General public machines (Was: Altair 8800 name Was: Re: Altair 680 Expansion Boards?

John Labovitz johnl at
Thu Dec 22 22:49:00 CST 2016

I’ll chime in on the Z80 preference, since I was there at the time. In the very early 1980s, when I was about 15, my father decided to buy a home computer. (Before that, he had a TI Silent 700 that dialed up to a Univac mainframe.) I remember him doing hours of research comparing the Apple II, the TRS-80, the Commodore PET, and probably some of the S-100 machines. He eventually chose the Heathkit H89. I’ll have to ask him exactly why, but I know that he’s always liked good-quality tools, and the combination of the Heathkit design, the Z80 CPU, and CP/M seemed like the best combination of tools at the time.

I think it was probably a bit like the current perception of Apple’s hardware: expensive, but well-built and well-designed (minus some of the latest missteps). The other ‘lesser’ machines seemed far clunkier (excepting the S-100 stuff). I did some Z80 assembly when I was a kid, and even the notation of that language seemed clearer, more zen-like, than the 8080, and certainly than the 6502. Sorry to say, but when I hung out with friends who had Apple IIs, I always found their 40-character display mighty lacking… TRS-80s were fun to play with (and I did frequently at the local Radio Shack), but seemed much more oriented towards either simple BASIC programming, or business use — pretty boring for a 15-year old. ;)

CP/M, too, at least *seemed* more connected to the minicomputer world. We had a variety of assemblers and compilers; I learned C, assembly, LISP (well, not really), BASIC, word processors — and via our 300-baud modem, dialed up to the ARPAnet. Not to say that one couldn’t do that with the other machines, but even at the time, the Heathkit with CP/M seemed more of what we’d now call ‘server class.’ In fact, I ran a BBS for a year or two on that machine, with hand-rolled messaging software in BASIC, and the BYE software to handle the magic of dial-up access to a microcomputer.

Finally, the Heathkit was — not surprisingly — a kit. As a teenager, I I soldered together two or three H89s, several H19 terminals, and at least one printer; that experience taught me *so much* about the physical workings of computers.


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