LGR – IBM PC 5150 Vintage Computer System Review
[theme music] This is the IBM 5150. [R&B music]
“So, so sexy…” It is the first computer to be called a PC, as we know the term today. [sexy R&B music] Now, even before the 5150, personal computers existed. Machines from the likes of Apple, Tandy, Commodore and even Altair were considered personal microcomputers. Even IBM had personal computers like the 5100 and the 5120, but it was not until the 5150 from 1981 that “PC” meant what it means today. A computer that is IBM personal computer compatible. Up until that point, any PC you bought would only be compatible with the hardware and software for that company, made specifically for that machine and nothing else. So it was really a big commitment to an entire company’s line any time you were wanting to buy a computer. Initially, the IBM PC was only really popular with businesses and higher education, and it cost about $3,000 for a lower-end unit. And that’s 1981 dollars. But as time went on, and later revisions appeared, the IBM PC and compatibles caught on and became the norm. When the 5150 was in its one-year-long design stage, IBM opted for largely off-the-shelf components and third-party software, such as Microsoft DOS, to run the machine. This allowed for easy clones of the machine to be made, which led to its eventual wide-spread acceptance. Companies like Compaq, Leading Edge and Tandy all made PCs which were compatible with the IBM PC’s hardware and software architecture, and the trend became so popular that it stuck. And giving birth to the PC as we know it today. I bought my 5150 personal computer for about $20, including shipping. It didn’t come with a keyboard or monitor, though, so expect to pay easily upwards of $80 for a complete working system, since those peripherals are not cheap on their own. And they’re kind of necessary, too. While there is pretty much only one 5150 model, there were many small revisions and, of course, plenty of possible hardware configurations. There were also later versions, like the XT and AT, but I’m not getting into those. Most often, the 5150 came with a monochrome display, and a green-screen monitor, the 5151. And in fact, it did, for the first couple of years, since a color monitor wasn’t even made by IBM until 1983. The graphics existed for it, but it just wasn’t made by IBM. Go figure that one out. The graphics that it came with originally is known as MDA, which only displays text and a few other basic characters. But you could also get a CGA card optionally, which would work with a third-party monitor or with your color TV, eliminating the need for an expensive monitor, and giving you a color display. This is what I did with mind at first. It actually gives a surprisingly sharp image on a nice TV. Some of the text can be kind of garbled, though, and I eventually found an IBM 5153 color CGA monitor for 70 United States dollars. Thankfully, it arrived in one piece at such an awesome deal on shipping, and it gives you an exceptionally sharp text and graphics image in all graphics modes, and is really a sight to behold. I just love the look of this thing. It just screams “Eighties.” You know, a lot of people complain about the video cards today being too big. Well, check out the IBM 5150’s video card. This is a keyboard. Ah-haha… Inititially, the 5150 came with 16K of RAM built into the motherboard. But the revision I got came with 64K already built in. Most could be upgraded to 256K, and even 640K with an add-on board like this one, but really 640K is a bit overkill for the system without upgrading it a lot further. The processor it uses is an Intel 8088, running at 4.77 MHz. Now many people had an NEC V-20 CPU installed, with boosted performance a good little bit. So be aware of this if you want a factory-original machine. You could also get an Intel 8087 math coprocessor, which helps performance of applications that take advantage of it. There are five 8-bit ISA expansion slots, but many of these are already taken up with something, like video, floppy controller. Important things like that. Pretty much anything else you’ll need to run the thing, since hardly anything is integrated into the motherboard itself. In 1981, hard drives were very expensive for even a 10MB version. So it came with one or two full-height 5 1/4-inch floppy disk drives. There’s also a cassette device port on the back, but it seems IBM didn’t even make tape drives. And I’ve never heard of anybody using a tape drive with it, so it’s just a bit strange. While it did have built-in BASIC and ROM, you have to load DOS from a floppy disk on startup to run pretty much anything. There are no joystick ports, unless you add another card. But the keyboard is nice, and it really is built like a tank. You’ll probably need a real 83-key keyboard, that is actually made for this system, as many keyboards from even just a few years later don’t work at all, even though the connector is the same. And of course, there is no sound, except for the lovely internal PC speaker. Yes, this is why it’s called the PC speaker. And with the monochrome display, you are severely limited to just barely a handful of games. since it displayed only text. A CGA display opens up the opportunities to hundreds of games, although the processor will really limit your selection, from plenty of CGA games from the end of the ’80s to the start of the ’90s running way too slow. Now they’re all on floppies, of course. And though many of them will need DOS, there are quite a few PC booter games that you can load without DOS at all. Just turn it on, stick it in and play. And– and speaking of turning it on… check out this power switch. [satisfying click] Augh! Talk about hardcore. Let’s do that again. [satisfying click] Ahhhhhhh! Oh, yeah. That’s good. To be honest, the graphics and sounds may be very crude, but I think a lot of these games are simply loads of fun in short bursts. I don’t think it’s all just nostalgia, even though I did grow up playing a lot of these games, I think they are very fun, and here are some of my favorites. [PC speaker beeping throughout] Naturally, being a PC, piracy was extremely rampant and very easy to do. Really, all you need is a blank disk and some time. Perhaps a little bit of know-how to get around the copy-protection schemes they had back then, but really, it’s as simple today as it was then. So you might be thinking, “Well, hey. I could just get DOSBox and emulate this thing, right?” Well, you could emulate the games, but you really cannot emulate the experience of the 5150. There are emulators, such as PCE, but, you know, as emulation goes, that only really does do much. And really, you’re just missing out on the whole… thing. The warm glow of the monitor, the shrill sound effects and that clicky keyboard, not to mention real disks with real DOS. If you want to emulate DOS, emulate a better machine. So, to really sum things up, is the IBM 5150 worth buying or not? As an MS-DOS collector, I say, of course! I’ve had people ask, Well, why the 5150? Why buy this thing? It’s huge. It weighs like 70 pounds. It doesn’t really do much of anything. Well, think of it as if you were a car collector. And you get that classic antique car that really the forerunner of so many other cars to come. It’s kind of like that for me. It may not be the fastest thing out there. It’s really, actually, very slow. Very limited. It doesn’t do a whole lot. But, it’s awesome to look at, it’s got a selection of great games, and if you take care of it, and restore it, like I have, it’s awesome.