I hated Apple II back in the ’80s – an interview with The 8-Bit Guy

The 8-bit guy

YouTube is pretty much flooded with channels dedicated to retro gaming. It seems that there is nothing new to say about the era of 8/16-bit technology. However very few creators talk about the technology itself, computers and consoles that became platforms of all popular games from the ’80s and ’90s. David Murray, in his show called 8-Bit Guy, fills that gap in YouTube edutainment. Although talking about hardware may seem less interesting than discussing the software itself, David demonstrates the machines and their capabilities in a way that is both understandable and easy to follow, even for a person not particularly keen on retro technology. Recently we had a chance to talk about his hobby, video production, and of course retro machines, but also the newest gains in technology.

Polish version is available here.

Grzegorz Ciesielski: From your observations, do you think the most of your fans are the people, who lived with that kind of technology you talk about, and want to “re-live” the experience, or maybe the youngsters, for whom the idea of storing digital data on analog audio cassette may seem like a science fiction?

David Murray: Apparently it’s a combination of both. I’ve got literally viewers who are 10-11 years old, I’ve talked to several of them. And I’ve got some of my age, so it’s really a whole spectrum. And as far as these younger ones go, I don’t think they would think of that kind of technology as science fiction. I would imagine they think the same thing as I do when I go to auto show, and they’ve got some old automobiles from 1940-1950s, and then I open the hood and I’m like “wow, that’s how it used to be, that’s how they used to make them”. It’s no science fiction, just history.

Your earliest videos are much different from your recent productions. You seemed to attempt to do some old computer documentaries, general purpose tutorials and even videos on concealing guns. In general, what was your initial idea about this channel?

Originally it was whatever I felt like making at the time. I didn’t really get a direction until 4 years ago, when I knew what I wanted to start doing. In fact, I removed a lot of old videos from my channel about a year ago, and I need to do that again, because some of the ones you’ve mentioned, they don’t fit to the channel, or the quality is just not very good, since I didn’t have a proper equipment back then. All of the old videos are on my hard disk, but I’m going to remove them eventually, because I will be doing some new documentaries on Commodore 64/128 and VIC-20, and old ones are not very good.

What is the key to presenting the usual techno babble in entertaining way like you do with all the animations and demonstrations? What part of the video is your personal knowledge, and how much research you need to perform?

For all those animations in my videos I use good old Paint Shop Pro, it’s pretty antiquated, but I know how to use it really well, so that’s why I keep using it. As far as how I present the information, I just always think, while I’m recording and editing, and I realize people have short attention span. Thus I want to keep the information flowing as fast as possible. I don’t want to get into much technical details, because I know a lot of people will get bored or they won’t understand what’s going on. So there is always a certain threshold, that I just don’t cross, when it comes to how technical I want to get. Some stuff I’ve got to research, a lot of it I just know already. And a lot of projects I do is “learning experience” as I go along, such as these two videos I did, restoring those old computers, I had problems, and couldn’t fix them without some help. I don’t always have an answer right away, so I’ve got to research. But all in all, I’m a one man show.

Your “edutainment” productions are mostly 8-10 minutes long, but you also make significantly longer “restoration videos”. It seems that restoring the hardware may be more entertaining than using it, which begs to ask, what you do with all these old computers after you clean them up? Also, one time in your life you were selling restored iBook Clamshells, so why did you quit?

Well, a lot of them just end up in my museum, but sometimes I’ve got to sell them. It just really depends, for example the Commodore 128 I recently restored, I’m probably going to sell since I already have one. I don’t really like to keep more than one of any particular computer, I just don’t have room for it. Speaking of Clamshells, that was a kind of business idea, and it worked. At the time I managed to find several suppliers. A lot of them were coming off lease, with companies or schools, so I was able to buy them in large quantities for a very reasonable price. And now you just can’t get them anymore. The only ones you can find are those sold for 200-300 dollars, because they’re collectible now. It stopped being profitable anymore, so I moved on to Macbooks, but they weren’t really popular, so I quit.

