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A review from Replica Altair 8800 Kit owner Geoff Harrison:

"Thirty years ago, I was just starting to develop an interest in computers, an interest that ultimately led to a very enjoyable career.  I subscribed to all the magazines that had just started publication -- Byte, Kilobaud, Dr Dobbs Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia (running light without overbyte).  I was determined to get computer of my very own, but I had never built even the simplest of electronic circuits, so doubted my ability to build one of the kits that were available, and I eventually settled on a brand new little beige box with the unlikely name of Apple ][. I forked over the princely sum of $1249.92 to the Byte Shop in Miami and had to wait about three weeks for them to get one in, but eventually I had my own little miracle machine, serial #97, probably the first Apple delivered in Florida.

I spent many glorious hours with that machine over the next few years learning how to program and how computers work. I never once regretted buying it, but there was always a faint idea in the back of my mind that I should have skipped this little plastic "toy" machine and invested in a "real" one.  Something with an S-100 bus.  Something with lights and switches. An IMSAI. Or an Altair.  Now those were computers.

That idea never left me, and recently I have finally been able to acquire some of those computers that were out of my reach back then.  I have several S-100 and CP/M machines: SOL-20s, IMSAIs, an Altair 8800b and others, but I haven't been able to find the crown jewel, the Altair 8800, at least not one that I was willing to buy, and not at a price that I was willing to pay.  And even though it is satisfying to have these machines in my collection, it's not the same as having built one of my own.

Then, around the end of 2006, I came across www.altairkit.com, a site run by Grant Stockly.  Grant had disassembled an Altair 8800, created exact replicas of its boards and other components and was selling what amounted to an original Altair in kit form.  The web site makes interesting reading, especially where he describes how he went about reproducing the boards, even resorting to x-rays to determine the layout of the board traces.  This was not just an Altair-like kit, but an exact replica, complete to the smallest details.  I missed my chance to order one of the first three kits that Grant produced, but when they were gone he offered a second run of 20 more and I immediately put my name down for one of them.

My machine (serial #9) arrived on Feb 24, 2007, and I immediately tore into it and started checking out all the parts. Grant claimed on his web site that the kit contained only high quality boards and components, and he wasn't exaggerating. There are differences between the original boards and those in the Altairkit, but those differences are superficial and serve only to improve the boards.  For example, the boards have better silkscreens and solder masks and use more modern and reliable capacitors in place of the original ceramic disc caps.  But the layout of the boards is identical to the originals, and rather than using easier to find modern chip substitutes, Grant went to great lengths to track down the exact same chips that came with the original machines.

To enhance the accuracy of the Altairkit, he even had Optima, the original manufacturer of the Altair cases, create exact duplicates of the original cases.  To my eye, the color, texture, and design of the new cases are indistinguishable from the original ones.  The only substantial difference from the original Altair is in the power supply.  Grant wisely chose to omit the massive transformer and analog power supply and replace them with two modern switching power supplies. As a result, the machine runs much cooler and you can move it around without risking major back injury.

The manual that comes with the kit is a beautifully printed copy of the original with a well written and illustrated section added by Grant to help guide the owner through the assembly process.  The main section of the manual is not just a cheap photocopy of the original MITS manual, but is every bit as readable as the original and appears to be printed on better quality paper.

Assembly is best started by checking all the parts against the packing lists provided in the manual.  I found everything correct except for a .01uf capacitor which should have been .001uf, and a 7408 chip which should have been a 7400. Considering the number of parts involved, all hand packed, I'm surprised that those were the only incorrect components, and Grant immediately offered to replace them with the correct items, but I already had replacements on hand so I just plowed ahead.

I found the best approach was to follow Grant's assembly instructions which diverge from MITS's instructions occasionally, and when they do he points you to the appropriate page in the MITS manual so that you can decide which sequence to follow. Assembly went very smoothly, and it took me a little over a week to assemble the case, backplane, front panel, memory board, and CPU.  I found the hardest part was the myriad of individual wires between the front panel and the backplane, but if you take your time and approach it logically it shouldn't be a problem.  Once I had everything assembled I visually checked everything for solder bridges and missed joints, and then checked for short circuits between the power and ground lines on the boards and backplane using a multimeter.  At this stage I hadn't yet installed any of the chips.  Grant provides high quality sockets for all chips, another welcome way that the kit differs from the original, which requires you to solder most of the chips directly to the boards.

I inserted the chips into their sockets and still didn't quite have the guts to just plug the machine in and power it up. Instead, I used a current-limited power supply and monitored the current draw.  No magic smoke escaped, and the front panel lit up as it was supposed to.  I finally hooked up the power supplies, switched the machine on and ... wow! It may have taken thirty years, but I finally had a true Altair 8800 built with my own hands happily twinkling its little LEDs at me.

It's hard to fully express how impressed I am with the Altairkit 8800.  The fact that it worked first time is a tribute more to the quality of the kit and its instructions, than to my assembly skills.  On his web site, Grant says his intent was to produce a kit as true as possible to the spirit of the original that provided the experience of building one of those ground breaking machines, and he has succeeded admirably.  The chances are that I will still buy an original Altair 8800 when I find the right one, but when I do, I suspect I will value the Altairkit more than the antique. I missed the opportunity to build an Altair all those years ago, but now I've finally done it, and I've finally scratched that little itch that's been bothering me all this time.

Grant is also in the middle of producing several expansion boards for the Altair: replicas of the MITS 88-ACR cassette tape interface, the 88-2SIO serial port card, and others.  After seeing the quality of the Altairkit, I had no qualms at all about placing a standing order for one of each of any boards he makes for the machine.  All I have to do now is to find the patience to wait for them to arrive."

Geoff Harrison
sanddune at solivant.com

Click here for pictures of Geoff's Altair.
<Note from Grant:  His finding a 7408 surprised me because I had never bought any!  : )  >

"I held it up against the original and it looked absolutely perfect.  I'm impressed! :)

If everything else is this good at the fine detail level (I'm sure they are functionally) then you're truly producing a top-quality item!"
- Erik Klein, http://www.vintage-computer.com - After looking at the 4 slot motherboard I mailed him
©2007 Grant Stockly
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