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Digital Retro - Personal Computer History

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Like myself, Gordon Laing is a former Editor of Personal Computer World magazine. Also like myself, Gordon has owned, used, borrowed or reviewed just about every personal computer to hit the shores of the UK, and a few that didn’t. Needless to say, Gordon knows his stuff when it comes to the history of personal computing, and I’m pretty sure that Digital Retro was as much a labour of love as it was a commercial venture for him.

Before I get onto content, let me say that this is a beautifully designed book, and it wouldn’t look out of place on even the most style conscious technophobe’s coffee table. Even my wife had a flick through the pages and said that she really liked it. That said, having lived with me for all these years, she’s probably not completely indicative of her gender - this is where I get a barrage of email from indignant female techno-junkies! Hey, it might be a cliché, but it does tend to be boys that obsess about computers and gadgets more than girls.

Anyway, as I was saying, the book is beautifully designed, with a huge selection of illustrations for each hardware landmark. The layout of the information is also very clear and well structured. The text is broken up into categories – there’s an introduction to the hardware, a rundown of the company history and the technical specifications. Gordon then throws in a “What happened next” section that explains how the product developed through its lifetime. Finally, there’s a “Did you know?” section where Gordon recounts interesting snippets of information surrounding the device.
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Digital Retro covers the period from 1975 through to 1988, but some of my favourite hardware is conspicuous by its absence, like the NEC PC Engine. This was a groundbreaking machine that launched in 1987, although it never saw a European release and I had to import mine direct from Japan. It was the size of a couple of CD cases and knocked the competing products from Nintendo and Sega into a cocked hat, but I digress. Gordon's story starts with the MITS Altair 8800, a machine that cost almost $500 pre-built in 1975, and runs all the way through to the NeXT Cube which sold for a not insignificant $6,500 in 1988.

Flicking through the pages you’ll find some instantly recognisable boxes like the Apple II, the Atari VCS and the Sinclair ZX-81. But it’s the more obscure hardware that puts a smile on the face of those that are geeky enough to recognise it. Take the Oric-1 for example, a machine that most modern computer users will never have heard of, but I can still remember wandering into WH Smith, setting up a loop using the “Zap” sound effect and watching the sales staff trying to figure out how to make it stop.

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