weird computers
August 26, 2010 10:46 AM   Subscribe

Are there any really weird computers still being made for the home consumer?

I grew up in the era of countless mutually-incompatible bizarely-designed computer systems marketed to the consumer: commodore, apple II, cp/m, trs-80, etc. Things are more standardized now: processor, mostly x86; O/S, Windows or some variety of Unix. But I'm wondering, are there any systems being made now, affordable enough for a hobbyist, that are really different?

I mean something that presents you with a prompt at bootup and expects you to enter commands in Forth or Javascript or something. A system it would be impossible to install Windows or Linux on...a product of someone's strange experimental mind, manufactured by some tiny business somewhere.

Something you could do programming on for pleasure and tinker with (so not interested in blackberry handsets or things like that), a system that's of no practical use but which, as a hobbyist, you could develop an affection for.
posted by Paquda to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
There is some company releasing a replica Altair 8800, which was sort of a proto-minicomputer from the mid 70's.

But to answer your direct question, no, people don't make computers like this anymore. The hobby computer market has moved to microcontroller platforms for robotics, such as: arduino, the Parallax BASIC stamp, the LEGO Mindstorms NXT, etc.

More here, with reviews. I think Arduino is the most popular.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:55 AM on August 26, 2010

The answer here is: no. Not if you mean weird-architecture PCs, but with like a VGA card and a keyboard.

But, there is an enormous hobbyist following of microprocessor boards. Arduino leads the pack, as I understand it. Check out '' for lots of good info and turn-key modules.
posted by Netzapper at 10:55 AM on August 26, 2010

There is the Hydra game console, which you assemble yourself like the home computers of yore, plug into a TV, and start programming.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:56 AM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

For people who harken back to the earliest PC hobbyists who built there own stuff there's the Arduino which is more raw material than a platform. It's doesn't boot into anything per se.
posted by GuyZero at 10:56 AM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you're looking to satisfy an itch for weird computer systems, also check out the MESS project, which seeks to emulate on a PC every manner of bizarre computer system from the 90s to the present day, including the ones you list in your post, but many others besides.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:57 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: People are still making new hardware that runs AmigaOS, the OS that just won't die.
posted by zsazsa at 11:01 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

One guy made his own CPU.
posted by BeerFilter at 11:04 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

They don't make The Chameleon anymore but there are some units unsold, apparently. (as of 2006, anyway)
posted by mkb at 11:18 AM on August 26, 2010

Everyone above is right, the really weird stuff is in the embedded world, and even that isn't that weird these days. I have to call out as pretty cool TI's LaunchPad, a whole embedded dev kit with 2 microprocessors for $4.30. You can't beat it. Make whatever weird computer you want. I suggest you make a computer using ternary logic; not only is it weird, and hardly anyone's done it before, but your code will be waltzing while everyone else is locked into polka.
posted by doteatop at 11:34 AM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Lots of people are doing this sort of thing with FPGAs.
posted by phrontist at 1:03 PM on August 26, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you all for the good info and for indulging my pointless question. There are a lot of interesting links to read. But Netzapper put it well--I'm looking for a box I could plug into a standard monitor and connect a keyboard to, but that has a weird internal architecture. I don't know if I could get into embedded stuff--I had to do some work with a PIC microcontroller for a job once, spending lonely nights trying to get my hopelessly-buggy assembly language program to work. I'm also not good at assembling, soldering, keeping track of small pieces, etc. More importantly, I was picturing a system that's self-contained--you do the programming on the computer itself, rather than writing the program in a cross-coding development environment on a PC and then burning it in. Thanks again for your answers.
posted by Paquda at 1:27 PM on August 26, 2010

Desktop workstations are, unfortunately, a mature market, completely owned by x86 and bog-standard PCs. Almost everyone else has given up trying something new. (This is where I unleash a long and frothing rant about stultification in the desktop and server markets, where it seems only IBM has the chops to pull off something new and fun with their high-end platforms these days. Amdahl's law says the reliance on MPP systems is a sucker's game.)

Handhelds are where the real action is, with tablets especially now an absolute rage. You have a choice between x86 and ARM.

ARM-based netbooks and servers are probably being quashed on the quiet by Intel and MSFT, which is a shame.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:45 PM on August 26, 2010

I can't recall if you can plug in external monitors and keyboards or not (I'm leaning not) but the laptops made by the One Laptop Per Child project might fit the bill.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 2:11 PM on August 26, 2010

Best answer: I think I mislead you about the Hydra - you don't solder it together, it works out of the box, but it's a naked board, not inside a plastic case. (Which means you could mount it inside a cigar box or some other unique or eye-catching case?)
AFAIK it's:
- a box
- that you plug into a standard TV
- connect a keyboard too
- has a weird internal architecture
- can be programmed in a higher level language, not just assembler
- is self contained (you program on it directly)

I might be wrong, but I think it's all of those things. The drawback to Hydra as I see it is that it seems primitive - it's weird but basic tech, rather than weird cutting-edge tech.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:23 PM on August 26, 2010

Best answer: The Cybiko?

Looks like Chuck Moore is still designing and selling Forth machines: Intellasys ...or perhaps not:

I don't think anyone's currently making a lisp machine, but u can boot into scheme with DreamOS.


Tensilica's VLIW chip XTensa?

The gumstix is disqualified because it can run Linux, but i could develop an affection for it.

Ditto Buglab's BUG 2.0

$US 349 will get you on the list to get a Pandora

You could put the Reduceron on a Xilinx virtex 5
posted by at at 5:04 PM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

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