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Retro Tech Inflation is Out of Control

October 24th, 2020 at 7:17 AM by Kugee
Category: Tech/Hardware

Retro PCs are all the rage now, from the good ol' IBM XT to the dream 1.4GHz Pentium III-S with a Voodoo5. The exchange of these obsolete goods is total chaos. Parts are growing scarce. Sellers are charging obscene prices for "vaporwave" motherboards. Rich people are quick to hoard all the good stuff and never even make any videos about their acquisitions. The market is largely reserved for the top money YouTubers who inevitably drive the cost of these parts up further, because so many of their followers so badly want to finally achieve their dreams of getting computers priced at over $9,000... all while scrappers needlessly slaughter "junk" components for gold.

In 2012, the retro computing scene was not all that mainstream in YouTube space. It was that year I took full ownership of the 486 computer my grandpa had, and figured maybe I could upgrade the hell out of it for a good laugh. A key purchase was a later 486 PCI motherboard that came with a 133MHz Am5x86, which I needed to not deal with VLB cards going loose and achieve the full 4x clock multiplier with another Am5x86 I already had. I wasn't quite sure what I was getting into for such an expensive purchase... which was around $50 in 2012. If you were to get a similar thing now, you would probably have to sacrifice $100-$200 after months of waiting for a listing to even pop up.

With great prices like these, just how can one even begin putting together a computer they've dreamed of having back in the day? It's easy... just go to a garage sale or thrift store! You can usually expect them to sell for much cheaper, and you don't even have to pay any shipping cost! Except those tend to not have very much to offer most of the time, especially given it's been more than 20 years since they were relevant and the bulk of them have already exchanged hands long ago.

It doesn't help that there's so many different kinds of old components out there that you might not even know where to start, and if you get something that doesn't match up with anything else, that's a ton of money out the window and into the storm drain. It really sucks because there's a lot you can take from old computers that are missing in new ones. Even if you're just wanting any 400MHz computer that will take whatever you throw at it, whether it be DOS, Windows 9x, OpenGL, DirectX, ISA sound cards, it could be a chore!

If you're thinking about getting a giant CRT monitor to go with your setup, you're gonna be faced with at least one of several possible nightmares. The monitors will be forced to be expensive due to shipping costs, and they may get damaged in shipping, either by the buttons shifting out of alignment or the screens outright shattering. I suppose the same also applies to complete computers, or even just individual components. Quality shipping materials are expensive, so there's no guarantee anything will be packed reliably unless an individual seller makes that guarantee.

I've had a hefty enough budget to accumulate tons of hardware for Bigeye, but that hasn't been the case for most other people I'm in contact with. In the case of getting a Voodoo5, it's either a moonshot or just never. My friend Blue Horizon, creator of the Blue OS Museum, got a Voodoo5 last year for $250 after much struggle, only to now see that their average cost has shot up from $350 to $550. This seems dangerously close to original retail price if it isn't there already. Is it even worth trying for one? My GeForce2 Ultra moves at double the speed of that card, and I got my GeForce in a thrifted computer for like $40.

So far I've only talked about the problems Americans face in accumulating old hardware. Even as absurd as hardware prices are, some of us may have pretty high wages in order to be able to match the steep demands. Other countries, particularly in Europe, tend to not have the same fortune. Andriey, another close friend of mine from Poland, has only managed to acquire a highly integrated Pentium 4 desktop from 2003 or so, which he calls "Very Old Mushroom Jr."

I really do wish old hardware was more accessible. I know for a fact there's tons more out there than what's being listed for so much money, being stored away in countless attics or warehouses with their owners not having any idea what to do with them... if only those things could be liberated and put in the hands of those who really want them.

Who's to Blame?

The answer is clear: that fucker Kugee drove up retro hardware prices tenfold since 2012, and now it is impossible to get a good deal anywhere. THEND

Well, not really, but I can guess I may have taken some part in nudging prices higher, despite the fact that I am an infrequent uploader and have a very niche appeal due to the unconvential ways I make my videos. I know it's not intentional, but many popular retro tech YouTubers are to blame for the hype generated around old hardware, even components that don't have all that much use. The further you go up the ranks of raw subscriber/view counts, the worse the offenders become.

But then where are all these other things going? I haven't found a single video showing anything of the mythical Pentium II Xeon doing anything until I made one myself. Sure, videos of the Pentium III Xeon exist, but they are also too few. Even with the lack of widespread accounts of these things, they still manage to get snatched on eBay so often. Their fate ends up being taken into oblivion, only to be enjoyed by one person and never another, with a one-time blurb on Vogons if we're lucky. There are no winners here - if you never show off your new find anywhere, you make it harder for us to appreciate and learn more about it. If you do make an extensive video about it, you prompt more demand for it depending on the video's view count, and it becomes much harder to acquire.

