If you know me, you know my interest in vintage technology. Interest is the subtle way to say obsession here. I talk about it with co-workers a lot. In fact, that’s how many of my articles have been born—asking “What if this could do that?” as an attempt to duplicate a modern convenience on old tech. Why? Maybe it’s just to prove to myself that retro computing gear still has some life left in it. Maybe I just love the comments I get for other vintage tech lovers on my articles. Either way, it’s become a thing for me to try and come up with new challenges to write about here.
So when talking to my editor about what was next, I came up with a big one. Could I survive an entire week relying solely on outdated technology to replace all the modern-day conveniences we take for granted? As someone who grew up in a world of pen and paper, VHS tapes, and simple phones that were only capable of making calls, I became curious about how many everyday things have transitioned into the digital realm, and how many have been left behind.
Time to find out.
First, we needed to establish some rules. As much as we’d like to crawl back into the past, the real world still exists, and I still have to exist in it.
- The Retro Computing Challenge shall last for one week, from Monday, Mar 6th to Sunday, Mar 12th. Most of the challenge will be in the evenings after work hours.
- To qualify as “retro” for this challenge, computer systems need to be 20 or more years old (following the definition of “vintage”). There are a few exceptions: anything needed to document the challenge for this article ( like the camera on my phone, or an HDMI capture device to get screen output from an old system. New hardware for vintage systems will also be allowed–like the #FujiNet adapter used to get my Atari 800XE on the network that appeared in this article.
- This won’t be replacing work necessities. Modern tech will be allowed during work hours, from Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but for work purposes only. I still need to keep my job at Auvik!
- Every day will have a unique modern-day “challenge” we’ll try to recreate. Each day’s challenges will be documented.
For most of the challenges, I’ll be using my Atari XEGS (XE Game System) Computer. Visually, it might be the most 80s computer ever made – with huge pastel Miami Vice-ish buttons. It was sold as a “Game System” but it was a full Atari computer. One of the reasons for choosing this system is because I have mine upgraded with a “Sophia” graphics upgrade to allow digital video output directly from the Atari. I can plug it straight into my HDMI capture card.
That it’s for the preamble. Bring on the challenge!
Starting day 1 off with some bookkeeping. For my first experiment, I decided to annoy my manager by doing an expense report (Please don’t fire me, Hao!).
There are several really good spreadsheets available for the Atari—Visicalc and Syncalc were the two most notable ones. Visicalc was released the same year as the first Atari computer line in 1979. Syncalc was released in 1983 and had several updates over Visicalc.
I went with Syncalc today because it can make use of expanded memory and my Atari has been upgraded from 64K to 1MB. And it’s a great program – especially for working from home. But I’ll let Alan Alda circa 1983 show you:
For both Visicalc and Syncalc, a major limitation is that both apps are limited to 40 screen columns of text. That means not a lot of text on the screen at once, and a lot of scrolling with cursor keys.
I can only fit cells A1 to C20 on a single screen. Seeing more requires scrolling.
It’s not quite as bad as it first seems. But here’s my first realization: back in the day this would be printed as a hard copy, which would include a lot more on paper than just what’s shown on the screen. These days the thought of spitting out paper drafts is absurd, but was just a given back then.
This software also required constant swapping of floppy disks to actually use. Now I have two floppy drives in my setup, which thankfully cuts down on that. But with a single floppy drive, I’d need to put in the Syncalc disk, boot the program, then swap to my data disk and load my working file. With two drives I can keep the program disk in drive 1 and keep my data disk in drive 2.
Now because I’m a jet-set businessman of the 80s, I also have stocks to keep track of. Let’s do a spreadsheet for stock valuations. So let’s calculate how 10 shares of the S&P 500 ETF have done over the last year.
I immediately have to start scrolling to get to anything useful.
Realization #2: Definitely a little clunky compared to Excel or Google Sheets today, but functionality-wise – they’re really that much different. If aliens invaded and wiped Excel and Google sheets from the face of the earth – I could get by with Syncalc or Visicalc just fine. The biggest nuisance here is the 40-column limitation (which is an Atari limitation).
