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A First 8-Bit Computer for the Kids? [C64/128,TI-99/4A,Apple IIe]


Boschloo

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Cleaning up and expanding my beloved TI-99/4A brought back some strong, nostalgic emotions. I was in elementary school when my father brought it home. Star Trek II had just come out. I was fascinated by robots, space, computers and the future. I had been begging for an Atari, but my father thought it would be better to invest in something taught me about computers rather than just a console where I'd be mindless playing games. It worked, it was the beginning of a journey into programming. Unfortunately it was a journey that wouldn't go very far. The TI-99/4a had no floppy drives, no way to save any programs. Buying the cassette recorder was something I didn't have money to do. I'd type pages and pages of a program, enjoy it, then when I turned off the computer, it was all gone forever. A month after that, the Commodore 64 was everywhere. I admit I thought it was junk. It looked like a cheap piece of plastic next to the TI. so I didn't give it much attention. But months later, everybody had one for some reason. 

In fact, many people still own one. It was the best selling home computer in the world. 

 

After upgrading the TI in ways that I was never able to as a kid, I realized that ultimately this would not be the platform I'd use to teach my kids BASIC and vintage computing. My sons play Minecraft and other games that run circles around anything any 8-bit computer has to offer. If I were to ignite in them a love for this technology, it would require offering them at the very least a satisfying 8-bit gaming experience. Then I could explain to them that they could create their own graphics and games. 

 

I looked at the Apple IIe, which I have at home. I have the regular and the platinum. They are working okay, but the four color limitation cripples them as gaming machines. 

 

That's when I watched some videos by the iBook Guy about his game, "Attack of the PETSCII Robots." This gave me the idea that I should get a Commodore 64, for the first time in my life. Upon further research, I found a number of people explaining that the Commodore 128 was their favorite vintage computer. And indeed, if you watch videos of people who created games that fully utilize the 128 mode, it looks perfect for my purposes. 

 

However, they are hard to find in good shape and often come with way higher a price tag than the C64. So, a compromise might need to be reached. So here are my choices:

A) Buy a Commodore 64 for the boys and start enjoying it, and buy a C128 later when the right one appears at the right price.

 

OR 

 

B) Wait until the C128 appears/pay a little more for a C128 now.

 

I'm leaning toward A, because I don't think we miss out THAT much by getting a 64. It will take long enough to master and most games really are for the 64. Anyway, i just thought I'd share that with you guys.

 

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I've been a VIC-20 user since 1984, moved to the C64 in 1986. I didn't have any C128 until well into the 2000's, and the few times I used one, I booted it into C64 mode. So for that aspect, I don't see what the C128 has to offer that the C64 doesn't, except for if you want to use productivity software in 80 columns or some text adventure etc that utilizes the full 128K. Yes, if you get a C128D you have a built-in floppy drive, but it doesn't quite compensate for the higher price tag, as you'd probably want one of many different SD based devices anyway. After all, 5.25" disks are not universally supported on PC's of the 2020s.

 

There may be other options than the Commodore route, e.g. Atari's 8-bit computer line. It is less common and probably more pricey than the C64 but has a decent selection of games as well. From a programming perspective, I'm not sure which is to prefer, as it is a matter of what you already know and enjoy. The built-in BASIC in the A8 line tends to quite a bit slower, but there are 3rd party Turbo BASIC and FastBasic if you need speed.

 

From a gaming perspective, the MSX computers also have a lot to offer, but those tend to be expensive as **** these days, and if you're based in the US, almost all sorts of MSX are foreign imports, sometimes with built-in power supplies that would require step-up converters to run so probably nothing you want to expose your children to.

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For teaching kids today, I'd go with something like a Raspberry Pi,  rather than an old computer that is not likely to hold their attention.   Also Python is a lot more useful language in today's world than BASIC is, and I believe a lot of the educational stuff on PI's teach Python.

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1 hour ago, zzip said:

For teaching kids today, I'd go with something like a Raspberry Pi,  rather than an old computer that is not likely to hold their attention.   Also Python is a lot more useful language in today's world than BASIC is, and I believe a lot of the educational stuff on PI's teach Python.

