Book review: Digital Retro – Gordon Laing

Another reprint of an old review from

People of my age grew up during one of the most exciting periods in computing history. Computers were just moving from the business world of mainframes, time-sharing and minicomputers and in to the domain of the personal user. For the first time, it was feasible for a member of the general public to get their hands on a real computer and to be able to do new and exciting things with them. The roots of this movement can be traced back to the mid 70’s and the MITS Altair 8800 which could be bought in kit form or pre-assembled. Of course, others, especially at the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley were working on their own home made devices for no other reason than they could.

From these humble beginning, a huge industry was spawned that produced multitudes of different computers, none of which were compatible with each other the way the ubiquitous PC is today.

Anyone who was involved with microcomputers between the golden years of 1975 to around 1990 will remember the intense rivalry. Were you a Speccy fan or a Commodore C64 user? Were you allied to the Atari ST or Commodore Amiga? Did the Atari 800 or Apple II impress you?

Digital Retro by Gordon Laing draws on his regular retro column in the sadly now defunct PCW magazine and brings together some 44 machines, including key games consoles, that were released between 1975 and 1988. Along the way you can read about the Commodore Pet, BBC Micro, Oric 1 and Dragon 32 as well as lesser known or vaguely remembered machines such as the NASCOM 1, Tangerine Microtan 65, Jupiter Ace and the ill fated Mattel Aquarius which has the dubious distinction of having the shortest period on the market, being withdrawn after just 6 months.

Each machine gets an ‘overview’, ‘a company history’, ‘did you know?’ and what ‘happened next’ sections along with all new photography of each machine. This makes a nice change as many machines are always documented with the same old tired images. The new ones are often large, high quality and in many cases show how the machines have fared over the years – the PET had a few rust marks!

The text is fascinating and full of interesting snippets. I found the background information particularly absorbing, especially on some of the less well known machines. Gordon Laing has managed to interview a great many industry names including various Tramiels, Chuck Peddle and Joe Decuir and it shows in the resulting insights.

I noticed one typo where the Atari ST’s special features had been repeated for the Acorn Archimedes which was a pity but otherwise everything seemed accurate.

The machines are presented in release date order providing an interesting overview of computer development during the period. A side effect of this is that some machines appear so glaring underpowered compared to their peers that one has to ask ‘why did they bother?’. You may also do a double take on the original IBM PC – a cassette port?

Naturally there are some gaps, mainly due to a lack of example machines in good enough condition to photograph or simply for space reasons. I would have liked to have seen the Enterprise 128, Sord M5 and the almost unknown DAI which I seriously considered against the Atari 400 when I was looking for my first computer back in 1980.


Overall this is a fine book and Gordon Laing is to be congratulated on the breadth and accuracy of the material it presents. The all new photography is the icing on the cake. I can only hope that an expanded edition or a volume 2 appears at some point to mop up the remaining machines from the golden age of home computing.