It shouldn't ever surprise you that technology depreciates almost as quickly as a car. It's not as bad today as it used to be, but any computer, laptop or console you buy will gradually decrease in value until it's worth a few quid or simply gets consigned to landfill.
Why? New models come out, technology improves, standards change and equipment simply becomes obsolete - it can no longer perform the tasks we ask of our equipment and has no place in a modern home, office or school. Hence, 5-6 years after a purchase, most technology ends up in the bin or on its way to China or India where some poor worker will contract cancer from recycling (or just burning) our e-waste.
Only, something surprising is happening and it is making me wish I'd never thrown my old computers away...
I was fortunate enough to grow up in what is now viewed a golden age of computing. The micro computer revolution had happened and Bill Gates had just made his famous prediction that "in the future I can imagine a PC being in every home." Everyone thought he was clearly a bread based good short of a blanket seated dining experience. Why would you want a computer, what would you even use it for?? Now look around you - smart watch, smartphone, tv set top box, smart TV, games console, laptops... all computers, all seen as throw away devices.
In 1979 a revolution began, fueled by three companies - Commodore, Acorn and Sinclair. Unfortunately, if you read many accounts of computing history, you'll read that Apple were the catalyst at this point and its simply not true - Apple were on their knees with terrible products, high prices and non existent sales. Indeed, it was Commodore engineers that helped Steve Wozniak fix his broken Apple II design and the sheer stupidity of Commodore executives when they ignored the offer of exclusivity when VisiCalc came along (arguably the most important software release of all time) which meant Apple survived to live another day. If Commodore had taken on VisiCalc, I'd be confident to suggest Apple would simply have gone out of business or been taken over.
Anyway, this was a time of the home computer - the micro computer. For the first time ever computers were no longer the domain of large business, banks, governments and universities. Anyone could go out and spend £300-700 and bring home a computer which didn't fill a room and require a new power line to be run to their house.
Weirdly, when products like the Apple I and Commodore PET were introduced people literally didn't have a clue what to do with them. They were seen as novelty items for geeks and electronics enthusiasts. There were no killer applications at the time for home use and so they sold in relatively low numbers to home users. This is the same position the smart watch market finds itself in now - a select few buy them, some buy them for fashion reasons, but no one can say they are an essential item to own, unlike a mobile phone for example.
Rapidly, though, a few things happened. The price of these devices began to fall, faster and more capable chips were developed and an ever growing group of developers began to make useful software and entertaining games. It wouldn't be too far fetched to suggest that games developers were largely responsible for the rise of computing in the home. It was an absolutely fascinating time, no one had ever made a computer make noise, let alone music before. Nor were graphics really understood, and you could count on one hand the number of chips that had been designed that could output a decent image to the screen (again, Commodore/MOS engineers had led the way for years in this field). Imagine living at a time where computers may as well have not existed and then suddenly, in the space of about 5 years, these devices started to appear that allowed you to automate tasks, help you in your job and, given an imagination and some programming skill, enabled people to make worlds of their own in software. It was incredible.
A generation had learned to code and interact with machines what were quite frankly under powered, difficult to use and very fickle. You'd have everything saved to cassette tape or 5 1/4 inch floppy disc if you were rich (or a school/business) and one slight blip in the power supply or you sneezed at the wrong time and they'd crash all over the place and you'd lose everything you did. Hard drives were the stuff of imagination and dreams.
Then came the next wave - IBM PC's and games consoles. Yes, Atari had made some awful consoles in the 1970's and 1980's but now came the time of Nintendo and Sega with a wave of innovation and creativity that was quite simply staggering, and nothing would ever be the same again.
In the late 1980's and early 1990's there was still a lot of skepticism about how useful a personal computer could really be in the home. Don't forget there was no mass adoption of the internet at this point (it was hideously expensive to connect in the UK through your phone line) but people were starting to see how the things they were doing at work could be of use at home. A generation of kids crossed their fingers and hoped the answer to their homework was on the Microsoft Encarta CD-Rom (an encyclopedia) so they could copy and paste it... As a side note, Encarta was a big deal back then and the idea that an encyclopedia could be fitted on to a single disc was quite simply staggering. I remember thinking it was fairly incredible myself, but I didn't have a PC by then so it was of little use, homework would have to be done out of, wait for it, a book!
