Manifesto of a Vintage Computers Collector


I like handheld computers, small portable devices known also as PDAs, handheld PCs, pocket PCs, palmtop computers, and UMPCs. They evolved into smartphones that all people have nowadays. My hobby, however, is those handheld computing rarities that preceded the smartphone era. I collect them. Some time ago I formalized the collecting principles I adhere to. This time I’ve decided to publish them.

I do not claim these principles be an absolute truth. As I say later here, collecting is largely subjective. So, these principles reflect my own attitude to collecting, my personal opinion.

Principles are given in the order which I believe is best to perceive them. Principle number isn’t due to significance or whatever.

Collection must be formally defined

Collecting principles presuppose that we’re clear about what a word “collection” means. The term has no strict definition. Let’s review how dictionaries define it:

  • The Merriam-Webster Thesaurus: an organized group of objects acquired and maintained for study, exhibition, or personal pleasure.
  • Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English: a set of similar things that are kept or brought together because they are attractive or interesting.
  • Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary: a group of objects, often of the same sort, that have been collected.
  • Cambridge Dictionary: a group of objects of the same type that have been collected by one person or in one place.

These definitions, explicitly or implicitly, say that collectibles have the following major properties:

  1. They all are of the same type, that is, share some common features.
  2. They have some strongly pronounced qualities that make them attractive, interesting, and worth being collected.

With this in mind, let’s agree that a collection is a group of objects of the same type with remarkable qualities.

To define a particular collection, we need to specify those distinctive qualities that, on the one hand, unite the collectibles and, on the other, make them attractive and interesting. When it comes to computer collectibles, these distinctive qualities are:

  • Device class: a mainframe, a pocket PC, or even a computer part (for example, an input device or CPU)
  • Device manufacturer (a company or country)
  • Rarity, inversely proportional to a number of devices manufactured
  • Condition, an amount of device features that function correctly and the absence of external defects (scratches, cutting edges, cracks)
  • Configuration, available device features of those implemented by the manufacturer and an amount of accessories available for the model
  • Influence the device had on the device line history or on the entire branch
  • Device innovativeness, an amount of innovations introduced in a device
  • Device model age since it was announced
  • Age of a specific device since it was manufactured
  • Historical value of a specific device, for example, due to belonging to a famous person of the past
  • Personal value of a device to a collector, for example, if a collector craved for a device in times it was on sale but couldn’t afford it
  • Aesthetic value of a device is how a collector evaluates the device appearance, its tactile and other aesthetic characters
  • Device price as of the introduce date
  • And many others

A set of distinctive qualities for a specific collection is up to a collector. As you can see, many of the above qualities are subjective. That’s why, collecting is largely subjective by its very nature.

Consequently, collecting items of the same type but with different distinctive qualities produces essentially different collections. Here’s an example. ThinkPad laptops recently turned 25 years. The anniversary was highlighted by a collection review published at The weirdest, coolest, and most influential ThinkPads of the last 25 years. A few years earlier, another ThinkPad collection was reviewed at Top 10 most influential ThinkPads. Even though these collections comprise items of the same type (ThinkPads), they are quite different in contents. This is due to the following:

  1. Collectors used different distinctive qualities for laptops. I must admit, though, that in both cases the qualities to consider an item a collectible are not clear.
  2. Most of these qualities are subjective.

A collection with clear distinctive qualities is, for example, Dave’s Vintage Handheld Computer Collection.

To sum it up, the first collecting principle sounds like Collection must be formally defined.

In other words, a collector must define the qualities of items to be added to their collection. This allows the collector to understand what exactly they’re interested in. Know thyself, as the Ancient Greek aphorism says.

The next principle demonstrates certain patterns that help a collector to come up with distinctive qualities.

Quality above quantity

Quality and quantity are the conflicting properties of a collection. The higher and the more distinctive qualities a collection has, the least items in the world conform to them. The maximum collection size is inversely proportional to the quality of collectibles.

