A micro Altair PC, and a question

General discussions related to the Altair 8800 Clone

A micro Altair PC, and a question

Postby rea5245 » July 8th, 2014, 8:28 pm

I built a miniature Altair 8800 replica. I'd be interested to know people's thoughts on it.

You can see my description of it, along with a video demo, at my blog, http://galacticstudios.org/altair. But the short version is that I scored a small Optima case on eBay, built a miniature Altair 8800 front panel, and put a Mini-ITX board in it (plus an SSD and a hard drive).

What Mike has done is much nicer than what I did in a few ways. His replica is more accurate, his front panel software is better, his rear panel is great (mine is such an ugly kludge, I was too embarrassed to show it in my blog), and he owns the design for his case so that he can manufacture more of them. My Altair 8800 PC is a one-time thing.

But mine has one advantage over his: it's much smaller - 1/4 the volume of an Altair 8800! It's small enough to qualify as a Small Form Factor (SFF) PC.

My thoughts - and I'd be interested to know if anyone agrees with them - are that people who buy Altair replicas are seeking nostalgia and geek cred. If all they wanted was to run 8080 software, they could download a free emulator from the web. But $600 and 2000 cubic inches is a lot to dedicate to Hunt the Wumpus and Zork. So putting your regular desktop PC into it is really important. (In my case, I have no interest in running old software. I just want the nostalgia and the blinkenlights.)

But even then, the size of an Altair 8800 is an issue. Most people with desktop PCs shove their PC under the desk, out of the way. But an Altair PC needs to be displayed! I couldn't spare that much desk space. But for me, a miniature Altair 8800 replica that could hold a Mini-ITX board gave me everything I wanted.

How about you? Why do you want an Altair 8800 box? Would your urge be satisfied by something smaller?

I've occasionally thought about starting a business making and selling micro-Altair PC cases. But my PC is not a good prototype. I would have to start from scratch, and that's a lot of work.

Mike, if you're reading this, you're most of the way there. You've got great front panel software and you have the design for a full size panel. Swap the 5mm LEDs for 3mm and swap the switches for micro switches (I can give you the part number if you need it). I presume you have the CAD drawings for the case and a company to manufacture it. Just cut down the size - which will also cut the cost.

Would people be interested in this? Would they prefer it to a full-size case? Would it actually appeal to more people, e.g. the SFF community and the case mod community? I don't know. I've done zero market research. But I'd love to hear what people here think.

- Bob Alexander
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Re: A micro Altair PC, and a question

Postby toml_12953 » July 9th, 2014, 12:48 pm

I want as close to the original experience as possible so, for me, a full-size case is best. I was even a little upset that the Altair Clone is not exactly the same size as the original Altair!
It's so close, though, that if you don't have them one on top of the other, you won't notice the difference. If I wanted a smaller Altair, I could always buy Vince Briel's version. (http://www.brielcomputers.com/wordpress/?cat=18) That's a very good computer but it's too small for me. Mike has done an excellent job of recreating the original Altair experience and his Altair Clone is "the next best thing to being there" I have one and haven't been disappointed in its performance yet. Also, Mike is great at supporting his product. I've never had a question about using the Altair Clone that he didn't answer correctly and patiently. Nostalgia is really the only reason to buy one of these replicas of old computers! You probably wouldn't want to use them for serious computing these days when a laptop would run circles around it for the same or less money. For recreational computing, however, you can't beat 'em!
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Re: A micro Altair PC, and a question

Postby rea5245 » July 9th, 2014, 1:25 pm

toml_12953 wrote:I want as close to the original experience as possible so, for me, a full-size case is best.


Tom, have you put a modern PC inside the case, or is the box dedicated to 8080 software only?

toml_12953 wrote:If I wanted a smaller Altair, I could always buy Vince Briel's version. (http://www.brielcomputers.com/wordpress/?cat=18)


The problem with the Briel Altair isn't the size, but that it doesn't look like an Altair. For me, it wouldn't satisfy my sense of nostalgia or provide geek cred. All it does is run 8080 software and as I said in my OP, if that's all you want, why not just download an emulator?

- Bob
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Re: A micro Altair PC, and a question

Postby toml_12953 » July 9th, 2014, 2:58 pm

rea5245 wrote:
toml_12953 wrote:I want as close to the original experience as possible so, for me, a full-size case is best.