At this rate, getting a complete working system will require tons of hardcore dedication and/or a disposable budget. Others will be forced to turn to emulators such as PCem or 86box, but even that is going to be extremely difficult if P6-based hardware is what you're wanting to match. I might end up giving 86box a spin with a Ryzen 5950X I'm hoping to get soon enough so I have a better idea of how much effort it takes to emulate this old hardware. LuxuryAerozona puts it best: it's easier to get real hardware instead of emulating it... and he mainly specializes in Mac OS 7/8 stuff... but DON'T EVEN GET ME FUCKING STARTED ON THE PRICING OF OLD APPLE HARDWARE!!!

I may have been hoarding a lot of hardware myself, but a major reason for that was because I felt things would get worse later on (the other being that I aspired to host a retro LAN party but could never accomplish such a thing, which is why Hardcore Windows 98 ended on an empty cliffhanger). Now I am at a breaking point; I don't want to bother with any of this anymore, apart from small, inexpensive parts to complete more of my partial computers. My last major acquisition was a second Asus PVI-486SP3 motherboard way back in August. I'd rather not validate these outrageous costs any further. I might feel like snatching a decent deal on eBay later, but I'll probably just wait until it's safe to go thrifting again.

It Won't Last...

Me, you, and some others, the true believers, will probably continue to stick around in the retro hardware scene for a very long time. I know I will; this passion of mine is fueled by a desire to create an experience I never had a chance to attain back in the day, learn more from old computers and what we've lost in new ones, and provide a means to help sustain their usefulness... should I ever figure out how to do that. I know I've had an idea for a complex game for 486/Pentium systems for years now, and do hope one day I'll get around to working on it regardless of the circumstances.

Make no mistake, however: vaporwave computing is a fad. It's not going to stick around for as long as it seems. The retro market bubble has grown far too much, and it will eventually burst. How exactly it will burst is not something I can definitely answer, but there's a number of possibilities:

  • More hardware dies from age, and not just the capacitors either.
  • Sellers are forced to drop their prices or bail out because people are fed up with $4,000 Power Macintoshes in 2020.
  • A majority of viewers lose interest in old computers as they are subjected to the same tropes from large channels.

There will always be a demand for old hardware in industrial fields where they absolutely need to sustain machinery that just works, so I'm not convinced all of the hardware from these older eras will ever truly disappear. Still, with no easy way to make perfect replicas of hardware in-house yet and outdated trade secrets continuing to be withheld from the public, many may end up having to give up their dreams of owning an old computer down the road. I wanted to become a vintage Mac collector in the late 2000's, but this never happened due to my mind telling me "eBay always bad 100% scam!!!"

If it does crash for a long time, I'm a bit worried that making a brand new game may cause the market to surge back up and introduce many more new nightmares for retro enthusiasts. I say this because I know I want my game to be highly compelling and complex, so I can prove that old hardware is just as, if not more capable of delivering such an experience than what's being offered on modern systems. If it's too good, then for certain I will be the sole cause of the new retro PC bubble. Programming is really hard, though, so it could just be a deluded fantasy I hang on to with no chance of ever getting it off the ground...

Pushing Against the Tide

So, a lot of my machines are being left unused most of the time. I do like having a large variety of hardware around in case I want to cover specific things, but when I'm not doing anything like that, they're just sitting there. It's not really all that great when you look at someone with 50+ motherboards and only three of them being used at once.

The same holds true of other hoarders; they pick up anything they can get, and probably never do anything with them after a month at most. It's as if a dual Socket 8 system is no more amazing than a cereal box prize. (Not talking about Chex Quest, just cheap plastic things) Could something be done differently? There's actually a simple answer to it... offload that hardware to close contacts! That's what I was doing in a few instances before the coronavirus pandemic struck us, leaving alligators free to begin their takeover of society.

I gave my inherited Packard Bell Legend 994CDT to one person and the miserable Dell Dimension XPS D300 to Blue Horizon, along with a camcorder I used in my videos from 2017 and 2018 to help him get started on Vlare. A number of circumstances have prevented him from getting started right away, most obviously because Vlare is not back up yet. It doesn't really matter, as I gave these out of solidarity. I know we'll be up and rolling one of these days.

I'm not going to give some of my hardware to just anyone, but I know that it's really tough establishing a reputation on YouTube or even a place as small as Vlare. The benefits of spreading a large accumulation of hardware across multiple enthusiasts are self-evident, I believe. More people can cover more hardware in their own ways, and together we can strengthen Vlare upon its return. This can't be just about me anymore; that is why the website is called Razorback and not Kugee. It may be a dumping ground of my mind, but I also want it to be a union of smaller retro tech enthusiasts and an infrastructure to support it. There is a lot of creative potential to be developed among those who have often been denied access to a lot of the hardware they'd need to get anywhere.

After all, small channels are all I care about on YouTube anymore. Anything that's too overproduced, formulaic, or repetitive is something I can't be bothered to waste my time on. Someone with hundreds of thousands of subscribers is not to be of concern here. You matter more.