I have no idea what any of that is. 70's kid, here. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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1 hour ago, Boschloo said:

I have no idea what any of that is. 70's kid, here. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

We are no longer in a 70s world.  The computers of our era hold a fascination for many of the Zoomers, and they can be a good start or good side hobby.  But, they must be in parallel with what the real world is expecting of them.  Python is huge in the world right now: cybersecurity, web development, application scripting, AI, engineering, geographical data sets, all kinds of things.  It is for them like Perl was for us: a multi-capable tool with unlimited potential.

 

Our-age computers have an inherent electronic engineering aspect to them.  I encourage little ones to get to know them.  Again, at the same time, I encourage them to learn embedded systems, modern programming languages, and such.  While I do not abhor BASIC, I do advocate better high-level, structured languages like Pascal, Fortran, C/++, and low-level assembly language.

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1 hour ago, Boschloo said:

I have no idea what any of that is. 70's kid, here. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

They are cheap, small single-board computers that can be either hooked up to a monitor and used like a traditional computer, or hooked up to other devices like robotic components and program them.

 

https://thepihut.com/

 

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8 minutes ago, OLD CS1 said:

Our-age computers have an inherent electronic engineering aspect to them.  I encourage little ones to get to know them.  Again, at the same time, I encourage them to learn embedded systems, modern programming languages, and such.  While I do not abhor BASIC, I do advocate better high-level, structured languages like Pascal, Fortran, C/++, and low-level assembly language.

I learned on BASIC, but the problem with most versions of BASIC is they teach you bad programming practices that you have to unlearn later. 

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1 hour ago, zzip said:

I learned on BASIC, but the problem with most versions of BASIC is they teach you bad programming practices that you have to unlearn later. 

Same.  I learned on TI BASIC.  Later I worked with Commodore BASIC 7.0 which had some better constructs, but it was not until GFA BASIC and AmigaBASIC that I learned more structure and to think in a less linear way.

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If the goal is to dip the toes into modern day programming, I'd assume the kids already have (access to) own computers on which a Python or other environment could be installed. There are many different options in that world.

 

However it would not tell a thing about vintage computing, unless you force them to run emulators or at least an environment like Pico-8. In that respect, I think the real deal is a good idea. Perhaps something like THEC64 would be a decent alternative to a real C64, but I read in another thread that you already found a fairly priced C128 so perhaps that is settled now.

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29 minutes ago, Krebizfan said:

What does the recipient plan on using the computer for? Simply handing off an old computer results in a polite thank you and something cluttering a closet. 

The recipients are my elementary age sons, I want to incorporate BASIC into their homeschool curriculum.

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2 hours ago, Boschloo said:

The recipients are my elementary age sons, I want to incorporate BASIC into their homeschool curriculum.

I might throw in Logo (or TI LOGO II, if you are using your TI-99/4A,) to introduce them to functional languages (Logo is a dialect of Lisp) as well as fundamentals of vectors.  Some information on Logo for the Commodore.

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17 hours ago, OLD CS1 said:

Same.  I learned on TI BASIC.  Later I worked with Commodore BASIC 7.0 which had some better constructs, but it was not until GFA BASIC and AmigaBASIC that I learned more structure and to think in a less linear way.

GFA BASIC was a big improvement,  but it was still lacking some modern features,  at least the GFA 2.0 version I used, maybe 3.x was better.

 

16 hours ago, carlsson said:

 

However it would not tell a thing about vintage computing, unless you force them to run emulators or at least an environment like Pico-8. In that respect, I think the real deal is a good idea. Perhaps something like THEC64 would be a decent alternative to a real C64, but I read in another thread that you already found a fairly priced C128 so perhaps that is settled now.

But is there really anything to be gained there?   It would be like when I was learning on an Atari in the 80s, being told "No!  You really need to experience punch cards to learn how to program a computer".   I've never used a punch-card system in my life,  I've only heard war stories from the older guys who had.  But it hasn't hurt my career,

 

Maybe the kid will be interested in the old system, maybe they won't.   Kind of like one of my kids was interested in the old typewriters I have in the basement.   Fine, I'll let them play with them sometimes,  but I don't think you need to use a typewriter to learn to type.

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I would say that the first old school 8-bit computer(s) for kids to learn on would be the Vic-20, the CoCo (1, 2, or 3 would work), Apple II (+, e, or e Platinum), C64, or an A8 machine.  Granted, those are lots of options, but anyone of those should get the job done for a youngster imo.

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Ti-99 forever…

I learned and I build my profession on that machine.

The challenge of the TI-99 was that there was no much software available and to get results you should code, code and code.

