When does a computer become 'retro'?

Just musing here / thinking out loud …

The Raspberry Pi is now just over 10 years old. It’s hardly retro, is it?

Some 12 years ago I wrote my own BASIC interpreter - Certainly a retro programming language, although my “dialect” is relatively modern it’s written in C and it runs under Linux.

Put the 2 together in an “old-school” way - ie. turn on and a second or 2 later you’re in BASIC. No Linux, nothing under the surface other than just enough to drive screen, keyboard and storage.

Now - what does that make? Would you say “retro”? “retro-new”? (Or just bonkers!)

Thoughts welcome!


Ps. just in-case you’re wondering, yes, I have done just this - it’s early days but I have enough to almost work…

1 Like

I think retro is closely related to nostalgia - when someone who was inspired by the first Pi, as a child or an adolescent, becomes old enough to start feeling nostalgic, then they will feel the Pi to be retro. But I think that might be another 10 years away.

But also I think retro has to be something which was modern at the time and is now something different from what’s modern now. So perhaps the Pi has to have been superseded or have vanished, before it can be retro.

Back in the G+ days (I think 2012, so ten years ago), in our retrocomputing community there, we (the moderators or founders) had some misgivings about the possibility of PCs being retro - our formative experience had been with the 8 bit micros, and we felt no great fondness for the beige boxes. But it was always, and will always be, problematic to put an age limit on retro. Before you know it, five years has passed, and the window you put in place has shifted.

It’s quite clear, I think, that if you first fixated on computing with, say, a '486 PC, then that particular era, that particular brand, might well now feel retro and nostalgic. Even if for me it’s a bit too recent.

I saw a note recently about some trouble in a different retrocomputing community, where the moderator view was that Packard Bell computers were not to be mentioned, whereas other people had a great fondness for them.


Oh, and congrats for getting your boot-to-Basic working, or very nearly working!

1 Like

Third time lucky… I think perhaps what you’ve made there could fairly be described as a retrocomputing experience, even if it’s not a retrocomputer.


It’s certainly an experience!

Just need to be careful to not start to call it “retro-style” or some-such…



1 Like

For me, those old (and new) “beige boxes” have no special place in my heart, as it were… They’re tools rather than something that helped shape school and home computing. But the original IBM PC was being sold before the BBC Micro, yet the venerable Beeb is retro, so …

As for 8-bit… Well, the Sinclair QL, Atari, Amiga all had 16/32 bit offerings… And what about the Acorn 32016 2nd processor… Archimedes?

I think for a lot of us, we’ll go back to what started it all off for us - for me while there were others I used before, it really was the Apple II … Yet the Apple II was really a business system (a useful tool?) for the majority of users well into the late 1980’s…

It’s a tough call!


As Wittgenstein tells us, words mean what people use them to mean. As people change, so will what is “retro.” For me, retro includes early 16-bit systems (A500, IBM PC XT) from the '80s and early '90s. i386 and i486 systems are just “oldschool.” In 1995 when we got our first desktop in my family, I would have been happy with an i486 and 16MB of RAM. I was ECSTATIC when Grandma & Grandpa ponied up for a P-133 with 32MB running Win98. How could that be retro! :slight_smile:

Nowadays, though, there are places where retro means DOS / Win. I’ve visited some web communities where people talk about building their retro gaming rigs… that run WindowsXP! Oof.


I think one criterion is “can you still buy it from the manufacturer”. E.g. you cannot buy an Amiga, or buy a legacy UNIX.

1 Like

For me ‘retro’ is my 6809 machine I built myself with 64k of RAM, video that worked on an analogue TV, a floppy disk (5.25"). It ran FLEX09, similar to CP/M for Z80 back in the day. I threw that machine away a long time ago, did stop and think should I photo it before I did, thought ‘naaah’.

In my garage is an Acorn Archimedes A410/1 no doubt rotting away slowly - I think of that as retro too. Like my early analogue mobile phone that used a credit card sized SIM card. I’ve also got a 486 DX50 system which could barely run Windows 3.1.

I define retro as 10 years after you stopped seeing them them in Boot Sales
or hidden in the loft.:slight_smile: Retro today seems to be small machine you can hack
at on the kitchen table.

I recall the ‘primordial sin’, Ed had been on vacation and I let a certain LGR video on unboxing and setup of an original IBM AT (new in box) slip. Ed wasn’t amused, but we eventually stuck with the video. My decision wasn’t so much for the machine (the IBM AT is still the mother of all “boring beige Intel boxes” – vade retro in munera!), but it was an excellent video, which brilliantly managed to convey what was then the IBM product experience. (All these manual binders, the cluncks of switches, etc.) And this was really something lost and to become nostaligic about! – So I’d say, “retro” is about a principal difference in the experience, a (fundamental) difference between what we are used to nowadays and what once defined the entire idea of computer technology.

