Resell or recycle?
Just like cars, old electronics are considered classics after 25 years. But how can you tell which products are valuable collectibles, and which ones won't appreciate at all? Should you drag your old IBM computer or Nintendo console to an e-waste center? Or does it make more sense to sell it today?
Some collectors of vintage tech aren't looking for objets d'art. No, they actually want to use your discarded PCs. On the other hand, says Jim Griffith, eBay's dean of education, "If you had an original Apple computer that's in the box, no one's going to unseal that. That's the holy grail."
So as you peruse the following list, consider the old computers and gadgets stashed inside your closet. Some gear will net a surprising bounty, while other artifacts are of scant value.
Original price: $666.66
Sold at auction: $640,000
An Apple I sold last December for the price of a two-bedroom bungalow in San Francisco.
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak originally produced 200 of these computers. Well, they were actually just circuit boards—but at least they were fully assembled circuit boards, unlike the build-it-yourself kits that preceded them. Even still, you had to fabricate your own case, and you had to add a monitor and an ASCII keyboard to use one. Fewer than 50 of these legendary machines are known to exist today.
Original price: $199
Sold on eBay: From $60 for a broken example to $803 for an unused, still-boxed console with 20 games
The Atari 2600 originally came in a black-and-woodgrain design, shipping with two joysticks, two paddle controllers, and the game Combat. By 1982 you could buy an all-black "Darth Vader" model. Atari gets credit for launching the era of video game cartridges, rather than hard-coding games into the device itself. Devoted collectors often pay more for rare games than they do for the consoles.
On eBay, you'll find page after page of 2600s in a wide variety of conditions and selling prices. You're generally better off recycling a 2600 unless it actually works and includes accompanying games.
IBM PC 5150
Original price: $1565 without a monitor or floppy drives
Sold on eBay: From $139 for a dirty, broken system to $433 for a complete, working system
The original IBM PC revolutionized business computing and spawned countless copycats. Eyeing the hobbyist PCs from the likes of Apple and Atari, IBM whipped up this machine in one year. It weighed 21 pounds without floppy drives, housed a 4.77MHz Intel 8088 processor, and featured color graphics capability.
"It really took three magic letters, IBM, for people to take computers seriously," says Dag Spicer, senior curator of the Computer History Museum. Collectors like products that were technically or culturally revolutionary. "The artifact by itself doesn't speak. You have to tell a story.”
IBM 5150s that include an original monitor and keyboard are relatively uncommon on eBay. (This photo shows the monitor for the 5151 model.)
Original price: $595
Sold on eBay: From $49 for a specimen with damage to $545 for a machine in like-new condition with the original box, cables, and manuals still wrapped
The best-selling PC of all time featured an 8-bit MOS Technology microprocessor, 64KB of RAM, and a 16-color video palette. You could hook one up to a TV and skip buying a monitor. At the C64's peak, 40,000 of these were rolling off assembly lines each month. The C64 maintains a cult following as fans revive the machines for a round of Centipede or Platoon. Old Commodores, however, are among the items the Computer History Museum does not need donated. Don’t expect your old Commodore to pay for your kid's college, unless it’s rare (like this Commodore 65 prototype that recently sold for $7625).
Original price: $199 Deluxe Set
Sold on eBay: From $5 for a console with broken and missing parts to $360 for a working original with crisp packaging and paperwork
Just because someone is asking $29,000 for an unopened Nintendo NES console doesn't mean they're going to get it. (The seller has declined 19 offers to date.)
The huge gap in pricing among the many NES units on eBay demonstrates the importance of keeping original, working parts and packaging intact.
Before you buy or sell old tech, do some research. Choose the "sold listings" in your eBay search to find what people have actually paid in the past two weeks. You can subscribe to TeraPeak to look up older eBay sales. Once you set a fair price, maybe you'll find that enthusiast looking to relive Super Mario Bros. on this 8-bit console.
Original price: $2495
Sold on eBay: From $129 for a broken model to $2984 for a machine with the original packaging, disks, and manuals
If you were old enough to use a computer in the 1980s, you're more likely to remember the popular Apple IIe than its predecessor. The 128KB Macintosh isn't even the daddy of all Macs—that credit goes to the Apple I or even the Lisa. However, this first Mac represents a cultural turning point, and the early roots of Apple as a brand for creative pros. A Super Bowl Sunday ad, directed by Ridley Scott, introduced this desktop PC as an antidote to the Orwellian sameness of other PCs.
Some people selling early Macs on eBay advertise that they have the original model, but they really have the 512KB "Fat Mac" from 1985, so read the fine print.
Original price: $1000
Sold on eBay: $33 to $99, depending on whether the power supply and bag are intact
This pioneering laptop housed a 4.77MHz processor and 512KB of RAM, and booted MS-DOS 2.11 from ROM. You could plug in a numeric keypad, a CGA monitor, or an additional, 3.5-inch external floppy drive. The T1000 weighed only 6.4 pounds, a big improvement from just six years earlier, when the 26.2-pound Osborne 1 debuted as the first portable PC.
IBM ThinkPad 701
Original price: $5000
Sold on eBay: From $45 for a broken model missing a charger to $232 for a working specimen
IBM's first ThinkPad, the 700, debuted in 1992. Several years later came the ThinkPad 701, shown here, featuring an ergonomic, fold-out "Butterfly" keyboard that has since entered the Museum of Modern Art. ThinkPad models consistently won high marks from tech publications, and earned a reputation as serious business machines for an emerging class of road warriors. The 701 was the best-selling laptop of 1995, but this model and other early ThinkPads are uncommon on eBay.