Tom, have you put a modern PC inside the case, or is the box dedicated to 8080 software only?

I only run 8080 software on it. I use either my desktop or tablet to run Win 8.1 and Linux.

toml_12953 wrote:If I wanted a smaller Altair, I could always buy Vince Briel's version. (http://www.brielcomputers.com/wordpress/?cat=18)


The problem with the Briel Altair isn't the size, but that it doesn't look like an Altair. For me, it wouldn't satisfy my sense of nostalgia or provide geek cred. All it does is run 8080 software and as I said in my OP, if that's all you want, why not just download an emulator?

Emulators just don't satisfy a true nostalgia nut. Neither does a machine that can run the latest software. For us, we need a machine that has the same limitations as the original. Who doesn't remember having to load cassette tapes two or three times before getting them to load without error?

- Bob
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Re: A micro Altair PC, and a question

Postby mail@gabrielegan.com » December 6th, 2014, 1:18 pm

For me, there are three key reasons for running Mike's clone rather than an emulator, all pedagogical:

1) In explaining to students how computers work, I want something that's as simple as possible, and 1970s technology is simple enough for the students to grasp. An emulator would give me a simple machine running on top of a complex one, and students would realize that all my explanations are just simplifications of much more complex processes. With the clone, I can even conceal from the students the clone's internal emulation of floppy disk drives: as far as they are concerned, the machine has just 64K RAM and no ROM and every session begins with loading the bootstrap program by hand and booting from paper tape. Paper tape is great for students because they can actually see the ones and zeroes: digital files become tangible, even naked-eye readable, objects.

2) Mike's videos are a great pedagogic resource in themselves: I've learnt from them and my students will learn from them. Having exactly the same machine as shown in the video leverages this resource.

3) The machines grab the attention of students who otherwise think computers are boring. I teach English Literature to student cohorts that are 85-95% female, and when they see the Altairs and the old dumb terminals I've got in the lab their interest is piqued and they start to ask questions.

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Re: A micro Altair PC, and a question

Postby toml_12953 » December 8th, 2014, 10:53 am

rea5245 wrote:
toml_12953 wrote:I want as close to the original experience as possible so, for me, a full-size case is best.


Tom, have you put a modern PC inside the case, or is the box dedicated to 8080 software only?

toml_12953 wrote:If I wanted a smaller Altair, I could always buy Vince Briel's version. (http://www.brielcomputers.com/wordpress/?cat=18)


The problem with the Briel Altair isn't the size, but that it doesn't look like an Altair. For me, it wouldn't satisfy my sense of nostalgia or provide geek cred. All it does is run 8080 software and as I said in my OP, if that's all you want, why not just download an emulator?

- Bob


With an emulator, you still don't get an authentic experience. I was the one who talked Mike into building the cassette interface add-on because loading cassette images just isn't the same as putting a real cassette into a player and loading it. Now if I could only talk him into using a more powerful ASIC and letting us add real floppy disk drives to the machine, it would be heaven! I'd gladly pay twice his current prices for one of those!
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Re: A micro Altair PC, and a question

Postby cluttered » December 18th, 2014, 6:09 am

toml_12953 wrote:Now if I could only talk him into using a more powerful ASIC and letting us add real floppy disk drives to the machine, it would be heaven! I'd gladly pay twice his current prices for one of those!


Now *that* would be mighty tempting for me too!
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Re: A micro Altair PC, and a question

Postby mail@gabrielegan.com » December 22nd, 2014, 10:05 am

Me too!

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Re: A micro Altair PC, and a question

Postby jibanes » December 24th, 2014, 11:21 am

same here; although I would just run simh on it, and a *fast* altair emulation; it's just a matter of interfacing simh to the front panel. This would complement my clone properly; and I would have virtual floppies. Although I suspect I would just end up using the clone more :)
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Re: A micro Altair PC, and a question

Postby barney » January 4th, 2015, 8:08 pm

Not sure if it is the same thing, but you can put a full uATX PC inside the Altair Clone box. A tad expensive to buy both the Altair Clone and PC hardware. I have them running in parallel. On my monitor I can have a TeraTerm window open for CP/M stuff and next to it a web browser. Just clicking on the windows switches me from 1979 to 2015.
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