On the one hand, collecting the low-quality items is easier; on the other, such a collection won’t be of much value. A collector has to choose a right balance between quality and quantity. Along with personal preferences, there’re some reasonable aspects for a collector to consider in this matter. Let’s review them in detail.

Aspect #1: Space

The larger the collection, the more space it needs. As your collection grows, sooner or later, you face the lack of space. Even if you don’t store your collectibles in showcases, electronics require proper conditions (temperature and humidity).

Collectible dimensions play a major role here, a major but not crucial one. Collectors of such relatively small devices as laptops run out of space too. See what Thinkpad Maniaс wrote in ThinkPad 600x review:

I definitely got some amusement out of it, though I did ultimately sell it (which I somewhat regret) due to just not having enough space for it (and my other laptops).

8-bit guy talked about this recently.
Eugeniy Repiuk, a co-founder of the Moscow museum club, wrote:

The major problem was, and is, the lack of space: an area of about 40 square meters and some utility rooms, which is sufficient for only about 5% of all the computers.  

This aspect is of utmost importance for regions with cold climate, where, unlike in some other regions, you cannot just place a container outside and store your devices there year-round without harming them.

Aspect #2: Time

A large collection needs a lot of time, time to look through, systematize, and archive both the documentation and the software (see the principle Share information). Comprehensive material for just one device is much more valuable than 10 brief reviews so common on the Internet. This material requires a plenty of time, often to search for rare accessories, to assemble a complicated testbed, etc.

Some devices need regular maintenance. For example, mobile devices use lithium-ion accumulators that degrade fast if stored discharged. Charging the accumulators regularly might be really time-consuming.

These aspects make it reasonable to focus on quality of collectibles rather than on their quantity. So, the second principle is Quality above quantity.

Share information

Devices widely sought after among collectors are those introduced before the Internet became widespread. As a rule, there’s still not much information about these devices on the Internet, even no good photo sometimes.

Things are better with devices introduced in 2000s. Information about these devices too, however, sinks in the abyss of time little by little. Wayback Machine helps but not always. For example, I couldn’t find the Gentoo distribution for Hewlett-Packard iPaq hx4700, a firmware that was being developed in the not-so-distant 2007.

It’s up to collectors themselves to change this situation. Share information. Take photos, record videos, write reviews, scan paper materials, maintain software archives. And publish your materials. Here’re some inspiring examples:

These resources allow everybody to get in touch with computing rarities. Keep in mind, however, that a resource with information on devices of your interest worth mirroring, even if the resource doesn’t seem to close. It might close all of a sudden. When mirroring, make sure of compliance with the License Agreement to the material you copy.

Be responsible

All computing devices are of historical value, all without exceptions. This value, however, varies greatly. Most valuable devices worth being stored in glass showcases and books dedicated to them. But even least valuable ones may not be damaged and thrown away at no time. Some people considering themselves collectors treat their collectibles with striking neglect.

A collector having acquired a new device must realize they should be responsible in keeping the device safe, supplementing and distributing information about this device.

This principle applies to both storage conditions and maintenance of the device. Repairing electronics is a complex activity. A number of conditions must be met in order to make it successful:

  1. Possess knowledge and skills in repairing electronics in general.
  2. Possess knowledge of fixing this particular device model.
  3. Provide comfortable working conditions (a comfortable workplace, a period of time must be sufficient, tools must be appropriate for repairing this particular device model).

Failure to comply with any of the conditions significantly reduces the chances of a successful outcome. In this case, it is better not to try at all in order to avoid the risk of damaging the vintage device.

Even if you don’t need a device (or what is left from it), don’t throw it away. Even a plastic piece of a device box might be of use when dissolved in dichloroethane to glue cracks in another device of the same type. (Plastic matters when you glue cracks.) Finally, you can find another collector who might need this device or its parts — for example, on a wonderful subreddit for computer rarities, Vintage Computing! Old stuff.

This is the last collecting principle. But probably most important one.