Coping from listings, inventing pattern graphics, dealing with records on tape.

Fantastic experience.

The next onw I believe the Sinclair QL, with the super Super Basic…

 

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On 11/26/2023 at 9:49 AM, Boschloo said:

Cleaning up and expanding my beloved TI-99/4A brought back some strong, nostalgic emotions. I was in elementary school when my father brought it home. Star Trek II had just come out. I was fascinated by robots, space, computers and the future. I had been begging for an Atari, but my father thought it would be better to invest in something taught me about computers rather than just a console where I'd be mindless playing games. It worked, it was the beginning of a journey into programming. Unfortunately it was a journey that wouldn't go very far. The TI-99/4a had no floppy drives, no way to save any programs. Buying the cassette recorder was something I didn't have money to do. I'd type pages and pages of a program, enjoy it, then when I turned off the computer, it was all gone forever. A month after that, the Commodore 64 was everywhere. I admit I thought it was junk. It looked like a cheap piece of plastic next to the TI. so I didn't give it much attention. But months later, everybody had one for some reason. 

In fact, many people still own one. It was the best selling home computer in the world. 

 

After upgrading the TI in ways that I was never able to as a kid, I realized that ultimately this would not be the platform I'd use to teach my kids BASIC and vintage computing. My sons play Minecraft and other games that run circles around anything any 8-bit computer has to offer. If I were to ignite in them a love for this technology, it would require offering them at the very least a satisfying 8-bit gaming experience. Then I could explain to them that they could create their own graphics and games. 

 

I looked at the Apple IIe, which I have at home. I have the regular and the platinum. They are working okay, but the four color limitation cripples them as gaming machines. 

 

That's when I watched some videos by the iBook Guy about his game, "Attack of the PETSCII Robots." This gave me the idea that I should get a Commodore 64, for the first time in my life. Upon further research, I found a number of people explaining that the Commodore 128 was their favorite vintage computer. And indeed, if you watch videos of people who created games that fully utilize the 128 mode, it looks perfect for my purposes. 

 

However, they are hard to find in good shape and often come with way higher a price tag than the C64. So, a compromise might need to be reached. So here are my choices:

A) Buy a Commodore 64 for the boys and start enjoying it, and buy a C128 later when the right one appears at the right price.

 

OR 

 

B) Wait until the C128 appears/pay a little more for a C128 now.

 

I'm leaning toward A, because I don't think we miss out THAT much by getting a 64. It will take long enough to master and most games really are for the 64. Anyway, i just thought I'd share that with you guys.

 

Get the C64.  Sure, 128s are nice machines and are more capable.  But, I think you will get your time and monies worth out of the C64 for 100% certainty.

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  • 1 month later...

Hmm...C64 might generate more familiarity than a ZX Spectrum...and I'm a 90's kid myself...and yet...I feel teaching those kids Python on a Raspberry Pi 5 would be better before you teach 'em something like ZX BASIC...or any BASIC for that matter. Also, if they ever want to make games for retro hardware, there's always C, not to be confused with the more modern C++ of course.

Speaking of Raspberry Pi, I hope they come out with a keyboard form factor computer based on the Raspberry Pi 5. They've probably learned from the Raspberry Pi 400 for sure.

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  • 1 month later...
On 11/28/2023 at 7:27 AM, zzip said:

GFA BASIC was a big improvement,  but it was still lacking some modern features,  at least the GFA 2.0 version I used, maybe 3.x was better.

 

But is there really anything to be gained there?   It would be like when I was learning on an Atari in the 80s, being told "No!  You really need to experience punch cards to learn how to program a computer".   I've never used a punch-card system in my life,  I've only heard war stories from the older guys who had.  But it hasn't hurt my career,

 

Reviewers at the time appeared to be quite impressed with 3.0 https://www.atarimagazines.com/st-log/issue28/78_1_REVIEW_GFA_BASIC_VERSION_3.0.php

 

X11 Basic https://x11-basic.sourceforge.net/ https://sourceforge.net/projects/x11-basic/ apparently started off as a clone of GFA Basic, I think of version 3.x. While 3.x apparently introduced a lot of goodies, records/tuples/abstract data typee were not among them, but there are workarounds of varying klunkiness. I actually use X11 Basic quite a bit for my own projects. Maybe it could serve as an intro to programming and a gateway drug to retrocomputing for the next generation :)

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