Using Modern Technology to Upgrade Retro Computers

The internet is rife with tutorials of people upgrading old computers with modern technology. How much sense does that make and is it reasonable?

I recently watched a video tutorial where someone replaced the old, spinning hard drive from a ’90s computer with a fast SSD. It was the only upgrade he performed on the computer, but that got me wondering about how much sense it would make to upgrade retro computers with modern technology.

One thing I quickly established after looking around the internet for a while is that there are tons of videos and other tutorials showing how people have managed to finagle some bit of hardware into a computer that was never intended to support it. This includes processor upgrades, RAM upgrades, hard drive replacements, floppy drive emulation, modem emulation, wireless adapters, etc. The list goes on and on.

Now, I don’t want to come right out and say that it doesn’t make any sense to do this because I think there are good reasons. However, I also think it can be overdone. If you upgrade a retro computer with too much modern technology, then it ceases to be retro anymore.

Good Upgrades

We’ll start with the upgrades I think make sense to perform. These will increase the long-term reliability of the machine and will boost performance without changing the machine in any fundamental way.

The Hard Drive

One of the weakest points of any older system is its hard drive — the old spinning kind that were prone to breaking and always made a lot of noise.

For a long time, they were the best possible piece of hardware for storing data, but that has changed over the years. A lot of retro computers will have the problem that the hard drive is broken or they will have that problem at some point.

In this case, it makes sense to replace it with a SSD or flash drive using an IDE adapter. Not only do you get the performance boost from it, but it is much more reliable and certainly much more quiet. It might even be a bit eerie for a retro computer to be so quiet.

The pitfall with modern SSDs or flash drives, however, is that they may be too large. Some older systems simply cannot handle large partitions. MS-DOS, for example, requires partitions of 2 GB or less while Mac OS 9 or earlier needs to be installed in the first 6 GB of the drive or the system won’t boot.

RAM

RAM is another upgrade that makes sense. It will boost computer performance as well as make the machine more useful without changing it fundamentally.

Of course it is also important to pay attention to what your retro computer can handle. Older motherboards will not support loads of modern RAM. A quick search on the internet will most likely allow you to find how much memory your old motherboard can handle, although some manufacturers may give information that isn’t entirely correct. An old iMac G3, for example, will support up to 1 GB RAM, but Apple lists it as only officially supporting up to 512 MB. 

Another reason to upgrade is the price of RAM. Twenty years ago, RAM was an expensive commodity, but the price has gone done significantly since then. That is especially true for the older DIMM modules like PC-100 or PC-133 variants which would be needed in older machines.

Other Parts

Of course it isn’t just the hard drive and the RAM that make good candidates for replacement on older computers. There is, in fact, a plethora of parts that could have been upgraded or changed even when the machine was new.

These are parts such as the graphics card, the cooling system, the CD-ROM, or the floppy drive. If you are able to get ahold of newer, better replacements that are authentic to the era of your computer — even if they are brand new, go ahead and upgrade them.

The point is to stay true to the retro computer and how it would have been possible to use it when it was new.

Broken Parts

I think this one goes without saying, but I’m going to say it before someone else states the obvious. If a part is broken, it should be replaced. In this case, it is not always possible to find an original part or even one with specs that would have been available when your computer was new.

This is, in my opinion, the one reasonable exception to the rule I mentioned above. If you have to replace a broken part with a compatible modern part that wouldn’t have been available at the time and changes the computer fundamentally, then it is still better than having a broken computer.

Not-So-Good Upgrades

Unlike the “good upgrades”, I’m not going to list the “not-so-good upgrades” individually as there are just too many. Instead, I’m going to discuss a bit about the philosophy of retro computing and why upgrading too much of a machine defeats the purpose of it.

There are two basic reasons for retro computing:

  1. Using an old piece of software that isn’t compatible with modern machines (including games)
  2. Experiencing computer as it was back when your machine was new

In either of these cases, modifying a retro computer beyond recognition doesn’t make sense. If too many modern parts are used, it will become incompatible with older operating systems and software. Likewise, if you upgrade the machine with more modern specs, the experience of using an older computer becomes inauthentic. So what’s the point?

Conclusion

The basic rule of thumb to keep in mind when upgrading a retro computer is whether or not the machine will be changed fundamentally. I can only repeat myself here. If too many parts are upgraded, then the retro computer ceases to be a retro computer and starts to become a modern computer. In this case, you might as well just buy yourself a modern computer as you’ve entirely missed the point of retro computing.

What do you think about this rule of thumb? Do you have any experiences with retro computing? Let me know in the comments section below.

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