*) the bit in italics is Latin and meant to mean “go back into the office!”, to be uttered along with some cross-swinging. :wink:


I have used the term “retro-modern” for a retrocomputing experience built with modern hardware. I can’t say I coined it, but I wasn’t aware of it when I first used it. I feel like your boot-to-BASIC on a Pi is a quintessential example of a retro-modern project.

In general, I don’t feel like I have a hard and fast line for retro, but I think I echo some of the feelings in other replies here – if a computer is still in production, or has been recently, I don’t know that it’s “retro” to me. If a modern computer gives approximately the same experience, I don’t feel like it’s “retro” to me.

I had previously dismissed almost all x86 PCs as “not retro” for that reason, with the exception of the PC (and by extension the XT), which I think get a pass for defining the genre. However, I recently had an experience where I tried to get any web browser at all capable of loading simple web pages w/ CSS working on a Pentium II/350 MHz in a modern Linux environment, and I found that I couldn’t, so maybe it turns out they’re not so similar any more as I felt like. (I ran a machine just like that until well into the 2000s!) Where is the line? I’m not sure… I still think I wouldn’t post a PC post to, for example, this group.

On the other hand, I think I probably could justify posting something interesting about GW-BASIC, or even QBasic, or perhaps early Turbo C, so … hmm.

Certainly true. But my main focus is PDP-10 computers, and I for sure never used one when I was young. I also have a feeling @NoLand didn’t play Spacewar as a kid.

Apparently Windows 95 is considered retrocomputing now - the audacity!

1 Like

Since the XT did have a cassette option, you could call it retro. A classic computer
needs Blinking lights,Console type writer and 9 track tapes.

1 Like

I think, first hand experience is not necessarily required for feeling nostalgic about something, as long as it is somewhat part of your imagination. (And we all grew up with a certain public imagination of computers. At least, I did, and for some reason I fell for old computers already, when I was a kid.)
Regarding these more “serious” machines (as compared to the classic 8-bit home computers), for me it started as an exercise in experimental archeology — how did it feel to use a UNIVAC I, how natural was dealing with self-modifying code? etc. —, but, if it becomes fun, if you’re doing it, because it provides something that modern systems cannot provide to you, it’s certainly retrocomputing.

*) We had a 1962 edition of the “Brockhaus” lexicon at home and this had only pictures of 1950s machines, which were gorgeous, and I really liked them. Then, my father became involved in buying an IBM mainframe (yes, buying! nobody knew how to do it, not even the local IBM subsidiary) for the place he worked with, and some IBM promotional material showed up at home. At the time, IBM was focusing on some “from the roots” advertising, suggesting an unbroken line of IBM achievements, from the very beginnings to the S/370 and from there to the future still to come, but certainly in development by IBM (thin film and bubble memory!), pictures included. And, as a kid, I found these older machines much more exciting. Still, the images of turning tape units, blinken lights, and the transparent bit-selector knobs that figured as the very embodiment of computational precision, which were present all over in the public media, became also part of my imagination, as well, long before I could lay hands on a real computer (which may have been a bit boring in comparison).

1 Like

As Ed said - maybe it’s related to nostalgia? A bit, at least. For me the micro I used at the time which gave me a good feeling was the Apple II, but what I really liked was working with the Norsk Data computers - it was constant bliss every day, for years. Even though I used them at work all day I would go back and spend additional hours as often as I could. Before that it was 6502 programming at school, which was nice but a bit limited (just an AIM-65), or the school’s core-based / punch paper mini… nice, but again limited (I could only do BASIC programming on that one, unlike the NDs where I could explore everything).
Later, it was Unix (SunOS), nice, then SGI and IRIX, and of course these days it’s Linux - all nice, but nothing like the constant bliss I had those ND years. Can never get that back, but it’s still fun to fiddle with my emulating stuff. And the hardware I have, which needs some maintenance now. I’ll get the SD2SCI working one of these days. That’s retro… I think.

1 Like

To me a computer can be retro even if it has a currently selling descendant. You can buy a car called “Corvette” today, but that doesn’t mean that a 1971 Corvette isn’t a retro car. Nor do I consider being able to buy a Z16 mainframe enough to not consider an IBM 360 a retro computer. I see no reason to think differently about PCs.

1 Like

Yes, for most the 80s home computers are retro.
10 years is not old enough (except when they are retro-style).
Maybe 20 years are not old enough.
WIN95 and DOS PCs are retro to me.
I think it’s the lacking of modern hardware features.

About a year ago, I installed WIN95 on a 10 year old laptop. I think the earlier versions of WIN95 don’t support USB. So I had trouble exchanging data. I was shocked and didn’t remember how poor WIN95 was. Most of the software didn’t run at all as the CPU is too modern. Also many linux versions don’t run on that laptop for this reason or another. As I want a modern software, only small linux versions like Lubuntu run. WIN XP is running quite well, but you have to deal with Windows activation, missing security updates etc. So you have to use another computer, like for updates. Or for printing.

Maybe that’s it. Just a play thing, on which you can’t work as usual.
PCs are a special case, depending on age.
For kids with a smartphone, all PCs might be retro.