I am feeling morose. Yes, morose. Morose at the long summer heat, morose by the fact that I can't seem to make people pay me money without doing any work, morose because I just marathoned Ken Burn's The Civil War, and morose at how I am out $550 since I needed to replace the notebook PC I use to write Game Mag Weaseling after its horrible death last week.

So I've spent the afternoon getting to grips with Vista, washing all the crap off the hard drive, and generally realizing why nobody buys low-end Vista laptops. Wanting to find some solace, any solace, I picked up off the shelf the premiere copy of onComputing, a magazine originally from the Byte folks that ran seasonally from 1979 to around 1982.

Byte was always a heavily nerd and tech-oriented hobbiest mag, so onComputing was the editor team's shot at making a title for more casual, applications-oriented users -- the sort who were buying TRS-80s and Apple IIs because they wanted to accomplish something via software, not tinker with circuit boards.

This first issue of onComputing has something that caught my fancy -- a complete buyer's guide to the personal computer scene as it existed in the summer of 1979, complete with retail prices. They say the good old days were never actually good -- if I was a writer in 1979 and I wanted a computer to help me with my work, would $550 be enough?

The answer: No. Not at all. Even if I was playing with $550 in 1979 dollars (a buck then is about $2.86 today), pretty much the best setup my newbie ass could've afforded was a $500 Atari 400 package with 8K of RAM, a joystick, and cassette-based storage for my columns and resume and so forth. Assuming I had a TV to hook it up to, of course; otherwise that'd be another $300.

What? A printer? Jeez, do I look like Rich Uncle Pennybags here? (The machine, which was not memory expandable at all, would eventually ship with a much beefier 48K of RAM stock, but that won't be for another year or so. Until then, I guess I'd be stuck keeping all my writings to about 400 words or less.)

Printers, along with disk storage of any kind, was a luxury for home PC users back then. The cheapest end-user printers were $500-600, and the floppy drives a bit more -- again, in 1979 dollars. So, if I want a home word-processing system with hard-copy printouts and loading/saving that didn't take five minutes a go, I'm gonna need to skip lunches at Burger Chef for the foreseeable future.

The TRS-80 is nice for writers -- still all upper-case characters at this point, but hey, 64 characters per line is rad -- and a fully package with a disk drive and printer would cost me $2385. If I demand full-color, a loaded Apple II with 48K of RAM, two drives, floating point BASIC in firmware, and a monitor would cost me $3370, or just under $10k when you count inflation.

That, or I could do what Jerry Pournelle did. Pournelle, an SF writer who wrote a column for Byte magazine from 1982 to its closure in 1998 and still keeps it going today.

He contributed a feature to this issue called "Writing with a Microcomputer" that documents him building a PC to handle writing, filing, and other chores. To say the least, he went all out: a top-of-the-line S-100 bus system with 64K of RAM (monstrously expensive until '81 or so), two 15-inch video screens, a dual 8-inch floppy drive, a Selectric-clone keyboard that was surplus from some mainframe, and an enormous, clacking Diablo 1620 printer. By the standards of the time, Pournelle was doing the equivalent of calling up Alienware and saying "Gimme everything you got, bitches!"

Total cost, including installation fees: around $12,000. This is, to put it lightly, a lot of money. The average yearly American wage in 1979 was $11,018. You could've gotten not one, but several very nice cars with that sort of cash back then.

What's more, the thing didn't even work 100-percent correctly -- spurious control characters would appear at random on the screen, and while the software Pournelle used had a word-wrap function, it "often drops characters: there is either no buffer, or the line buffer is too small. Without a source [code] there's nothing to be done about it."

Still, Pournelle was happy with his investment: "Before I got the system, I could, in a good day, turn out ten pages...the computer lets me turn out words at more than double that rate. It doesn't get in the way of writing...every draft is a clean draft."

Plainly, if this were 1979, I'd be tapping on a used Selectric and be overjoyed with every moment of the experience. Even if my new notebook needs several years in the oven before it has a hope of running Vista fast, I suppose it could always be worse.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. In his spare time he does writing and translation for lots and lots of publishers and game companies.]