It takes more than internet tutorial to understand and learn how to repair electronics, especially when you do something as dangerous as taking apart CRT monitor, when you were repairing Macintosh 2. Do you have any background or degree, or maybe you’re really just self-taught?

A little of both, you know. I would venture to say, that I’m self-taught. But I’ve had a lot of jobs over the years, back from like late ’90s I worked in various computer industry jobs, and in early 2000s I was a service manager of a computer store, I was repairing the stuff all the time. Some stuff I didn’t know, but I learned over years from people who knew what were they doing. And of course last 11-12 years I’ve been working in IT industry, so I haven’t been doing as much repair, other than replacing hard drive in a server. But yeah, most of it was self-taught, and a little bit of trial and error. I’ve broken many things over the years trying to fix them, but I’ve learned from these experiences.

Initially your channel was called iBook Guy, in a way a reference to your business, but you also seem to be fascinated by Apple products, all the way from Apple II to newer incarnations of MacBooks. What is you appeal to these machines?

Actually I never liked Apple II. In fact I hated them back in the ’80s. I was Commodore all the way. But now I kind of respect all the vintage machines and find them all interesting. As far as modern Apple stuff goes, I just like operating system more than Windows. It’s not that I don’t know how to use Windows, all the jobs I had were operating on Windows, sometimes Linux, while at home I use OS X. Everybody I know use the iPhone, only a few people have an Android phone, so it’s pretty common phone that everybody would have. As far as computers go, probably about half use a Mac of some kind.

You grew up in pretty interesting time when consoles started to fall in popularity and home computers gained serious recognition. Where were you, on a Commodore side, Nintendo side, or maybe you were a versatile gamer?

When I grew up, the main two consoles that I was aware of was Atari 2600 and original NES. And I didn’t have Nintendo. I did have Atari, but almost never played it. I had the Commodore VIC-20 and 64, and that’s what I played all the games on. Most of the time I spend in front of C64, and one of my favorite games are International Karate, Impossible Mission, Spy vs. Spy, Giana Sisters, Ghostbusters, Maniac Mansion, and of course Ultima series. I didn’t really start playing all these vintage consoles until just a few years ago, just out of sheer curiosity.

Your channel is not all about oldies though. Some of your videos are dedicated to electric cars, one of which you actually use on regular basis. Are automobiles, such as Tesla Model S or Chevy Volt presenting a promising future for hybrid or fully electric cars, or maybe we still have a lot of work to do in this field?

I definitely think electric cars are the future, and I feel privileged to live in a time where I get to see this transition happen. And I like to think about many transitions I have seen in my lifetime. I’ve seen cameras going from film to digital, and there were always lots of people, who were naysayers, saying: “why would you want that, I want a good old film camera”. And well, we don’t hear much of those people anymore. I saw VHS being replaced by DVD, and eventually Blu-Ray, and I’ve just seen a lot of technology, paradigm shifts in technology, and many of them happened very quickly, like the digital camera thing happened in less than ten years. The electric car is something that I think will take a little longer, because of the lifespan of a car, that is longer than most gadgets that people use. But I definitely think that within next 10-20 years that’s going to completely replace the traditional automobile, and it’s interesting time to live in, to be able to see the transition take place. And I don’t know exactly everything that’s going to happen, that’s one of the reasons I keep reading the news every day to see, because manufacturers are trying out all different concepts. Like my Chevy Volt, that’s hybrid, part electric part gas. And then of course you’ve got the Teslas, that are completely electric, and you also have three charging standards right now in United States, and we don’t know which one is going to be standard. It’s a format we’ve countlessly seen in the past, looking to a future we don’t know which will prevail. But it’s interesting times to watch it.

Since you’re very much interested in the topic, do you know how they’re going to fix the range of the cars? Something that may not be problematic in Europe, but can pose a major problem in US, where distances are significantly bigger?

