and visual appeal. For instance, despite the chassis of my Lenovo 100e sporting the same black plastic of a ZX Spetrum or Commodore Plus/4 microcomputer, its design language is positively boring by comparison. I mean, that’s OK, because I actually really like this chassis (though I do prefer the Gen2 design, but I couldn’t find a Windows version available in Canada…), but it’s definitely obvious that the older computers had way more style. And of course, poking away at this “chiclet” keyboard is not the same as squishing a Specy’s rubber keys or placking an IBM’s bucking springs, nor does staring at this 16:9 ratio LCD screen bring about the nostalgic musings that can only be delivered by photons fired into one’s eyes from the phosphoric end of a cathode ray tube. However, it is possible to turn this modern machine into a retro inspired “micro” by attaching a custom mechanical keyboard (a new Unicomp Model M) and using a powered HDMI to SVGA adapter (with 3.5mm headphone jack) to connect one’s preferred CRT monitor. Heck, a crazy person might even hook up an old TV with a composite adapter while using a VIC20 + Keyrah as keyboard for the full effect of 1980s computing. Anyway, what I am truly saying here is that you have plenty of options to mitigate the downsides of the machine, while still benefiting from all the positives it has to offer.

What I find totally crazy though is that these small, inexpensive Chromebooks and Windows laptops are “low-end computers” that many people probably feel are junk. Yet with the exception of playing modern 3D games and using photo or video editing software for large projects, that assertion couldn’t be farther from the truth. The plain truth of the matter is that my 11.6″ screened, battery powered, portable machine with its 6W CPU and total lack of moving parts, has better computing performance than my desktop PC from 2008 with its 95W CPU, 450W power supply, and its assload of noisy fans. It was also five times cheaper. And really, for day to day tasks, such as browsing the web, watching videos, and doing office type work, this level of computing performance is perfectly acceptable – I am never annoyed by the performance of my Chromebooks nor this 100e running Win10 Pro.

So here is my microcomputer of the modern age,

I think it’s pretty damned cool! Can it play Crysis? No, but it can play Star Wars Galaxies and thousands of other games! Personally, I am enjoying puttering with QBasic and playing Stardew Valley anywhere I happen to feel like flopping my arse down. 🙂