Challenge number one in the bag.
Since modern streaming services are out, I went to the movie theater tonight – as I normally would for a new movie before streaming services. Realization #3: By and large, movie theaters haven’t changed their setups in nearly a century. If anything there’s probably more around now than when I was young. That said, it was the first time going to the movie theater in several years, actually.
Saw a movie about a misbehaved bear. Hands down the best movie about a bear on drugs that I have ever seen.
This was a softball, but its challenge: completed.
EDITOR: Hey! Going to the movie theater is too easy, and I bet you already have a VHS player on hand. How about video streaming? Surely you can’t stream to a retro computer.
Actually, I might just have a way to do it that doesn’t involve cheating, Netflix, or BitTorrent. And stop calling me Shirley.
Back in 1997, a developer named Simon Jansen started a project to recreate Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope entirely using ASCII art and animation. It’s a remarkable project you should definitely watch on Jansen’s website, Asciimation. It’s also viewable via telnet on Telehack. So, using my #Fujinet ethernet adapter I used in Going Online Like it’s 1979: The Atari 800, I should be able to telnet to Telehack and then start streaming the ASCII animation version of Star Wars.
Get your ASCII on with me
I’ll need a VT-100 terminal emulation program that supports 80 columns of text—easier said than done. natively the Atari can only do up to 40 columns of text. Thankfully, there are multiple hacks to coax 80 columns out of the machine and one of the best terminal emulation programs, Ice-T, supports 80-column text).
First, I’ll load up Ice-T:
The #Fujinet adapter can be controlled in a terminal emulation program like Ice-T, but this challenge requires me to use Hayes-compatible commands like most modems from back in the day.
The atnet1 command tells the #Fujinet to use telnet, and atdt tells it to “dial” telehack.com. The Hayes command set always starts with “AT” (for attention). The DT in ATDT is dialed with a touch-tone. No airdrops here. Want to share something with a friend? Commands like these were used to dial other machines via modems.
We’re now connected via telnet to telehack.com. Time to start streaming. All I need to type is starwars to begin.
Realization #4: Can I stream a movie on an 8-bit Atari in 2023? Technically yes.
Tonight’s theme/experiment is social media. And there’s only one solution that fits the bill here: the OG BBS (bulletin board system). Back in the 80s and 90s, it was very popular to use MODEMs to connect to BBSes and interact with other computer users. One of the most popular features of BBSes was the ability to send messages to other users in forums.
Tonight, I’ll use a different terminal emulator (1990s BOBTERM) than Ice-T to connect to an Atari BBS – using telnet rather than a traditional MODEM. There’s a list of publicly accessible Atari BBSes here. Today, I’ll connect to “Boot Factory 2k” on that list.
Fun fact: Atari has its own slightly different version of ASCII called ATASCII (Atari ASCII). It also had its own unique style of ATASCII art.
Let’s check out the TV and Movies section:
In the end, not really that different from forums online today. Mission accomplished.
BBS worked similarly to forums like Reddit today, but with one major exception: most BBSes could only have a single user online at a time (limited by the operator having only one phone line dedicated to the BBS). Most forum users were typically local as well. After all, you’re still using a landline to call the forum via a phone number, so a BBS based far enough away is going to earn you long-distance charges. This combination —the extreme delay caused by only one user at a time being able to post, coupled with all users being local, would often lead to local meetups as a practical alternative. IRL meetups are a lot older than you might think!
Realization #5: No matter the time period, people seem to always find themselves drawn together by common interests, and technology is just a tool to enable discovery and support interaction.
Tonight is dedicated to typing. There were a lot of word processing applications available for the Atari 8-bit line over the years. Atari Word Processor (It does what it says on the tin) was the first official Atari word processor released in 1981. It was quite difficult to use, with a large number of cryptic keystrokes needed to perform functions. The following year Atari released AtariWriter. One of the most popular word processors for Atari, it went through several versions over the years—with AtariWriter Plus and AtariWriter 80 adding additional features and functionality.