I think it’s important to point out, that if you go back in time far enough, gasoline cars used to not be able to make trips across the country, because there weren’t any gas stations, so people had to plan out the trips, and in many cases they had to ship cans of gasoline to the hotels in order to make sure when they got to the destination they would have some gas to put in their car. And you know, there was some growing pains, and they got over that. Now we have an infrastructure and place to deal with that. The electric vehicle infrastructure is going to keep growing, and eventually is going to fill those gaps, and also the range of the cars is constantly getting better. If you look now, of all electric cars on the market now, I think the lowest range you can get is like 120 miles. When they first came out in 2011, many of them were 70-80 miles, and some of the newest ones, like Chevy Volt are 230 miles, and Tesla already have been over 2 or 3 hundred. I think once you get to the point, that all of these cars do 200 miles, and combine it with good charging infrastructure, I don’t think the range is going to be an issue, it’s just going to take some time

Let’s move on to your sister channel – 8-Bit Keys, where you discuss vintage musical keyboard, obsolete music synthesizers, in the company of chip tunes of your own creation. Have you always been musically talented, does it come from the fact, that your cousin was the leader of metal band Pantera?

I don’t talk about it very much, and I guess the part of the reason is because I never liked that music, I don’t like metal music at all, so I’ve never been a fan of my cousin’s band. I respected them, but never really listened to them or owned an album. So no, he certainly wasn’t anything to do with my inspiration for music. I just like old keyboards from the historical standpoint. And sometimes I just like the challenge. If you look at other people out there that do music or art, sometimes they will go out of their way to use tools that are more difficult to use to accomplish their art, whether that be music or painting or building something, and just for the challenge to see if they can do it. And that’s kind of what it is with old keyboards, it’s challenging to work with, because they’re so primitive, and it kind of makes it fun. I have about 11 of them. I had more, some of them I restored, other I kept for a display at my museum.

The 8-Bit Guy

So you’ve mentioned you’ve got a museum. Do you actually have a separate part of your house where you store your electronics and show them to people?

Yeah, I do. I have a special room that has a whole bunch of computers and old stuff from the ’80s. And I also had some guest over, and when I invited them to the room where I record my films, they thought that I have one big room, but actually I have one where I film and other where I just display stuff. They are not all connected, but most of them are in working condition, so all it takes is to connect a few cables and you can work on them or show them around.

Let’s say I would like to start building my retro collection. Is that hobby really expensive, or maybe it mostly goes down to how well you can search on eBay?

It’s not really expensive, if you do it the way I do. You see, I go to a lot of state sales, garage sales, thrift stores, and flea markets, and I never know what I’m going to find. Though, if there is one specific computer or game system you’re looking for and that’s the only one you want, you may never find it that way. But I’m usually interested in anything from the ’70s or ’80s, so I just go into these places and I find something really cheap, and I just buy it. Sometimes it doesn’t work and I have to fix it, but most of the stuff I bought, I haven’t really spent a lot of money on, it’s just a matter of finding it. It’s just kind of luck of the draw what I end up finding. But the biggest problem I have, is simply finding a place to put stuff, cause you only have so much room in your house, and I don’t like putting stuff up in the attic or outside in the storage building because of the heat. Cause we live in Texas, it gets really hot in the summer, the heat destroys these things, so all has to be kept inside. We just don’t have much room, and that’s the struggle me and my friends have. In fact I had visitors come over this weekend, they brought me a gift, they wanted to give me PowerMac G5, and I told them I really appreciate that, but let me show you, I just don’t have anywhere to put it, it won’t fit anywhere in my house. The one that I had, I did video on, I borrowed it, because I didn’t want to try keep one around, cause they are just so big. The space is the biggest problem.

Since you invite people to your museum, do you have people knocking on doors every single day or maybe you actually have some free time for your family? Half million of the subscribers is quite a responsibility.

It’s always by appointment, I don’t give out my address publicly. Generally I don’t give it until we decide on particular time. I have guests usually once or every two weeks. It’s not really often. I usually enjoy having people. Everybody who has come over is very much like me, we’ve got a lot incommon to talk about. So it’s mostly fun to have people over. I had a lot of people from out of town, I’ve had people come from England, and various other states. I’ve had people come from California, New York, but they weren’t coming specifically for me, but they were coming to Dallas for some reason, and they knew I was here, so they made an extra trip to come here.