Your new 486DX with the 120-megabyte hard drive may be running flawlessly but it still leaves a serious computing problem: What do you do with the old machine? It may be an antique at age 4, but it is not old enough to be a charming desktop bric-a-brac, and the price you paid for it was too high for you to turn it into municipal solid waste.
Many people's first inclination is to sell the old machine, but they tend to price it thinking of the original cost and devising some optimistic depreciation schedule. In fact, the price of old computers varies in accordance with the cost of new ones, and since a 486 is cheap and getting cheaper by the day, old machines are not worth much. The old PC-XTs are extinct in the commercial world and the 286-based machines are not far behind.
At Crocodile Computers, for example, one of the few places that advertises that it handles old computers, a PC-XT fetches about $100 for the seller and can be bought for about $200.
That establishes the PC-XT as one of the worst investments of all time. If you bought one new eight years ago, when they were beginning to be competitively offered, the PC-XT went for $3,875. Throw in a Hayes 1,200-baud modem, then the fastest found in stores, and the price went up by $419.
In contrast, a buyer with $4,300 in the late winter of 1985 could have gone to Sherry-Lehmann and bought Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1982, which was going for about $650 a case. Under the Chateau Lafite index, the computer was worth 79 bottles.
Today, however, the wine is going for $1,980 a case, says to Michael Aaron, president of Sherry-Lehmann, so you could trade the PC-XT for about two-thirds of a bottle. Of course, not all alternative investments matched the Chateau Lafite index. In March 1985, you could have bought one share of IBM for $135. Now it sells for about $50.
There are some uses for old computers; they are still more useful than typewriters. But nobody knows how many obsolete computers clutter attics, next to unused aquariums and Stairmasters. More fill corporate storage rooms.
William T. Jahnke, president of Vernon Computer Rentals and Leasing of Elmsford, N.Y., offers other solutions, although they sound a bit like saving an old car so you can use the ashtray. Old machines can work as print spoolers, he said, sitting in between a printer and a younger computer, storing files as they are spat out of the computer and feeding them slowly to the printer. Or an old machine can be a host for a fax-modem card, and it can then work like a fax machine.
Another role, said Mr. Jahnke, is to replace PC-XTs that are worn out. It may seem counter-intuitive to replace an old machine with another old machine, but if the machine belongs to a worker whose neighbors will covet a new machine, the solution may be to give him an old one.
But beware of buying an old computer. The microchips may last a long time but the hard disk generally will not. And the 10-megabyte hard disk, a standard size of the mid-1980s, is now considered a quaint miniature. A replacement would probably be 40 megabytes and would be worth more than the computer.
Similarly, replacing the old processor is probably not worth the trouble, because if the idea is to run newer software, the computer will probably need a new video card and other parts. In the end, it is like building a car from spare parts; a factory-built original is cheaper.
In 10 or 15 years the field of potential antiques will be a lot bigger. In a few years, outmoded chips well may include the 386s that now dominate the marketplace, according to Rick Josephson of Crocodile Computers. The great dividing line now, he said, is between computers that will run Windows and computers that won't.