By default, it operates in 40-column mode. By pressing OPTION-C I can activate the scrolling window.
The scrolling may seem strange but you get used to it quickly.
And because this is A CHALLENGE, I used AtariWriter Plus to write the history about AtariWriter Plus:
Personally, I clocked the most time on AtariWriter Plus. I held onto my Atari longer than most and used it straight through university – writing my term papers on it. Those were the days of the original Pentiums and Windows 95. Realization #6: Even when I was young I had a penchant for old tech.
It’s hard to explain how far word processing software has come from humble beginnings like AtariWriter. Some might argue that typing is even more popular now than it’s ever been. When was the last time you called someone when a text message would do just fine? Long gone are the days of typing classes in high school—these kids could type (tap?) laps around us now anyways.
Perhaps the easiest challenge is gaming. I game far more frequently on old systems than new ones. I keep an Atari Jaguar permanently connected to my living room flatscreen, and regularly game on that.
The Atari Jaguar was the last system that Atari made – released in 1993 and discontinued in 1996. It was marketed (heavily) as “the world’s first 64-bit game system” – back when everyone knew that bits were important but no one knew exactly how or why. It was a commercial failure, but I loved it to death when it was released and still enjoy it to this day. Sure it had a lot of lemons – and quite probably the worst racing game ever made, but it had a lot of charm too.
90s ads are terrifying – ed.
Let’s proceed with the Retro Computing Challenge: Gaming edition, or what I call “Friday”.
Alien vs Predator
One of the better games on the Jaguar system, Alien vs Predator allowed you to play as a marine, alien Xenomorph, or predator. The goal and story of the game are radically different for each. As the Xenomorph, you have to rescue the captured queen from a predator, as a predator, you have to claim the queen’s skull and as the marine – blow up the space station and escape in a lifecraft. The game is incredibly atmospheric and it’s a horror survival game from before that genre existed.
Pretty blatant Mario Kart clone.
A remarkable port of DOOM to the Atari Jaguar, and one of the few console versions actually made by id Software themselves. It’s missing the iconic music, unfortunately, but otherwise is a very solid version. (As you may know, DOOM is dear to my heart. So much so, I got it working inside our company software.)
A remake of the Tempest arcade game, it may be the best title on the Jaguar system. Insanely good techno music and very smooth gameplay – and very abstract. Monsters fly up various tubes toward you and you have to shoot them down to prevent them from reaching you and dragging to the bottom and killing you.
Realization #6: Can I play games without a modern system? Easily.
Final challenge. Paint was released for the Atari in 1982. One of the things about this application that really struck me back in the day is the manual. Only a tiny portion of the (very thick) manual is actually about the Paint application itself. The rest is dedicated to the history of art including pictures.
Paint programs were very different from a modern Photoshop-like apps today. There is no concept of layers. You draw by the pixel, and just like real paints – mistakes are pretty hard to undo.
My feeble attempt at a polar bear. I don’t think the design department at Auvik will be reaching out any time soon:
Seven days, seven retro computing challenges down. I made it through in one piece. Here’s what stuck with me:
- Some things have gone through changes over the years, but the basic functionality isn’t really that different from decades ago. Sure, bells and whistles have been added, but they haven’t really changed that much.
- Cord cutting is probably the biggest change—without a cable subscription, streaming services are necessary. That’s an area where my life has changed a lot. I can’t imagine going back to cable for TV.
- Paint was pretty difficult to use—even in the day I thought of those programs as more toys. Few people could actually produce art with them. Graphics software today is fundamentally different from these older ones.
- The lack of multitasking on older harder was interesting during this challenge. You can’t have multiple programs open at the same time and quickly flip through them. This provides a focus that we don’t have now. If you’re writing a document, you’re writing a document. If you’re doing your taxes, you’re doing your taxes. Sometimes it feels like modern OSes are designed to provide distractions.
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