What people weren't unsure of, however, was how good computers could be for playing games. The game market had gone mental and products like the 8 Bit Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Master System had given people their first taste of Mario, Zelda and Alex Kidd - future classics! These machines were no more powerful than the computers available at the time (in fact quite less so in some cases) but the idea of just turning it on and playing was novel and brilliant. They were, quite simply, awesome.
I mentioned these were 8 bit systems. People knew exactly what this meant back then. When you bought a console, home computer or a PC (if you had a spare £5000) they came with manuals that were reminiscent of phone books. Old phone books. Oh god... you've probably never seen a phone book have you?!
When these books plonked out of the box on to the floor, people didn't ignore them. They had no choice. This is what you got when you turned on your £5000 PC:
So what do you do? You read the book! As a result, users knew exactly how their computers worked, why certain things happened in a certain way, where their files lived, how to increase the performance of their system, the importance of sensible file system organisation and so on. They learned how to manipulate things efficiently, write batch files that did common tasks for them and they could truly tailor their computing experience to their needs. Something that is sadly not really known about any more, except for those with an education in computing. Not everything gets better with progress!
The 1990's, then, saw arguably the greatest era of development in the history of computing so far. Prices dropped through the floor as PC manufacturers fought out who could release the fastest machine for the least money. Intel made sure that your computer was obsolete within 6 months.
This was no joke. The year the Pentium 2 was released, CPU speeds went from 366Mhz to 800Mhz in one year! This was crazy. At the time, an increase of 33mhz was noticeable. To spend £1500 on a PC that was basically landfill in 6 months was just unthinkable - but it happened.
At the same time, a golden era of console gaming happened. Nintendo released the SNES and Sega the Megadrive. A whole generation enjoyed the growth of Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario, Zelda, Starfox and so forth. Oh and a little known company released a terrible football game called Fifa Soccer...
These were 16 bit machines - twice the processing power than their predecessors and, who'd have thought it, ergonomically designed controllers! Nintendo even learned from their mistakes and designed a console you couldn't balance a drink on top of after about a million NES consoles went bang after an excitable child dumped a glass of milk over the electronics.
Ten years ago you couldn't give this stuff away. Got an old 486? Pentium 166? Pff, not even worth the scrap metal. A Super Nintendo?! Put it in the bin!
Oh how misguided we were.
I owned some machines that are now so rare it makes your eyes water how much people are willing to pay for them. I once owned a Commodore 128D and gave it away. Good ones now sell for around £300. Commodore 64 boxed? You're looking at £50-100.
486 DX4 with monitor? Up to £300.
SNES in boxed condition? They're going for at least £150.
These prices might not seem that high to you, but consider this, 5-10 years ago the same devices would've sold for £10-20 if that. You could easily pick one up for free if you looked in the paper, people wanted rid. Companies literally hired skips and threw thousands of 486 and pentium class PC's away. Now, mark my words, the prices of these machines is only going to go in one direction, and that isn't down. As more and more people want a piece of their past, less and less machines are available as they break, get thrown out or held on to by owners who realise their value. As with anything, sooner or later everything becomes history, and history is valuable! Even though millions upon millions of these devices were made, because of our disposable attitude to goods and the fact electronic devices can and do break, very quickly numbers become sufficiently small as to create value again.
Now, the tide has turned and people actually want these machines. Yes you can emulate and use modern hardware but its the experience of ownership, the reminiscence of a lost youth and the feeling of using the original kit that is driving this market. "Retro" gaming is taking off and is about to get seriously huge. As you grow older, suddenly you can afford all the stuff that was way, way out of your league when you were young. Imagine the system/console you dream of - in 5 years time it'll be pennies - buy it.
If I could give you one piece of advice when it comes to any console, PC or similar it would be KEEP IT! Keep the box, all the packaging, the lot. you stand a chance of it being worth a fortune in the future. If you don't sell it, you never know, the memory itself may be worth keeping it for. Oh and if you have any old Apple kit, its becoming more and more valuable - people are buying it for the design alone.
Computers, it seems, are the antiques of the not too distant future.
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