Original price: $1000
Sold on eBay: From $1 for a busted handset to $142 for a functional phone with the original leather case and headset
This analog cell phone featured a compact clamshell design that looked downright glamorous next to the 1989 MicroTac. It was among the early phones that could vibrate instead of ringing to announce an incoming call. A long-lasting lithium-ion battery was optional.
Bondi Blue iMac G3
Original price: $1299
Sold on eBay: About $70
Get this: Original posters for Apple's "Think Different" campaign today cost more than the lollipop-colored PCs they advertised.
The first iMac is the perfect example of a high-volume product that has depreciated drastically along with its usability. Although these systems aren't selling for much now, they represented the return of the Apple brand, and are the first Apple product from famed designer Jonathan Ive. Each originally featured a 233MHz PowerPC G3 processor, 32MB of RAM, and a 4MB hard drive. By 1999, they also came in Blueberry, Grape, Strawberry, Tangerine, and Lime.
Sold on eBay: From $6.50 to $14
The ancestor to today's BlackBerry emerged in 1999 as the RIM 850 Wireless Handheld. It was little more than a two-way pager that displayed eight lines of text, but nonetheless included a full keyboard and a personal organizer, and granted access to corporate email.
Four years later, the BlackBerry 6210 (pictured) introduced RIM's scrollwheel, an internal microphone and speaker, and SMS. By 2003, BlackBerry users numbered more than 534,000. RIM popularized the concept of a PDA with a mobile phone, but surprisingly few of its early handsets wind up on eBay.
Sony PlayStation 2
Original price: $299
Sold on eBay: About $400 for a lot of ten
The best-selling gaming console of all time might still be in your living room. People are offloading them in big lots on eBay. Only time will tell if they will garner better prices in the future.
"Even mass-produced items become rare after a while, and so are potentially collectible," says Spicer of the Computer History Museum. "An emotional connection is important."
If you get teary-eyed about all the time you spent with Grand Theft Auto, maybe your PS2 deserves a nice dry shelf in your garage.
Vintage: 2001 (iPod), 2007 (iPhone), 2010 (iPad)
Original prices: $399 (iPod); $499 for 4GB, $599 for 8GB (iPhone); $499 for 16GB, $599 for 32GB, $699 for 64GB (iPad)
High, unopened-box prices on eBay: $4800 for a 5GB iPod, $4000 for a 4GB iPhone, $343 for a 16GB iPad
Disruptive technologies change history, and the original iPod, iPhone, and iPad are already collectible. The classic iPod put a thousand songs in your pocket and upended the music industry. The iPhone sent the “CrackBerry” on a downward spiral, kicked off the apps economy, and ended up in the pocket of every other middle-schooler. The iPad is arguably reinventing the concept of personal computing.
Apple’s mobile tools retain value better than most other brands do, so you’re almost always better off trying to sell than to recycle. However, Griffith of eBay notes that the desirability is likely to change as such products become less current. True collectibility is best measured after a product is no longer functional by current standards.
Original price: $1699
Sold on eBay: From $40 for a machine with missing parts (such as the stylus) to $170 for a complete system
Compaq's original Tablet PC had a brief life. It's an early example of a hybrid device—the first "tablet PC" to detach fully from its keyboard. The 1.0GHz machine included a Transmeta Crusoe processor, ran Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, and came with a FinePoint digital pen. Early tablets such as this one mostly found a role in business environments. They may not be desirable now, but they represent the very beginning of the tablet revolution, as the iPad wouldn't appear for eight years after the TC1000 launched.
Microsoft Kin One
Original price: $49.99
Sold on eBay: From $10 to $60
Remember the Kin social phone, originally code-named Turtle? Few people do. Microsoft invested $1 billion to develop the handset, which had a slide-up QWERTY keyboard, a proprietary browser, and a 5-megapixel camera. Sometimes abysmal failures are the most collectible products of all, says Spicer of the Computer History Museum. This social networking phone preceded Facebook Home by several years, which may or may not turn out to be noteworthy.
Original price: $499 to 599 in July 2011, down to $99 by August
Sold on eBay: From $51 for a dead 16GB model to $636 for a 64GB model in an unopened box
Speaking of corporate disasters, consider the HP TouchPad. Although it offered true multitasking (unlike the iPad), HP discontinued this 9.7-inch slate, along with other WebOS devices, less than two months post-launch. HP held a $99 fire sale, and people eager for their first tablet snapped them up. This budget grab paved the way for 7-inch tablets such as the $199 Kindle Fire, helping to popularize iPad alternatives.
Gold in that CPU?
If you've determined that your dusty desktop is worthless to a collector, reselling it for scrap gold may be better than giving it away for recycling, says Griffith of eBay. A search for "gold CPUs" on the auction site brings up more than 5300 individual sales from the past two weeks. Various Intel Pentium chips recently went for $12 to $25 each. A lot of nine Intel DX-386 and 486 CPUs just sold for $256.
You can offload an entire PC for this purpose without taking it apart. Scrap collectors already know about how much gold they can dig out of the CPU and contact cards.